I have a scar on the ring finger of my left hand, just along the knuckle. It's a souvenir that I carry with me from middle school, a reminder of the time that Jason Metzger decided to use the slats on my locker as a sort of cheese grater and my fingers as the cheese. If that scar could talk, it would say, "middle school is horrifying." But then, a talking scar is horrifying too.
Charles Burns' graphic novel, Black Hole, features horrors like a talking scar (literally, there's a kid with a scar on his neck that is, in fact, a tiny mouth that talks) as a way to tell about the horrors of adolescence. The time is the 1970s, the place is Washington state. The kids are caught in the in-between of hippies and glam. There's sex, but it isn't sexy, and so there's drugs to numb the pain. It's confusing and lonely and anxious and eerie. It's high school. There's an infection making the rounds among the sexually active teens. Some are calling it "the bug" and some a "plague," whatever it is, it's scary.
Which gets us back to the tiny talking mouth scar. It sounds silly and it seemed so at first, but the further in the story went the less silly the scar seemed. That's because the scar is just one way in which "the bug" manifests itself. Some kids get boils and bumps. Some shed their skin. One girl has webbed fingers while another grows a tail. And while these are all symptoms of the "plague," they are also metaphors for the repulsion teens often feel towards themselves and others and the rejection that comes as a result. And so, the book works on two levels, as an 70s style creepfest chiller as well as a picture of the alienation of adolescence and emerging adulthood. It's tough to say which is more frightening.
The style sets the tone and the tone is dark. That style stays consistent throughout the book and that consistency is stunning, given that the book was originally a 12 issue series of comic books written and released over ten years time. You would expect something to shift in that period, but it feels as if it were put together in one sitting. However, one look at the meticulousness of Burns' drawing and you know that simply couldn't be possible, even if I hadn't just told you. The detailed drawing is intense, the black and white contrasts act as a perfect juxtaposition to the all too grey areas that weave within the plot. Sometimes it almost feels like too much and you find yourself wishing you could shut your eyes and stop up your ears. It's hard to hear these stories of pain and angst, especially when they're coming out of some kid's neck scar.
Which is the one beef I have with Burns' book; the metaphor can be a bit overwrought and overdone. A scar is never just a scar, a joint a joint, or a cigar a...well, you get the idea. Freud would have loved Black Hole.
Still, overwrought and overdone is how we experience adolescence, nothing's ever subtle, no suffering seems small. It's only years after the scars heal that you can look at your knuckles and not feel the shame.