Kramers Ergot 7

A lot of comics were the subject of controversy in 2008: Ice Haven, Memin Pinguin (remember that?), that one comic where the dog ate the teenagers. Surprisingly, alt comix anthology Kramers Ergot 7 was arguably the most controversial comic of them all. The issue was not the content (though much of it would scandalize those who were offended by Ice Haven), but the price of the book. Some of the controversy came from those who supported (or who were at least familiar with) the anthology series and its contributors, but who regretted the high ($125) price point. Others came from people who had apparently never heard of the series, or who had little interest in the sorts of comics which had been featured in previous volumes of Kramers Ergot.

By the time Kramers Ergot 7 actually came out, however, the furor had mostly subsided. It's almost too bad that the controversy didn't happen closer to the book's release, because the actual content of KE7 hasn't actually received nearly as much attention as its price point. And since the only thing which could justify the high price is good content, it seems like a relevant issue. Kramers Ergot 7 was the most anticipated comic of the year for many people, including myself. How did reality stack up to expectation? The answer, along with my best attempt at providing some art samples (this thing's way too big for my scanner, and our digital camera/the person operating it aren't ideal), comes after the break.

Usually anthologies are all over the place in terms of quality and content, but that's surprisingly untrue for Kramers Ergot 7. This volume boasts an incredible roster of cartoonists, including several best-of-their-generation types, folks who your more literate friends and acquaintances might have actually heard of. Thousands of New York Times readers are familiar with Seth, Chris Ware, Jaime Hernandez, and Dan Clowes from their contributions to the Sunday "Funny Pages" section. And while Adrian Tomine hasn't had anything appear in the NYT (yet), he fits in with this group pretty well (surely you remember this picture from, you guessed it, the New York Times). These cartoonists' contributions to KE7 are, for the most part, the sort of thing that would appeal to the audiences they've built over the last decade or so. Ware's story is actually a continuation of his NYT work, while Seth has another contemplation of the Canada of yesterday (though it's not nearly as bittersweet--or as good--as George Sprott). Tomine's story fits pretty neatly within the niche he's carved out as well.

I found Hernandez' and Clowes' contributions the more interesting from this group. Hernandez' story is one of the denser single-pagers in the book (and there are a lot of dense single-page stories in KE7), a frantic, entertaining study of memory and sentimentality. Clowes' story, "Sawdust," is excellent, effectively a counterpoint to his equally good NYT story, Mister Wonderful. There's a real similarity between the protagonists--age, stream-of-conscious narration, desire for romance--but this is a much darker, even noirish work. I don't think Clowes has written many lines funnier than "Lucky for me, he couldn't dig a grave for shit!"

KE7 Clowes

Daniel Clowes

But the most famous cartoonist featured in KE7 is unquestionably Matt Groening. I was as surprised as anyone to see him announced as a contributor, but his single page strip is one of the best in the book. Groening produces an homage to this illustration, but with a focus on Southern Californian despair which should be eminently familiar to anyone who's read Life in Hell over the past few decades. "River of Unsold Screenplays" replaces "Failure," "Grad School/No Escape" replaces "Charlatanism," and so forth. It's no bleaker than "Love is Hell" or "School is Hell," but the context is so much different now than in the 1980s. These days, Groening effectively represents the best case scenario for the modern alternative cartoonist. If anyone knows anything about the "Road to Success," it's Matt Groening, so it's rather dispiriting to see a long slide labeled "Disappointing sales of second album, novel, play or film." And you have to kind of wince at a series of spider webs spun by "Psycho Exes," or a cliff labeled "ungrateful children." (Simpsons fans might make note of a balloon labeled "Crackpot cult religion, you know the one.") It's a great encapsulation of Groening's Life In Hell, and one of the best cartoons of his career.

And that about does it for the very famous people, though there are plenty of other contributors who are well-known within comics circles. Ivan Brunetti plays with the book's mammoth size by forcing the reader to turn it upside down to finish his story--the joke's on us, since this thing weighs about as much as a St. Bernard. Kevin Huizenga does something similar with his page. Kim Deitch basically distills his story from Pictorama into three pages, but it's worth the repetition to see all his incredible bottle cap designs--or are they replicas? I have to admit some ignorance of the bottlecap collecting hobby here, but they're really nice, charming drawings either way. Ben Katchor contributors two stories about architecture in his imagined New York; if that sounds good, you won't be disappointed when you read them. Richard Sala's single page is mostly a showcase for his gorgeous art and character design (we're talking monsters and villains in vibrant watercolor here).

KE7 Sala a

Richard Sala

The lesser-known contributors bring just as much--probably more--to the table, plus they provide the book with some degree of aesthetic and thematic coherence. When you flip through Kramers Ergot 7 for the first time, you're not struck by the star-studded lineup so much as the barrage of colors from story to story. Given the dimensions of the book, it's practically an assault on the eyes. Many of the contributors work in limited palettes, making KE7 a staggering visual experience. Stories by Sala, Dan Zettwotch, Frank Santoro, Blex Bolex, Anna Sommer, and Helge Reumann are especially noteworthy; the blue and red motif is particularly popular (and effective). Deitch's soothing pastels and Ben Jones and PShaw's multi-tiered, multi-hued contributions also stand out.

KE7 Bolex a

Blex Bolex

Once you actually start reading Kramers Ergot 7, you might also notice how many of the contributors have produced work dealing with the fantastic. Perhaps inspired by the towering dimensions of the book, a good many of these cartoonists turn to religion and mythology in particular. Several reviews have cited Tom Gauld's four page retelling of Noah's Ark as a highlight of KE7, and justifiably so. I've long admired Gauld's work, and it's never looked better than it does here. Gauld takes advantage of the book's size as well as anyone, using large panels to underscore the surprise of Noah's sons in finding their father wasn't just a senile old weirdo. The dense linework is stunning, reminiscent of Edward Gorey in the larger panels.

KE7 Gauld

Tom Gauld

Other contributors' stories explore religion in a more general sense. The first of Conrad Botes' two stories is sort of like a pantheistic Book of Job, only without any reward at the end for the protagonist. There are a lot of horrific images inKE7, but Botes' depiction of a series of divine punishments is particularly unnerving. John Brodowski's single page story is one of the best examples of dark humor in the book, dealing with the ill-fated resurrection of an arctic traveler. Joe Daly's cold, precise drawings depict a disturbing creation myth, with bizarre creatures with enormous phalli emerging from the ocean and raping the land-dwellers, who immediately gives birth to a swarm of offspring. Anders Nilsen, Shary Boyle, and David Heatley contribute stories of a similar ilk.

KE7 Botes

Conrad Botes

There's also a great deal of surreal fantasy in Kramers Ergot 7. CF delivers a two-page strip which will appeal to those who enjoy his Powr Mastrs series. Will Sweeny works in roughly the same territory, imbuing his tale of monster invasion with very cool character design and beautiful, gossamer linework. Matthew Thurber chronicles Brian Eno's work producing an album of songs written by the resurrected corpse of Michael Hutchence. (I'm struggling to explain exactly how much weirder (and better) the actual strip is than that description.) Florent Ruppert and Jerome Mulot's two-page story is surreal and highly effective; the large panels convey the enormity of a staircase which various figures are scaling. And the art, black and white with hundreds of evenly-spaced, short, vertical lines, really stands out in a book filled with violent displays of color.

KE7 Ruppert and Mulot a Ruppert and Mulot

Matt Furie's story is handsome and disturbing, particularly for those who have read Boy's Club--the good-natured anthropomorphic burnouts are now killing and enslaving each other. Ted May's "Cradle of Frankenstein" has a more straightforward narrative than many of these stories, but the layout is daring, every bit as good as you'd expect from someone who included a Slade-themed pinball machine in the last issue of Injury (RIP).

KE7 Furie a

Matt Furie

Probably the best of KE7's fantasy comics--and actually probably the best thing in the book, period--is Josh Simmons' extremely dense 3-page comic, "Night of the Jibblers." The pacing is extraordinarily effective, building a great deal of tension for two payoffs, each of which floored me for very different reasons. Just as remarkable are the Jibblers, some of the most memorable creatures I've ever seen on a comics page. No spoilers here; you really need to read this story if you have any interest in the genre. I'm not at all exaggerating when I say it's one of the best horror comics I've ever read. I'm now wondering if Josh Simmons might be the most underrated active cartoonist in the world.

Two other contributions bear special mention. While not rooted in fantasy per se, Gabrielle Bell's deconstruction of the espionage genre is a career highlight. By eliminating any trace of motivation from the protagonist, Bell exposes the absurdity of the spy thriller, while simultaneously distilling its appeal to its base elements (eg, exotic settings and murder). The monotony of the 8 x 8 grid enhances the effect. It reminds me a great deal of Richard Sala's shorter work, except Bell plays it the whole thing perfectly straight.

Editor Sammy Harkham provides as fitting a cover for Kramers Ergot 7 as one could hope for. The image depicts a post-apocalyptic colony, but it's somewhat unusual in that it's less of a wasteland and more of an idyllic pastoral. Storefronts on what used to be a city street are coated with vines and moss, but life continues to thrive; young women sit in communion with nature (one's even hugging a deer). Harkham's cover hints at the nature of the culture these human survivors have constructed. First, they're all female; the lone male figure is a cadaver in a car which is in the process of being coated in green. All the women are unclothed, except one figure who appears to be receiving oral sex from another figure (whose genitals are obscured by a group of passing ducks, adding a further note of ambiguity--maybe there are men in this world after all?). Only one storefront isn't covered in vines; rather than a store name, there is an ambiguous image which might possibly be of religious significance. Water is flowing out of its window display. The most dominant aspect of the composition is the black sky, taking up the top third of the picture and making the whole image quite ominous.

KE7 Harkham

Sammy Harkham

It's a terrific illustration, and an appropriate one in a few of ways. Like many of the stories within the pages of KE7, the cover is extraordinarily dense, providing a great deal of narrative meat in what amounts to a single panel. Furthermore, the image of a post-apocalyptic city street inhabited by naked women and wildlife actually gives you a good idea of what you'll find within: haunting, off-kilter fantasy. Finally, one of the women is reading the comics section of a newspaper upside down, thus undercutting the grandiosity of the whole Kramers Ergot project.

That's the thing which might surprise all those who were inexplicably angered by the very thought of a $125 anthology: this is not a pretentious, ponderous book. Many of the stories are quite funny. Johnny Ryan's strip, "My Sexy History," mocks the most famous work by fellow contributor David Heatley--which itself appeared in a previous volume of Kramers Ergot. And it comes a mere three pages after Heatley's story in this volume!

Kramers Ergot 7 is, for my money (all $125 of it!), the best anthology of the last decade. It's also the most impressive monument to comics as a form of art. Those enormous pages do absolutely make a difference, both for the opportunities it provides the cartoonists and the overwhelming effect on the reader. Several contributors turn in the best work of their careers. I only wish I could afford to buy a copy for Alan David Doane.


Best of the 00s/Favorites: Black Hole - A Discussion

Dick Hyacinth here. In case you've forgotten, Sean and I both reviewed Black Hole for our first posts here at the Savage Critics (Sean's post, my post). It seemed kind of silly to have two reviews of a four year old (or twelve year old, depending on how you look at it) comic on the site without something or another to tie to the two together. So over the course of a week of emailing, Sean and I discussed Black Hole and each other's reviews. We examine gender, genre, eroticism, the horrors of adolescence, and a host of other issues after the break.

DICK: One thing I didn't really get to talk a lot about in my review was the character of Eliza. I think she's interesting in that she isn't really like any of the other characters; she seems to occupy liminal space in several respects. While Keith, Chris, Rob, Dave, and almost all the other characters are still in high school, Eliza apparently is not. But her infection places her at least partly in the world of teenagers. Sexually, her tail is something of a phallic object. When she and Keith have sex, it writhes around in his hand as he grips it tightly. She has a great deal more freedom than the characters who still live with their parents or are confined to the woods, but as you mention in your review, she's very much haunted by her past.

It's also interesting that Eliza seems to be the most distinctive looking of Black Hole's characters. I'm a great admirer of Burns' art, but I think it's safe to say most of his characters look like they come from his repertory company (to borrow a concept from Eddie Campbell). Eliza is different; there's something oddly specific about her. Other characters' expressions are reminiscent of those one would see in horror or romance comics (the latter being particularly true for Chris), but Eliza's facial expressions are much more naturalistic; they look photo referenced. Especially that first panel she appears in--she looks so different from all the other characters, it just pops off the page.

Chris and Eliza

The other thing I can't quite figure out about Eliza--and this might speak to my own ignorance--is what we're to make of that drawing which seems to depict Keith, gagged and bound to a tree in the woods. On one level, we can take it as a purely symbolic thing. At the end of the book, she draws a picture of Keith soaring above the other bug victims, suggesting escape from his problems (and adolescence, maybe). The value of that symbol is increased if you consider the woods as a symbol of stagnation. In this interpretation, the forest is essentially imprisoning Keith by preventing him from escaping his adolescence; the later picture correlates freedom with movement beyond the woods. In this sense, the pictures reflect the events going on in the book rather unambiguously.

But Burns blunts this positive interpretation in a couple of ways. First, Eliza seems somewhat embarrassed by the drawing of Escaping Keith. It's much more optimistic than her other work; she calls it "corny." One almost gets the sense that she's telling Keith what he wants to hear, rather than expressing her true thoughts about their new situation. The other, more troubling thing is the nature of the Bound Keith picture. First of all, it's something she drew before she knew him--making it oddly prescient. Secondly, her flashback to sleeping in the woods as a runaway indicates that she actually saw this scene in reality (in which case it's not actually supposed to be Keith in the drawing after all). There's no indication of who the bound figure is or who is responsible for his condition. You might suppose that Eliza was camping in the outcast colony, and that Dave and Rick were responsible for the incident, but Burns leaves it open enough that this is interpretation is more speculative than definitive.

For Keith, I think Eliza represents the allure and danger of adulthood and the future in general. Eliza's mystery and experience make her more attractive than the girls his own age. At the same time, he hardly knows her; there's no particular reason to think that they will have a happy future together. She seems more aware of this than Keith.

What's your take on Eliza?

SEAN: Eliza is an interesting case to me, because to be honest, when I think of her I think of sex. I think that Tom Spurgeon did a Five for Friday one time about comics characters you find attractive, and she was at the top of my list; to be honest, after her there really didn't need to be a list. I know that admitting that sort of thing is seen as creepy, especially if you're a dude, especially if you're a dude who also reads and likes superhero comics, but I've sort of been making an effort lately to talk about arousing art in the context of being aroused by it, reclaiming that space as valid, and that's where I'm at with Eliza--something about her triggers my lizard brain (no pun intended). Like I mentioned in my review, this is probably in part due to her resemblance to a girl I knew IRL, but that's not all of it by a long shot. For starters, you're right, she's much more realistically drawn than the rest of the gang, including (for the most apples-to-apples comparison) Chris. She pops against the other characters. And Burns takes advantage of how the added level of detail and nuance to milk very specific facial expressions and body language: being really fucking high, being surprised, being dazed, being lonely, being happy about something simple like an ice pop or sandwich or bumping into a friend in the grocery store.

She's also older and freer, as you note, at least in the sense that would register with Keith, i.e. she lives outside the sphere of parents and school. As we learn, she's actually less free than Keith, Chris, and the other kids, since she's sort of in thrall to these college-kid drug dealers and her own history of abuse. But there's a glamour to her ability to walk around a house half-naked, spending all her time getting baked and making art. "It's all right there," as Keith says--she's created a life out of articulating, however inarticulately, the feelings he has to keep bottled inside. What I like about this is that her sophistication, her devotion to her work, and her talent are all part of what makes her sexually attractive to Keith. I feel like that's the sort of thing you see more when the shoe's on the other foot, and you're telling a story about a male artist and his female admirer/muse. I don't go in for playing spot the phallus all that often, but it seems fair to point out as you do that she's the character with the vestigial dick--yet she's never less than breathtakingly (literally!) feminine. Here, it's the guy who's blown away by the girl's artistic gifts and commitment to them. (Creative void my ass, Dave Sim!) And it's not just some intellectualized admiration, it's a turn-on.

Indeed, Keith actually becomes Eliza's muse there at the end. I believe her earlier drawings of a boy tied to a tree were meant to represent a real-life incident she witnessed in the woods involving not Keith, but some other victim of Dave and Rick the Dick's depredations, but there's obviously no question who her drawing at the end is of. Because I'm a cockeyed optimist (LOL), I like to believe this represents some kind of maturation for Eliza. Her past subject matter was uniformly sinister; perhaps this liberating image represents a turned corner in terms of what she expects from life and herself. Moreover, I also like to believe that Keith and Eliza have a better than even shot at making a go of things. Surely there's a reason their situation is so sharply contrasted with Chris's at the end, seeming so much more comforting and hopeful. Again, this is personal experience talking, but I really did meet my future wife in high school and begin dating her back then. We had our ups and downs, but we made it work, knowing each other barely at all at first, connected by physical attraction and mutual admiration and intrigue. So to Keith and Eliza, I say, Yes we can!

But that raises a question perhaps you can take a crack at for me: Why do you think Chris's story ends on such a down note? She seems to have a lot more going for her than Rob, in several departments: Brains, looks, social proficiency. What are we to make about the magnitude of the personal tragedy that befalls her, her inability to process it (contrast it with Eliza shaking off her sexual assault, which maybe isn't a whole lot better a way to process trauma but she at least has picked herself up and moved on), and her ultimate near-suicidal state?

DICK: Chris' fate is something that I've struggled with as well, partly because of a knee-jerk reaction to a story that ends with the male protagonist moving forward and the femal protagonist regressing. At first glance, it doesn't speak well to the book's gender politics, but that's a rather shallow reading (and thankfully one I haven't heard come up very often--maybe those likely to offer this response aren't reading books like Black Hole?).

To understand what happens to Chris, we obviously have to go back to her relationship with Rob. As I said in my review, Rob's death leaves Chris feeling like she has nothing to live for. The death of someone so close is, of course, a tragic thing, but the severity of her response speaks to what you said about the teenage characters' overreactions to everything, good or bad. Part of being an adult is accepting the idea that people are going to die; we never really get over the deaths of those closest to us, but we (hopefully) eventually figure out how to go on living. When she buries that picture of Chris, you do kind of get the sense that Chris has accepted that she has to move on with her life. That's the silver lining to her ending; I guess you could interpret her retreat to the womb as temporary, a safe shelter in which she can heal her wounds then move on.

The Chris-Rob dynamic also sheds a little light on Keith's relationship to Eliza. There's a little bit of a counterfactual in Chris' reaction to Rob's death: what would have happened to Keith without Eliza in his life? Would he have survived, or would he have met a fate similar to Rob or Dave? I don't think Burns is saying anything as facile as "surviving adolescence requires good friends (platonic or otherwise)," though I do think that anyone who's made it through to adulthood will agree that good friends make the teenage years a lot easier.

On the other hand, we're all aware that those who are popular have an easier time of adolescence. If we think of the bug as the supreme determinant of who's popular and who's not, I think it sheds some light on Chris' situation. She's popular, studious, and attractive, but all that evaporates in the span of about a week. It's the sort of sudden reversal of fortune that teenagers undergo all the time. The bug isn't that different from other adolescent traumas like pregnancy, substance abuse, parents' divorce, or the realization that one is gay. Those are all legitmate problems, and teenagers haven't developed the emotional mechanisms to deal with them. Which is why it's so important to have some external support, be it from friends, SOs, family, teachers, or whatever.

Again, I think Chris' burial of the photo and explicit rejection of suicide point to an ending which, while not as hopeful as Keith's, at least suggests that she will try to deal with the traumas she's encountered. I think the difference between her and Eliza may well be time; she hasn't had as long to process what happened, and seems to be in the middle of her potential recovery as the book ends. But, to again cite your review, recovery is a process, not an event. There will be setbacks along the way, but there are plenty of things worth living for. Eliza is fortunate to have Keith (who, in turn, is fortunate to have Eliza). Maybe Chris really does need her parents.

And that brings me to another point about Black Hole: the startling absence of adults. You mentioned before that most of the characters dismiss adults as incapable of understanding their problems. Is there anything more to it than that?

SEAN: Before I tackle the parent angle, I feel I should add that as a horror enthusiast, I have no problem with serving up extremely bleak endings for your protagonists. It satisfies some nihilistic part of myself to see a fundamentally together person get broken down in a story like this, so even if there were no more "reason" for Chris to end up in a darker place than Rob than "because it's disturbing," I'd be fine with that. I think this is even reflected in Burns's visual treatment of Chris, who occasionally looks ripped straight from a romance comic--I'm thinking in particular of the shot after she and Rob first have sex and she realizes he has the bug; by the end of the story you've seen her all dirty and hairy and practically passed out naked in a stranger's bathtub. And this in turn reflects Keith's realization that he's been in love with a figment of his imagination, with an idealized girl who in no way resembles the very real girl with very real problems that actually exists. Of course, you could argue that he then goes and does the exact same thing with Eliza, but I think you can see his enthusiasm for her art, and his willingness to talk her through the traumas she's faced, as signs that he loves Eliza as she is, not as he imagines her to be.

Meanwhile, I'm glad to see you reject the gender-politics read of the book, which as you say would be a pretty shallow way to approach it. My favorite definition of feminism, and certainly the way I try to live it, is that it's the radical proposition that women are human beings. No more, no less! The reason that strikes me in the context of Black Hole is because I feel that this is what Burns is trying to say regarding sex: It's not the be-all and end-all serving of awesomesauce that teens (particularly teen guys) think of it as, nor is it necessarily a sqaulid and dangerous recipe for disaster. It's a powerful, ideally pleasurable, physical mode of interaction between two people, no more, no less. It can be dangerous for you, physically and emotionally--obviously that's the whole point of the teen plague idea, and you see it manifested in less fanciful ways with Rob and his ex, Keith's friends, even Eliza's rape. But when you look at the sex scenes Burns actually chooses to depict, they seem to be a lot of fun for the participants, and to bring them closer together emotionally. I've always found Black Hole's even-handed, if warts-and-all, approach to teen sex refreshing.

Back to Chris and adults: I think you're right to point out that there are hints toward the end there that she may be preparing to truly process her grief and loss and move on, and to me one of the biggest signs in that regard is her acknowledgement (even if it leads to a rejection, at least for now) of the potential for adults--the kindly woman on the beach, her parents--to help her solve her problems. Prior to that, adults throughout the book are uniformly thought of as sources of embarrassment, conflict, and oppression, when they're thought of at all; most of the time they don't even register. Now, I think that's a slight exaggeration of how kids live--I know I thought of my parents and their reactions to things I did pretty constantly, even if in certain cases it didn't affect how I behaved--but it's emotionally true in the sense that kids, particularly troubled kids like the ones in the book, tend not to feel that grown-ups can offer any succor or insight into the problems that afflict them emotionally and psychologically. But even more importantly to the book--here, perhaps, is the "more to it than that" you asked about--the absence of parents just makes everything feel that much more insular and claustrophobic, really a must to pull off a convincingly frightening horror story. It's the plot-mechanic equivalent of going so heavy on the blacks in the visual department, as you pointed out. The presence of grown-ups would not only create opportunities for the characters to escape the worst aspects of their situation, it would also serve to remind them on some level that you can grow up and get out, that things do get better as I've said. For the story to work, for the story to be the story it is, those options can't exist.

Hmm, one thing I'm noticing as I discuss the book is that I'm sort of splitting my time between talking about it in genre terms, as horror or as erotica, and in your basic non-genre human-drama terms. Do you feel it functions effectively in both worlds?

DICK: I've never really viewed Black Hole as a type of erotica, mostly because it doesn't work that way for me at all. So I don't really have much to say about that. As horror: I think that's an interesting question, and kind of relates to something Jeff mentioned in the comments to my review. Jeff wondered if the gorgeous art in Black Hole might make it a little more accessible; I would say the horror aspects to the book might function similarly. I haven't read everything Burns ever did, and it's been a while since I've read anything by him other than Black Hole. But my memory is that Burns tends to use horror trappings as a way to enhance larger themes in his other work. The Big Baby work, of course, deals with a character on the cusp of puberty, but I remember it being pretty similar thematically (though not nearly as rich as Black Hole).

Mostly, though, I've always thought of Burns as an excellent horror artist, but not really a horror cartoonist, so to speak. I might have a narrow view of horror, but his comics don't work on that level for me. The mouth in Rob's throat is an unsettling image (actually, that kind of makes Rob another liminal character--he possesses both vagina and penis), as are the tadpole growths on Keith's side, but they're not the kind of images that really stick in my brain like that underwater scene at the begining of Inferno (to use a horror film I really like as an example). And I was never scared by anything in Black Hole, at least not in a horror genre kind of sense. For me, Black Hole inspires dread rather than fear.

It would be interesting to consider his work in the context of other cartoonists of a similar stripe: Mat Brinkman, Josh Simmons, Tom Neely, early Chester Brown, Richard Sala, maybe even Rory Hayes, and certainly a bunch of other people I'm surely forgetting. I think Neely, who works in a very attractive EC Segar-influenced style, probably comes the closest to doing what Burns does. I'd go on, but we've already reached epic proportions. And you're the horror expert, so it's only fair to give you the final word on this. Does it work as horror for you, and how does it stack up to other horror comix (for lack of a better term)?

SEAN: So, nothing sexy in Black Hole for Dick Hyacinth, huh? Well now I feel like a bit of a freak myself. Aw, who am I kidding: Own it, Collins! I can't help but feel that sex scenes involving attractive people drawn attractively enjoying themselves having sex are intended to be erotic, regardless of those scenes' surroundings or their ultimate outcome in the narrative. Indeed I think that's part of Black Hole's power: Its ability to titillate and repulse in rapid succession, or even simultaneously. When people liken the book to the work of David Lynch, I'm pretty sure they don't just mean that both Black Hole and Twin Peaks take place in the Pacific Northwest, you know?

Now for the horror. You've actually got a leg up on me in terms of placing Black Hole within Burns's oeuvre, because this is literally the only book of his (other than that little photography collection D&Q put out a couple years ago) that I've read. Why? Because his past work fails my "is it visually appealing on a cursory flip-through surface level?" While he's always been almost ridiculously talented as a craftsman, his '50s and '60s trash-culture/Famous Monsters of Filmland aesthetic previous to Black Hole just doesn't speak to me much. Call it the narcissism of small differences if you will, but that whole tradition of combining horror iconography with outsider/alternative music and culture--you can also see it in psychobilly, John Waters, even Lynch's Wild at Heart--is just a few steps removed from my own similar aesthetic journey, but they're big steps, I guess.

So in the sense that Black Hole's brand of horror is more straightforward, darker, more sexual, less comical, more "realistic," then yes, that gives me more of an in. And I'd imagine that's true for other horror-interested readers as well. I've certainly tried to sell Black Hole to other people as The Greatest Horror Comic Ever Made, the same way people sell Watchmen as The Greatest Superhero Comic Ever Made, even though in both cases these books have myriad other concerns beyond just being a good horror comic or a good superhero comic. Granted, I have a pretty catholic definition of horror (Barton Fink, Eyes Wide Shut, Heavenly Creatures), one that definitely weighs dread pretty evenly alongside fright. But the list of horror-ish comics creators you cite--I'd throw Junji Ito in there quite comfortably, by the way--sort of makes this point for me. You're not including, say, Steve Niles, or even Robert Kirkman, whose The Walking Dead I actually quite like; you're talking about alternative cartoonists whose work doesn't "look scary" the way all the "horror comics" that clog up Previews do, and who in some cases never considered their work to be horror (Tom Neely has told me that until he saw me describe The Blot as a horror comic, the thought had never occurred to him), but whose work has the power to discomfit, disgust, disturb, and unnerve us. Jump-scares may be few and far between, but reading those comics has a sort of darkening effect on me, like turning some sort of psychological dimmer-switch way down low. Everything's a little creepier and more uncomfortable after I'm finished reading. Black Hole does that better than any other comic I've read, even as its lovely art and sympathetically messed-up characters keep inviting me back to start the process over again.

Best of the 00s: Black Hole

In case you missed my first post, I'm going to devote most of my writing at The Savage Critics to an ongoing project of making a list of the decade's best comics and graphic novels (at least that's the plan for the first year). I had planned on starting with Black Hole and announced my intention to do so at my blog; little did I know that Sean was also planning to look at Black Hole for his inaugural review at this very site! But Sean caught my comment and we convened, deciding that we would both review Black Hole, and then compare notes in a subsequent post.

Why did we both want to start with Black Hole? I can't speak for Sean (I've made a point of avoiding his post up til now; I'll read it once this is up), but I thought of it as a great way to kick off a column about the best comics of the 00s. Black Hole is generally regarded as one of the great graphic novels of all time, so why wouldn't one consider it for the decade it came out? (Kind of--I realize that half of the original, pamphlet-type issues were published in the 90s, but we'll save any quibbles over that for the comments.) Plus it's a good yardstick for talking about the other comics I'll be covering here--more about that later. The review follows after the break.

Every time I look at Black Hole, the first thing that hits me is the blackness. Outdoor scenes, particularly those in forests, are common in Black Hole, and play a role in the plot and the multiple, shifting layers of symbolism. But when you first crack the book open, you're hit by the blackness of the woods, trees only distinguished by the slightest slivers of light. It's a primeval forest Charles Burns draws, the woods of fairy tales where wolfs and witches lie in wait for young people.

Which is appropriate, because more than anything else, Black Hole is about the mystery and danger of youth. I don't mean to say Black Hole is a murder mystery, although that's certainly an aspect of it. The mystery I'm talking about is the confusion and frustration that comes with puberty and adolescence. That theme is also apparent from the first pages of Black Hole, in which protagonist Keith Pearson cuts a perfect vagina-shaped hole in a frog he's dissecting in biology class. This causes Keith to pass out, but not before triggering a vision which establishes Black Hole's vagina-wound motif and presages many events yet to come.

But back to the forest. Keith and his friends are smoking a joint in a spot they've named Planet Xeno. Keith is transfixed by the natural beauty of the location, ignoring his friend's story that Rob Facincanni, a popular classmate, has fallen victim to "the bug": an ill-defined STD which turns its victims into deformed mutants. Rob, for instance, has a mouth in his chest that occasionally speaks in a high-pitched voice, often speaking truths Rob wouldn't normally reveal. Keith eventually realizes that they're being observed by someone. They leave the spot to look around, and soon stumble upon the tent and possessions of another affected classmate, Rick "The Dick" Holstrom.


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Rick "The Dick" Holstrom looks on as Keith and his friends leave his campsite. Apologies for the quality of the scan--it's a thick book.

While his friends look through Rick's belongings, Keith wanders around nearby. He finds a shedded human skin, apparently left behind by a female victim of the bug. Keith (wrongly) laments the fact that he'll never know this woman, and is confronted by an especially grotesque sufferer from the disease, who asks (warns?) Keith to "go away." Keith soon realizes that he and his friends are surrounded by the mutated victims of the virus, watching them from within the woods. When he returns to Rick the Dick's campsite, he finds that his friends have trashed it and are ready to leave.

In those first pages, Burns establishes most of the major themes and plot points of Black Hole: (1) Keith's crush on classmate Chris Rhodes, whose skin he found; (2) the distressing nature of sex, both as a source of obscure dread and as the means by which the bug is transmitted; (3) the casual way in which the characters deal with the bug--no one ever speaks of a cure or even treatment, and adults seem to be entirely unaware of it or unconcerned about it; (4) the use of dreams as foreshadowing but also as a way to twist the meaning of previously established symbols or to uncover the true feelings of characters; (5) the role of specific natural locales as symbols of safety and comfort, but also stagnation; and (6) the aforementioned vagina-wound motif (the masculine equivalent being snakes and other phallo-serpentine things).

If that sounds like a lot to unpack, you're right. For those less interested in these themes, Black Hole works as a relatively straightforward narrative--only "relatively" because there's lots of flashbacks and retelling of events from multiple perspectives. That scene in the woods actually takes place around the same time as events from the middle of the book. But it's not hard to figure out what's going on--if you can follow Watchmen, you can follow this--and besides, you have Burns' extraordinary art to enjoy in the process. But even those more interested in Black Hole's surface elements might find themselves pulled in deeper by Burns' heavy symbolism and relatable themes of adolescent anxiety.

(Spoilers follow from this point.)

The story follows the intertwined experiences of Keith and Chris, from their exposures to the virus to their participation in the emerging culture established by victims of the virus (centered around a colony in the woods) to their attempts to escape from their situations. Chris responds more poorly to her circumstances: before infection, she was pretty, popular, and studious (though also a bit of a drinker). She's reluctant to rely on or even socialize with any victim of the bug other than Rob, who infected her in the first place. Her ability to deal with her new circumstances rest entirely in her relationship with Rob; when he is murdered, she essentially breaks down, strongly contemplating suicide at least once. Still, both Keith and fellow outcast Dave Barnes are looking out for her, providing her with the sustenance and knowledge she needs to survive. While Keith is a mostly benevolent figure, however, Dave has actually been manipulating events to pull her towards him, including ordering his friend Rick "The Dick" to kill Rob.

Keith is initially motivated by two occasionally opposing forces: his desire for escape and his desire for Chris. His narration at the beginning of Black Hole suggests this will be the story of how he achieved both goals at the same time, but a trip to buy pot from some college students throws a wrench in his plans. He meets Eliza, a roommate to the students and another victim of the bug; she has a small tail. Rather than revolting him, Eliza's tail (particularly its soft swaying beneath an impromptu skirt) arouses Keith. He's also fascinated by her bizarre art (most of which seems to depict infected mutants) as well as her intriguing maturity ("She knew something. She knew more than I did."). Keith finds himself sidetracked by his growing attraction to Eliza. Yet his compassion for the outcasts, Chris in particular, keeps him grounded in that world as well.


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Keith follows Eliza down to her room, his gaze lingering on her barely concealed tail.

Burns takes us through three of the major anxieties of adolescence: sexual awakening, socialization, and the transition into adulthood. This vision of adolescence is reinforced by Chris and Keith's mutations--skin-shedding and tadpole-like protuberances, respectively. Though they feel comfort in their "natural" environments (the woods and the ocean), Chris and Keith must escape by metamorphosis, changing from undeveloped juveniles to fully-formed adults.

They approach this problem differently. Chris retreats from the challenge, reverting to a more childlike state; she expresses to Dave her wish to undo all the decisions she had made and return to her "boring" life. When Rob is alive, she sublimates her feelings of abandonment and ostracism into their relationship. After his death, she relies on Keith and Dave to take care of her, fantasizes about her parents doting on her. The final scene sees her floating in the amniotic fluid of the ocean, unwilling to leave the womb: "I'd stay out here forever if I could."

Keith, on the other hand, is anxious to move beyond this stage in his life. He irritates his friends with his restlessness, never satisfied with where he is, worried that "This is it...this is all it's ever going to be." When things get difficult, Keith finds solace in green: marijuana and the woods, where he retreats after a bad acid trip. Still, Keith is proactive in dealing with his sexual anxieties, seeking out Eliza and confronting the queasy mixture of feelings he has for her. He accepts the help of the outcasts, and offers help in return. And after "escaping" with Eliza, he plans to move boldly into adulthood, taking up a job and presumably raising a family (as suggested by his tadpole-like deformities).

A third reaction to the traumas of childhood comes from Dave. Keith and Chris try to escape adolescence by moving forward or backward, but Dave seeks to prolong it. Chris sees the bug as tragic, while Keith seems to accept it as a new, permanent part of his life. Dave, however, embraces it, seeing new opportunities in his outcast status. Bullied, belittled, and ignored before his mutation, Dave's isolation from society allows him to ignore its mores altogether. He abducts, rapes, and kills, aided by his friend Rick (who Dave seems to have some control over--he doesn't socialize with the other outcasts, relying on Dave for food and entertainment). In addition to ordering Rob's death, he also destroys Chris' tent in order to encourage her to move in with him. Unsurprisingly, he confesses that he prefers his new life to his old one. But when Chris runs away, revealing the limits to his power, he responds by killing himself and several of his friends.

Black Hole is something of a period piece--look at those hairstyles!--but there's not a whiff of nostalgia to it. The teenage years are something to be navigated carefully, lest one end up "stuck" in the way Keith fears. The first sexual experiences aren't fun--they're awkward and strange, and lead to unwanted side effects. Friendships aren't bedrocks of solace or support; they're motivated by convenience or lust, with the possible exception of Chris' friendship with Marci. And even that relationship is marred by a lack of empathy and casual cruelties.

Keith seems to do better for himself than the other characters, but even then Burns leaves room for despair. Keith's final dream involves him apparently trying to resuscitate a frog-like baby (metamorphosed from his tadpole/sperm outgrowths?) with the same vagina-shaped scar we saw in the first of the book. His friends then show him a yearbook, pointing out that the hideously deformed character who told Keith to "go away" was in fact a future version him, perhaps suffering from an advanced stage of the bug. Finally, he encounters Chris, apparently consigned to the dump heap of his adolescence, sitting naked among the empty beer cans, old magazines, and other pieces of trash Keith has left behind. Having escaped adolescence, then, Keith is rewarded with an introduction to the traumas of the adult world. His sperm/tadpole protrusions suggest virility, but will his offspring survive? And if they do, will they also be mutants? Will Keith be able to recognize himself in the future, after the rigors of adulthood further transform him? Will he always regret leaving Chris behind, failing to save her when she needed it most?


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Keith dreams about the future and laments his present (exemplified by the apparent shedding of skin by the baby--a reminder that Chris is somewhere out there alone). Again, apologies for the blurriness.

Still, the dream ends on a positive note. Chris pulls a piece of paper out of her vagina-shaped foot wound, revealing a drawing of a lizard (maybe a horned lizard or "horny toad")--an obvious symbol for Eliza. "See," she says, "It doesn't always have to be bad. Sometimes things work out." No matter what the years ahead bring, Keith will always have his time on the road with Eliza. And even though she lost him, Chris will always have her memories of Rob, buried in the sand of the beach to be dug up later.

It's a complex take on adolescence, one which rejects conventional narratives of triumphant transformation, blossoming through acceptance of one's true nature as an individual rather than a stereotype. The nerds don't win--they end up dead. There's no climactic confrontation, only three escapes (counting Dave's suicide). The book ends with the bug still out there, ready to afflict more teenagers. Burns also takes an unusual approach to mystery. Though he does dwell on the Rob's murder and the discovery of various disturbing artifacts (including a disembodied arm), the more important and satisfying mystery comes from the initiations into adulthood that Chris and Keith must undergo.

These complex themes are expressed largely through Burns' repetition of symbols, all rendered in his sumptuous, distinctive style. Burns is one of the foremost symbolists (capitalize it if you want) in comics, earning a place alongside David B., Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware. He creates a dark and intriguing world, filled with shadows, grotesqueries, and naked flesh. Black Hole is a pleasure to look at, one of the most beautiful comics I've ever read. It's also a dense, challenging narrative which makes good use of the unique storytelling properties presented by comics as a medium.

Not everything I review in this series will prove the equal of Black Hole --in fact, very little will. But I start here because Black Hole provides a model of excellence to which we can hold up other books. When reading other works, we can consider its complex themes, satisfying density, stunning art, and rich storytelling, and realize the potential for greatness in the medium of comics. We can appreciate Burns' deep ambition and successful realization of his specific vision, and seek out works which attempt (and hopefully attain) the same degree of sophistication. It's a high standard, but a lot of comics were published in the last decade. It's entirely appropriate to start with our expectations high.