Teenage Mutants Need Love

Teenage Mutants Need Love
Charles Burns had a slightly different reaction than most to the sticks-and-twine sculptures in The Blair Witch Project. "I thought, "Oh shit! People are going to look at this movie and think that I ripped it off." In Burns's comics series Black Hole, (#7 hit stands in January), teenagers afflicted with some unnamed plague retreat to the woods near their town, woods littered with objects very similar to those in Blair Witch. "I saw those and thought, well, at least I've got my copyright dates, so that anyone who's gonna call me on it can at least check those out."
Burns was there first, and with a series that, though still only half-finished, has proved one of the most satisfactory comics — horror or otherwise — of the ‘90s. "All my comics had a certain feel and distance to them," explains Burns. "I really wanted to have a story that I could delve into in a much deeper or serious way."
Instead of discarding the obsessions that made him one of the best cartoonists of the ‘80s — pulp horror, adolescence, mutants and freaks, VD — Burns purged them of their generic baggage by weaving them into the dense character development of Black Hole. "I wanted to do a more personal and character-driven story." He focuses mainly on two characters: Chris, a young woman who contracts the plague one night during a moody graveyard tryst; and Keith, who has a crush on Chris, and feels alienated from the usual routine of hanging out with his friends and getting high.
Burns reveals the effects of the teen plague in the first two pages of every issue: on the left hand page, he shows a normal looking boy or girl; on the right hand page, he shows the same person afflicted by the plague, with a grossly distended neck, or insectoid horns growing out of the forehead. We learn about Chris's symptoms in a chilling passage at a bush party. A gaggle of kids titters away as Chris gets ready to undress and go swimming in a cold lake. Everyone falls silent when she takes her shirt off. Chris thinks they all feel embarrassed because of her nudity, but in the last panel, Burns shows us what her friends saw, and what she can't yet see: a gruesome cleft running the length of her spine. Burns renders the cleft, like all the mutations in Black Hole, with the clean, dense, almost sculptural style he honed in classics like Hard-Boiled Defective Stories, which also served him well as a freak-drawing apprenticeship.
"Of course, people talk to me, like ‘Well, this is about AIDS.' It really isn't. The core of the story is really a romance story." Burns hasn't yet revealed the etiology of the disease, or specified its symptoms in any detail: it just creates freaks, treated in the story as different instead of dangerous. "Take the example of drugs," explains Burns. "That's just kind of a given; it's something that's an accepted part of youth culture. And in a way, I'm treating this idea of a disease in the same way. And I'm using the idea of the sexually transmitted disease that transforms you, transforms some teenager." Burns stops to think. "In the story, I'm thinking about the intensity of the emotions that anyone goes through during adolescence, the transformation of a person from childhood to adulthood. And I'm throwing in this idea of a transforming disease, as a catalyst that makes it even stronger, that pushes that idea to a boiling point."
Not only is Black Hole a more personal story for Burns, it also marks the first time he's written a female character, Chris, in the first person. "That seemed kind of surprisingly natural to me to do," he says. "Just recently, I had a female cartoonist tell me, ‘You know, it seemed like Chris is a real female voice, as opposed to this kind of stereotyped chick.'" None of the Black Hole characters resemble the Happy Days cats and chicks of earlier Burns stories like Teen Plague: they're more like Burns and his friends. "I know everybody in there. Each character is like a portion of my personality, or of myself," he says. "The easiest are the guy characters who are hanging out with their buddies, and buying dope, and getting loaded." Burns laughs, "Those voices I have down pretty clearly."