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Thursday, January 05, 2006


Charles Burns

Ah, teen angst. Somehow it's comforting to know it still exists. As bitchy as it sounds, now that I've plodded on through my 20s, my 30s, and some of my 40s, it's kind of reassuring to know that all these kids who act like they're so cool are suffering just as I did, just as my friends did.

The Wayana-Aparai people of Brazil have a ritual to bring boys into manhood by applying biting fire ants to the boy's back. Some pass out from the pain but after a week of recovery, they're done. They're all grown up. Enduring the pain is the rite of passage. American kids go through the same thing only they go through middle school and high school with the ants biting their backs, their fronts, their arms, their legs, their faces and occasionally their genitalia. The pain lasts for years and recovery doesn't come until college. And they wonder where binge drinking comes from? Duh.

Of course, as usual, I assume a great deal. I am merely assuming that things are the same for kids today as they were for me. I generally don't ask my teenage niece about the details of her life for fear that I would only add to the discomfort — "God, my uncle is such a freak. He's like asking me about school and stuff and if I have any 'feelings' about boys. I just want to die!" As of today, my understanding of women is up to about 7 on a scale of 100. As for my nephews, I recognize enough body language and facial expressions to make what I consider very well informed guesses as to their states of mind. I need not ask. One of the perks of uncledom is the precision with which one can fine-tune one's involvement.

Black Hole by Charles Burns is a deep exploration into the problem of being a teenager. This is not however, a story of what it's like being a teenager. This is a story about what it feels like being a teenager. Burns wisely steers clear of the particulars of what makes growing up so hard and instead focuses on the pain itself. Setting the story in the 1970s gives it a quality of timelessness that further removes any distractions that contemporary cultural references may create. What we are left with is just the kids themselves and their compulsory belief that every single moment has the potential to define the rest of their lives. That allows the target of Burns' story to remain locked squarely on the ultra-prickly emotions that teens experience as they teeter on a most treacherous seesaw, childhood on one side, adulthood on the other, and the abyss below.

And did I mention that this is a graphic novel? That means it has pictures. Tons of beautiful pictures rendered in black and white and nothing in between. It's also graphic in that the pictures are often of naked people. Fascinating to look at but also a little embarrassing when you're sitting on a cross-country flight with little kids sitting behind you. Apparently, you can see quite a bit between 12E and 12F.

Black Hole is the story of a Pacific Northwest town ravaged by an infectious disease that is spreading among the pot-smoking, wine-drinking teenage population. The sickness seems to be transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids making sex no less appealing, just more dangerous. The disease affects its victims differently. Some become horribly disfigured, their facial features twisting into monstrous contortions. Some grow tails. Some show just a few bumps. And some develop odd orifices on different parts of their bodies, like wounds that neither bleed nor heal. Sometimes during sleep these fleshy openings even speak, usually offering a muffled "Gaah-awah!" (Go away!)

Weird, yes, but ingenious as well when you consider that by putting these kids in such an unreal situation, Burns is allowing us to connect even more with the very real emotions they experience. Hottie good girl Chris yearns for burnout Rob and lures him away from the keg so they can have sex. When she discovers that Rob is infected she is undeterred, even after she develops a huge gash the length of her spine, the result of their coupling. Shunned by her old friends, she remains devoted only to Rob and he to her, both sacrificing everything they have in the name of love. Nice guy Keith also cares for Chris and takes great risks to protect her. The sense that no one understands and that matters must be dealt with or else all will be lost, the sense that the whole world is an adversary and to fight it is noble but ultimately hopeless, the sense that EVERYTHING IS SO GODDAMNED IMPORTANT is what is driving all of these characters. And that really is what it's like to be a teenager, isn't it?

Looking back from the relative comfort and security of adulthood, I now compile this list of facts.

FACT ONE: Some of the worst things that will happen to you in your life will happen to you when you're a teenager.

FACT TWO: Some of the best things that will happen to you in your life will happen to you when you're a teenager.

FACT THREE: While they are happening to you, you will blow the bad things out of proportion and fail to fully appreciate the good things.

FACT FOUR: You will remember most of the bad things and some of the good things.

FACT FIVE: When you are old like me, of the things you will remember, you will discount most of the bad things and enshrine most of the good things.

Do you agree?




At 1/05/2006 6:15 PM, Anonymous said...

The teenage niece is offended. A bit unaccurate with the comments! i certainly don't think my uncle's a freak, and i think it's pretty cool your vandalism on the school is still here!

maybe a follow-up post on teenage girls? we're not quite as whiny as you may think.

love, kate

At 1/07/2006 9:14 AM, Tom in L.A. said...

PLEASE forgive my literary license. Take no offense, dear Kate. When struggling to express myself, I often find that exggeration is one of my most useful tools. Regrettably, my subjects, in this case you, must often suffer the consequences.

Then again, that's why I didn't use your name.

You know I love you to death,

At 1/07/2006 11:52 AM, Anonymous said...

a nephew disagrees with the teenage niece

teenage girls are whiny

At 1/08/2006 7:32 PM, Tom in L.A. said...

Oh, boy. Now I've real stirred things up. I like it!

At 1/13/2006 3:02 PM, Anonymous said...

may i ask which nephew?

At 1/13/2006 7:26 PM, Tom in L.A. said...

Yeah, fess up, mystery nephew!


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