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Mixing the eerie and the erotic

A grunge aesthetic yields an unsettling, compelling world

Black Hole
By Charles Burns
Pantheon, 368 pp., $24.95

The smoldering, brilliant ''Black Hole" is Charles Burns's graphic-novel Grunge Guignol depiction of a group of Seattle-area high school students in the early '70s. They have been bitten by a ''bug" that disfigures and sickens them.

Ravenous, sexy Eliza has an attractive tail, shy yet sensual Keith an extra, needy mouth in his neck. Pretty pictures? No. But you can't keep your eyes off them.

The world Burns depicts is irregular and atomized. Most of the action takes place outside school: at parents' houses, in the woods, at a drug dealer's, in a convenience store. Nature spun out of control, nature mutating in order to damage, is the underlying metaphor. The woods are the black hole. The kids can socialize in the woods, get away from it all. But the woods can also trap them.

''Black Hole" begins in biology class as Keith dissects a frog, releasing formaldehyde and giving him a glimpse into a future of cuts and tears. In the next chapter, Keith stumbles into Planet Xeno, a place in the woods where the ghoulies and the creepies live. It's a dark and toxic place, clearings festooned with bone puppets and limbs. Keith and his buddies smoke some weed and come across a horrific camp; Keith wanders off by himself, only to encounter a ghoulie. He slips into a dream in which he joins the legion of the lost.

What happens next is as psychedelic as the art (on the opening page of each chapter, the title lettering evokes Stanley Mouse and Rick Griffin). Keith and Chris and Rob and Dave -- watch your back around Dave -- trade sexual badinage, get stoned, and abandon themselves to their sickness; meanwhile, Chris, Keith's sweetheart and also infected, tries to bond with her girlfriends but can't. As Keith and Chris drop further out, the zombies multiply and the corpses pile up.

Torn between good girl Chris and devil girl Eliza, the hypersensitive Keith falls in love with both. As these rending relationships develop, the characters deepen; so does Keith's horror, his lostness. The girls change, too; Eliza seems to become more ''normal" even as Chris weakens and finally recovers. The story blurs reality and dream. Early on, Keith awakens to a wound incurred in his nightmare, a wound that hurts his waking self. Meanwhile, the specificity and design of Burns's art -- his lettering is crisp, his texture glowing, his imagination fevered -- give his book enormous gravity and new meaning to the term ''graphic." There's nudity and sex here, but the sense of foreboding that shrouds ''Black Hole" and its Columbine atmospherics also blunts its eroticism.

While the narrative traffics in the hallucinatory and the grotesque, Burns's realistic, highly stylized imagery has a unique gloss. He darkens the center of the head to give hair sheen, and he's a master of the telling line, in the tradition of the great illustrator Rockwell Kent.

The draftsmanship is vigorous; you can feel how Burns had to push through the art, forcing it to tell his tale. Each page is symmetrical but different. Some have six panels, some five, some three; the frontispiece of each chapter is full page. Every sheet is immediate to the point of urgency.

''Black Hole" evokes ''The River's Edge," a 1986 Keanu Reeves movie in which a teenager murders his girlfriend, leaving her corpse by the river's edge for their friends to inspect and do nothing about. The sensibility of ''Edge" is akin to that of Pearl Jam predecessor Mother Love Bone and Alice in Chains, both Seattle rock bands. The characters in ''Black Hole," like the teenagers of ''Edge" and the figures in much grunge music, are disaffected, emotionally parentless, damaged.

Although it packages 12 comics Burns created between 1995 and 2004, ''Black Hole" feels like a whole, complicated novel, and it's luminously graphic. On the surface, it's a murder mystery, but its shades of AIDS and Columbine make it social commentary about intimacy and ostracism. It's great outsider art as beautiful as it is disturbing.

What makes ''Black Hole" so powerful is the way Burns builds mystery and character at the same time. What makes it graphic is its unpredictable, elegant art, an unsettling blend of pulpy romance comics and those EC horror books that prompted Fredric Wertham to write ''Seduction of the Innocent" in an attempt to stuff sensuality and shock back into the conformist lockbox of the '50s.

Sensuality, Burns knows, can be shocking, even dangerous. What he does so memorably here is blend the erotic and the frightening to create a black hole the reader will want to visit again and again.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer in Cleveland.

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