Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself. Miles Davis
Black Hole

Black Hole, published over the course of a decade by illustrator and comics artist Charles Burns, is a period piece centering on a small northern Pacific Coast town in the late seventies. It’s your average slice-of-life piece, excepting the surreal, terrifying dreams, the hallucinations, the visions, and the crazed symmetry prevalent over the opening pages of the book. The front cover—a portrait of a high school girl, smiling, obviously a yearbook picture, with a huge red band passing over and obscuring her eyes—manages expectations expertly: The mundane made noticeable, and noticeably menacing.

In the hands of a more traditional storyteller, the book would devolve into a standard slog through the fringes of school, following the pretty girl, the bad boy, the burnouts, and the nerds. But in this world, there is something known as the Bug. A virus, or a bacterium, or an allegory, it’s hard to know; the Bug is a sexually-transmitted disease that deforms the infected in unexpected ways. Lizard tails, tiny mouths emerging from chests, or more obvious, and obviously crippling, infections appear as we begin to spiral around the fringe world of the carriers. Shunned by school, home, and friends, forever marked by the virus, some of the infected just disappear, and others migrate to a tent city in the woods.

Again, we expect a narrative centered around the Bug, and its obvious execution. Normally, one of these outcasts—probably the pretty girl and the bad boy—begin looking for a cure, are met with shadowy resistance, and then overcome these odds to deliver the unjustly oppressed from the confines of their physical afflictions. That is not at all what happens. The Bug is not really there to be an allegory for AIDS, or polio, or cancer, or any other real-world analogue. It fulfills those functions just fine, because it is blank enough to allow the reader to inject whatever cultural context he wants into the scenario. Initially it’s hard not to read it as an AIDS allegory. The pretty girl, at a drunken high school party, walks off with the sensitive bad boy; she wakes up with the Bug.

There is no “cure” narrative; no overcoming the Bug. More nebulous, more bleak, and thus more realistic than what we expect to encounter, these characters—all the infected—leave behind their normal lives and are incapable of returning. They’re high schoolers; none of them possesses the expertise necessary to create a treatment or vaccine. In fact, it’s hard enough for them to survive, what with scrounging food, staying outdoors, and for a brief time, living at home waiting discovery.

A valid criticism of Black Hole could be its tendency to meander, its obliqueness; while subtlety is a valuable tool, sometimes the work runs toward the inscrutable. Just when we’ve come to terms with the fact that the Bug is not disappearing, and that this is not an epidemic story, we encounter a shockingly brutal murder. As the murderer stands over the corpse, he obliterates any hope we will understand or glean insight from the attack—he just says to the body, “Sorry, man, he told me to.” We don’t see the murderer again in any real context for at least a hundred pages, and his appearance is brief. Yes, someone is killing the infected; but this isn’t really a story about the murders, any more than it is a story of the Bug.

Burns refuses to open his narrative to these broader, allegorical interpretations, in part because changing scale to examine such an intimate and personal experience as the isolation that (ironically) universally afflicts teenagers would obscure the exact details he wants to display. This is a mannered collection of vignettes, keenly observed details, all rendered in such exacting draftmanship that it’s perfectly clear why it took so long to complete. The Bug is just another of the nameless, numberless external factors that weigh on these pliable young people, much like the murders present another irrational threat to an already chaotic existence, and so it subverts our expectations. The Bug is not special, the murders are not special, and so these aren’t the focus of the work. The adolescents whose lives are shaped, destroyed, or irrevocably mangled by these events are.

A truly great work, in Black Hole Charles Burns has forged an entirely alien world that nonetheless is a perfect reflection of our own.


You can tell an etymology is wrong by asking one question: Does it make a good story?

Man on Wire

In 1973, Philippe Petit, a wire-walker and performance artist/criminal provocateur, flew to the United States, entered the under-construction Twin Towers, strung a wire between them, and danced for forty-five minutes on a foggy weekday morning.

When he came off the wire, he was promptly arrested, then arraigned. His friends—including a longtime girlfriend—waited for him outside court; at his release, he vanishes with a star-struck American woman intent on welcoming him to the U.S. That Petit recounts this episode shamelessly, with an effusive sense of his own impish charm, is the linchpin of the documentary’s subtle editorial direction. The film is a series of talking-head interviews with Petit and his friends, alongside found footage of their high-wire practices in the yard of a farmhouse in provincial France and reenactments of their illegal intrusion into the World Trade Center construction site. It’s around the thirty minute mark that Petit’s infectious mischievousness transforms into an oddly disquieting feeling. For me, at least, it was the realization that all his friends and accomplices use plural pronouns (“we”) and Petit only ever uses the singular: “me.”

He talks about his singular vision, endlessly mythologizing his first glance of the towers as a construction sketch in a news magazine at a doctor’s office in ‘71. He talks of being driven to this, of suddenly and perfectly realizing it is his purpose to walk between the towers. By this point, Petit has committed a few other art crimes, namely wire-walking on a similarly stealthily-strung wire on the Cathedral de Notre-Dame; so perhaps it did really occur the way Petit describes. But his constant self-aggrandizement and the obvious inflations to his stories, his relentless posturing as some messianic artist bringing joy into otherwise worthlessly proletarian lives, starts to wear thin.

Ultimately the documentary may not speak to anything less well-worn than the Faustian bargains so often sought after by the motivated, but it is this particular gambler that provides the mileage that makes it enjoyable. Petit is clever, he is articulate, and though he is maddeningly narcissistic, he represents something powerful: The dreamer’s ultimate accomplishment. What Petit does not want us to remember—and what the filmmakers don’t want us to forget—are the people he stepped on in the climb to the top of the twin towers.

We must be careful who we pretend to be. Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night.