Graphic Novels on the Verge, A Genre Trapped in a Time Warp

111405 article book bobrow Graphic Novels on the Verge, A Genre Trapped in a Time WarpBlack Hole, by Charles Burns. Pantheon, 368 pages, $24.95.

Journalists have been heralding the rise of the graphic novel for decades. Ever since Will Eisner published A Contract with God in 1978, the adult comic book has hovered on the scene, always imminent, occasionally praised as a serious art form—as in the case of Art Spiegelman’s best-selling Maus (1986)—but mostly confined to the margins. Recently, it seems, the genre has once again reached that critical-mass, any-day-now moment.

“Graphic novels come of age,” Peter Schjeldahl boasts in the Oct. 17 issue of The New Yorker. His essay describes the genre as “unexpectedly complex and fertile,” an avant-garde artistic breakthrough. (Curiously, he also calls it “a young person’s art” and refers to the “taxing” challenge it poses for the consumer: the demands of both reading and looking at a story.) Mr. Schjeldahl trots over much the same territory (and touts the same handful of artists) covered last year by Charles McGrath, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review, who waxed on in a Times Magazine cover story about the “newfound respectability” of graphic novels as a “vernacular form with mass appeal.”

Filmmakers are plundering graphic novels for source material—witness David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Frank Miller’s Sin City. (This is hardly a shocking development: Graphic novels do tend to read like storyboards.) And in the Times Magazine we now have “The Strip,” a one-page, serialized comic created by “stars of the graphic novel.” Chris Ware, who produced Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000)—which Mr. Schjeldahl called “the first formal masterpiece of a medium”—is behind the inaugural series.

But try actually buying a graphic novel and you may wonder what coming of age amounts to. At a local Barnes & Noble, I found all the comic books cluttered on a few meager shelves in a dark corner, dwarfed by the yards of manga comics nearby. Comic-book stores are still dominated by colorful juvenilia, with so many heroes on so many shelves. A trip to St. Mark’s Comics—one of the city’s main vendors—feels like a tour of a young boy’s fantasy closet. The “novels” are in back, past the supermen and buxom women; on a recent visit, I overheard one shopper ask a salesman whether adding fur to a Star Wars figurine would reduce its value.

Though Mr. Schjeldahl assures us that graphic novels are currently enjoying “a certain theoretical frenzy”—not unlike “the debates about painting that roiled Renaissance Italy”—I still experience a distinct sense of embarrassment when reading one in public. Whipping out a picture book on the subway feels weird, despite the nouveau literary credibility of such practitioners as Daniel Clowes and Marjane Satrapi. This is especially true if the book includes violence and nudity, both of which pervade Black Hole, by Charles Burns—a striking new graphic novel that Mr. Schjeldahl doesn’t mention in his essay.

A decade in the making, Black Hole is a dark, apocalyptic story about a strange, sexually transmitted disease that only seems to affect teenagers. Set in the Seattle suburbs in the 1970’s, most of Black Hole’s action takes place in the typical hangouts of adolescence—cars, the woods, basements—and unfolds in the patois of affectless youth. “Acid? I tried it once, but it was way too freaky,” says one peripheral character. “You know what I like? ’Ludes. They’re the perfect buzz. You just sit there and you don’t give a shit about nothin’.”

The plague swiftly spreads among the bored and otherwise unremarkable suburbanite teens, transforming each of them differently, often in grotesque ways. The mutated victims, who grow tails or webbed fingers or second mouths on their necks (if they’re lucky enough not to become complete monsters), live in tents in the forest and feel wistful for their former lives. They become shunned outsiders, cowed by the stigma of their own condition. Their first experimental forays into adulthood have left them scarred, cursed and dirty.

A compilation of 12 previously released episodes, the book is beautiful to look at. Unlike the scratchy cross-hatching of drawings by Robert Crumb, Mr. Burns’ work is known for its cleanliness, elegant inking and careful compositions. He first appeared on the underground-comics scene in the early 1980’s as a contributor to the pages of RAW magazine, a comics anthology edited by Mr. Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly. With comics like Big Baby and El Borbah, he borrowed the distinctive style of pulpy romance and the crime comics of the 1950’s and made them creepier, darker and more twisted. Those who don’t keep tabs on avant-garde comics may recognize his drawings from album covers and The Believer magazine.

Black Hole is drawn in stark black-and-white, a cartoonish chiaroscuro. His pages often follow a straightforward format of boxes moving from left to right (with wiggly borders for dream sequences), and his characters have a familiar, iconic quality, with facial features that can seem generic. Mr. Burns’ comics can be understood as affectionate parodies of earlier genre comics, at once melodramatic and knowing, conventional-looking and stylized. Some panels recall the ironic jab of Roy Lichtenstein, but handled with greater skill and tenderness.

I found many of the drawings arresting. Some of them look like woodcuts; others cite trippy rock posters from the era. Each chapter opens with an intricately drawn object set against blackness, an effect that haunts even the most banal items (an orange, a yearbook photo).

Black Hole has an eerie quality, with most pages soaked in portentous darkness. It moves along with a sense of foreboding, as Mr. Burns nudges an ordinary coming-of-age story into the realm of nightmare. He captures the self-consciousness and anxiety of adolescence (“What did I do? What the hell were they all staring at?” asks one woman at a party), and turns natural feelings of alienation into something physical, literal and grotesque.

The writing is rarely poignant or memorable—the line between genre parody and improbably earnest dialogue can get blurry. But Mr. Burns does have an ear for teen angst: “He was all I wanted,” explains Chris, an important female character in the book, who ends up contracting the bug. “We were sitting in a big, dark graveyard, surrounded by a million dead bodies … but we were alive … we were so alive and that’s all that mattered.”

When a graphic novel is good, the artwork is powerful to look at, almost cinematic; it’s there to complete the author’s aesthetic vision, not merely to supplant a reader’s imagination. And images can evoke a powerful visceral response. Mr. Burns has painstakingly created a self-contained world, full of plaintive voices and real dread, and it’s pretty amazing to look at, too.

But there’s a reason why articles about graphic novels tend to mention the same names: Only a handful of artists are creating impressive work. The artwork is too frequently pragmatic and disposable, slapped onto the page to move the story forward. It’s a rare trick to combine words and pictures in a way that looks original, essential to the story and not childish.

Black Hole often looks exotic and even urgent. But like many a fine graphic novel, it can sometimes feel a little immature—a sophisticated way to regress.

Emily Bobrow is an editor at Economist.com.