Comic Shots #10 with Chris Neseman: The Emerald and ‘Black Hole’

September 25, 2008

Each week Chris Neseman drops by to pass along a tasty drink recipe and an even tastier comic book recommendation. The cocktail and the comic can both be enjoyed independently, but they have a common theme and when served together they can make for the perfect reading experience.


This week was a challenge. I found a drink right away that fit thematically with the comic I choose, but there was one problem. It was TERRIBLE! So I did what all good amateur bartenders do in a pinch, I called an expert. The iFanboy and Around Comics communities know of this purveyor of fine spirits as The Freaky Tiki, but I know of him as my Comic Shots safety net. As soon as I could say “Tiki, I need a drink!!” he was on the case. I let know him the book I was recommending, and he told me to give him 10 minutes. 5 minutes later he called with a simple, tasty and perfectly matched cocktail. So I guess the moral of the story is that finding a drink about angst ridden teens in suburban Seattle is not easy, and you should have Freaky Tiki in your address book. So without further ado, and with a special thanks to the Freaky One, I present to you The Emerald:

The Emerald
• 2 1/2 oz Dry Gin
• 1 1/2 oz Blue Curaco
• 1/2 oz freshly squeezed Lemon Juice
• Drop of yellow food coloring (optional)

We’ve already talked about how to make a proper Martini in past columns, so I’ll be brief here. Add all of the ingredients in a shaker with ice, and shake it like there’s no tomorrow. Strain into a chilled martini glass.  The ice crystals that float on top are a sign of a perfectly shaken martini. Garnish with a lemon twist. If you want to get into the mood of the book we’re covering this week you can add a drop of yellow food coloring and turn the drink a nice shade of green. There you have it. The Emerald is a gin cocktail with lots of bright citrus flavors that are sure to arouse the senses. Thanks Freaky Tiki!

Now let’s get to the comic recommendation for the week. I mentioned those angst filled teens earlier, and the Seattle or “Emerald City” tie-in with our cocktail is a big clue. This week I’m here to tell you about one of my favorite graphic novels.


Black Hole
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Creator: Charles Burns

Every great once in a while there’s a comic that comes around that changes the way you think about the medium. In the case of Black Hole it didn’t come with a big bang, it was a slower burn that set in for me over time. It’s been over two years since I first read Black Hole, and it continues to creep it’s way into my thoughts.

For those of us that grew up in the 80s there were several titles that exploded into the mainstream with one of those big bangs. Comics like The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, American Flagg and others enjoyed a symbiotic relationship of being mature comics at a time when a lot of comics fans were themselves maturing. The Silver Age of comics were gone, and the Bronze Age was coming to an end. Comics fans were ready for more mature titles to be introduced into the mainstream, and Frank Miller and Alan Moore were there to raise the bar. They accomplished that and more, but the question of “what’s next for comics?” remained unanswered for many fans in the wake of their landmark works. That’s a big reason why I and so many other fans checked out during the speculator crash of the 90s. Now I look at my long boxes filled with poly-bagged speculator books and get a mad at myself. Not being aware of books outside of the mainstream in the 90s is my greatest regret as a comic book fan. But now I’ve been able to go back and find some of the true gems produced in what was a lost decade for many of us. Luckily we all have the chance to discover many of the great comics of the era in collected editions. Books that flew under the radar like Starman, Love and Rockets and the book I’m telling you about today, Charles Burns’ Black Hole.

Black Hole is a story that just about anyone can feel some connection to. At its core Black Hole is about the isolation of growing up and surviving that narrow window of time between childhood and adulthood. That age of uncertainty and massive change is the fertile ground that Burns uses to tell a horrific story of suburban Seattle teenagers in the 1970s. In an episode of Around Comics I describe Black Hole as a mixture of Dazed and Confused and The Hills Have Eyes. It sounds weird, but if you take the real life horrors of being a high school senior and add the specter of a sexually transmitted disease that mutates infected teens you have the basis of Black Hole.

In the 2000s the fear of life changing and life threatening STDs is common place, but the sexual world we live in now is very different than that of the 1970s (or so I hear). Black Hole captures the fear of such a disease and how it affects one town’s young adults. It seems that the disease or “The Bug” is widely know about by all of the teens, but there are no indications that anyone else is aware of it’s existence. When somebody shows signs of The Bug, word spreads through the school and cliques like wildfire. The people with the disease and the relationships around them change in ways that can only happen in high school. Burns wasn’t so cliched as to throw together a Breakfast Club style group of characters as his focus. We’re spared from The Quarterback, The Cheerleader, The Stoner, The Nerd, etc. Instead, what we get are a cast of realistic young people that are all unsure of themselves and their place in the world. Their quests for love and companionship are intertwined with questions about life after High School and where, if anywhere, they fit. While the cast isn’t cliched, many of the supporting characters are immediately recognizable. The parents who are both caring yet disconnected, the twenty something dope peddlers who can’t grow up, and the older sibling trying to act cool but failing miserably. It’s these supporting and main characters that strike a chord of familiarity that wrap you into the story. Behind the unnatural circumstances of The Bug, there is a reality that anchors the story in some very uncomfortable truths.

Black Hole mixes teen angst, sexual awareness, drug use and horror through a series of intertwined plot lines. Large portions of the book feel like a teenager’s lost weekend of indulgence. This is where the comparison to Dazed and Confused‘s summer of parties, cruising and finding yourself in remote “off the map” locations fits in. The horror aspect of the book really begins to take shape as some of the outcast teens who have moved to the forests around Seattle start to disappear. Not only are they dealing with the often grotesque mutations caused by The Bug, now there is the realization that they are being hunted. Blair Witch style totems, and severed limbs begin appearing in the forest, and none of the runaway teens feel safe. The inclusion of the murder mystery flows into the overall story of Black Hole, and by the end, everything comes into focus. When the killer is revealed, we discover that the horrors of Black Hole aren’t in the mutations of the infected, but in the isolation of youth and fears of growing up. How the main characters survive, or don’t survive depends greatly on them finding their own way and deciding if life is worth the hardships of truly living. In an odd way, there’s a lot of inspiration in these pages if you search for it.

The art of Charles Burns is breathtaking. His trademark style uses heavy blacks and has a woodcut effect that makes every page feel substantial. It takes a little time to distinguish some of the characters, but by the middle of the book I had no problem. The voice of each character is clear and the changes in their appearance follows each of their decent into the darkness of the story. The book is beautiful and frightening at the same time. It’s no mystery why Black Hole took so long to complete when you look at the complexity of the art.

In March of 1995 Charles Burns released the first issue in the series that would take nearly ten years and two publishers to complete. The first four issues were published by Kitchen Sink Press before Fantagraphics Books finished the remaining eight. The hardcover and softcover editions which reprint the entirety of the series are now published by Random House’s Pantheon Books. Confused yet? Don’t worry about it. All you need to know is that the series took it’s time coming out, and you can buy the collection in a nice hardcover or softcover now.

The reason I mentioned the decade it took for Black Hole to be released is because its voice and art are completely consistent through all twelve issues. This is an amazing accomplishment in my eyes. For an artist, especially an accomplished illustrator like Charles Burns, to produce a piece of serialized fiction without radically changing voice or style over that time span is remarkable. I mentioned Love and Rockets earlier, and one of it’s defining characteristics is how you can see Jamie and Gilbert Hernandez change and develop as writers and cartoonists over the course of that series. I love seeing the difference in their early works and how they matured. There is certainly more material there, but I think the comparison has merit. Burns never lost focus on how this work would be read as a whole. There is no way to tell that 1995’s first issue is ten years the senior of the last chapter.


So that will wrap up another week of booze and comics recommendations. Special thanks once again to my emergency bartender, The Freaky Tiki. Look for more Tiki concoctions in future editions. I hope you take the time to read Black Hole. I think it’s an important book, and it takes a lot for me to say that. I’ve read it three times now and I find new facets to it’s characters and story each time. It’s one of the books that showed me there was some fantastic work being done in comics in the 90s, and that there are always good comics out there if you look for them. Have a great week and weekend, and I’ll see everyone back next week for another round of Comic Shots!


Chris Neseman is the host of The Around Comics Podcast and a co-host of the 11 O’Clock Comics podcast. You can contact him at and suggest a cocktail or comic of your own, because good drinks and good comics should be shared.

Please obey the law and only drink if you are of age. Drink responsibly and never drink and drive. Buy the comics that make you happy, and when they do, pass them on!



  1. Fantastic, evocative description of the book. Sadly, I’m not a gin lady myself. For some reason, the dark, heavy brush drawings make me think of coffee, or mollasses. Maybe an irish coffee to support late night, deeply altered Black Hole reading binges?

  2. Great review, Chris! I was lucky enough to see a Charles Burns exhibition in NYC last week while on vacation and seeing his art up close was an amazing experience. His attention to detail and use of deep blacks becomes even more apparent when viewed up close. The exhibition is at the Adam Baumgold Gallery ( until October 11 so if anyone is in the area check it out!

  3. I love this book soooo much. There is a ton of stuff you can pull out of it. Honestly, I could write 100 reviews of it and have different things to say each time. It’s one of a handfull of comics I would call a Masterwork.

  4. @soniaharris – I would go with absinthe for the "late night, deeply altered Black Hole reading binges"

  5. I’m not a gin drinker either.

    That’s why the first drink I choose got axed. Gin and TWO kinds of Creme De Menthe. Ugh. I’m going back to the brown stuff after next week.

  6. Ahh Black Hole.  I used to get copies of this on my occasional trips into London to do the rounds of the Comic Shops.  I used to love Charles Burns art, so this was just a buy on sight.  Thing was, my visits were so infrequent I just had a very spotty issue here and there.  They were lovely with thick shiney covers.  And silly old me – I did not realise there was a continuing story – I just assumed that they were unconnected vingettes occuping a shared universe.

     Last year I bought the lovely hardback edition, but just never got around to it.  So looks like it has gone to the top of my Trades Stack!

  7. Great job Chris.  Nice review of a modern classic.  I always got your back buddy!  🙂

    The Tiki

  8. Chris, you are costing me a fortune here. My wife is going to kill me – if she ever finds out!

    Keep up the excellent reviews man.

  9. I’m going to be honest.  I didn’t read the article.  I looked at the pretty pictures.

    And I have to say:  that kitchen scene is the hottest/creepiest thing I have ever seen.

  10. If you just wanted a green drink, I’d have just gone with anything featuring midori. Tokyo Tea, for example…

    Gin works with tonic, but not much else, IMO.

    The book sounds good, despite the mention of "Dazed and Confused" (which is a horrible piece of garbage movie).




  11. Excellent, love it

  12. Dazed and Confused is an awesome movie.

    Diabhol is dead to me.


  13. Read this book for the AC BotM.  It was fantastic.

  14. Awesome review and drink choice. I would have gone with a nice beer, maybe a nice hefivizento to capture thespirit of the beer drinking youth.

  15. the suffocating horniness of youth triumphs over all obstacles in this book

    "if you stick it in, you get diseased"

    and they always stick it in…