There’s nothing funny about high school in this black-and-white comics collection, which should strike a particularly sharp chord among those who endured and survived their adolescent rites of passage in the early 1970s.
Though originally issued as a series of 12 comic books, this anthology by the Seattle-based Burns (Big Baby, 1985) has the thematic coherence of a graphic novel. It details the sexual and psychedelic misadventures of a group of teenagers, from their initiation into the grisly mysteries of Biology 101 through a summer in which some of their lives seem like science experiments gone awry. Within the world delineated through the nightmare caricatures of Burns, intercourse can leave an indelible impression on the skin, like a strange stigmata, while indulging in drugs can blur the already thin line between reality and illusion. Identity is up for grabs, as experience and circumstance wreak transformations that leave some of these kids strangers to themselves, as well as to their friends. Yesterday’s girl next door falls under the glam-rocking spell of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, while Neil Young’s equally popular Harvest seems to serenade a parallel sphere. This is a world in which boys discover that girls have tails, and girls discover that boys are unfathomable. Ultimately, these befuddled characters drift away from the security of home and the regularity of familiar relationship into a wooded wilderness where they stumble upon dismembered limbs and strange effigies and run the risk of disappearing into a variety of black holes. If this were a movie (and in the wake of Sin City, it could be), it would need to be toned down and cleaned up to avoid an NC-17 rating. Yet Burns uses full-frontal nudity for more than titillation (the sex isn’t very sexy, the flesh often repugnant) and disturbing imagery for more than shock value. If the world he conjures is unsettling, it’s also eerily familiar.
This volume should expand the cult following of a cutting-edge illustrator.