Page 45 Review by Mark & Tom
"It was so weird. It happened in my Third Period Biology class. We got divided into groups of two because we were all going to be dissecting frogs. I lucked out for once and got Chris as my lab partner. Chris Rhodes. She was a total fox. All the other girls were squealing and stuff and the guys were sort of taking over and putting on the whole tough guy act. I guess I was trying to do the same thing... I went ahead and pinned the arms and legs down like you were supposed to and was just starting to cut it open when it happened. As the skin opened up, a bunch of Formaldehyde spilled out. You could see the guts through the slit I'd made and they looked all hard and white. I froze. I can't explain what happened. It was like a déjà vu trip or something... A premonition. I felt like I was looking into the future... And the future looked really messed up. I was looking at hole... A black hole and as I looked, the hole opened up..." - Keith
This is without a doubt not only one of the best comicbooks to ever grace our shelves but also the only one I could genuinely refer to as Horror. When I say "Horror" I'm thinking of films like Don't Look Now, that true kind of gut-wrenching feeling. When you know something's having an effect on you, evoking such strange emotions, yet you can't place the cause. The threat.
Essentially the best Horror films and books always boil down to a mystery. Attempting to solve these are our way of rationalising a totally fucked up situation that our minds just cannot cope with. Throw in a few teenagers, virgins not necessarily in a sexual context but to the ways of the world in general, and everything becomes a potential metaphor. All to be exploited. Change, growth, lust, drugs. Charles Burns takes these core elements of Teen-Horror and weaves them into reality in the most grotesque, emotive way.
They call it Planet Xeno, it's where the kids go to get stoned. Out of the way, off the beaten path, huge trees hanging overhead, the light shining through, the ground covered with broken glass and roaches. It's where they live now, the ones who've caught the "Bug". It's transmitted sexually - some people just get hives or a rash, others are more severely infected: thick hair all over, a lizard-like tail that grows back if snapped off, skin that sheds with your period. A tiny mouth just below your neck, murmuring your subconscious thoughts as you sleep. When you can no longer pass for normal, you hide out here, making forts and dens to live in. Surviving on rubbish and whatever you could grab before leaving. A self imposed exile.
But they're still just teenagers, they still make mistakes. They still mix obsession with desire and lust with love. Keith and Chris, our two protagonists, both deal with the effects of the STD on their friends and themselves in very different ways. Unified only in the sense that they're normal people dealing with insane circumstance.
Burns' characters almost seem to be becoming absorbed by his strong, heavy black inks. Enveloping his creations with a sense of claustrophobic nihilism reflecting the base mood of teens everywhere for as long as anyone can remember. This a masterpiece of the comic form and well worth waiting eleven years for.
One of the finest horror comics ever.
Set in Seattle in the mid-70s, it deals with a disfiguring plague that affects only teenagers. It seems to be spread via sexual contact, changing faces, adding a tail here, an extra mouth there.
With all the strange goings-on, Burns keeps it all down to earth. It's the lives of the teenagers that he's interested in. Okay, it's either a metaphor for STDs or for the changes and desires that period in your life brings. Re-reading all twelve issues it struck me that no adults are ever involved, it's set purely in the teens' world. When children go missing either because they can't let society see their transformations or because of the murders that occur, we never get to hear how it affects the parents. They're only noted for their absence.
The period details are well observed and the themes of love, sex, peer pressure and drugs are handled perfectly. In a way Burns has been telling this story for a good chunk of his career. There was an earlier strip called 'Teen Plague' and he's always been about body horror, a Cronenberg without the penetration fear. The art is just astounding, razor-sharp inking, dark spaces and solid page construction. There's a dank, claustrophobic air hanging over the entire story. The period setting works in two ways: firstly it's the time that he grew up in, the (never overbearing) pop-culture references help to ground the terror; secondly it's the last time, in film and in novels, that the horror genre was taken seriously and used carefully.
One last thing. At the beginning of each chapter there are two illustrations, a before and after. A high school yearbook photo shows one of the teens as they were and as they looked with the plague. The expression doesn't change and it's still read as a photograph, as if it was something that the photographer, the adult couldn't see.