Black Hole
by Charles Burns (Pantheon, 2005)

Black Hole was first published in serialized comic-book form over a 10-year period. That might seem like an incredibly long time for a serial comic to be released, but one glance at the dense text is enough of an explanation. Set in a suburban Seattle high school in the mid-1970s, a sexually transmitted plague is sweeping through the quiet, sleepy little town, mutating those who are infected. The victims, all teenagers, sprout webbed fingers, boils, tails and extra limbs.

An obvious metaphor for the inner turmoil of teenagers, this highly absorbing story is a work of great imagination and complexity that keeps the menacing discomfort flowing until the very last frame.

The drama centers around four teenagers, two boys and two girls: the beautiful and popular Chris and her boyfriend, Rob; Keith, who has a deep-seated crush on Chris; and Eliza, a talented but tortured artist. Fleshing out the group is a tribe of societal rejects, outcast teenagers affected by The Bug, as it's called, who live in the woods behind town in a place they call Planet Xeno ("xeno" is Greek for "nobody"). The story is told from various points of view, forming intertwining narratives. The struggle to escape forms the plot, and what drives the action are the almost supernatural forces that seems to be alternately pushing the four away from, and yet suffocating them with, civilization as defined by suburbia. Adulthood, sex, responsibility, consequences, boredom, fear and isolation both physical and mental: all sorts of primal archetypes are at work against the backdrop of an insidious, growing threat. It becomes increasingly clear the mutations that occur are more or less extensions of the sufferer's true, internal self. Some will turn into monsters, while others seem to evolve into a sort of higher state. The overall feeling is very ominous, and the suspense running throughout the story is at knife's edge.

Black Hole draws on the tropes of teen horror movies while subtly mocking them at the same time: the real horrors of being a teenager in this world lie within. No monsters with machetes and masks track us through the woods; we do it to ourselves. Sex is not the cause of our downfall so much as it is the beginning of a painful evolution into adulthood because every action, good or bad, has a consequence. Suburbia is a place too complacent for teenagers to ever really learn anything useful about the real world, which is why school is so expendable. Drugs and junk food are the main sources of nourishment but they provide no real escape or sustenance. To find that, they will actually have to leave the woods, the town and everything familiar. Therein lies the moral dilemma with which teenagers are faced: how to grow up without losing their true selves in the process.

I won't draw comparisons between the mutation disease spread by sexual contact and AIDS. Black Hole takes place in Washington in the '70s. Although Charles Burns was certainly writing at a time in the 1990s when AIDS and its social implications were far more well-known, it's simply too easy to connect the mutation plague with the AIDS plague. Too easy, and probably incorrect.

For one thing, it's an exhausted metaphor, as AIDS inferences can be drawn from just about anything similarly catastrophic, which is what makes it too easy. For another, Black Hole is more about Grimm's fairy tales, more about sexual awakening being a metaphor for a larger, emotional awakening as the safe world of suburbia is left behind for the world of adulthood. These themes were the subject of older-than-time stories long before AIDS came into the picture. The story is simply too universal to pin down to one metaphor.

This is one of the darkest graphic novels I have ever read, and I mean that quite literally: rendered in the starkest black-and-white visuals, the lines are heavy and thick, with emphasis on black, black and more black. Much like David B.'s graphic autobiography Epileptic, the color black dominates every page, with white seemingly thrown in only when absolutely necessary. Each chapter opens with a diptych that reads right to left, and back again, which sets up a clear direction of reading in a very defined sequence. The art is intricately crafted, right down to the tiniest detail, whether it's sand on a beach or detritus floating on the surface of water the way the teens float on the surface of life.

There is a sense of something gothic, almost medieval, about Burns' ability to create an incredibly detailed Hieronymus Bosch-style world, with two completely separate Gardens of Eden, one normal and flat, the life of high school and suburbia, the other a photographic negative of Paradise: a rubbish-strewn, treacherous stretch of woods on the outskirts of civilization. For all its darkness the story actually ends well without ever quite surrendering that aura of menace that infused the story with so much tension.

This is one of the best graphic horror novels ever written. Engrossing, disturbing, bizarre, nightmarish, it is a self-contained universe with its own mythology -- rather like the interpersonal relationships of teenagers themselves, rather like the community the outcast teens have formed. As a masterpiece of the genre, it is absolutely spellbinding. Black Hole is to graphic horror novels what Great Expectations was to literature. If you're a serious fan of the genre, consider putting this on your list.

review by
Mary Harvey

3 May 2008

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new