Charles Burns’ Black Hole is collected into a gorgeous hardback edition which was released in 2005. According to Savage Critics, it was released in individual issues by Fantagraphics and Kitchen Sink, and there is important supplemental material missing. Other people in the Whitstable Comic Club dispute this, saying that some chapters were issued in anthologies, but not as individual issues.
This is the second time I’ve read it. It is both written and drawn by Burns. On the whole, it is a story of teenagers and growing up and finding out your not a child any more, and yet the world is still a big and dark and unfathomable place. Burn’s art is extremely disciplined and intricate. It is black and white, but relies heavily on the black. Which I love. I like the technique and the imagery, but the characterisation is problematic. More later on that.
Seattle. Summer. Mid-seventies. It’s hot and middle-class teenagers are coming to terms with who they are becoming. And what. Chris, Rob, Keith and Eliza are our protagonists. ‘The Bug’ is the plot device that turns a regular teen summer into a Cronenbergian nightmare. As kids will, these characters and their friends and peers are experimenting with their sexuality (as well as with alcohol and drugs). Unfortunately for them, there is a form of STD called ‘the Bug’ going around, which leads to a range of weird physical mutations. And as a result, some are outcast from society.
We begin this tale of confusion with Chris contracting the disease from Rob, who is initially seen as popular in school. She wasn’t aware of his condition until she sees a second, functioning, mouth, on his neck. Chris immediately feels she has been deceived and stops speaking to Rob for some time. Another plot strand sees Keith contracting it from Eliza, who has a tail. The plot weaves its way between these two relationships, and also goes into dream sequences, flash-backs, and what appear to be future predictions.
Other teens in the story are outcast from the town and are living in the woods. Chris and Rob make up and run off to join this camp. Rob, not at all being honest with Chris, remains loyal to his friends and remains under his parent’s roof. Keith and Chris become close as Keith brings supplies to the outcasts. The story evolves as relationships are renewed and dreams are dreamt. We end with ambiguity as we’re not told the fates of Keith and Eliza, although it features Chris in the final pages as she is seen floating in the ocean at night . . .
You can look at Black Hole from the perspective of a story, or a piece of illustrative art, or as a whole.
The story itself appears to be a fairly common take on middle-class teenagers over a long hot summer. There are house parties and beach parties and drugs and sex. However, by focusing on 4 main characters who are influenced by the mutations caused by ‘the bug’, Burns lifts it up beyond just another story. While it’s implied that the mutations are caused by sex, it isn’t the only way it can be passed on…one character spits into another’s mouth, apparently infecting him. The analogy is therefore AIDS.
It is about fear. Fear of sex, fear of growing up and becoming an adult. It is about outsiders (even though they appear to be from a privileged class). However, it doesn’t quite feel like a complete story. Maybe that was Burn’s intention. I love the ambiguity of the ending – like life, people continue living theirs in various directions. I enjoyed the flashbacks and dream sequences although at times they did slow up the plot a little and left me a tad confused.
The art is a sheer joy and an unholy nightmare all at once, if you take it for what it is. Burns’ panels look like they could be block print, they are so disciplined. Yep, that’s the only word for it. The constant repetition of the look and feel of the characters and the scenes over what was a nine year period is nothing short of breath-taking. You’d almost think it was computer generated in its accuracy. He conveys atmosphere so well. You can feel the oppressive heat and the claustrophobia of the suburbs and the woods. You get creeped out by the Lynchian nightmares and the Cronenbergian body-horror. Clearly there are metaphors of vaginas abound – gaping wounds in frogs and second mouths are all obvious. There are subtler images to be found too – one man’s nose looks distinctly penile, for example. And then there are the outright bizarre drawings of monsters and fears. But there is also the cutest tale on Eliza…
What does let the art down is the characterisation. Many of the characters look similar, which is not a surprise, as it features a bunch of white, middle-class teens in the 1970s. They have similar haircuts (male and female alike) and very similar expressions, no matter what is going on. For the first third of the book, I had to constantly remind myself of who the characters were and what their relationships were to each other. Only one or two had anything distinctive about them. Burns’ only real failing, in my book.
So, while I loved the book as a whole, I would say it was the characterisation in the artwork that stopped this being an absolute classic. Some of the individual panels are artistic perfection, to my tastes. The story was a good one, brought up from the level of good teen angst piece to great teen mutant piece. I felt like my fears and hopes were drawn and written down in front of me (and I haven’t been a teenager for many years, and I’ve never been an American). I felt the clamminess. I felt the anguish and I felt the nightmares. Sure I didn’t relate to the AIDS metaphors as while I was very aware of it in the early 1980s, coming from a village in the north east of England, the facts seemed a million miles away.
I would like to see some of Burn’s original art in an exhibition, but I’m sure I’ll be reading Black Hole again, in years to come.
Some additional thoughts and questions based on the group discussion.
Why the mutations were necessary? In my opinion, it is to raise the story to another level.
It was about AIDs and puberty.
All white middle class. It would have been interesting to see other types of characters. I would hope that Burns has reflected his childhood or early adulthood experiences of living in Seattle.
Why set in the 70s – Burns would have 20 in 1975?