Charles Burns’s Black Hole starts off like so many other bildungsroman stories before it: girl and boy meet, girl and boy fall in love, girl and boy experience sex together for the first time, girl discovers she’s become infected by a sexually transmitted mutation from boy, and their worlds are never the same.
Aside from the mutated tails, miniature talking mouths protruding from people’s necks, and young girls shedding their skin like snakes, Burns presents his readers with a pretty standard take on a tried-and-true genre where the characters in his story experience a loss of innocence but whose indoctrination into the real world is less pleasant than previous entries in the genre. And while coming-of-age stories possess value in providing a platform for different people of varied backgrounds to come together and share common experiences from their childhood and adolescence — as well as discover unique differences within those similar experiences — Black Hole attempts to move beyond this theme of adolescent growth and use it’s disturbing depiction of sexually transmitted mutations to open a discussion of intolerance for marginalized groups of people in society. Furthermore, his use of art provides a unique example of where comics can excel over more traditional literary forms.
It is important to recognize that while Black Hole might have been published by Fantagraphics in 2005, Burns originally published the first four issues (approximately the first 1/3 of the novel) from 1993 through 1995 through Kitchen Sink Press, and this is significant because it provides a different cultural context for the book. Living in the Pacific Northwest, Burns would have felt the heat from the 1992 L.A. Riots and the racial tensions taking place throughout the whole country during this period of time, best exemplified in the infamous Rodney King beating. Furthermore, awareness of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s continued to increase in mainstream culture during the early 1990s, particularly with the introduction of Pedro Zamora — member of the third season of MTV’s (then) breakout hit, The Real World. Zamora drew attention for not only being one of the first openly homosexual television personalities, but he had also contracted AIDS earlier in life. These are but a few examples that illustrate the changing climate of the early 1990s where mainstream culture was forced to come to terms with people from the margins of society, and while this often produced negative results, it also provided opportunities for change that would come in later years. It is this context that sets the background for Burns’s graphic novel, which can arguably be viewed as having been informed by the time from which it was produced.
The strongest connections to Black Hole can be seen in the real-world issues of increased sexual promiscuity, unprotected sex, and the predominance of a life-changing STD discovered within a given demographic. In Black Hole, it is high school students and young adults who are portrayed as engaging in unprotected sex and transmitting the mutation to one another. The result of their casual, unprotected sexual activities brings about horrific, bodily consequences, in addition to finding themselves ostracized from their communities. They are viewed as abominations and are (essentially) forced out into the margins of society. In a fairly similar manner, homosexuals often found themselves labeled as abominations — especially from a fundamentalist Christian viewpoint — and were often forced to live in ways very different from how they might otherwise desire, hence the notion of living in a closet. Although this still happens today, it was a far greater problem at that time. Of course, this experience of being rejected for the way one is born is not new to people who do not fall within mainstream demographics. African Americans experienced these injustices, only gaining ground during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s; yet problems still continued to persist when taking into account racial profiling that still continues to this day, as exemplified in the recent Treyvon Martin shooting in Florida, where a young black teenager was shot by a community watch member for simply looking “dangerous.” Likewise, Hispanic and Latino populations still face racial targeting through immigration laws; but it is reasonable to assert that the times in which Burns was initially publishing Black Hole, during the 1990s, proved to be an even more racially charged period in our contemporary history and, as such, makes this work particularly relevant when examining discrimination of marginalized peoples during the late 20th century.
Of course, the narrative itself is not the only means Burns uses to tell his tale of sex, love, mutation, and marginalization. The artwork he employs is haunting and beautiful and psychedelically graphic.
When dealing with grotesque mutations like the ones Burns depicts in Black Hole, it would almost make sense to eschew black and white in favor of color. After all, the added coloring would, arguably, lend to a more visceral visual experience for the reader. However, the use of strictly black and white inks has a particularly jarring effect. Further, it is worth noting Burns makes no use of grays in the artistic style employed in Black Hole, and this lends a certain characteristic to the artwork reminiscent of woodcuts. Woodcuts became popular during the late 13th century in the German lowlands a few decades before Johannes Gutenburg would revolutionize the world with the printing press & moveable type. These woodcuts were often to used to create illustrations in mass-printed texts — a more viable and cost-efficient alternate to hand drawn illuminations during this period — and perhaps one of the most well-known examples was John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which contained well over 75 such woodcut illustrations that many comics scholars point to as one such early precursor to modern comics. Of course, woodcuts did not die out with the evolution of the printing press; in fact, Lyn Ward’s work during the first half of the 20th century demonstrates the strength of the contributions of woodcuts as a viable medium for comic storytelling. And as Strauss points out, “The impetuous quality of a pen drawing is difficult to capture in a woodcut. Woodcuts are strong, direct, sometimes almost primitive pictorial statements, presented with an economy of line” (8). Therefore, in sacrificing finer detail, Burns, like the woodcutter, embraces a more visceral and explicit form of communication yet still manages to elicit an emotional response from the viewer. Furthermore, Burns appears to make a conscious decision to contrast his problematic dichromatic world that is anything but black and white in nature, even if the world might appear so to both the reader and characters in the beginning; it is slowly becomes less so as the novel progresses. In this regard, Burns artfully uses the form to compliment and drive the narrative, underscoring the value of a comic novel over a conventional, language-based story.
Charles Burns’s Black Hole is not necessarily the first book I would recommend to casual comics readers or those who are new to funny books. It is particularly ambitious in its attempts to broach significant social issues in a way that is not always the most visually satisfying and, in fact, can be visually disturbing at times. But this is Burns’s point in using comics and not a conventional, language-based text to tell his story. We hear about discrimination and listen to the ways people are marginalized, but it is something entirely different when we see it. While Burns chooses to take a more fantastical approach, the grotesque images underscore the same inhuman acts people commit against one another and the ways this prejudicial behavior can dehumanize those being persecuted. Through a combination of his unique artistic style and a clever use of mutation, Burns’s work underscores the strength of comics in its handling of both topical discourse as well as tried-and-true tropes of the past.
Burns, Charles. Black Hole. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2005. Print.
Strauss, Walter and Max Geisburg. The German Single-Leaf Woodcut, 1600-1700: A Pictorial Catalogue, Volume 1. New York: Hacker Art, 1974. Print.