Imagine being a teenager in the 1970s. It was a decade of absenteeism; latchkey kids, apathy toward drug use, and a blind eye to unsafe sex. These issues have been explored in other stories, but those tales usually form some type of opinion about the issues. While Charles Burns doesn’t exactly do the opposite in Black Hole – the issues are all presented there, quite neatly — he capitalizes off of the vague and absent feelings that the time period was known for, leaving readers to form their own opinions about the subject matter.
Black Hole is appropriately named. The story — several Seattle teenagers get caught in the middle of a spreading STD, simply known as “the bug” — reads slowly at first, but it gradually sucks the reader into the dark tale of teenage alienation and desire. The story focuses on two characters; a shy young man named Keith and his pedestal girl, the total sweetheart, Chris.
Although the two never get together as a couple, their storylines often overlap. Both become victims of the bug after meeting other love interests, and even though their fates are different, they are similar in that the bug does not affect them in a grotesque manner, as it had to many others. For some, the bug has changed lives so dramatically that those afflicted with it are forced to live as outcasts in the woods because it has so obviously crusted their faces and bodies with bumps. Others, like Chris and Keith, know that they have been bitten but only because of a small tear or lump discreetly hidden on their bodies.
However, even though we see all of this (and quite stunningly so with some very psychedelic artwork), there is never any real history or background given about the bug. I anticipated some sort of warning scene to take place, given the high school setting (picturing the school nurse delivering news via film strip), but quickly realized that this was not a traditional story. All of the characters were fully aware that the bug existed. None took too much precaution to avoid it, and none tried to educate themselves about it. It was simply there, something to fear if indeed you did catch it, and something to then possibly worry about, with “possibly” being the key word.
Keith’s main love interest, Eliza, sports an adorable, flirty tail, and she does so with much style and sweetness. Her character appears wide-eyed and innocent, gushing, at one point, over a simple bologna sandwich and then, only scenes later, revealing her room, walls plastered with her freaky artwork. She is a much different specimen from Chris (and not just because of her spunky tail). Not only does Eliza accept the transformation that the bug has given to her, she somewhat embraces it. Her tail is cute, almost puppy-like, but it is also a reminder that she could be potentially dangerous, much like the strange artwork that she so enjoys creating. The tail is quite noticeable and is one of the things that Keith is attracted by. With the exception of one violent sequence, it isn’t really a problem for her. This illness is simply just accepted by everyone who has it. You either have it or you don’t, and if you do, you’d better hide it or be prepared to be an outcast to society.
Chris started off as someone who was generally well-liked by her peers. She had a best friend and a group of friends that she socialized with. Then she met Rob, whom she fell for so quickly that she didn’t even realize how fast things were going — or that he was trying to pull away only because he was one of them, one of the doomed afflicted. It is then, once Chris becomes afflicted herself, that she is sent into a social down-spiral. As cliché as it sounds, it is true: her world is no longer able to be the same once she has become one of them.
Chris lives in her own black hole, in isolation and emptiness, out in the woods. She lives off of charity and pity, from Keith who desperately wants to save her, and from Dave, another young man who is afflicted. Even though Chris’s struggle is one brought on by a sexually transmitted disease, it’s not difficult to identify with her. Her pain over being socially cast out along with losing her boyfriend are feelings that many people have gone through.
Being a teenager is tough. People judge you, use you, and don’t really get to know you. It is easy to get lost and veer off the path. On top of that, there are no real adult figures to look up to or offer guidance in this story. Chris’s mother is present only in one small part of the story, same with some adults that Keith house sits for. Their presence is not felt, and although Chris clearly has a loving relationship with her mother, the protective grip of a watchful adult is missing.
One of the most enjoyable parts of this book was that of the horror elements, reminiscent of old horror movies from the era, such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Deliverance. Burns delighted me with eerie drawings of baby dolls strapped to trees in the woods and mysterious faces lurking in shadows. To add to this, Chris and Keith often had incredibly sexual and scary dreams that seemed to play into their fears and desires. Even the greatest dream dictionary probably can’t decipher what some of these are about, but Black Hole isn’t really meant to be decoded. That’s another fun (and satisfying) thing about reading this book: it’s a story that’s meant to be devoured with intent to possibly make you have freaky nightmares.
Black Hole is one of those stories that lingers long after you read it. If you require answers and nice / neat little packages, you may want to stick with Archie and the gang. This group of teens is far from Riverdale and far more desperate. Black Hole may remind you of places in your mind that you’ve put away since high school, forcing you to ask yourself, “What was my bug? What made me an outcast?” You may not have had a small mouth on the side of your neck, but chances are, if you felt anything that wasn’t pure apathy while reading this story, then you have more in common with the afflicted than you think.