There are works out there that we get through the recommendations of others and then leave tucked away to collect dust, instead of digesting them right away and realizing that your friends have good taste. I have a copy of QUERELLE still sitting in its shrinkwrap because I thought the live action CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL was a better way to spend my time. Sometimes, after a long day at work, you just want to turn your brain off and watch wrestling or in my case, juvenile delinquents who look like an equestrian Freddie Mercury. Charles Burns’s BLACK HOLE was one of those I stockpiled away because it seemed a bit heavy, but it turned out to be a very rewarding experience and way better than the book I bought about the same time, but read right away because it required less thought.
BLACK HOLE is a tale of adolescence 1970′s Seattle, which would seem to be piling depressing on top of depressing, but I’m of the mind that reading a great book filled with tragedy and heartbreak is always an exhilarating experience because you’ve just been stimulated by a great book. It’s a lot more depressing to spend time and money on something of an inferior quality, which BLACK HOLE assuredly is not. It is is most likely the most beautiful graphic novel you will ever read.
Collecting the entire 12 issue run in a beautifully designed hardcover, BLACK HOLE revolves around a group of teenagers who have contracted “the Bug,” a strange, disfiguring plague that can only be transmitted sexually. Our two protagonists, the sensitive stoner Keith and the school’s resident fox Chris, deal with the alienation and uncertainties of their afflictions in their own unique, and often tragic, ways. BLACK HOLE is an allegory of the sexual awakenings of teenagers and the anxieties, fears, and consequences that are part and parcel to reaching adulthood and Burns achieves this with honesty, clarity, and achingly beautiful art that stays in your head long after you’ve closed the book and put it away.
The sexual trepidation most youngsters experience is manifested through Burns’s stark black and white art, which have the appearance of woodcuttings commissioned by Sigmund Freud. Gaping vivesections on dissected frogs, open curtains, and a cut on the bottom of a foot are given vaginal overtones; while guns, serpents, and bedposts are overtly phallic. Sometimes a joint isn’t just a joint, a mouth growing from a neck is really a vagina, and a vestigial tail is an obvious representation of a penis. The deliberate coding of Burns’s imagery is truly a marvel of cartooning. We see penises and vaginal openings because we’re supposed to see them. We’re supposed to feel uncomfortable when Christ tenderly sticks her tongue into her boyfriend’s second mouth or when Keith likes grabbing Eliza’s phallic tail, because the reversal of gender roles is foreign to a lot of us (Commonly referred to as the “Dude, I’m not gay” rule). The layer upon layer of subtext in this simple tale is staggering, and a true testament to the possibilities of sequential storytelling.
As indicated above, the Bug manifests itself in mysterious ways (some get facial boils, some sprout horns, some get webbed fingers), and Burns is able portray the Cronenberg-esque grotesquerie in an evocative style that makes you genuinely feel for these kids. Most artists treat this kind of disfigurement as if it were a joke, like Arseface in PREACHER (which admittedly was kind of funny), but Burns isn’t one to laugh at outcasts and freaks. This book isn’t weird just for the sake of being weird; Burns wants us to walk through the nightmarish teenage wasteland that is these kids’ lives. He understands that most teenagers feel like freaks and wants to place us in that world, which is why there is very little adult interaction in this story. No kid feels that their parents could possibly understand what they’re going through (How could your mother empathize with that extra mouth growing out of your neck?) and BLACK HOLE portrays these feelings without a hint of self-consciousness.
While most authors would use this set-up as a tale of searching out a cure, Burns uses it to show the isolation, confusion, and anger all teenagers feel toward adults, peers, and the opposite sex. These kids don’t care about finding a cure, they just want to fall in love, run away, and be left alone. BLACK HOLE is beautiful, horrifying, and heartbreaking. Read, digest, and back in the exhilaration of time well spent.