Writer: Charles Burns
Artist: Charles Burns
Published: 2005, Pantheon Books
Not to be confused with the classic 1979 film, The Black Hole, Black Hole is a twelve issue limited series that was released over almost ten years [1995-2004] until being compiled into the book that I recently borrowed from the great J. Booth.
Black Hole is about a group of teenagers living in Seattle during the 70s. A mysterious sexually-transmitted disease has been spreading through the young-adult population. Called “the bug”, it manifests itself differently in anyone infected, from an actually-kind-of-cool tail to not-cool-at-all plague-like boils covering the victim's entire body. Those who get infected [and can't hide the fact] end up ostracized and alienated by their peers. They basically become homeless lepers, eating garbage, living out in the woods and generally being society’s outcasts.
So, we join high school students Keith and Chris [a lady]. They are partners in biology and Keith develops an unrequited crush. As we jump around chronologically [a lot], we learn that Chris has recently been infected by a young stud [double standard!] named Rob. She inadvertently reveals her deformity [the skin sloughing off of her back] at the beach one day and word soon spreads around the school. Thus begins her downward spiral.
Meanwhile, Keith remains innocent and chaste, daydreaming about Chris, until one day he does the horizontal tango with an infected girl named Liz. Keith still has his heart set on Chris, perhaps not giving a shit that she's infected because now he is too. The fates of these two kids intertwine with mixed results.
I really enjoyed this novel. It smacks of teenage doom, reminiscent of one of my favourite films, Donnie Darko. It also reminded me of one of my favourite webcomics, The Stiff, by Jason Thompson. I wouldn’t be surprised if Black Hole was an influence on Jason, as they share a macabre atmosphere and an obsession with detail, in storytelling as well as artwork.
On the topic of the visuals, they are great. I have always liked black and white, from Sin City to Tracer Bullet, as it allows for creative use of shadowplay. I even prefer my own artwork in simple black ink or pencil on white paper, as I can never seem to get the colours right anyway. The drawings in Black Hole are done very simply and cleanly [perhaps something that could not have been achieved with multiple shades of colours], yet there is so much detail and the subject matter is often sexual and/or disturbing. A paradox!
Also, the 70s feel is captured quite nicely. Some of the art could totally pass for a Zeppelin album cover.
Anyway, let's dig a bit beneath the surface, shall we?
Those with “the bug” pretty much end up like bums. Most people are apathetic toward hobos and the same can be said for the infected. Nobody is trying to help them or find a cure for their condition. The “normal” folks stare or avert their eyes. If they make themselves heard, people whisper to each other or confront them with hatred and disgust.
But this book isn't making a statement about the mistreatment of the homeless. Or if it is, it is a subtext to the larger message. I didn't come up with this on my own... the credit goes to Douglas Wolk, author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, a book given to me a couple of years ago [also by the great J. Booth]. According to Wolk:
“It's not a metaphor for AIDS – too early – or for herpes, or even for pregnancy (although a sobbing girl tells her philandering boyfriend that “maybe now that I'm starting to SHOW you're getting grossed out and want to move on”; what she's showing is webbing between her fingers). The disease these scared, horny teenagers are passing onto each other is, basically, sex itself.”
Much like the horror film rule that sexually active teens will be promptly slaughtered, nobody gets out alive in Black Hole. Well, that's an overstatement. Although one character speaks prophetically in his sleep [“never make it out alive...”] and the third act does feature plenty of murder, Burns puts his own spin on the old rule. Rather than kill off all the sexually active kids to send some futile [hey: teens are gonna bone, no matter what. Sorry, Sarah Palin.] message of abstinence, Burns merely shows that sex changes things. Whether it is the relationship between the sexual partners themselves, to the way their peers treat them, to the way their parents look at them. And some people can deal with the changes and some can't. Some embrace their sexual awakening and some shun it, embarrassed. But they all suffer the consequences. Nobody gets out unchanged.
Unless, of course, they don't have sex. In which case they keep listening to records in their parents' basement and dressing up like David Bowie.
And there's nothing wrong with that.
P.S. – Apparently there has been a film adaptation in the works for some time, with the suitably weird director David Fincher being linked to the project, but it seems be caught in the dreaded film limbo!