The hormonal upheaval of puberty that coincides with the cutthroat social experiment known as high school can feel make you feel like a mutant. It’s not unusual during those years to grow a few inches overnight, have to switch from alto to tenor parts within a single song, and have to venture down unknown aisles of the drug store to combat the various fluids, smells, and hairs escaping from your previously predictable body.
So when the teens in the Seattle suburb of Charles Burns’ Black Hole (Pantheon 2005) begin contracting a mysterious, sexually-transmitted infection, it seems very fitting that the virus manifests itself as a mutation, something that is visible to other people and that, in many cases, is a reflection of the character of the infected person. (One character gets caught in a lie when the tiny mouth he’s grown on his chest spills the beans while he’s sleeping.) Those infected with this virus find themselves the objects of scorn, and many of them wind up living outside of society in the thick forest surrounding their suburban community.
This is a horror book — there is someone (something?) in the woods that is killing people, and the way in which “the bug” manifests itself smacks of the supernatural – but some of the scariest moments are less about the threat of bodily harm, and are more about the threat of losing control of your identity, and of being an outcast. This really comes out in the artwork. There are plenty of frightening images of violence, grotesque mutations, and other creepy things. But just as frightening are those images that are reminders of the difficulties that come with being young and middle-class in America – a close-up of a bad mustache, awkward sex, bad drug trips. Black Hole will make you cringe as much as it makes you scream.
This book was much more widely reviewed than most graphic novels and it won a couple of major awards, so there are plenty of good places to read about it online.
The Wikipedia entry is as good a place as any to start.
Time Magazine, of all publications, gave it a good treatment in Andrew Arnold’s review.
It’s always worth reading a negative review or two. Tim O’Neil describes Black Hole as monotonous and makes fun of Burns’ use of sexual imagery in his Pop Matters review. Ben Schwartz has some gripes in his Washington Post review; it isn’t exactly a bad review, but I think he misses the point.
By far, my favorite review was done by Douglas Wolk in Salon. Salon did comics fans a favor by including them in its book reviews way before many other respectable publications did. Wolk teases out some of the major themes and concerns raised by the book, and has some interesting things to say about the artwork itself.
Please join us at Lili Coffee Shop in Polish Hill at 6pm on August 20th to discuss Charles Burns’ Black Hole.