guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

April 2006


Charles Burns, Black Hole (Pantheon, 2005). 368 pp. (hardcover) $24.95

by Hillary Chute

“My friends didn’t have strange growths coming out of their necks, but I really did feel like I was some kind of diseased teen,” Charles Burns told The Pulse in 2004, discussing high school in Seattle in the 1970s. “Adolescence is horrific enough on its own, but I used the plague with all of its horrible physical manifestations as a catalyst.” In Burns’s beautiful, frightening Black Hole, the teen plague—an idea Burns has returned to throughout his career—is a marker of social polarization on every level. The plague is an out-of-control physical stamp; it inscribes and divides. It represents us vs. them writ large: it is a literalization of grotesque proportions, a physical magnification of alienation, ensuring that a teen’s desire to “fit in,” his or her striving for normalcy, is forever out of reach. In Black Hole the plague causes a wide range of physical deformation. And in Black Hole, the plague is sexually transmitted. Black Hole’s domain is unflinchingly fear, cruelty, and lust.

The opening chapter, “Biology 101,” sets out the stark binaries that guide
Black Hole’s social universe. Keith Pearson, the well-meaning stoner who is the first of several first-person narrators, opens the book with the teenage statement par excellence: “It was so weird.” The first two pages are stripped of dialogue as Keith moves us through this weirdness: he scores in winning Chris Rhodes, “a total fox,” as his lab partner for frog dissection, but when he slices the frog’s belly, the slit, discharging formaldehyde, opens to reveal hardened white guts, and Keith, staring at what looks essentially like a gaping vagina, has horrible premonitions of the plague. Then, above four matched vertical tiers that each in its own way figures a vagina—the frog, a foot with a gash in its center, a woman’s back splitting open, and a hand cupped over a woman’s genitals—Keith narrates, “I was looking at a hole…. A black hole and as I looked, the hole opened up…” He faints. While classmates clamor that he’s a pussy, Chris is silent. 

In the next episode, Keith and two of his stoner buddies are smoking pot in the woods—in a place that, given the themes of the book, they appropriately name “Planet Xeno.” While passing a joint, Keith spies a person flitting through the trees, prompting the group to explore: they find a tent filled with personal belongings. The next two scenes demonstrate the creepy tone of
Black Hole—its brilliant twisting together of sadness and horror. Leaving his friends to sift through the tent, Keith wanders a bit further and finds a length of human skin. Simply, as Keith reports, “It was a skin. Someone had shed their skin in the woods.” He’s not freaked out, he’s curious—and melancholy. In the next panel, he holds it up by the shoulders, and breasts, with their perfectly intact nipples, stare him and us in the face: “It was a girl’s skin.” As he stands holding the skin, overcome by sadness, deeply deformed plague-ridden teenagers who live in the woods approach, shooing him away. Keith drops the skin and turns back to his friends, who have trashed the tent. 

Look! Can you believe this shit? We found his yearbook!” one of his buddies exclaims. “And check it out!  It’s Holstrom! Rick ‘The Dick’ Holstrom!” When Keith asks, “How do you know it’s his?” the buddy replies, “The guy wrote his name in the front of it!  What a dweeb!” The accompanying panel closes in on the yearbook photo: Richard Holstrom, in a jacket and tie, with a side part, and a slightly bulbous nose, smiling good naturedly. “Why’d you have to trash all his stuff?” Keith asks. The answer: “’Cause he’s a fucking geek!  He deserves to live out here!” The last panel of the chapter shows a teenager with a misshapen head staring at the trio from behind a tree as they make their way out of the woods.


So there we have it: the popular kids like to kick the sick kids when they’re down. Sick kids are losers, losers are sick kids. When Keith finds out that the popular, pretty Chris is sick, he thinks miserably: “How could she do it?….The only way you could get the bug was by having sex with a sick kid. I just couldn’t see her doing something like that.” But as Black Hole shows, despite this fear and disgust, kids do it all the time. Chris gets the bug by accident, but she also, in a deep way, is courting it. Burns presents her as overcome with a literally overwhelming desire for the handsome, easygoing Rob Fancincanni. (When they are about to have sex after drinking and flirting at a party, Rob tries to tell her several times he has the bug: “There’s something I should tell you before we, uh…I mean…” She simply says, “I know…. It’s just you and me… That’s all that matters.” It turns out Chris doesn’t actually know Rob is sick; she’s surprised and repulsed when she notices a second mouth—complete with teeth and tongue—on his neck, which moans during his orgasm.) And Keith, who early in the novel is repulsed by “sex with a sick kid,” later willingly has intercourse with the beautiful, troubled artist Eliza, a girl who has grown a tail as a result of the bug (her tail turns him on). In one particularly grim moment, Eliza describes to Keith how she has recently been raped and beaten at a party; it goes without saying that the perpetrators—if they didn’t already have it—willingly exposed themselves to the bug. It’s easy to be disgusted, Black Hole suggests, but it’s also easy to let passion, however dark and confusing, take over your thinking. Black Hole presents a polarized social universe and then turns it upside down, blurring and confusing the dividing lines. Chris will, eventually French-kiss Keith’s neck-mouth. The book’s two guiding love stories—Chris and Rob, Eliza and Keith—are twinned narratives about sick couples battling hopelessness and trying to parse meaning from what feels to them like an empty world.

Black Hole, for all of its imagery of decomposed faces, is masterfully gorgeous; Burns is one of the most dramatically talented draughtsman working in graphic narrative today. The feelings of contradiction the characters experience is inscribed in the book’s style. The fact that his heavily-inked black-and-white images are so crafted, and so lovely, and so intricate, lends his resolutely dark work a certain visual power: traumatic, disgusting events are not necessarily visually traumatic, and the book’s creepy pitch rises above the obvious because of his tight, controlled hand. Black Hole took over a decade to produce, in part because of Burns’ meticulous attention to detail. Burns gives all of the images in the teenage universe of Washington state a full, deep, almost clinically meticulous texture: trees, sand, rocks, the water, the sky, a burning cigarette, a chicken bone, thatches of pubic hair. “Just the act of laying down all that black ink takes longer than you’d think,” he told The Pulse. “I’m literally drawing each pebble and twig, each grain of sand.” This virtuosity is most evident in the frontispiece pages and splash pages from each chapter. These images are all thematic, but none more so than in the book’s last episode, which displays a collection of debris from the preceding chapters—items both innocent and horrifying. This confluence, Burns seems to say, is the collective unconscious of adolescence: an Exacto knife, a joint, a Snickers bar, twine, a bottle opener, sperm, a Popsicle, leaves, skin, a tab of acid, a doll’s arm, a beer can, leaves, vines. Among the floating objects we notice a broken-off piece of Eliza’s tail.

The book version of
Black Hole, published last fall, failed to make Burns the literary superstar I was sure he was bound to become once a mainstream publisher picked up his work. Perhaps one reason Black Hole did not fly off the shelves may have had to do with its re-packaging design: while the serial comic books have breathtaking, full-color front and back covers, most picturing spectacular dreamscapes—such as a lavender Eliza, with cascading blue-black hair, in front of a looming rock formation, opening her dark purple lips to show a hint of pink tongue matching bubblegum-colored barrettes—the book version, unfortunately, is smaller. (Burns reportedly liked the compact size of the special comics issue of McSweeney’s, which excerpted Black Hole.) The book’s cover presents a simple red, white, and black image that undersells Burns’s ability to create the shocking, magnificent, eye-catching images that graced the series covers.

Perhaps another reason why
Black Hole didn’t immediately take off is simply that, despite Burns’ brilliant writing and drawing, Black Hole is still too dark to appeal to a wide readership. Much has been made of Burns’ plague as an allegory for the spread of AIDS. It has also been suggested that book might be addressing teen sexuality more broadly, even with moral overtones, with the plague functioning as a stand-in for pregnancy. As the bug results in a physical mark, there is much talk among characters of “showing” and “passing” (“she’s still trying to pass,” someone remarks; kids go to school and live relatively normal lives until their deformity is unavoidably clear). I don’t believe that Burns had something so specific in mind as AIDS, and Black Hole hardly condemns teen sexuality; more importantly, it seeks to try to understand the dynamics of human relations more generally. When I first read Black Hole, I felt that it was about the Cold War: it sought to display and unpack the mentality of making another entity Other; it sought to examine how and why social relationships become stark and terrifying. As a broad look at the social world, then, one can understand why Black Hole may feel too deep, too depressing for a general audience. Yet as a work that incorporates a devastatingly realistic look at recognizable characters with genre convention, Black Hole is ultimately a love story. Rob is murdered by a jealous friend eager to take over his romance with Chris. Yet Chris, a self-described “monster”—cast off into the world alone, miserable, anchor-less—is not entirely despondent. Addressing Rob in her mind, she has something to affirm: “And I’ll love you forever, no matter what.” Recalling a day they swam in the ocean and camped at the beach, Chris thinks, “Even if everything went wrong, I’d have this one perfect day.” They may have been diseased, but not every moment was infected.