As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve been exploring adult graphic novels recently, making my way through the Flavorwire 25 EssentialGraphic Novels list. I previously read and reviewed Blankets and Ghost World. This time, I read Black Hole by Charles Burns. Wow, I hardly know where to start…surreal is the word that comes to mind.
Black Hole takes place in suburban Seattle in the 1970’s and features a group of teens who go to high school together. At least, they used to all go to high school together before an unnamed infection spread through their ranks. The book never outright explains what the infection is, but you can see its effects throughout the graphic novel. It is clearly sexually transmitted (which is why is spreads fairly quickly through the teen population) and affects each person differently. Some of the kids develop grotesque deformities, like giant boils all over their skin or a complete transformation of their facial features into something unrecognizable. For others, the effects are more subtle and easily hidden – one boy has an extra mouth at the front of his neck that he can cover with his shirt (no v-necks!), another gets strange tadpole-like growths hanging off his torso which he can keep hidden under his shirt, and one young woman has a lovely tail that hides beneath her skirt.
The story is told from several different perspectives, some kids who are already infected and others kids who are still (for now) untouched. It is a typical setting of a suburban high school, except for this underlying – and mostly unspoken – epidemic. The teens who are still untouched by the virus or can keep their deformities hidden go to class and have parties in the woods, like any teens. Those who have more obvious effects from the infection have been rejected by their peers (as teens tend to do); some of them are now living in a small enclave in the woods, barely surviving.
Oddly, the teen population doesn’t seem too disturbed by these strange occurrences that surround them. They drink and smoke, gossip with their friends, go to school if they are able to, and hang out with friends – they act like normal teens, only there is this bizarre thing happening all around them. Some – like the girl who sheds her skin periodically – try to pass as normal, until their oddities are revealed to their classmates. I wonder whether the author was using the weird infection as a device to magnify normal adolescent behavior and the struggle to move through the transition time of being a teen into growing up. Just like real kids might ostracize anyone who is different – someone with a physical deformity or even a bad case of acne – these teens exclude those who exhibit these very obvious and grotesque signs of the virus. And, as in real life, kids may try to hide their problems or imperfections and “pass.”
The spreading infection isn’t ignored by the author, though. Certain sections of the novel focus in on one character who’s been recently infected, trying to come to grips with whatever his or her unique and bizarre effects are. Most end up leaving home. There is an odd acceptance of the whole process; I wondered why none of the teens told their parents or went to a doctor – perhaps that’s another symbolic representation of what it’s like to be a teen and to feel isolated and drifting apart from your parents.
Black Hole is wholly unique – I’ve never read or seen anything like it. The drawings are oddly realistic, given the subject matter, and occasionally grotesque. It’s not all ugliness, though – the story includes a couple of love stories. This is definitely not a book for anyone who is easily offended or grossed out, though. There are lots of depictions of drinking, drug use, sex, and graphic nudity – it’s about teenagers, after all! - plus, of course, the varied effects of the infection. It’s certainly one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, but this surreal graphic novel got under my skin (pardon the pun) and made me think.
Pantheon Books (division of Random House)