Archive for November, 2012

What comes first: picture or text?

An amazing interview with Charles Burns on his works, including Black Hole:

So you write in text at first?
Primarily, yeah. There are usually a few little visual notes here and there, but it’s mainly just text. I compile all my ideas and do my best not to censor myself in any way. I just let anything enter into it. And what I found myself doing was taking all these notes on this kind of Tintin character and also doing all this work on this punk story. And so the eureka moment was combining those two threads. When I was thinking, “Tintin, of course, that kind of Franco-Belgian album format,” full-color books came to mind. And that was something that was very fun to do. As you mentioned, when you work in color you have this whole new set of tools for telling a story. And I didn’t want to just do a colorized version of my black-and-white work.”

Kachina cameo

I’m still thinking about the appearance of Native American kachina dolls late in Black Hole. This morning I ventured a few thoughts off the cuff about how they invoke several relevant issues: ritual, rites of passage, community, parent/child relations, and perhaps a healing counterpoint to the fragmented Kewpie dolls strung up in the trees around The Pit/Planet Xeno in the woods.

Here are some notes I use when I lecture on Zuni origin myth in my typical American Literature survey. This is a summary of a text called “Talk of the First Beginning.” Its basic outline is shared by other Pueblo tribes’ origin stories:

Sun Father passes on his daily journey. He’s lonely. So he sends two sons, the warrior twins, to find someone to pray to him and keep him company. They go into the fourth womb of the earth. (Consider how literal this description of “Mother Earth” is.) What do they find? A group of amphibian-like people, living in utter chaos and darkness. They’re not pleasant: one of the warrior brothers lights a fire, sees an ugly fellow, and says “Poor thing! Put out the light.” The rest of the narrative is spent trying to get these creatures to the earth’s surface so they can worship Sun Father, followed by their journey to “the middle” place, which is called Zuni or Itiwana. It turns out that these creatures, which in some contexts are referred to as “raw” will eventually become the Zuni people, once they’ve become “cooked” by their exposure to the sun. So this text contains a movement from disorder and chaos—mudheads shitting and pissing on themselves in the dark—to order and ritual.

What happens next? Eventually the people move upward through three subterranean worlds or wombs, each associated with different colors, minerals, animals, plants, etc., before some—but not all—of the people finally emerge through a cavern into the sunlight and begin their journey toward a homeland.

What happens when they come into the sun? They have to confront their appearances and lack of identities. They encounter Spider Woman, who is the mother of Sun Father. She designates the first sun priest, the old man of the Dogwood clan, to guide the people.

Various things happen on their journey to the middle place, most of which help establish order, the rules by which their culture will operate: Coyote, who is always a trickster figure, gives them corn in exchange for mortality. An unnamed boy and his sister violate the incest taboo and revert to their slimy primordial state. Some of the children who fall in a magical river sink to the bottom and become kachinas. There’s a murder scenario that seeks to establish the rules of taking human life. They play a ball game as part of a contest for daylight and to establish the length of days. The warrior twins battle a giant and lead the people past ghosts. They divide into different clans and encounter other tribes. A water bug helps them establish the horizon, and finally they arrive at Itiwana, the middle, which translates as “The Middle Ant-Hill of the World.”

What I find useful here is the way in which this origin story is also a journey (which may echo the passage of Native Americans’ ancestors across the Bering Strait and down into what is now the American southwest) and also a series of transitions by which the people (uncooked mudheads) become the People (the Zuni). That movement may be paralleled by Keith and Eliza’s journey south toward Monument Valley and toward adulthood. We’ve already commented on their resemblance to other origin stories, namely Adam and Eve.

As I mentioned this morning, the kachina also invoke a process of disenchantment associated, especially in Hopi culture (another Pueblo tribe), with adolescents’ entry into the Kachina Society and, thereby, into a mature tribal membership. Is there a similar movement in Black Hole? Or does the lack of any meaningful adult relations with these teenagers preclude it? The account of the Hopi disenchantment ritual I gave this morning relied heavily on an essay I read when I was your age that has stuck with me lo these many years. I dug around a little this afternoon and found a scan of it online. Don’t feel pressured to read it for class, but if you’re interested in this tangent, here you go:

 Gill Disenchantment

Black Hole on Film…and in sound

Here is a short film version of Black Hole by Director Rupert Sanders. Following our discussion in class today, I think we could talk about the way the short film tackles the page in the graphic novel with the juxtaposed images of the frog being dissected, the cut on Chris’ foot, Chris’ skin coming apart on her back, and Eliza’s hand covering her genitals.  

Also, a friend sent me a link to this webpage about astronomers who have captured sound waves from a black hole. Not exactly what I imagined a black hole would sound like…


flashbacks from portugal

It turns out that there is a sequel to Saramago’s “Blindness” – and it’s called, guess what, “Seeing:”

Seeing is a story set in the same country featured in Blindness and begins with a parliamentary election in which the majority of the populace casts blank ballots. The story revolves around the struggles of the government and its various members as they try to simultaneously understand and destroy the amorphous non-movement of blank-voters. Characters from Blindness appear in the second half of the novel, including ‘the doctor’ and ‘the doctor’s wife’.

On a different note, I was struck by the fact that since we are covering contagions, we should be ideally covering post-contagion rehabilitation processes as well – once textually blinded, one needs to open his/her eyes sometime after all 🙂



Charles Burns combines high school lifestyle and the idea of epidemic in his graphic novel Black Hole by narrating the experiences of several teenagers. Within the context of adolescence, Burns illustrates the spreading of “The Bug”, which is transmitted through sex. Black Hole inevitably draws a parallel between sex and intoxication — whether alcohol, LSD or other soft drugs — as the usage of drugs almost consistently precedes sexual encounters. In a way we could therefore argue that the spreading of the Bug is facilitated by intoxication.

This layout on one of the very first pages seems to perfectly illustrate the statement made above. The four pillars prophesying the disease, which the hand covering genitals identifies to be of sexual nature, are juxtaposed with an alcoholic bottle, cigarettes, joint and a gun. The spiral that is created through the intercourse of all these factors is what Keith sees as ‘Nothingness’, which is also a description of the Black Hole.

The consequences that evolve out of the conceiving of “the Bug” are mutations. Chris starts shedding her skin, develops a forked tongue and repeatedly is portrayed close to water, which suggests characteristics of a snake. Eliza develops a tail, which regrows when it breaks and desires to be in the desert, which are characteristics of a lizard. Unlike those two mutations that draw similarities to animals, Rob develops a second mouth, which voices his deepest thoughts.

Burns’ decision to chose mutation mirrors adolescent changes in bodies, and with that makes the contagion specific to the High School environment. In addition, his choice to develop this story within a graphic novel is significant in that the effects of the contagion are of physical nature. The mutations do not necessarily change characters or behaviours, but rather the physical appearance of people. By embedding this narration within a graphic novel, Burns was able to illustrate the disease. This is very different from the other books we have read, where the disease was described with words, while here the reader is confronted with pictures, and almost no written description of the effects of the disease.

The environment around them ostracizes characters who show physical changes due to contracting the contagion. This phenomenon is a parallel to both mobbing in high school and the ostracizing of homosexuals during the AIDS epidemic. As in those instances, characters of the graphic novel try to fit in, but due to societal pressure feel more comfortable among themselves, which is why the woods become an important location for the infected students. As the Society splits into those living in the woods and those in the city, the question of whether those in the woods are still human arises. Similar to Animal’s People, it seems that those infected by the bug do no longer fully identify as human, which is underlined by the fact that many mutations have animalistic traits.

Containing this novel within the framework of a graphic novel has many effects, one being that the illustrations help the reader visualize many patterns that are not explicitly worded. This layout of Chris and Rob conversing before having sex foreshadows the exchange of the “Bug” and Chris’ infection. The merging of their faces into one is representative of this exchange and would be impossible to describe in such a creative way within a written novel. No wonder, then, that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Christy, Connor, Caroline

Ashura Mubarak!

The firewalking ritual occurs on the Day of Ashura, a Sh’ia celebration. The Sh’ia population in India is a minority group, with approximately 50 million followers and is a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Hussain Ibn Ali (credits to Wikipedia).

Here are some images of Sh’ia Muslims marking the occasion around the world, the images are quite graphic but each ties back to the notion of trying to inflicting pain on oneself in order to get a sense of the pain and grief that Hussain suffered.

The tradition of fire-walking can be seen in a number of religious practices, including orthodox Christianity, Hinduism and Sh’ia Islam. This ritual draws attention to the role of religion in the novel – Ma Franci as a Christian missionary, Hindu teachings are pervasive and also Sh’ia Islam which plays a role.

Animal is quite adamant that his participation is not for religious reasons (215), but I don’t think it is entirely for the sake of preserving his honour. I think it also the notion of promises, which Elli introduces to him and he is fixated over, constantly trying to find how music (the meaning of life to Somraj) and promise (the meaning of life to Elli) intersect. At one point, as he is preparing to make the trip across, he says, “nothing is going to stop me keeping my word” (214).

In other traditions, walking on fire is considered to be a ‘rite of passage’ and so considering the positioning of this passage, just before Animal’s disappointment at being labelled “unique” by Nisha (223) this element of proving oneself is certainly at play. Does fact that he falls and does not himself complete the ritual mean that he has failed in ‘becoming human’?

Bhopal – the real-life Khaufpur

December 3rd 1984: Hundreds die in Bhopal chemical accident

Hundreds of people have died from the effects of toxic gases which leaked from a chemical factory near the central Indian city of Bhopal.

The accident happened in the early hours of this morning at the American-owned Union Carbide Pesticide Plant three miles (4.8 km) from Bhopal. Mr Y P Gokhale, managing director of Union Carbide in India, said that methyl isocyanate gas (MIC) had escaped when a valve in the plant’s underground storage tank broke under pressure.This caused a deadly cloud of lethal gas to float from the factory over Bhopal, which is home to more than 900,000 people – many of whom live in slums.

Chaos and panic broke out in the city and surrounding areas as tens of thousands of people attempted to escape. More than 20,000 people have required hospital treatment for symptoms including swollen eyes, frothing at the mouth and breathing difficulties. Thousands of dead cats, dogs, cows and birds litter the streets and the city’s mortuaries are filling up fast.

Bhopal resident, Ahmed Khan, said: “We were choking and our eyes were burning. We could barely see the road through the fog, and sirens were blaring. We didn’t know which way to run. Everybody was very confused. Mothers didn’t know their children had died, children didn’t know their mothers had died and men didn’t know their whole families had died.”

The Union Carbide factory was closed immediately after the accident and three senior members of staff arrested. Medical and scientific experts have been dispatched to the scene and the Indian government has ordered a judicial inquiry. It is understood the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, will be flying to the area within the next few days.

This is a BBC article written about the Bhopal disaster, which is the real-life version of the situation described in Animal’s People (see conveners’ post). Interestingly, the descriptions highlight the loss of life, both human and wild animals, as well as the confusion and panic the disaster caused. Thoughts on the effects of illness mentally and physically, both to individuals and the community is important to consider, whilst also discussing the notion of blame. Another thing to look at is this minute-long news clip showing footage from 1984 (warning: some people may find the scenes disturbing).

The chemical factory in Bhopal has now been left unchanged amongst overgrown surroundings.