Black Hole is a graphic novel by Charles Burns, which explores contagious disease in a radically different way, using uncomfortable and disturbing imagery to emphasize relationships between disease, alcohol & drugs, and teen culture. All characters in the graphic novel are teenagers and even the parental figures are marginalized. It is reminiscent of the 1960s subcultures with its allusions to David Bowie, hallucinogenic drugs, rampant sex, and an unknown sexually transmitted disease, which – after close analysis – seems to be a metonym for the HIV virus.
“The bug” that causes the disease has a different manifestation in each character. For example, Eliza grows a tail (which keeps growing back even after broken) and seems to keep transforming and desire solitude, therefore she gets dubbed the “Lizard Queen.” Chris starts shedding her skin and always being near, almost needing, water, which makes her represent a snake. Rob grows a lesion on his neck that looks like a second mouth with a second tongue and a second mind – or an alter-ego speaking his inner thoughts. These mutations are mostly animalistic, not unlike the deformities encountered in Animal’s World, and not unlike that same novel, the characters stricken by the disease start shifting out of the identity of “human.” Even though the manifestation of the disease seems to be contingent upon the individuals’ characteristics (personalities?), the people develop a new sense of identity as the diseased. Chris becomes a snake that sheds its skin since she is uncomfortable with her own identity, while Eliza’s bodily transformations and changes in attitude turn her into a chameleon-like being. A lot like many other books we’ve read, disease forms another layer of identity and creates community: people start hanging out in the forest (#chilling). They live in seclusion because they are ashamed of who they are and sometimes compensate for/avenge their condition by infecting others, because of jealousy or as a punishment, like Dave spitting on a bully in the fast-food store: “See how easy that was? That’s all it takes… A little spit. Some saliva… And now you’re one of us.” Morality comes into question in similar ways as it does in Journal of the Plague Year.
However, unlike our previous books, the teen plague does not seem to be a catalyst for the narrative: it does not have a known cause, no one is grappling with its consequences or even questioning its symptoms; the disease plays a different role. One of its functions influences the visual representations: the black and white scenes could be related to the infection. Feeding from the conventional color symbolism, the dark scenes are the ones that include sex and the bug and death, while the light ones are disease-free. Another structural thing to notice are the two types of frames that divide the panels: the straight lines of the frames indicate that the narrative inside it is the dominant plot line, while the wavy frame represents ambiguous fantasies and crazy dream sequences.
Like in the image above, these dream states often foreshadow the future (some of the recurring symbols are the tail, the cave construction, Chris floating in water, the cigarette exiting the mouth-wound etc.) These déjà vus enable the very confusing organizing structure of the novel, which skips through different stories in place and time with retrospective fragments completing the cyclical form.
Also, what is the significance of the sandwiches?
As I’m approaching the last pages of the graphic novel – the question I still have in mind is…
What is the author trying to say through his quite mesmerising, out-of-the-usual-type novel?
Why is the novel so radical? It has almost all the sins/nightmares of a human put together – sex, cheating, alcohol, drugs, sickness, violence, murder… Through constantly portraying these “dark” actions/situations, was the author trying to bring out a deep meaning? Is there a real moral or is it just a very interesting and well-crafted graphic novel?
I find the notion of the “disease play[ing] a different role” in this graphic novel quite interesting.The driving forces of Black Hole are, in a sense, the opposite of what we have encountered in contagion narratives this past semester. Instead of portraying societal corruption through disease, Black Hole portrays the corruption of the individual, and how this individualized corruption, in turn, effects society. The contagion reveals the inner corruption of the individual by the development of physical manifestations of their flaws and sins. The depiction of this stigmatized disease in this manner does make me think of this graphic novel as a metonym for AIDS, as you’ve mentioned in the post, but what else can these themes of disease, immortality, and teen angst tell us about what Charles Burns wants to communicate through his disturbing and heavily inked drawings?
I wanted to touch upon the ending of the novel once again because I feel that the open ended nature of the last frames puts a lot on the table. I honestly do not think that Chris submerged into the waters never to emerge again but rather she found herself in a state of calm acceptance and managed to let go. I feel like the picture she buried carried a significant importance being an anchor to her past and with her parting ways of it she took a first step for a new life. The last pages, the universe and the start pictures, always sparked the idea of exploration, unknown and the things to come for me. Maybe it just shows the unknown future of Chris’ new life!