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?