The first thing you notice when you open Black Hole by Charles Burns are the “normal” faces of teenagers in a high school yearbook. The inside cover presents this novel as an “eerie portrait of the nature of high-school alienation itself”. If you flip to the end of the book, you see these portraits grotesquely disfigured and literally turned alien. Here we see, the term alien operating at different levels. There seems to be a literal transformation of people into aliens and a social alienation of characters within a high school drama.
Just to give some background context, Black Hole was presented as supposedly an autobiographical book. It took Burns 10 years to create Black Hole (1995-2005) and he published the story over time as twelve separate comic books. The graphic novel takes us into the lives of angsty and disaffected American teenagers from the 1970s. Using the woods as a hangout spot, these teens drink, do drugs, have sex. It is slowly revealed throughout the first half of the graphic novel that these teens are also transmitting, knowingly and unknowingly, a sexually transmitted disease which they refer to as “the bug”. This teen plague physically changes their bodies in different ways for everyone. All of the deformities experienced by the victims of the bug are different in their own way. Is the bug a metaphor for some other disease? HIV/AIDS? The disease is strange in that it does not cause death or pain, only mutations: tails, or mouths where they don’t belong, or skin that moults, or webbed fingers . What do these strange growths represent? Why does it affect everyone differently? Are their deformities a portrayal of how they feel in the inside? These deformations cast each of the victims into social isolation. To what extent is this disease acting in the social realm vs. purely biological realm? It raises the question of how do we sympathize with the outsider?
The novel begins with a hole inside of a frog and Keith’s dream. We are then presented with a foreshadowing of three more types of holes that recur in the novel.
“I froze. I can’t explain what happened. It was like a deja vu trip or something…a premonition. I felt like I was looking into the future… and the future looked really messed up. I was looking at a hole…a black hole and as I looked, the hole opened up… and I could feel myself falling forward, tumbling down into nothingness. For a while I was just floating… I was in this totally black place, it was kind of spacey but it felt nice… nice and safe. Then it was like things started pushing into the blackness…voices, blurry shapes.”
The events are told in a non-linear fashion and the narration shifts between Chris and Keith. With no strict chronology, how and why does Burns play with time and memory throughout the novel? Keith refers to the dream as as a deja vu trip and a premonition. What is the significance of pairing these ideas: a feeling of nostalgia vs. a vision of the future?
Let’s take a look at the two main narrators: two typical high schoolers, Chris and Keith. The narration is constantly shifting between their points of view. Keith is in love with Chris, who doesn’t seem to notice him. Instead she has fallen in love with Rob and inadvertently got the bug from him. Once Chris contracts the bug she is socially isolated from her peers. She wanders through the woods and sheds her skin. What is the significance of this transformation? It is reminiscent of the scene in Angels in America, when Joe sheds his second skin, his Mormon undergarments at the beach. Burns is taking a typical teen angst drama and transforming it into a teen mutant story that visualizes and fantasizes their fears experiences into deformities. How does the bug heighten the social tensions and emotions like anxiety, insecurity, alienation that are common in drama of high school life?
A graphic novel like Black Hole presents the readers with beautiful and bizarre images and settings. How do the natural surroundings and the metaphysical dream worlds Burns illustrates work in the novel? Why do those infected with the bug alienate themselves from society and escape to the woods? Why does Planet Xeno exist? The beginning of each chapter, the two page picture spreads (called diptychs). The left picture is a single object, like a foot, a moon, or a broken bottle, set against a jet black background. The photo on the right shows one or more of the characters mimicking the geometry of the left. Throughout the novel the construction of one page almost always reflects the construction of the previous in some way. How does its black and white presentation add to the overall moody, gloomy, angsty, creepy dysfunctional tone of the graphic novel?