Drugs, Body Fluids, and an Unearthly STD

“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.”

Physics tells us that black holes are what happens when stars collapse in upon themselves. The result is a highly dense region in which matter is tightly packed. No light can escape a black hole; we cannot even directly see them. The only way for us to observe black holes is through observing their effects on other bodies in space, seeing stars irresistibly drawn to them only to be pulled apart and ripped to shreds.

We can use the above scientific information to argue that Keith’s usage of the term “black hole” was incorrect because it’s impossible to see anything in them at all, let alone pull out fortune-telling scrolls. But the image of a mysterious, unknown thing pulling helpless adolescents into a future from which they have no hope of escape – this image is so terrifyingly perfect that surely the most staunch physics purist would forgive Burns’ inexact scientific terminology.

With that in mind, let us turn to Charles Burns’ Black Hole. It is suburban Seattle in the 1970s, and teenagers are recklessly exchanging drugs and body fluids – and an unearthly STD. Unlike many of the other diseases that we read about during the semester, the disease in Black Hole is not lethal. It does not cause its patients excruciating physical pain, nor force them into sick beds and hospitals. What this disease does, however, is change the physical appearances of its victims, causing them isolation and psychological damage. The teenagers in this book constantly demonstrate an insensitive shared aversion towards victims of the “bug:”

“Eew, look at those guys…it’s so disgusting! Why do they have to come here and ruin everybody’s good time?” – Chris’ friends Marci, in her presence, shortly after they both found out that Chris had contracted the disease.

The fatalities in this book were a result of patients, well, Dave, going insane due to continuous rejection and isolation. While it is true that the uninfected teenagers don’t march up to the sick with pitchforks and force them into “the pit” in the forest, they do actively make them feel they have no place in society anymore. For example, Chris used to be a popular girl in her school, but even she is isolated by her old friends and schoolmates after they realize that she also has the “bug.” She gets stares in the toilets, and is dismissed by her best friend Marci for not understanding David Bowie. It seems to be so easy and so quick for these high-school teenagers to turn their backs on their classmates. The relationship between them is fragile and immature. If the high-school setting in this book serves as a microcosm for the larger society, is Burns criticizing the irrationality and instability of human collectives?

An interesting aspect to the illness is the nature of the mutations. The bug results in a plethora of various physical changes that appear random, but may also have some significance in relation to the character who undergoes them. Why is it that Rob gets a mouth on his neck, Eliza gets a tail, and Chris sheds her skin? Furthermore, why do the others who camp at the pit exhibit grotesque deformations that cannot possibly be hidden? A sense of inequality emerges here. Why do people suffer differently from the same disease? Is Burns trying to question the existence of equality in any place within the human world?

Black Hole is a fantasia about universal teenage themes, seen through the lens of reality and fantasy and dreams, of drug, hormone or disease induced hallucinations.  There is a progression of time but there are instances when this progression is not linear, but is abstract, like the juxtaposition of “deja vu” and “premonition”. Deja vu is something that has already happened; premonition is a view of what is yet to come. In the scene when Keith finds a girl’s skin in the forest, we can see the presence of both. Although he does not know that it is Chris who has shed her skin, he still feels an inexplicable “terrible sadness” upon beholding it. This look into a moment that has already occurred is a premonition of the later events determined by Chris’ infection with the bug. Then there are the recurring dreams (the wavy frames) and the mixing of dreams, visions and memories. Both Chris and Keith dream of pulling a picture out of a cut – a black hole – in Chris’ foot. This weird dream has its basis in reality, since Chris does actually cut her foot. However, it is interesting to note that Chris dreams this before she cuts her foot, while Keith dreams this towards the end of the novel – again, premonition vs. deja vu.

The reader follows the characters’ transition between various physical and metaphysical worlds. Dream worlds aside though, the characters navigate various terrains and settings, from the suburban house parties to “Planet Xeno,” a fantastic depiction of a black hole which, in this physical world, is a seemingly impregnable area of the forest.

“It seemed like the woods would be better…they were natural. Natural things would make more sense.”

What is the significance of Planet Xeno and other natural areas? Is it part of an alternate reality that these teenagers can literally or figuratively escape to? Escape is a vital part of the novel after all. The infected teenagers hide away in Planet Xeno; Keith runs out of Jill’s house to the woods; in the end, Chris escapes out of the McCroskys’ house and heads back to the quiet beach she once visited with Rob. For Chris, swimming is transcendental. The end shows her swimming as well:

“The water is unbelievably cold…almost more than I can take. I dive in anyway…swim out beyond the breakers, swim as hard as I can. After a while I feel a little warmer and roll over onto my back. The sky is amazing…a deep, dark blue, the first stars are coming out. I’d stay out here forever if I could.”

Why does the story start with Keith looking into a black hole in a frog and end with Chris staring out into the stars – the stars out of whose collapse black holes are born? Why does Chris becomes the narrator of the story? In a world of teenagers where everyone displays different symptoms and  views the physical and temporal worlds differently, what is the significance of Keith and Chris as the narrators? 

“[We’d] [talk about this] forever if [we] could…”

Abhi, Rosy, and Yan.


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  1. Mahra Al Suwaidi

    Dear Abhi, Rosy and Yan,

    Great post! Bringing up the literal meaning of black holes in space is interesting and I do believe that it is a metaphor for the teenagers’ dark futures that they cannot escape from as nothing can escape a black hole, not even light. However, it is necessary to also discuss the strong gravitational pull that black holes have as teenagers gravitate towards certain groups of people and do specific acts that, they argue, all teenagers are doing, in order to fit in. Though, doing so means that there is no turning back because whatever they do can cause permanent damage (i.e. getting the “bug”), and this is similar to black holes as they damage whatever surrounds them. Another aspect of black holes is that they cannot reflect light and although you mention that Burns’ usage of the word is “incorrect because it’s impossible to see anything in them at all,” I think that the idea that no light is reflected is a metaphor for the scrolls that come out of them which determine their dark futures (This could be why, to answer one of your questions, Keith looks into a black hole in the frog at the very beginning because it sets the scene for the rest of the story and it gives us, let alone the characters, premonition). With that being said, I find some credibility with the use of the word “black holes.” The Planet Xeno and other natural areas are significant because, just like how black holes occur in nature and suck in natural surroundings, teenagers are drawn to more natural settings as it is a place where they could escape their reality and be themselves. This is because nature will not judge or hurt them (the term “hurt” is ironic as they are using drugs). The idea of escape could be why, to answer your question, the story ends with Chris looking up at the stars because even though teenagers are trying to escape, the whole world, or at least what they choose to look act and are intrigued by, is a black hole.
    When speaking about the actual disease, “the bug,” I like how you differentiate that this one is not lethal because although it isn’t, it still causes people to perform lethal actions (i.e. Dave killing others and then committing suicide) because it does lead to psychological damage. Regarding the idea of people’s relationships with one another, I believe that Burns is not criticizing per se the instability and irrationality of human collectives, but he is showing his readers the reality of what takes place when an illness spreads (e.g. alienation) and what actually happens to more vulnerable people in society, teenagers (e.g. Chris, Dave etc.). These reactions are inevitable but we can compensate the illness with something that is lacking in their lives (i.e. parental existence, as, in the story, they are not informed of their children’s illness or decisions). In terms of the nature of the mutations, I think that people suffer differently from the same disease because it shows that different people react differently to their condition, or to an epidemic in general. This could be why, to answer your question on narrators, the narration changes because this helps us understand different people’s points of view. I believe that those in the camp that exhibit grotesque deformations which cannot be hidden is because they have either been suffering from the disease for a longer time period (whereas others like Chris and Rob haven’t), or because they have isolated themselves from society the longest (this difference could relate to an existing inequality which you imply) and so, they look far more different than other human beings.

    Thanks & Regards

    Mahra Al Suwaidi

    • Awesome comment! Lots more for us to think about.

    • Dear Mahra,

      Thanks for the great comment! I especially liked the bit about teenagers doing certain acts, gravitating towards certain things, just to fit in.

      You mentioned that different people react differently to the disease, and that the symptoms of the disease, or the physical deformities, are different in every teenager that Burns illustrates. It’s interesting to see that the “unpopular” kids like Dave and Rick have deformities far more severe than those on any of the “popular” kids. This further accentuates their rejection and isolation from their high school community. Since Burns’ mentions very few people other than the teenagers who are the central characters of this graphic novel, high school could be a microcosm of society. So the characters who are rejected from high school are alienated from society solely because of these deformities (Animal’s People!). Moreover the manifestations of the disease themselves are important. Chris tastes the ocean in Rob’s neck mouth and ends up floating in an ocean. Keith views Eliza’s tail as the tail of a lizard (Gila monster/iguana/Komodo dragon) and ends up with Eliza in a desert.

      This idea of “ending up,” of escaping, is another thing that you mentioned and interesting to think of Chris as struggling between the escaping and accepting her identity. We see this conflict best in “Seeing Double.” She reflects, literally and metaphorically, in the bathroom mirror and finally finds out that she is infected (by looking at the skin on her back.) I viewed this as a moment where she comes of age, the process of looking at the mirror was a kind of rite of passage into adulthood. Even though she rips out her skin, she is comfortable with Rob’s neck mouth and kisses it, tasting the ocean. This seaside setting is her comfort zone, a place where she can remain “forever.” Either one can view the seaside and the ocean as a place where Chris can escape to, or a realization that she has found herself. Seeing double could represent the conflict between escaping the world and living in it, accepting one’s identity.

      Since she has now come of age, she looks at Rob’s picture and feels that it doesn’t belong. Because he hasn’t undergone this “ritual” (Nemesis!) and is still an adolescent. This realization is similar to that in Pale Horse Pale Rider, where she now has “time for everything” as an adult but Rob hasn’t progressed in time with her. Even though Bryan said this in class already it is still making my mind twist so I wanted to comment on it anyway.

      Happy reading!

  2. Dear Abhi, Rosy and Yan,

    Thanks again for an amazing post as usual! I found the way you opened up this post really interesting, especially the discussion of Physics and what black holes mean. You say: “The only way for us to observe black holes is through observing their effects on other bodies in space, seeing stars irresistibly drawn to them only to be pulled apart and ripped to shreds.” I love how you use the words “pulled apart” and “ripped” in this sentence to describe what happens to the stars because these words also seem to describe what happens to the infected teenagers. Chris, for example, finds a huge cut through her spine and under her foot, which makes her pull and “rip” her skin. This black hole that draws the stars into it just like the bug in the novel, pulls them (the teenagers) apart in a sense that it ruins their lives and causes them to fall apart. It also “pulls” them away from their everyday life and the people they used to see everyday; it pulls them to a whole new life, an isolated new society that resides in the woods.

    As you point out, unlike our previous readings, the disease in this book is not fatal; it only changes the physical appearance of the diseased. However, I think, because of what this “bug” does to its victims, which are all teenagers according to the book, it kills the infected in another way; it detaches them from those who are uninfected as they are now viewed as “disgusting” and frightening. Physical appearance is very important especially to teenagers, which is a time where some people meet their partners; get into relationships and other similar experiences. So to have your body or face deformed is the worst as it could get you bullied and it would drive others away from you making you feel unwanted and very unhappy. After all it is what made Dave go “insane due to continuous rejection and isolation.” Therefore, even though the disease does not literally kill its victims, it causes them so much struggle with their identities that its almost as if they have died and they no longer exist or maybe that there no longer is a reason for them to live.

    I’m glad you talked about the relationship between “deja vu” and “premonition” because the book really does have a lot of foreshadowing as well as repeated scenes. A major example is what happens in the first chapter and the last. In the first, we see Keith with Chris dissecting a frog and when they cut the frog, Keith is drawn to the darkness of the black hole and he sees what will happen to Chris. The image of the frog lying with its stomach open is juxtaposed with the image of Chris’s lesion and the cut on her foot. At the end, we see Keith again facing what looks like an old baby that has the legs of a frog with a face similar to that of the infected people in the woods with its stomach cut open just like the frog in the lab. In that hole, however, Keith sees his own destiny where he is again in the scene where he was smoking in the woods with his friends and they stumble upon a tent. Keith is being called again just like the first time to check out the yearbook they found but now it wasn’t Richard Holstrom’s yearbook and they weren’t pointing at the geek; it was Keith’s yearbook and they were laughing at how deformed he looks in the midst of all of his infected “friends”. This seems like a premonition that later becomes a déjà vu but turns to a premonition again as within the déjà vu we learn how the disease will affect Keith.

    Sorry for not being able to address all your questions I just realized that the comment looks long already but all of them are interesting and they got me thinking about the novel in a different way. Great job!


    • Hi Aysha,

      I really love your comments. They are thoughtful and interesting. As you said in your first paragraph that the black hole pulls victims out of their original society into a new world, I can’t agree more. However, what is inside the black hole? A new society or the mainstream one? I always think that the patients of contagion in this situation are actually the victims of the black hole. They live outside the black hole and watch their past and adolescence all vanish inside the black hole. They are left out, but they are not happy and suffer from the loss of their identities. They don’t know how to live independently outside the black hole.

      Then, you also talked about the isolation of victims from their peers and school lives. I also understand “bug” not only as a social contagion, but also as a test to examine teenagers’ reactions towards the patients. The contagion itself is not fearful, but the society’s treatments towards infected people are distressing. Similarly, the nature itself is not dangerous, but humans make the nature scary and messed up for each other. For example, the nature seems to be peaceful and tolerant to the patients who are excelled from their original societies. The book depicts neither natural disasters nor wild animals that may threaten the safety of these patients in the woods. However, most of them die because of each other. They are killed by each other. Moreover, people dump trashes and put random baby dolls in the woods. Their behaviors harm the nature. What give them these privileges?

      Your comments really make me think a lot. Thank you so much! 🙂 🙂


  3. Another awesome comment. Your group is really bringing it! I would love to talk about the opening/ending sequences today and also think about the fates of each of the major characters.

  4. Dear All,

    It is amazing to see all those ideas put up. I have really enjoyed reading this post and all the previous comments which I believe are very informative and allowed me to look at this comic book differently. About the physical appearance and how its importance in the teenage life. It is indeed very important and a crucial part of every teenager, however some characters were not “destructed” by this disease and were very much accepting to it. We saw how Eliza was very accepting of her tail and how she even tried to use it for seducing Keith. Rob we found him to be very accepting of his mouth as well.

    Another thing I would like to address is the role of dolls in this book. We have found that dolls to appear in very weird unexpected situations. The importance of these dolls is still very unclear to me, however I believe they do have to do with the lack of parental existence. Dolls are often given to children by their parents. They often resemble your childhood which is full of innocence. Can the dolls as they were seen in the book ( only heads and attached to bones, playboy nudes..etc) represent the rebellion of the teenage against their parents during this period of time . Can it be a symbol of the loss of “innocence” or do u believe it has a different meaning? Also Robs second mouth was found to speak in a childs voice when he was with Chris on the beach. Do you believe this repetitive reference to childhood signifies the rebellion of teenagers during this period of time?

    Lastly as of why people have different transformations, I believe it is to signify the importance of being who you are. Specially through the period of teenage hood people often try to follow trends, fashion or even people. Being who you are during this period is a very hard crucial thing. I believe each transformation is a reflection of ones character. Maybe by Rob having an extra mouth it signifies he is foul mouthed, Eliza has a tail is shows how “sneaky” she is. After all we saw how she is “loose” and seductive she is. Chris shedding her skin may signifies how unaccepting of herself she was. All these transformations were made to outline weaknesses in ones personality. By pointing out ones flaws, he/she can become more accepting of themselves and be able to deal with them. Again this is just my interpretation, what do you guys think?

  5. Hi Ali!
    I too have thought long and hard about the significance of the dolls in the novel. I’m inclined to agree with you that they have something to do with childhood, and more importantly the teenage transformation from child to adult. The dolls found in the forest often have torn out nude bodies from playboy magazines, possibly demonstrating a forced transformation – much like the one the “bug” forces upon the bodies of the infected. So it would symbolize both a loss of innocence as well as be a metaphor for the changes the disease causes.
    On the nature of the transformations, it’s very plausible that Burns uses the differences between the transformations to highlight the uniqueness of every character’s teenage experience. The phrase “to shed one’s skin” is often used to indicate transformation and change – the kind of changes Chris undergoes throughout the novel until she is at peace towards the end. Rob’s mouth tends to tell the painful truth, so perhaps his mutation is about forcing him to face the truth and be a more honest person (and maybe not cheat on his girlfriend). I myself can’t really think of any other significance to Eliza’s tail except in relation to Keith (showing his ambiguous gender/sexuality). This interpretation is not my own, but I remember hearing or reading somewhere that Eliza being likened to a lizard – a coldblooded animal – means that she only thrives in certain environments. This could explain why she looks so much better after she moves out of the drug dealing college kids’ house.
    Thank you for your comment! I’ll see you in class tomorrow!

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