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


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  1. I like the comparison to Animal’s People, especially given that these people, like animal differ from humans in their physical form. In one scene (is that the correct terminology?) the narration says “It was just too fucked up to be human, but somehow, deep down inside I knew it was.” The yearbook provides a reminder of a the typical , ‘acceptable’ human visage.

    I wondered too why the form, what does it add to the story? The images for me are really unnerving, disconcerting. Not because they are sexual but because they subvert the sexual and turn it into something gory and evil. Our perspective is also determined throughout, as a reader we are shown where to look and what to see. Compared with prose, where the imagination is able to wander and imagine faces, we get a very clear sense of the faces. When I think about reading AP, because of the way he was written, I never thought about him as physically repulsive, he was crude however his character was interesting and endearing enough that the image I developed of him was somewhat rosy. In Burns’ graphic novel, we are instead confronted with very particular image of horror. The physicality of the diseased is graphic, heightened and unavoidable.

    I think the few scenes that are predominately white rather than black, again no page numbers to help us out, are interesting in that all three of the ones that I have found are between Keith and Eliza, one in particular where they are getting stoned on the hilltop naked and it is reminiscent of Adam and Eve, especially in the context of the book. There is a purity to their nudity, it is not sexually charged but innocent, Eliza says being outside is “being back where I belong”. They move from this place, in their discussion and then physically “back into the shade” and in doing so, their world falls into a mad darkness. (near the end of the novel) In dream and drug-induced hallucinations, there is a great darkness.

  2. In Keith’s first fainting scene he describes the blackness as comforting. But I get what you’re saying about the visual repulsion & the connection to horror. Burns certainly seems to draw on horror cinema, for instance, and we might want to think about this story as a critique or perhaps just commenting on the teen horror genre, where sex and drugs also figure prominently and are most often punishable by homicide at the hands of some psycho. Is the view of sex and drugs as uniformly moralistic here? Or are there other ways to read the darkness attached to each?

  3. I definitely agree with Tom and the idea of the light and dark sections of the book. While at first I though that different lightings were representative of night/day time, I soon came to realize that the lightings are rather connected to the content of the scene. Not only does it seem that it is light when Eliza and Keith are naked, but also when there is genuine feelings involved. “The Bug” controls most of the novel and with it sets a darker mood, thus darker setting. Eliza and Keith on this hill after having runn away, construct a situation in which they escaped the Bug. The Bug’s darkness does therefore not hover above them, which is represented through the light illustration.

  4. Tom and Caroline make good points. Following on from Caroline’s comment, everything associated with The Bug is set in a darker setting. The act of sex is always portrayed in a darker setting, even when between the infected Rob and Chris. Though there is apparent love and no chance of passing on the disease, the sexual desire is portrayed in a darker setting as the desire was what led to the initial contraction.
    With light being positive and dark being negative, the reader can get a quick sense of the emotion in scenes, particularly in the dreams and flashbacks. When Chris and Keith are having dreams involving the worms or deformed people, the pages are predominantly black – appropriate for this nightmare situation. On the other hand, when Chris is dreaming about his future with Eliza, the scenes are light. This example is particularly powerful as it, and the hill scene Caroline discusses, are set amongst dark, sad pages of Eliza’s flashback to being raped and her crying out of worry for the future. The relationship between Keith and Eliza is loving with each ‘bringing light’ to the other, for example in those scenes mentioned as Keith comforts Eliza and reciprocally when Eliza enters the store where Keith works.

    I would like to mention the endings for the two characters. I believe both end on a positive note. Keith has now gone from a boy just looking to lose his virginity to realising that Eliza is his one love, with her “good smell” (where Chris previously had a “bad smell”). Both accept each other in their ill states and Keith actually finds Eliza’s tail attractive. There is no comment about their place in society and there is a sense they will be happy on their own, though Keith is concerned about his parents. In Chris’ situation, she appears to have finally laid to rest, literally, her attachment with Rob. She is able to reflect on the events with Rob and Dave and move on, although she does not know what to move on to. A kind lady on the beach offers for Chris to come and eat with them, so there is the belief that she may integrate herself back into society and be happy. There is generosity in the world. Furthermore, when Chris goes swimming in the final pages of the book, her back appears to have healed a little… there is hope…

  5. Following up on Tom’s comment regarding Adam and Eve, in my essay due this week, I was able to connect another situation in which Chris and Rob are analogous to Eve and Adam respectively. The following paragraph is a small section of my essay describing the scene where both characters have left the party and decide to go to the cemetery:

    “[The scene] illustrates Chris’s desire to take Rob to the cemetery to drink wine and eventually make love. On the other hand, Rob is not fully convinced with the idea of going to a cemetery and finds it odd, but he eventually agrees with Chris in order for him not to look anxious and thus appear like a real man. This situation is analogous to the myth of Adam and Eve, where Eve convinces Adam to eat the forbidden apple. While Adam and Eve are punished and banned from Paradise, which symbolizes the start of the fall of humanity, Chris and Rob drink and make love in the cemetery, itself being a symbol of death, where the destruction of both of their lives begins. In addition, the snake that convinces Eve to eat the apple in the first place is analogous to Chris herself, who becomes snake-like when mutated.”

    I also really like Sam’s comment regarding the ending of the novel. I would like to point out that although Chris’s back seems to look like it is healed at the end, her back looks the same in the scene where she and Rob swam together during their “day in the sun”. I believe this shows that she is not necessarily free of mutation yet. Also, Chris usually sheds her skin after she has spent enough time in the water, and so I think that Burns’s choice of drawing her back facing the water and her front facing the readers is important in that it does not allow the readers to know whether her skin had begun to peal.

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