Sunday, March 20, 2011

Charles Burns - Black Hole

"It's impossible… nnn…never make it out alive"

Adolescence is hell. The flipside of being at our most potent and energetic stage of life is for much of those years a lack of real control; of emotional impulses, our hormones and the development of our changing bodies, and outwardly our social and family groups, and imagined destiny. Charles Burns' Black Hole takes a walk through these dark woods of impending adulthood - the wilderness at night is a recurring location for the stories within, and in its gradual opening reveals a world of repulsion, guilt and questionable decisions. The re-telling of a journey to adulthood as body horror.

This collection was recommended to me by Tim who in turn had had it passed on to him by an enthusiastic friend. Black Hole is the culmination of a decade's work by Burns, and in design it shows. It's a heavy work thematically, but physically its weight may be added to by the sheer expanse of black ink used in the strip's monochrome palette. The artwork is often symmetrical, with panels mirroring one another across page spreads, and the white detail on the literal black hole of the graphics providing startling retinal after-images. It adds to the general trippiniess of the subject matter, and is a perfect visual impression of one of the story's big themes - the claustrophobia and loneliness of the developing teen. Forming the story are the experiences of four teens - stoner Keith, the A-student object of his affections Chris, her boyfriend Rob and would-be artist Eliza as they variously fall prey to the Bug, a physical and sexually-transmitted mutation that offers no special insight or super powers, just the certainty of being ostracised.

I was surprised to read that among the excised material in the anthology edition I'd read is a yearbook quote from an unnamed afflictee set (probably) some time after the story, suggesting that the Bug's outward manifestation is temporary, underlining its association with adolesence and pre-adulthood, but at the same time offering a potentially happier ending for (most of) the protagonists. That this is removed in the later version means that this hope for a happy conclusion is taken away, and the angst of the present, however temporary, remains. I'm in two minds about this; the story is frustratingly open-ended in places - as much as its focus shifts within the narrative anyway, so a likely resolution is welcome. On the other hand this sort of resolution is clearly not what Black Hole is about, any more than reaching the age of true adulthood, however arbitrary, is. If adulthood is personal responsibility and responsibility towards others then the three survivors are severally already there.
As a reader anchored in the Seventies and Eighties I really enjoyed the visual aesthetic of Black Hole, and the painstaking attention Burns gives his page compositions. The artist's work has for along time evoked to me the work of older titles - the EC horror comic covers, hippie-era psychedelia, and retro-rock art (no wonder informed by Burns' artwork for Iggy Pop's Brick By Brick, an album I didn't own but had a lot of time for back at Uni). The story weighs more towards the emotions of its various beats and character moments - not all of the mysteries are really solved, and fittingly there's a large figurative question point at the end of the book. It's an unsettling read - Freudian, Jungian, Proppian; in short, its own dark space I was content to visit briefly, and leave behind afterward.

Postscript: A movie adaptation is currently in development hell, but a very good short distillation can be found here. For obvious reasons, really NSFW.


  1. Great post. Only read Black Hole in this collected form a year or two ago, but I remember seeing some original art pages in a random comic art exhibition off the beaten track in Portugal. And I'd read a couple of excerpts over the years - I think that McSweeney's comic edition had a few pages in it.

    I had no idea about the "they grow out of it" bit that was excised. That would totally change the tone of the work, to me. Interesting.

  2. Hi Morgue

    Yeah the alternative ending is a mystery. The full trade is well worth the look though (and its weight!). Not a comfortable read, but quite an intense one.