SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED STRANGENESS

Love in a time of mutant disease

Black Hole
Publishing House: Pantheon
WorkNameSort: Black Hole

There is so much ugliness scattered through the pages of this tale of sex, drugs, disease, alienation and, God help us, the ’70s, that it takes awhile to notice how much beauty is hidden inside.

Harvey Award–winning graphic novelist Charles Burns spent more than a decade crafting Black Hole. (The 12 chapters of the story originally appeared in individual comic book format, published by Kitchen Sink Press and Fantagraphic Books; a softcover version is now available from Pantheon Books.) It is a profoundly disturbing allegory of adolescence.

Set mainly in the Pacific Northwest, circa mid-1970s, Black Hole is the story – part science fiction, part horror, part coming-of-age – of a strange sexually transmitted disease that physically deforms those who catch it.

Rick the Dick’s face grows as hideous as a Halloween mask. Chris sheds her skin like a snake. A second mouth splits out of the skin just below Keith’s Adam’s apple. And Eliza grows a tail.

The surreal, dream-like symbolism of the various manifestations of the disease – and how each of the characters comes to terms with the change in his or her body – is the essence of the story.

More than a dash of Kafka and classic all-pervading American disaffection seeps between the scenes. In putting together this wickedly exaggerated fantasy of a horribly disfiguring STD, Burns captures with pinpoint accuracy the awful rite of shame, blame and awkwardness of our teenage years.

Employing sex as the transmitter of a disease that mutates each person in a unique, often revolting (though occasionally eerily alluring) way was a stroke of brilliance. After all, what in American culture carries as much potential for accusation, ostracization and guilt as our sexual choices?

This is where the hypocrisy of a culture that saturates itself in sexual imagery but scorns those who get caught acting on sexual impulses takes center stage. It’s what the characters did that isolates them, makes them feel inhuman and unlovable. If there is redemption in the story, it is in the possibility of finding acceptance of these flaws, these strange new aspects of oneself, in one another.

The tenderest moments of the story show lovers coming to terms with, and even being charmed by, what others find grotesque.

Where Black Hole succeeds is in the spot-on portrayal of the kindness and cruelty that permeates early efforts at love, life and acceptance. The social cliques, ridicule, deceit, predation and violent undertones of youth culture lurk all around – sometimes in the overt actions or comments made by one character to another, and sometimes through dark symbology in the ink-soaked weirdness that marks the more psychedelic sequences.

Burns, better known outside the comic book world for his New Yorker illustrations and Iggy Pop album covers, has a knack for snagging readers with his images. It’s the thick swaths of black, the whorls and slashes of ink, the way his lines just seem to lead the eyes into each panel. He favors stark black and white over mid-tones, making faces powerfully expressive and nocturnal landscapes somber and foreboding.

It’s a visceral art style. The grime is almost palpable in some scenes: ashtrays overrun with snuffed roaches, damp stacks of porn and toilets slick with mold because everyone shacking up in the house is too stoned to care.

When characters bleed, they bleed hard and ugly. And even when they find a clean new place where they can rediscover talents and reinvent themselves, they still carry the past in their nightmares.

It shows in their eyes.

Not always an easy read, the tale is weighty in senseless cruelty and graphic violence as well as frankly disturbing imagery. Nevertheless, Black Hole is a fascinating exploration of growing up and the many pathways of rejection, acceptance, self-esteem and pain therein. More importantly, it is an exploration of the ways in which we help or hinder one another’s progress through that pain.

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