Black Hole (Black Hole #1-12)
By Charles Burns
Genre: Graphic Novel/Horror
Suburban Seattle, the mid-1970s. We learn from the out-set that a strange plague has descended upon the area’s teenagers, transmitted by sexual contact. The disease is manifested in any number of ways — from the hideously grotesque to the subtle (and concealable) — but once you’ve got it, that’s it. There’s no turning back.
As we inhabit the heads of several key characters — some kids who have it, some who don’t, some who are about to get it — what unfolds isn’t the expected battle to fight the plague, or bring heightened awareness to it , or even to treat it. What we become witness to instead is a fascinating and eerie portrait of the nature of high school alienation itself — the savagery, the cruelty, the relentless anxiety and ennui, the longing for escape.
And then the murders start.
As hypnotically beautiful as it is horrifying, Black Hole transcends its genre by deftly exploring a specific American cultural moment in flux and the kids who are caught in it- back when it wasn’t exactly cool to be a hippie anymore, but Bowie was still just a little too weird.
To say nothing of sprouting horns and molting your skin…
*Warning – This GN includes heavy elements of sex, violence and drug use.
Where do I start with this whirlwind of a read that left me with an unexpected and odd sort of satisfaction? I admit that I jumped into Black Hole almost fully blind. I had to make myself slow down and read through the synopsis. As someone who is developing a rapidly insatiable appetite for graphic novels, the deal was solidified when I noted the literary awards attached to the work and its author.
Black Hole is set within the high school scene of the 70’s in Seattle. Needless to say there are drugs, alcohol and sex involved. We are thrown right into the lives of several teenagers who are not only tasked with the challenges of becoming young adults and self-discovery but doing so in the midst of a plague. A plague that happens to be transmitted through sexual contact. Yes, I think you can see where this is headed..
The sexually transmitted disease is spreading rapidly and causes mutations that range from minor to extreme abnormalities. During the course of the story, there is no cure. Students who acquire the disease become outcasts that are quickly ostracized by their peers upon discovery. Some have chosen to hide their subtle afflictions, while others have moved to isolated areas in attempt to achieve a safe and “peaceful” life. What ensues is a graphic tale of love, hate, sacrifice and violence.
I want to address the artwork of Black Hole first because it was a huge success with me. Depicted solely in black and white, the illustrations still manage to provide a surprisingly rich and somewhat noir experience. No amount of detail has been sacrificed with lack of color and each scene transitions beautifully. I found this to be a strangely, aesthetically pleasing journey that set the appropriate atmosphere. I really cannot share too much due to the graphic nature of the concept – plus why spoil the fun of discovery?
The plot falls together quite well and manages to accomplish something remarkable in the end. If you are going to choose to write a graphic tale centered around drugs and a plague transmitted through sex, I can think of no better setting that high school during the 70s. The concept brilliantly increases in effect as you dive further into the story, connecting with the main characters and grasping the reality of just how catastrophic such an event would truly be while placing a new spin on the real alienation and self-consciousness that is being a teenager.
“I felt like I was looking into the future… and the future looked really messed up.”
Dripping with teenage angst, rebellion and exploration that is on a one-way collision course with a total nightmare, Black Hole delivers a welcomed experienced that infected me the very moment I picked it up. Solid dialog, atmospheric art and smoothly transitioning narration bring to life a surrealistic combination of youth in the throes of a terrifying plague that has quickly climbed the ranks to one of my top graphic novel experiences to date. Yet, I am not recommending this to all. Why? Simply and only because of the nature of the content.