Disease, sex and raging hormones come together to tell a haunting and terrifying symphony of images and words in Charles Burn’s critically-acclaimed graphic novel, Black Hole. Originally-serialized as a twelve-issue miniseries, the narrative focuses on the teenage population of an undisclosed suburb in Seattle as they come to grips with the existence of a terrible strain of mutation transmitted through sexual contact. The story is told from the point-of-view of four individuals. Chris, the first protagonist, is seen in the beginning as a beautiful and bright young woman who’s going through the typical motions that one goes through in high school, unaware that the problems and concerns she deals with is about to transform into something beyond her comprehension. The second protagonist, Rob, on the other hand, had already gone through the transition from being normal to someone vastly changed. The power he gained through his popularity and, ironically, his good looks, has abandoned him. He has accepted that he no longer lives within the community he grew up in and the loneliness, alienation and whatever notions of melancholia he derives from his condition is kept at bay. He is alright. Quite suddenly, his life takes a turn as he falls madly in love with Chris, a girl who was unaware of his condition, a girl he accidentally infected during a drunken coital tumble in the middle of a cemetery. The third is Keith, Mr. Lloyd Dobbler himself, another student at Rob and Chris’ school, one who’s also in love with Chris. Despite Chris’ mutation, despite the possibility of contracting the disease, Keithrevels in his sexual and erotic fascination and pursues her, even to the point of offering Chris a home and some basic necessities when she went into exile. Finally, there’s Eliza, another victim of the disease, one who simply seeks someone who’d adore her, who’d respect her, regardless of the tail that grew as the disease corrupted her body.
What I particularly loved about the series is that it combined three things which I like: First, it has all the undertones and the thematic content of an angst-y eighties John Hughes movie. There’s a deluge of desperation, social awkwardness and a tinge of hope in the characters’ seemingly shallow but ultimately formative adolescent years. Second, whenever mutations and the basic experience of growing up is brought up, I am always reminded of Marvel Comics’ the X-Men, a bunch of social misfits gifted with powers who exist to fight for the rights of mutants. Although the story is devoid of powers, cataclysmic battles, and a pedophiliac bald paraplegic in a bright yellow wheelchair, Black Hole addresses the alienation and isolation that is the major conflict found in the X-Men. It was never about villainy or the battle between good and evil (that kind of notion is for idiotic twats). This is a grace misconception created by the campy 90’s animated series and the arcade video game, X-Men: Children of the Atom, with those horrible vocal performances, the cheesy dialogue and the stiff fight scenes (Okay, fine, animation was not that advanced then). Marvel has always left the moral war to the likes of the Avengers, or The Defenders, or even to The Invaders. The X-Men were always there to resolve and explore issues of discrimination and estrangement, which Charles Burn’s work certainly does. And finally, Black Hole falls in the horror genre and is effective in eliciting a feeling of both revulsion and terror from its readers as it takes an action perennially practiced, constantly thought about, and repeatedly imagined, desired and fantasized, into something that resembles a biological weapon. Coitus in the narrative not only evokes a fleeting and blinding moment of pleasure, of writhing and trembling upheavals, of genital ejaculations and the total loss of control; it is the birth of a horrendous metamorphosis that violates the laws of our anatomies. Chris molts, like an insect, shedding her skin after a period of time. Rob possesses a mouth on his neck just directly below his chin, a mouth that can speak involuntarily. Eliza has a tail directly connected through her pelvic bone, a piece of muscle that grows back one snapped off. Keith begins to develop tendrils as elongated and cylindrical tubes of excess flesh and muscle suddenly sprout above his ribs. And several other teenagers face facial deformities, like layers of additional fat, extra appendages and even spikes in their faces. The idea of facing an existence that evokes revulsion and fear from strangers for just a single sexual experience is horrifying. It is, as the cliché goes, a fate worst than death. And what’s even more terrible is that for the hormonally-crazed and desire-driven teenagers of this narrative, the disease masks itself as something worthy of having for sex.
It is also interesting to note that the physical alterations that occur in their bodies are not some random mutation. The changes that occur compliment their condition. We can even go as far as to say that these are manifestations of their subconscious (Hello, Freud), or a conscious attempt to incorporate some irony in the narrative. A mouth is given to Rob, a person who possesses so much repressed desires and secrets inside of him. For Chris, a woman whose beauty is a curse, she has been given the ability to continually renew her appearance by the molting of her skin. The tendrils that grow out of Keith’s torso are an acknowledgement of a recurring memory, that of the tadpoles which he left to die under the sun. Eliza’s tail that grows back acknowledges her resilience towards the hassles and hardships she faces. Finally, the ugliness of the other characters, of the geeks who did nothing in school but play chess and read comic books, is an extreme manifestation of their yearning to attract attention and their wanting for their presence to be acknowledged.