STM’s: On Charles Burns’ Black Hole

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.

(Eliza)

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.

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The Growth of an Artform: Loss and Death in The Judas Contract

*Images were scanned from George Perez’s Teen Titans: The Judas Contract (Hardcover Edition), Published by DC Comics in New York.

Popular comic books in North America gained a new maturity when they began to explore the various concepts of death and loss in the superhero genre. Of course, death has always been an issue and a concern in superhero comics. Heroes do exist to prevent death and to provide salvation to the population of the cities they serve to guard and protect. But it was not until the 1970’s when they explored death in the personal lives of their own costumed heroes. The first one that addressed and explored this issue was Spider-Man, in the now legendary arc, “The Death of Gwen Stacy,” where Gwen, Peter Parker’s then girlfriend, was killed by Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin. The arc heralds the arrival of a more frightening pantheon of villains and rogues in comic books and a more adult feel in a young art form that was once considered to be for children and adolescents. Quite suddenly, the heroes who every little boy dreamed of becoming faced the harsh realities of human existence. Loved ones are put into the middle of the battle. Being a hero became unexciting and frightening. A few years after, the same issue, albeit in a graver manner, was addressed in DC’s bestselling series, The Legion of Superheroes. Penned by Paul Levitz, the team from DC’s 31st century suffered the deaths of Lightning Lad and Ferro Lad. But it wasn’t until in 1984’s New Teen Titans: Judas Contract storyline where loss and death was given a whole new meaning in the overlooked art form.

In The Judas Contract, the newly reformed Teen Titans faces their greatest threat as teammate Terra is revealed to be the lover and servant of Slade Wilson, a hired assassin working for the villainous H.I.V.E society to destroy the Titans. With Robin and Kid-Flash gone, the team composed of Wonder Girl (Donna Troy), Cyborg (Victor Stone), Starfire (Koriand’r), Raven and Beast Boy (Garfield Logan) is required to come to grips with the real Terra while trying to find a way to survive the treacherous ordeal. Eventually captured, their hope remains in the hands of Dick Grayson, the former Robin, and a mysterious mute who has ties to the deadly Slade. Spanning several issues, the storyline presents to us four losses and deaths which redefines how comic book readers are suddenly given light to what their favorite heroes go through:

1.)    The Death of a Dream- Kid Flash finally realizes that his powers are slowly killing him. With his uncle, Barry Allen, also known as The Flash, gone from the present, he faces the prospect of abandoning his aspiration of saving people’s lives. Faced with the thought of dying, he retires his yellow tights and red boots, chooses to be an average man, a normal bystander in the war between good and evil. He effectively kills his own desire and dream so he could live. It is a selfish act, one no one blames him for, a message that not all heroes are willing to put their lives on the line for good.

2.)    The Death of Innocence-After years spent fighting alongside Gothan City’s Caped Crusader as side-kick, Dick Grayson, Robin, the ‘boy wonder’ himself, finally calls it quits. Realizing that he will never become an effective leader and a true hero living under the shadow of the Dark Knight, he abandons the geeky costume and the god-awful green underwear. But what does this resignation mean? It means he no longer fights to simply assist a mentor. It means that he no longer fights crime to put his horrible past, the death of his family, behind him. It means that he no longer approves of Batman’s vigilante ways, of his continuous attempts to alienate everyone around him, and his very crass and banal approach when it comes to crime-fighting. This “death” not only becomes pivotal to Grayson’s life, but to the DC Universe as well. Not only this will lead him to take the role of Nightwing, Titans leader and guardian of Bludhaven City, its repercussions will carry on until Infinite Crisis and Bruce Wayne’s future death at the hands of Darkseid.

3.)    A Son’s Loss- In his first appearance in comic book and the DC Universe history, Jericho goes head-to-head with Deathstroke, Wilson Slade, his own father. Although the father versus son storyline has been used been before in comic continuity, via Jack Kirby’s Third World Tales, with Darkseid and his belligerent but good son Orion, never has it been this pivotal. Unlike Darkseid and Orion, these are not Gods. They were not born with Hubris and were not meant to pursue battles that will last till the end of eternity. These are creatures fueled by the decisions they made. Slade is a mere assassin hired to murder the Titans for money and to pay Ravager’s dent. Jericho’s choice to join the Titans and attack his father is brought about by the need to stop the evil that is his father while ignoring the loyalties brought about by blood. Regardless of how Jericho will turn out in a few years, at that moment, he ceased becoming a son. He severed his ties from his family for the greater good and that what makes him one of the greatest Titans ever.

4.)    Hope’s death- The biggest shock in The Judas Contract is Terra’s betrayal and her revealed sexual congress with Wilson Slade. Of all the Titans, Garfield Logan, also known as Changeling/Beast Boy, is hit the hardest. Why is that? Garfield was always an outsider. With his green skin, he doesn’t have the luxury to blend himself in society. As direct kin of some of the members of the Doom Patrol, he has carried the burden of heroics and death at his shoulders. As the youngest and most inexperienced members of the Titans, he seldom feels that he belongs in the very young team. When Terra joined the Titans, everything Garfield felt changed. Terra and Beat Boy quickly created a bond. Like any friendship, they argued, competed, bantered and supported each other. Garfield eventually, like any adolescent who finds a connection during puberty, begins to fall in love with Terra. Of all the Titans, he takes Terraa’s betrayal the hardest. He even denies it and chooses that she was simply fooled by Slade himself. In the end, at the urging of his teammates, he chooses to fight Terra to the death, following the hero code which they all subscribed to.

Terra does realize the error of her ways and assists the Titans in the very end. But during the battle, she buries herself in Earth with Slade, realizing that this is the only way to defeat their enemy and save the Titans. It is a victory for the Titans, one of their biggest, but to Beast Boy, it became a revelation.

Garfield will never get over Terra’s death, unfortunately. Twenty publishing years later, during Blackest Night, the same memory will haunt him literally, the same anger, the same fear, the same pessimistic outlook on heroism and life. It is part of his past that he will never get over. Terra’s betrayal and death stripped Garfield of any heroism he possessed. He became a machine who fights for good without a true cause.