by Charles Burns
The Kids Aren't Alright
A review by Gerry Donaghy
In her 1990 book Sexual Anarchy, Elaine Showalter writes, "Sexual
epidemics are the apocalyptic forms of sexual anarchy." In her chapter that
posits syphilis and AIDS as diseases that bookend the 19th and 20th centuries,
she further writes that "The social perception of each disease has been heavily
influenced by the possibility of sexual transmission and the attendant notions
of responsibility, guilt, and blame. In each case, those suffering from the disease
have often been regarded as both the cause and the embodiment of the disease,
and have been feared and blamed by others who define themselves as more virtuous."
In Charles Burns's newest graphic novel Black Hole, a disease called the
"Bug" is the specter haunting the sexual congress of Seattle-area teenagers
in the mid-1970s that threatens to end their world.
This entertaining and provocative book is more than a parade of sexually transmitted
mutations. It is a record of how people react, withdraw, and redefine identity
when confronted with the loss of sexual innocence. Black Hole explores
the themes of isolation, loneliness, and sexual yearning that are de rigueur
in most teen literature, but wraps them in an illustrated narrative that is
alternating naturalistic and grotesque.
Anonymous and undistinguished Keith has a crush on the attractive and popular
Chris, cementing his infatuation by passing out during a prophetic biology class
frog dissection that plays on just about every metaphor that a vertical gash
can muster. This vagina-dentata-on-DMT scene superbly sets the mood for Black
Hole's narrative trajectory, where flashbacks, flash-forwards, and hallucinations
diffuse into each other with the alarming randomness of a nightmare. Keith and
Chris have sex with partners infected with the "Bug" and begin to
show outward signs of infection, changing their lives forever.
Once it becomes evident that Chris is infected, she withdraws from her friends
and her family to live with the other victims of the "Bug" who have
created a shantytown in the woods. But even in her exile, Chris is alone, choosing
to stay in her tent rather than interact with her fellow infected. For Keith,
the disease is a point of attraction between him and an art student who displays
her infection by boldly sporting a tail. This begins to get him out of his self-created
shell and find solace within the ranks of the infected.
There are many facets of Black Hole that warrant further investigation.
One is that the teenagers who populate the story operate in an almost Peanuts-like
absence of adults. With the exception of a parent here or there, there are no
adult authority figures to speak of. When the students become infected, there
are no trips to the doctor to find out what has happened, just the immediate
withdrawal from teenage society, much the way that melodramatic teenagers run
away from home. Is the disease a metaphor for AIDS, or teenage sexual politics
in general? Why is it that when the teenagers want to get away from adults to
have keggers, or get stoned, they go to the woods when that is the same thing
that the victims of the "Bug" do? Even though Chris and Keith have
fairly unobtrusive signs of infection, why do they react the way that they do?
In Black Hole, Charles Burns creates a world that is open to creative
interpretation and it is doubtful that any reader can claim to have the final
In Black Hole, Burns creates not just a powerful story, but also a book
that is physically a work of art. The cover packaging and jacket come across
as a Barbara Kruger-designed mash-up of a high school yearbook and sexual pathology
case studies. The art inside perfectly captures the characters' range of experience
both benign and phantasmagoric, never once betraying that this was drawn over
the course of twelve years.