I enjoy exploring the curious intersections of art and sexuality, so I had a delightful treat recently reading Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole (Pantheon Books, 2005). The plot is fairly simple: “suburban Seattle, the mid-1970s,” as the jacket informs us, where in addition to the ordinary trials of high school – an unrequited crush on the “total fox” in biology, or dealing with parents and social rejection – a number of teenagers must also cope with a sexually-transmitted disease (referred to only as “the bug”) that causes physical mutations – some major (e.g., a barely human facial appearance) and some minor (tadpole-like appendages forming around your waist).
But despite this premise, which smacks of horror right out of John Carpenter or David Cronenberg, the difficulties that follow are mostly based on other people’s reactions to just having the bug, or the altered self-images that result. I kept waiting for the worsening mutations, the degeneration, where the human characters turn into monstrous abominations, but it never happens – Burns keeps the status of “monster” completely determined by the victims and their peers. For the most part, the bug is regarded as casually as, say, acne or pregnancy, as it becomes a cause of stigmatization, but doesn’t seem to provoke any reactions from the adult world (indeed, authority figures in Black Hole remain virtually unseen, outside of very brief interactions with the main characters’ parents). Just as in Peanuts, where you always ask, “Where are their parents?” and the only sounds adults make seems to be “mwa-mwa-mwa,” here the teenagers are seen as totally disconnected from the rest of the world – emotionally, geographically (much of the action takes place in the woods and a nearby house whose owners are on vacation), and with time, biologically.
So the bug is primarily used as a metaphor, but it creates this very vivid backdrop of horror against which the relationships between characters are set. This fits right in with Burns’ distinctive style, which you may well have seen before: very ink-heavy, sometimes almost looking like a negative image, with razor-like lines separating the dark and light. His human beings, and the world around them, look very realistic, yet there’s a strong vein of surrealism underlying everything, as tree branches easily metamorphose into reptilian tendrils, or match sticks become flimsy and begin to resemble sperm. It’s possible that this continuity between hard and soft, plant and animal, could be viewed as a guide for the way that reality eases its way into dark fantasy, or one body transforms into another. (Burns frequently lines up panels using a sort of shot/reverse shot technique, causing halves of separate faces to merge, like the two women at the climax of Bergman’s Persona.) I’m reminded of the woodcuts of the Dutch artist M.C. Escher, and how simply one thing turns into another.
And after all, what is adolescence if not a period of metamorphosis, a human cocoon to endure the transition from larva to butterfly, from child to adult. Chris Rhodes, one of the two characters whose viewpoint dominates the book, starts shedding her skin like a snake (serpents are a frequent motif, which suits the loss-of-sexual-innocence theme); she also keeps wanting to go back, undo the poor decisions that led to her getting the bug, return to her parents’ house, to her childhood – one of the last lines of the book is, “No. Not yet. I’m not ready yet,” and this desperation describes both an unprepared teenager and a mutated outsider struggling with the question of whether to re-enter society, or stay forever on the outskirts.
Ultimately, the plot of Black Hole is like a controlled experiment in epidemiology, subjecting a group of teenagers to a disease and seeing both how it spreads and what it does to their lives. The main character, more or less, is Keith Pearson, who lusts after Chris and enjoys smoking pot with his friends in a place called “Planet Xeno,” not far from where the bug-infected kids have their cook outs. (Xeno means “strange,” and as another place outside of adult control, it shows how the characters are aliens even before being mutated.) As sexual desire and fulfillment proliferate, the bug spreads over the course of the book, just like in Tom Lehrer’s hilarious VD ditty “I Got It From Agnes“.
It’s exacerbated by the presence of Eliza, dubbed “the Lizard Queen” by her housemates, a perpetually stoned artist. Her paintings come right out of the nightmare imagery (including, most significantly, a human figure tied between two trees, a hand over its genitalia) that crowd characters’ brief visions, as well as the margins of the book. In real life, these visions are manifested as ghoulish little sculptures hung throughout the woods, made of dissected dolls and gnawed-on chicken bones, and altogether these bizarre, recurring images reinforce how everything normal (the characters’ bodies and lives) is being subtly changed into something alien and dysfunctional. Instead of relying on the physical changes to carry the book into darker territory, though, Burns lets the resulting emotional changes (dissatisfaction with home life, high school, and each other) pick up where the physical leaves off, spiraling (like the repeated corkscrews and serpents) into a watery abyss, possibly even the black hole of the title.
In its narrative and visuals, Black Hole is a very tightly structured book that gives few obvious answers. One of its clearest ideas, though, comes in a flashback toward the end:
We had to watch these lame movies about human reproduction… [they] were always so safe and clean… Everything simplified down to diagrams and animated cartoons… Microscopic pictures of sperm cells swarming around a giant egg… The weird part about those movies was that they never showed you the real thing… The actual sex part. Fucking.
In the end, the characters have to deal with the disparity between the sterile, body-less picture of sex they’re taught in bio 101 (or else learn from things like this) and the gruesome realities they experience. So, more or less, they have to endure the same as every teenager. Except they get mutations.
As should be obvious, I highly recommend Black Hole; check it out if you can find a copy!