Tag Archives: teen

Black holes and alien bodies

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).

© Charles Burns

© Charles Burns

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.

Metamorphosis II by M.C. Escher

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!

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Sex is SCARY!!

I am here in PA with Ashley, so while we may be busy together and unable to write, when we do it shall contain the full force of both of our creative wellsprings. (PS: it’s fucking awesome.)

And so, in addition to a number of wholesome, fun activities together (kissing, watching movies, eating) we have been watching a number of MST3K videos together on YouTube. Now, although my face is all leaking and itchy for some reason, making me disoriented and uncomfortable, I’ve been trying to form & express coherent thoughts – and now I’m going to try this in blog form. Because of course, as I was telling Ashley yesterday, the analysis never ends. The words “media studies” on my CAMS major t-shirt mean studying media: i.e., every single form of communication since the beginning of history is up for grabs. Movies, yes, and the Internet, TV, radio, pamphlets, skywriting, tattoos, posters, messages engraved on satellites, smoke signals, cave paintings – they’re all media.

"Teen Talk"

This also includes a flyer we were reading entitled “Teen Talk” distributed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Office of Population Affairs, which details the Department’s opinions on teenage sexuality; although it’s an ephemeral piece of informational literature, it’s nonetheless worth analyzing on a number of levels: the style and content of the flyer can show us, for example, what the U.S. government (as of 2003-2005) wants to tell the youth of the nation, and how they think they can best get these ideas across.

To be honest, its existence as a product of organizations within organizations, under the banner of the federal government, has kind of an Orwellian vibe to me – as if it was being produced by Pornosec within the Ministry of Truth or something. And you can know that someone with a talent for graphic design and a supposed eye for what appeals to kids these days was hired, at some point, to put this together, probably to arrange the pre-written script into a presentable format. We see a bunch of totally typical-looking kids – really carefully typical-looking, that is, engineered to be your ordinary, ethnically diverse group of sexually confused, inquisitive teenagers – presumably asking questions like, “Should I have sex now or wait?” The information is written like a pseudo-FAQ: no one’s really asking them “What should I know if I decide not to have sex?”, but dammit, the question’s going to be answered; it’s also interesting how the phrase “Decisions about sex may be the most
important decisions you’ll ever make, so think before you act” is placed at the top of the page, in quotations, as if citing some great youth educator, but without attribution – so it’s really just another message from the great, amorphous, and apparently reliable “Office of Population Affairs,” which wants you to know that “You Are More Than Just a Body.”

I’m not condemning the flyer’s messages or anything. Young people are stupid and them having less sex would probably be a good thing. But Ashley and I both noticed its resemblance to the hilarious exploitation masterpiece Sex Madness (1938), whose climax involves an otherwise innocent woman blinding her husband and killing her baby, if I recall right, with her secret shame, syphilis. “STDs can be painful,” the flyer explains with a typical penchant for bolds and italics as emphasis devices. “They can make it impossible to have a baby. Some are incurable, and some may even cause death.” DEATH! INCURABLE! NO BABIES! It’s pretty damn sensationalistic; it goes for the “educate through shock value” approach. And what better way to scare kids away from sex than the by using the hellfire-and-brimstone of human sexuality, the STD.

(We’ve been talking about the terminology used, and Wikipedia helpfully explains: venereal disease, of course, is the more outdated term coming from Venus, the Roman goddess of love; STD describes a disease – i.e., symptoms are being exhibited; and STI just means an infection, that the infecting agent is present in your body even if the disease hasn’t exhibited itself yet, so it’s more inclusive.)

I just find it really interesting how the government tries to reach young people. And, more often than not, they end up leaning toward puritanical Sex and Reefer Madness-like extremes, because apparently subtlety just doesn’t work when you’re trying to get into the heads of the young. And besides, it’s just really fun to overanalyze whatever’s available. It makes stays in medical waiting rooms far more entertaining. Why, for example, do they capitalize specific letters? “DON’T BE FOOLED into thinking most teenagers are having
sex.” Capitalization for emphasis IS SUCH A HANDY TOOL. Just so long as you know how and why to use it. Also, why are so many of the headings capitalized like titles – “What Should I Know About Pressure?” Doesn’t look a title to me; I think “What should I know about pressure?” would be way more effective to preserving the illusion of these being actual questions asked by teenagers. So, all that said, on the surface you might just say, “It’s a fucking flyer about teen sexuality. Nothing to analyze there.” But I, obviously, beg to differ.

I was going to continue this post by discussing MST3K, but in the midst of research, I got very distracted – so I’m going to write a whole post about it later on.

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Filed under Media, Sexuality