My love for the horror genre pretty much dried up and withered away sometime in the 1970s when two distinct trends emerged in the genre—teenagers and serial killers. Granted, the heady unpleasant days of the umpteenth Friday the 13th knock-off were still a decade away, but in the '70s we were already on the way there. Leatherface and Michael Myers had arrived. The rest became simply a matter of body count mixed with the inventive use of power tools.
That being said, I find it surprising how much I enjoyed Charles Burns's graphic novel Black Hole. Black Hole is the story of a group of teenagers living in the Pacific Northwest during the 1970s. Less Dawson's Creek than The River's Edge, the story details what happens when a sexually transmitted disease emerges among them. The disease manifests without rhyme or reason, causing bizarre mutations. Some are able to hide their deformities and carry on with their lives, while others too hideous and deformed to be seen in public form a squatter's camp in the local state park. Into this situation two high-school students, Keith and the girl he secretly has a crush on, Chris, descend.
With Pantheon's recent hardcover edition you're spared the trouble of scouring comic-shop shelves for back issues, or waiting impatiently for each issue to come out, and can enjoy the story in a few sittings. It took over ten years for the entire story to be told, and the series only had about a dozen issues. Each issue was a beauty, but the tone remained static from issue to issue. When reading the series in its entirety that problem disappears. The story becomes more nuanced and takes on a subtle depth. (I should also mention that there's a movie in the works with script co-penned by Neil Gaiman. Hopefully, he does justice to the words and the pictures.)
Black Hole opens with Keith and Chris paired up in biology class on frog dissection day. The frog's belly becomes an image that resonates throughout the work—a fissure that leads into a hidden world full of menace and hinting at the future. While staring down into the incision, Keith faints and has a premonition of all the truly bad shit to come. And it's bad. It's very, very bad. Let me tell you right now: Black Hole can be a very unsettling book. Even ignoring Burns's sometimes grotesquely meticulous artwork, the story itself does not tread lightly.
Before long both Chris and Keith have caught the plague. Chris and her boyfriend, Rob, move out into the woods to join the squatters. But trouble only follows them, because someone else is out there. Some person has started to decorate the forest with the limbs of broken dolls. Soon, Rob disappears. Screams are heard in the night. Then the bodies start appearing—well, to be more precise, the body parts start appearing.
Meanwhile, Keith's easily concealable deformity allows him to maintain his place in the everyday world of suburbia. He serves as a go-between for the squatters, primarily motivated by his desire to woo Chris. But even before Keith contracted the disease he was starting to find himself cut off from his friends and family. Stuck with a heavy dose of teenage alienation, he always felt dissatisfied by his surroundings and wished he were elsewhere.
As characters Chris and Keith are largely opposites driven down different paths. Chris contracts the plague by accident when she has sex with Rob, one of the infected teens who is able to hide his deformity. Keith, on the other hand, becomes infatuated with Liza, who he knows is infected. He is well aware of what awaits him when he consummates his relationship with her. Most of all, their ultimate destinations are incompatible. Chris craves solitude and wants to be free from people, while Keith wishes to find a place where he feels he belongs. In the end, after all that bad shit happens, they have changed. And while the ending is by no means happy, the characters have at least arrived in places where they feel they belong.
Burns is possibly the most accessible cartoonist to come out of the '80s art comic book / RAW scene. As always his style is meticulous and lush, harking back to the stark contrasts of black and white films. The drawings shimmer with an almost hypnotic quality. His writing is sharp, catching perfect nuances of character and setting. Little details like the fact that there's no ice in the squatter's house because no one ever fills the ice-cube tray, or Keith wandering past the older sister of an acquaintance crying in her car are perfect touches that mean nothing in and of themselves but add much to the overall mood of the story.
The book captures a slice of teen alienation and serves it up on a visceral level; probably not since Donnie Darko have I squirmed so enjoyably. And while it is easy to draw quick comparisons between the teen plague and AIDS, it's also easy to read it as a broader metaphor for teen alienation as experienced instead of as observed. But to let the analysis stop there is to do the story an injustice. There's another layer, one about learning self-determination and the awareness that one may not be like other people and how to deal with that—or not, as the case may unfortunately be.
Justin Howe was born and raised in the wilds of suburban Massachusetts. For reasons beyond his control, he must live in the vicinity of New York City. He attended the Odyssey Writers Workshop in 2005 and is on a first-name basis with his local librarians.