What would happen if you crossed the film Dazed and Confused with the repertoire of David Lynch? You probably never asked that question, but in case you were wondering, the answer would be the graphic novel Black Hole, a bizarre coming of age take that grotesquely nails the alienation and anxiety of being a teenager.
I’ve passed over the comic for years at my local bookstore, but finally took the plunge and read it after I discovered in a box of books that my brother gave me. The copy I have is a single volume, but it was originally released in periodic installments between 1995 and 2005. I would have never known the difference because Charles Burns has crafted a story that feels self contained, rather than episodic, as many comic books tend to lapse into.
The book revolves around a group of high school students, all struggling with their own sexuality and desires. Their tribulations are depicted through the visual metaphor of a sexual disease that causes physical deformations, such as facial scars and even one character having a tail. What would seem as mere exploitation takes on deeper meaning as Burns gives us insight to these characters’ lives through first person narration.
For many, this grotesqueness will turn them away from the comic. This was the exact reason my brother had given away his copy. It was just too weird for him. I initially felt the same way, cringing at the bizarre world that Burns had crafted. But just like a Lynch film, once you peel back the layers of creepiness and oddity, you’ll find a genuine beating heart that rewards the work put into finding it.
Take for instance the character of Rob, who being infected with the disease, has grown a mouth on his neck that can talk. This could have been played for a cheap shock to the reader, but in the guided hands of Burns, is a means of conveying Rob’s innermost fears and desires. And what at once is seen as horror, turns into a scar that attracts Chris, another narrator that catches the disease from Rob early on in the comic. Chris grows her own deformity, which alienates her from her family and draws her close to Rob.
And that is exactly where Burns finds the vein to inject his spell. Set in the 70s, Black Hole captures the angst and rebellion that comes with those awkward years of being a teenager. He also captures the spirit of the counterculture of that era, when as the dust jacket states, listening to David Bowie wasn’t considered cool.
In a brilliant touch, the inside of the front and back cover feature images of teenagers faces: in the front section are normal and healthy faces, in the back are those of deformed teenagers. It’s this separation of the normal kids and the odd ones that really resonates and makes the comic feel universal. We all at one point or another feel like that kid on the outside looking in.
The book paints a damning portrait of the pains of youth. Chris runs away from home and falls into the hands of fellow outcasts, and through tragedy finds herself lost in this fucked up universe. The last panel is of her looking up at the night sky, alone and naked, seemingly at peace and yet drifting, all at the same time. There’s always those that get sucked up into their own little black holes, and this comic captures that loneliness. If only they could be like the cool kids.