by Charles Burns
2006 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album - Reprint
There are some very heavy handed metaphors in Black Hole at its center (or singularity if I want to go for my own heavy handed metaphor). Burns is trying to tie some big ideas together and it had potential to be interesting since he does a fine job at capturing the self-destructive youth culture. Unfortunately it never gelled for me; it felt like Burns never got around to actually making any of the points that he was groping toward.
Black Hole is set in a 1970's where a sexually transmitted disease is running rampant through the youth. The disease transforms those infected in different ways; one boy gains an extra mouth on his chest, another sheds her skin each night, and another woman has grown a tail. The premise itself has quite a bit of potential. A condition that marks sexually active teens can be used in a lot of different ways. And Burns doesn't use it beyond the basic level of a metaphor. The visibly marked children are out of sight and go to live in the woods away from society.
There's a girl who loses her virginity to an infected boy and she wants to hide her condition from her parents. She runs away from home and tries to sort out her feelings for the boy. Another boy has a crush on her and finds his feelings confused when he starts lusting after a college going woman who is also infected.
Black Hole is completely in the mold of the standard indy comic. It's about teenagers who happen to live in the same place and at the same time when the author was a teenager. It's a story of sexual discovery and coming of age. It also features it's fair share of hallucinatory dream sequences. The major plot elements that set it apart wind up being completely downplayed.
This isn't to say that Burns does a bad job with Black Hole. He does capture the perspective of lost and confused teenagers well. While I didn't like any of his characters with one exception I understood them. They were kids groping with responsibility and running from it. Their petty snipes at each other are part of their childishness. I didn't like them or even was particularly interested in them but that was not the fault of Burns's characterization.
Not coincidentally the character I liked was the woman with a tail who was really the only adult in the story; there are other characters over eighteen but she's the only one that I would call an adult. She came across as a lost and confused woman stuck in a bad situation. Unfortunately Burns wound up giving her the worst character development possible for a woman both in how pathetically cliche it's become in comics and how it reduces a character. It was unnecessary since she was a strong character without being given this motivation.
The artwork in Black Hole never excited me. It isn't that it's bad; it's perfectly reasonable. The best portions are the dream sequences where Burns's artwork has a liquid style that just blends images into one another. Otherwise his heavy lines and forms just didn't catch my interest.
While I may not have liked Black Hole I could definitely understand where it found its audience. If you like those coming of age stories then I have read a lot worse than this (some of which I've reviewed for this blog). On the other hand if you're as tired of these subjects as I am then it's not for you. Burns could have explored what happens to teens when the signs of sexual activity are obvious but wound up abandoning that concept for a fairly standard story.