It seems impossible to write a book review of Charles Burns’ Black Hole, a graphic novel compendium of a comics series from 1995-2005. While I was reading the novel, I fluctuated between so many emotions—wonder, boredom, disgust, fascination, repulsion, transcendence. This is partially because Burns’ novel, now considered a landmark classic in the history of modern-day graphic novels and comics, truly defies categorization. It is almost a Rorschach ink blot where it means different things to everyone. Yet it is absolutely a must-read litmus test for your opinions on sexuality, medicine, infectious disease, love, and the suburban teen experience. Let me back up and try to give you a passable summary.
Essentially, Black Hole is about a group of teens in the Seattle suburbs during the mid-1970s. The teens notice an outbreak of strange medical phenomena. For example, they pass out and hallucinate that they are falling into a black hole. Or they meet someone with a tail and don’t really see it as that unusual. People develop tiny mouths on their neck, feet, and back. Other teens have their facial features transformed into furry creature faces. At the same time, the comics focus on a small and select group of these teens and follows them through crushes, first love, sex, jealousy, teenage ennui, rebellion, and interests in drugs, art, music, and counterculture.
For graphic novels, I always like to evaluate the art and the writing separately. Black Hole‘s artwork is nothing short of stunning. One of the things that’s so unique about it is how many of the teenagers look the same. Sometimes they are indistinguishable from one another and this carries across genders. I believe this was done to make a point, namely that the disease affected both genders, that it was not exclusive to guys or girls, and also that the model teen here experienced similar emotions and experiences unique to the teenage years, e.g. raging hormones, angst, being horny. (Also be aware that Black Hole contains explicit nudity and sexual imagery, so if that’s not your thing, I recommend avoiding the novel.)
The artwork was also really interesting on a structural level. I love it when graphic novelists do interesting things with panels. Black Hole was no exception. Sometimes images would span many panels in a visually striking way.
Sometimes I can race through graphic novels and finish them in a matter of hours. Black Hole was not like that, partially because of the artwork. I wanted to linger over incredibly detailed pages. They were really works of art. And I wanted to soak up Charles Burns’ unique world. It was an immersive experience, and some of the images have stayed with me for a long time.
Another reason why I loved Black Hole was its black humor, or dark humor. Some of the events were shocking and horrifying. They were serious in nature. Some of the teens struck by the disease or other issues seemed to not even notice it or care about it. This overarching problem was not given too much thought in wake of bigger issues like dating someone, a love triangle, parents who don’t understand, school drama, struggling to find acceptance, and countercultural themes. In other words, the disease sometimes felt like the secondary theme. It lightened the mood and also raised some fascinating questions—Do teens just accept something like a flesh-eating disease? What would it take for them to care?
Overall I found Black Hole to truly be one of the most vivid and memorable graphic novel reads I’ve had in the last few years. Black Hole rises above what people think of graphic novels as “cartoons” and crosses into genres of literature, horror, and contemporary art. I encourage you to pick it up if you want to read something that’s provocative, both visually and thematically. You might even find yourself in some of the teens’ everyday concerns—although hopefully without a tail…