Review: Black Hole by Charles Burns

I’ve had a nasty cold recently, which has at least allowed me plenty of time in bed with books.  I’d got Black Hole by Charles Burns out the library as it is widely touted as one of THE graphic novels to read.

Black Hole is set in 1970s suburban Seattle. There is a sexually transmitted disease rife among the teenagers of the area. It manifests differently in everyone, but does include skin shedding, tail growing,  lumps, boils and tiny mouths in your neck that speak. In some people it is mild enough for them to be able to “pass” but in others it is written all over their faces, and they find themselves shunned from society, living in the woods and scavenging for food.

Despite being fictional, it reminded me strongly of my favourite non-fiction graphic novel, My Friend Dahlmer by Derf Backderf.  It’s the same era, has the same secrets hidden in woods, adolescents going through or witnessing trauma that they either can’t or won’t express to the adults around them.  Both relied on an extremely bold black and white artwork, which serves to underline the seriousness of the issues they deal with.   They also have a horrific story unfolding slowly in what many would assume is a safe suburban environment.

Black Hole is a portrait of the alienation that many teenagers feel.  Struggling to find their individual selves, while also deeply compelled by the childhood survival mechanism of fitting in.  Almost everyone has to negotiate this dichotomy at some point, and some do it with more success than others.  My expectations of Black Hole is that at some point something would happen, the kids would get the help they needed and the people who had ostracised them would learn a lesson – that’s how it works in my chaotic good aligned moral compass.

This is not what happens.  The children try to negotiate their problems on their own.  Some of them do so badly, some incredibly badly, and others find a modicum of success.  The success that they appear to have is not to do with how badly they are disfigured but how much they let their feelings of alienation dominate their interactions with others and the world.  While it appears that Black Hole is going to be a thinly disguised metaphor for aids, it is in fact a way of giving physical expression to the pitfalls of adolescence.  As many young people’s distress is displayed in their relationships with their bodies – self harm, binging, starving – the metaphor works well.

As a parent what terrified me most was the way none of the children seamed to think there was any adult they could trust and talk to.  It made me wonder if the punitive, authoritarian and inflexible parenting styles of ages gone by meant that barriers are created between children and all the adults around them, not just between the child and the parent.   Given the rising tide of mental health problems among teenagers it is probably more important than ever that we look at and dissect what goes on in the minds of young people.  Black Hole is a thought provoking example of how the arts are in a unique position to do this.  Like all the best art it does not give us any answers, but presents us with a lot of questions and inspires us to think.

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