This is the fifth installment in my series of Graphic Novel Reviews, in which I will publish a review each Tuesday until I run out of books. This is based, in part, on a class that I am currently taking about the graphic novel. Read the next one here or go to last week’s review.
Black Hole is brutal. The story follows a group of middle class teenagers living in Seattle in the 70s who are ravaged by a terrifying sexually transmitted disease that mutates their bodies in bizarre and grotesque ways. Often cited as one of the most important graphic novels in the 20th century, it was published in a series of 12 mini-comics in the late 90s and early 00s. This strange graphic novel explores the dynamics of in-group/out-group and the tainted lives of teenagers in a world of sex and drugs.
This is both an analysis as well as a review; I have tried to keep spoilers to a minimum, but they are still present in the following paragraphs.
The artwork in Black Hole is strange, but very precise. The heavy black lines and detailed backgrounds give this comic a grungy feel. Burns’ realistic style gives grounding to his fantastical mutations, surreal dream sequences, and drug fueled images. I was impressed with the ease with which he moves from reality to dream,and from character to character. Part of the transition is his brilliant use of the panel’s rectangular shape to his advantage — dream sequences all took place within a panel with wavy border lines. This blending of the real and surreal within a gritty art style is what makes this graphic novel stand out among other 90s works.
“The Bug” that the teens are passing between each other goes beyond the typical AIDS allegory story readers have grown accustomed to. Yes, the bug can easily be a stand in for the STD that ravaged the gay community and the way those with the bug are treated runs parallel to homophobia. However, one could make the case that the bug could be used as a metaphor for changes during puberty or the pettiness of teen culture. Because the only individuals who seem to fall victim to the bug are teens, one could make the assumption that it does not affect adults at all. Furthermore, those afflicted are so hated that they flee to the woods, where a colony of homeless, sick teenagers have gathered. One character even comments that seeing sick people at the diner ruins her good time.
It’s important to remember that this is set in the mid-70s. It is an interesting choice, especially when reading this twenty years later. Being so removed, I see the influence of Burns’ 90s reflected in the sad nostalgia for the time of his teen years. The similarities between the two decades illustrates the cyclical nature of culture to swing back every 30 or so years. The 90s are coming back, now in 2015.
I would recommend this novel to anyone who likes body horror, psychedelics, or haunting narratives. It’s not a fast read, but I finished it in one evening, though I needed a nap afterwards to emotionally recharge.