Monday, March 8, 2010

Black Hole by Charles Burns

In 1970’s Seattle, casual sex can lead to more than just a pregnancy scare. A sexually transmitted virus, the “bug” is sweeping through the senior class, and it causes it’s carriers to mutate. Sometimes the mutations are small, a tail, a mouth on your neck. Sometimes, they’re bigger, making you something horrific. The afflicted camp out in the woods above town, but how long can they last?

It’s funny, how when you look at something for a second time, its meaning can change.

I first read Black Hole in 2006, shortly after it won the Eisner award. Back then, I read it as a stark tale of adolescence, with the mutating virus a metaphor for the uncertainty teens feel in their bodies and sexuality. I didn’t like it much. I thought it was a pretty obvious treatment of a well-traveled trope. Burns’ art (from the Chris Ware/Dan Clowes school) didn’t do much for me.

I recently re-read the book, for a presentation I’m doing, and while I’m still not a huge fan of the book, there’s more there than I thought there was.

More about the second time around with spoilers (if a 5 year old book can have spoilers)

First off, Burns’ art style requires a second look. Detailed and stark, it has an exactness that most creators would never even aspire to. I still think his character designs leave something to be desired, but the wild dream sequences in this book are small surreal masterpieces.

What struck me on a second reading is how the “bug” gives meaning to things that would probably quickly be forgotten otherwise. Casual hookups now have everlasting consequences. A moment’s kindness can be the difference between life and death. First love becomes only love.

Another thing that jumped out at me in the second reading is the book’s treatment of its female characters. Chris, the main female character, is obsessed over by three different males. I couldn’t figure out why; she’s not that interesting. Chris is a blank slate that the boys project their desires onto. Chris only receives agency when her boyfriend is killed, and then only when another character comes to kill her. Eliza, the other female character, is a free-spirited artist, who suffers a gang-rape and must be rescued from her circumstances by a “nice guy”. This treatment of women as adjacent to men, only defined by their relationships, is something I see in a lot of indie comics.

Black Hole is definitely worth a look, even if I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it.  Although all of the characters are in high school, I do think this is an adult book, both from the 70's setting and the frank sexuality on display.

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