Fade to Black & White Under the Plague Moonlight: A Review of Charles Burns’ Black Hole

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Cover of the hardcover collection of Black Hole, by Charles Burns.

Growing up, most of us learned the consequences of sex, whether it was the consequences of unprotected sex, sex with someone of the same gender, or not waiting until we’re mentally and emotionally ready to have sex. In Black Hole, Charles Burns teaches readers another thing about sex: that it can physically transform you for what might be the rest of your life.

Black Hole is set in Seattle in the mid-70s. A strange plague is spreading through the town, one that affects sexually-active teenagers and no one else. It would be easy to call the plague just another sexually-transmitted disease, but this contagion acts more like a physical mutation, one that leaves deformities that are both minor enough to be easily concealed underneath a shirt, and extensive enough that some live hidden on the outskirts of town.

Burns’ black and white images do a great job of setting the scene, visually taking readers back to the mood and aesthetic of the 70s. The lack of color also helps lull the reader into the characters’ heads as they descend into a mental labyrinth looping, spiraling, and curving across the brain’s hemispheres with images that are visually arresting one moment, and stomach-churning the next. Rather than a fever dream, some visuals are more like fever nightmares, ones that make you wonder  what kind of trip Burns was on when he conceived of them.

Page 5 of Black Hole, by Charles Burns.

When not treated to horrors and glories pulped and sculpted from the sides of Burns’ skull, the reader pieces together the narrative with help from a generous cast of characters. But this is where the story stumbles a bit for me. My main issue is that not only are the characters similarly drawn, making it difficult to tell them apart sometimes, they also have similar stories and personalities.

The female characters are also a bit of a letdown. Nearly all of them have the same voice; the same personality; and the same need to be saved, sustained by, and cater to the whims of male characters. This could just be Burns’ interpretation of the teenage (both male and female) hormonal confusion and near-constant desire to be with the one you “love”/are infatuated with, but it often comes across as disappointment and more missed opportunities to flesh out a story, a story in which one character actually sheds her flesh.

That said, there is one male character who’s emotionally floundering his way through his transformation and reaches out to a female character in search of stability, albeit in a way that’s anything but stable. This particular character only makes a minor, supporting appearance in the story, and I would’ve liked a deeper look inside his head.

Page 32 of Black Hole, by Charles Burns.

There’s also a plot point in the middle of the story that’s as unexpected as an unplanned pregnancy. The graphic novel is told through a series of vignettes, and this particular plot point appears in three different narratives, but it’s never either explained nor resolved. But maybe it’s not supposed to be?   

But focusing more on the positive and accentuating less of the not-so-positive, Burns does a great job of injecting sensual imagery and symbolism throughout the story that make you view each individual panel as a work of art rather than outright pornography. Oddly, this also lends a hint of paranoia to the tale as the reader wonders if certain images are meant to be purposefully sexual or nothing more than regular objects, a bit like a teenager might think during his or her sexual awakening.

While I certainly have a few qualms about Black Hole, including the confounding soft and hard ending(s), they weren’t major enough to make me swear off anything else Charles Burns conjures up. Much like It Follows, this is a graphic novel that makes you rethink the psychological “afteresex” of such an intimate sharing of your body and identity. Maybe Burns imbued his story with a plague of his own, because after reading it, I learned that a film adaptation of Black Hole is in the works by New Regency and Plan B. In the words of Diana Ross, “If there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it.”    

Fight Club 2, by Chuck Palahniuk & Cameron Stewart.

Next Up: Fight Club 2, the graphic novel follow-up to the cult classic film Fight Club that explores The Narrator’s life 10 years after Project Mayhem. Will a wife, a kid, and a handful of pills be enough to keep Tyler Durden away? Doubtful.