Being a teenager can be rough enough. But being a teenager in Black Hole by Charles Burns is even worse, with a high chance that you’ll contract a mutilating sexually transmitted disease and be forced to run away from home and live in the woods.
The story is set in seventies America. The kids smoke dope, drink and have sex, much like any other group of seventies teenagers. But this particular community is struck by a “teen plague”, a strange disease with physical symptoms that vary from person to person. This isn’t something that’s necessarily going to kill you, but you might end up developing some form of physical mutation: one person might shed their skin; another could grow a tail; while a third may suffer from severe facial disfigurement. In this enclosed society, seemingly isolated from the world outside and devoid of adult supervision, the disease is quick to spread.
The book could easily be read as a cautionary tale against unsafe sex, a warning against jumping into bed with girls who have tails or boys with extra little mouths at the bottom of their necks that talk while their hosts are asleep. But it would be a simplistic reading – Burns clearly isn’t judging his teenage characters, just disfiguring them with his plague and sending them off on their not-so merry way. Despite the disfigurements some of the worst horror in the book is reserved for a far more widespread human affliction – jealousy.
It’s a tragedy that, despite its historical setting, is timeless. In places it feels like a fifties B-movie, in others thoroughly modern. In truth it’s nearest relatives are probably other comics, as it brings a visual, edgy narrative to a story that’s too dense for cinema, too deep for TV and too visual for prose.
This is a fantastic read, deserving of its cult status. Its ability to treat horror as a matter of fact, its lack of judgement and its innate desire to tell a story of teenage love, loss and anguish make it a journey far more beautiful than its disfigured characters may imply. Black Hole puts Burns right at the top of the heap of comic creators at the moment, giving the likes of Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware a good run for their money. Read it, enjoy it, and recommend it to other broad-minded people. Just make sure they aren’t trying to hide any unusual new body parts.