It is hard to resolve Black Hole. In this work by Charles Burns that is part horror, and part nostalgia, there is not a final destination; there are no absolute morals or insights that define the book’s meaning or the lives of its main characters. However, the story has all of the tell tale attributes of a work that will teach a lesson.
First there is the matter of the disfiguring disease that is a plague on society which is passed through sexual contact. Then there is also the setting of the woods, on the outskirts of Seattle, where the disenchanted and disgraced go to take refuge. Shame and sex as major plot points almost always point to a problem that needs to be overcome.
However, Black Hole never delivers that to the readers. Instead it provides parallel tales of the two main characters: the local high school’s smart and beautiful Chris and her science partner Keith, who is an average young male suburban teen. The narrative follows them as they begin to make real decisions for themselves about their lives, with a plot that begins with them as lab partners and keeps their existence intersecting along the way. While Keith is in love with Chris, she is looking for something else. She finds herself becoming involved with a more sophisticated classmate, and through a sad series of misunderstandings becomes infected with “the bug” as it is called by the rest of the town. Keith, who continues to pine for Chris throughout most of the books, winds up knowingly in a relationship with a different young woman with the STD, and proceeds to become intimate with her anyway.
The books, set in the mid 1970’s before the era of the AIDS crisis, do not treat “the bug” as a scarlet letter of shame for having sex. Other characters in the book have sex without getting the disease and there is no connection with one particular approach to sex (gay, unmarried, teen, etc…) that seems to be a corollary to acquiring it. The bug can be caught by anyone, at anytime that they engage in sex with someone that has it. The bug becomes part of the important decision making process of becoming involved with someone.
However, once it is known that someone has the bug then they become a societal outcast. As an adult, sexual identity is core in a concept of completeness as a person and with the bug, individuals are no longer a sexually viable option, therefore no longer a whole person to society. A group of young outcasts have created a small encampment in the woods on the edge of the suburbs, living there when the burden of having the bug around everyone else becomes too great. The woods are also where teens go to party, where they can drink and smoke and do the things that the rest of the population do not want to see or hear, but yet know that they are present in their community.
Groups of youth in the woods cannot exist within contemporary media without death. From Hansel and Gretel to Friday the 13th, it is explained that wandering outside of regular paths leads to great problems. In this way, Burns does not disappoint. Tapping into the collective spirit of danger and mystery that accompanies outlying areas, he uses this as a point of dramatic tension throughout the issues. The big reveal of who is behind the deaths of many of those who are infected, is also more sad than moralistic. It is a seemingly all too familiar tale of the outsider amongst outsiders who is pushed beyond his limits of loneliness.
The world that Burns creates in the book is both stark and neat. Clean lines and highly designed details create a world that seems very real. Burns’ drawings and layouts create a feeling for the 1970’s without ever becoming a parody. He uses the black in the black and white drawings that emphasize this world of separation and night. The amount of black is so great that book actually has an intense odor from the amount of ink that was needed from its production. Now it is published as a collected trade paperback. The original twelve issues were printed between 1995 and 2005 at the rate of abut one a year; with the slow production probably due to a combination of economics and the detailed level of each and every frame. Bundled together now in one edition, the inside-cover shows yearbook images of the students before and the back cover shows them after being transformed by the bug. With this one compare and contrast, Burns’ perhaps makes his largest statement. The students are the same people, but yet so different they are a slight image of their former selves.
In a year of their lives when seeing themselves and their friends in their high school yearbook should be the summation of their experiences, both characters Chris and Keith are making long lasting choices about who they are with, where they will live and what their futures will entail. At the end of the book the reader is left with an incomplete picture; there is no feeling of whether or not that these decisions are right or wrong, they are just the decisions that needed to be made in order to remain alive, which separate them from those that could not pull through that they are leaving behind.