Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Trade Waiting - Black Hole

This black and white masterpiece came out 5 years ago and I finally got a chance to read it now. I feel like a schlub being so far behind the real buzz on this book but damn is it still fine comics. Simply put it’s a tale about the stupidity of youth as it transitions into something more, but it’s also about an insidious infection that spreads through the teens of a small town and the complications and truths it brings with it. Hit the jump to see what I thought of it.

Black Hole

Written and art by Charles Burns

Just the cover alone is already so iconic. You see it on the shelves and you know you’ve seen it before. And it’s for a good reason. The fact that such a simple image can capture an audience is a very good precursor. The anonymity of the yearbook snap shot, the possibility that the person’s identity has to remain a secret for their own safety, or that the person could be anyone, could even be you, or even that the eyes are the windows to the soul and all we get here is a shell of a high school student. There’s much food for thought and it works strongest when the individual looking at it makes up their own mind, so I won’t preach.

The opening page of the book is just a black sheet with a tiny white line running a few inches vertically down the middle. It’s a tiny wavy line and it could mean nothing, or mean everything. Depends on your views about that sort of thing. The next page flashes that line out, makes the opening wider, but also more concrete, like what we are seeing is flesh. The interesting thing I find is, I feel like I’m looking out of it, not into it. It’s like we are just being born out of this hole and straight into the story. So the titular black hole, is it where we go to or where we come from? That’s the question. Is it a blissfully ignorant place to start or a terrible and confined place to be sent to? I guess you have to read more to discover what you’ll take from the story.

As the story opens we meet Keith, just the usual high school guy doing his best to get by and look cool doing it throughout the 70’s. He quickly, and almost inexplicably, falls in love with a girl in his class, Chris. Unfortunately for all involved, Chris gets herself infected with a sexually transmitted disease, known as the bug, and this disease is a bit different in that it generates quite strange bodily transformations among the infected. This isn’t something you cure with a shot of penicillin. This is the sort of thing that makes you leave your loved ones and go live in a tent out in the woods.

Throughout the rest of the story we meet different characters and watch them all interact in different situations. The thing that quickly became obvious to me is that Charles Burns knows how to draw a true high school face. These people are really individual, some of them almost obnoxiously so. I could just look at a wordless panel and instantly know what some of these characters were about. You see it in their face and Burns does well to play out character through facial structure, or mannerisms, and dialogue.

The storytelling structure is fascinating in that it’s not linear at all. Burns presents us with short vignettes that play to a beat and then get out. They could be described as scenes except for the fact that they feel so standalone, and could easily be enjoyed for art and pay off completely on their own. Sometimes we see alternate views of the one scene, or we see one character finish a scene and a bit later we pick up a different character coming in moments after the previous person left. You can be shown the pay off at first and then much later get the set up via a different character.

Black Hole is a Cronenbergian dystopia with a Tarantino structure. If Polanski directed it. A few different film makers have been attached to bring this tale to the silver screen and I’d be interested to see how it would adapt. I really like the fade in and out structure of the scenes and feel that each segment needs to be digested on its own. I’d rather see a collection of short films shown over a weekend than an actual 2 hour flick to pack the theatres come one long hot summer. Get a different director for each vignette, keep the actors, sets, and crew the same otherwise, and just have each scene stand alone, as it is presented in the book.

While reading the book I found myself completely emotionally invested in the story. It’s not often that a piece of writing, or art, makes me literally fume with anger, or want to wretch my guts out. Those were two of the strongest of many emotions that I felt while reading this book. There was one character who I absolutely hated, more and more, as the book went on. I think you are supposed to hate her, she doesn’t seem all that sympathetic, quite honestly, but I truly hated her. This book is peppered with real characters in real moments and that’s where Burns truly wins, he’s presenting real life in between all of the deranged mutilations and psycho killers.

There is one moment, and it’s not even central to the story, where a guy is at a friend’s house and her older sister is just a massive cow. She’s big and mean and nasty and then she gets a phone call and she’s tries to be all sweet and kind but you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and so you can see this girl is being shit on over the phone, and she’s still taking it. She’s got this massive bluff of bravado and aggression that hides the fact she just wants to be wanted. When the guy leaves the house later on he sees she has already returned, and is sitting behind the wheel of her car, mascara streaming out of her eyes like an oil spill in the Mexican Gulf. It’s a true moment and I know I’ve known people just like that girl.

Towards the end, the story takes a turn for the worse (yeah, worse than growing a tail or having massive sores all over your face) when someone starts killing off a few of these sick teens. It’s a little bit of a mystery and get resolved pretty well. I just felt sad for everyone involved; the only motivation for any of these characters is a melancholy desire for something before their end. It’s depressing because, again, you know people like this. Not infected people but lost people. Sad souls. They riddle the world with their frowns and nobody knows what to do with them.

At the conclusion, honestly, I wasn’t sure what to make of what happened. The book is most certainly about a lot of things but the conclusion has me baffled. It’s almost about fresh starts, perhaps, or people finding happiness in what they have, finally. Or maybe if not happiness then acceptance. I don’t know, it was so ambiguous that I think on any given day I could read something new and more into it. Not to say it was a hollow conclusion, but much like many of the layers of the story, you are expected to be an active participant in exactly where the story ends up.

Verdict – Must Read. In the end, Black Hole is about the follies of youth. The fact that they feel invincible (or at least pretend to believe they are) and then sadly make decisions based on this false premise. They don’t connect the effect to the cause and they so rarely think that the ills of the world could actually happen to them. And I might sound like some old man (and being a teacher does affect my views of youth) but I say this in all honesty as a man who was once a very dumb teen. I never caught some bug that made me grow a tail, but I didn’t consider the consequences seriously and in hindsight that’s scary. This sort of thing could occur so easily and we should be happy that there isn’t some bug going round with the kids because it would spread. Slowly but surely it would.

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Ryan K Lindsay said...

Ha, look at the trade waiting list of our previous posts under that banner, we don't trade wait a lot of Marvel, do we?

Ivan said...

"I never caught some bug that made me grow a tale,"

What, like a storytelling bug? :P

Nice review, really got me curious. I have a lot of indie stuff in my "check out" list, but I just like superheroes too much I guess. :P

Anonymous said...


This review was great and made me want to buy this trade. The bad thing with me as Ivan said is that I'm so in love with the super-hero comic books that I do not know if I can make it. I'm really close to get this trade. Damn, what a difficult decision!

Ryan K Lindsay said...

@Ivan - lucky I included a pic to show what I really meant, otherwise that could have been confusing and awkward, ha. I've amended the error, cheers.

@THE GREAT ANON - mate, this book is pretty damn fine, the art is phenomenal, and it's bloody think, I lost a week reading this one, and that's an awesome thing to be able to say about a comic. I'd suggest getting it, you'll slow down and appreciate this one a lot.

matthew. said...

I wish whenever people were confronted with a nonlinear narrative structure, they wouldn't immediately compare it to Tarantino.

Black Hole is as far from Tarantino as Aliens is from Merchant-Ivory films.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

The Tarantino example is for more than just the fractured narrative, though, which I should have stated. I am not the biggest fan of Tarantino anymore but this also had that edge of everyday people vignettes that he uses with the tinge of explosive violence that is kind of his signature. The tale did have elements where I think Tarantino could almost made a very wicked adaptation of this. I could have gone with the Coens but it just felt more Tarantino to me, though in the end it was highly a Cronenberg concept.

matthew. said...

I think a better comparison for Black Hole would be Bret Easton Ellis or Don Delillo meets David Cronenberg. Both Ellis and Delillo are concerned with washed-out nihilistic emotional empty people, but with a strong moral sense, and combined with Cronenberg's body-horror interests.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

@Matthew - Ooh, excellent point, I'd take that Ellis comparison any day of the week. Great call. You can help me anytime!

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