Black Hole

Howdy, folks. I’ve been a little lax in posting here, but you see, I’ve been busy. My final semester of library grad school is underway, and I’m learning all about library management/administration in one course, and reading and evaluating scads of comics in another. A free cookie goes to whoever can guess which course I’m enjoying more!

I’ve read so many great comics in the past month, gotten exposed to a lot of talented writers and artists. One favorite is Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan, a science fiction title focusing on a future journalist modeled after Hunter S. Thompson. His name is Spider Jerusalem, and he explores the various hyper-liberal aspects of the bustling city he lives in. Great stuff. Another revelation is the manga of Osamu Tezuka, known as the “god of manga” in Japan.

Perhaps the best thing I’ve read so far is Charles Burns’s Black Hole, a graphic novel compiled from twelve issues (which took Burns a full ten years to complete). Drawn in a meticulous and stark scratchboard style (black and white, no midtones), it tells the story of a group of teenagers in 1970s suburban Seattle, and the sexually-transmitted mutation that plagues them. Once afflicted, each teen develops a unique mutation– it could be a tail, a melting face, or a second mouth that grows on your chest and gives voice to your subconscious. Some are disfigured so badly they are ostracized from society; others can hide their secret.

While I have read analyses that interpret the work as having to do with AIDS, I think it is really more about going through the horribly awkward teenage years. Sex and drugs figure very prominently, and sex seems to be the thing that sets it all off– literally, in that the plague is spread through bodily fluids, but also figuratively. Sex is what adults do but teenagers are often forbidden from engaging in.

The teenage years are so difficult, partly because society and family expect teenagers to “act mature” and take on more responsibilities, yet in many ways do not allow teens to enjoy the pleasures of being an adult. You aren’t allowed to remain a child and indulge in careless play, but you also aren’t allowed to indulge in more mature play.

And then there’s the alienation. This is a source of a lot of Black Hole‘s horror– so many kids in the story become outcasts who can no longer live normal lives, with even their friends becoming alienated from them. They become helpless and desperate. Does anyone feel normal in their teenage years? Many of the afflicted teens in the story live in Planet Xeno, a place in the woods where they set up tents and shacks. Things get scarier when some of the kids start disappearing, and strange broken dolls are found hanging from trees….

There is a glimmer of hope for some characters, who keep moving and working through the horror, trying to find a better future. This is important, because being a teenager (as many of us know) isn’t the end of the world. I feel sorry for kids I see on school buses around town…. I often want to tell them that things will get better. Whoever says high school makes the best years of your life, well that person is either a sadistic asshole or someone who deserves a better adult life.

This is probably one of the best graphic novels I have read. I like it much better than stories like Maus or Watchmen… this speaks to me so much more directly, it’s more personal on a local level. The writing is very sharp, very suspenseful. And the art– so incredibly meticulous, with the most haunting images.

What I’m stumped on is what age group I would recommend this to, or what section of the library I would place this. Standard young-adult fiction knowledge says that most children and teens want to read about characters who are a little bit older than themselves, but sometimes their age. I’m inclined to recommend this book to mature teenagers, maybe 16 and up. But the sex, nudity, and unrepentant drug use could always lead to a pissed-off parent and a book challenge.

The other thing is, I wouldn’t want to recommend this to a teen and have him or her get too distraught by it. Reading this as an adult, I know it takes teen alienation and magnifies it hyperbolically, to horrific effect. I know that things can get better… but I wouldn’t want a teen to read it and totally despair! Perhaps the ideal audience is adults who are emerging from their teenage years and reflecting back on them.

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~ by plastron on June 21, 2008.

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