On Black Hole

WARNING: This post probably isn’t work safe or mind safe. There is some body horror and some straight-up violence. 

What is Black Hole about? I’ll just let Burns explain.

Right. Black Hole is about a disease that affects teenagers, and about the lives of those particular characters. In some way, the other elements are incidental. I mean, of course it plays an important role, but it’s not just about, you know, an STD that deforms teenagers. That’s not what the story is about. The story is about characters who are struggling with their adolescence and finding their way through that portion of their life. [1]

That’s the story. Of course, there are specificities. There are several characters. We follow them, we see them coping (or failing to cope) with The Bug (the teen disease [the STD {their adolescence}]).

Once you get it, your body changes, and everyone notices. You might just get little tadpole-shaped growths on your chest or bulbous things on your face, of your hair might all fall out, or you might grow a tail, or worse. You are never the same again, and you don’t belong at home anymore. “The bug” is, of course, sexually transmitted. (Wolk, Reading Comics 336)

But, honestly, this isn’t about that.

There is a version of this “review” or “critical intervention” or whatever it is you need this to be where I do a close reading of panels and plotlines and I draw the various protagonists together into a clear chronology and plotline. There is an alternate universe where I sew this whole thing up. But increasingly I think the project of sewing anything up, of making it explainable, of drawing it together, might be violent. More importantly, it might be wrong. If you want that panel analysis with plotline sewn in, I suggest you look to Vanessa Raney’s review in ImageText. It is smart and does that work really, really well. But, like I said, it isn’t work that I’m going to be doing.

I want to talk about the world as it is presented to us in Black Hole.

First, we need to take a trip through a wound.

Black Hole is about the wound that is the world. I want to note here, up top, that I’m not showing you all of the wound images to be found in Black Hole. If I did, I would be showing a full quarter of the book’s pages. It is the fundamental image that the book is built around, and this post is about trying to figure out why. Maybe we have to take two steps backward.

What is a wound? Physically, it is a presence and an absence. It is a new pain, neurons on fire, a flailing limp. It is the invisible inside given presence to the human; my cat scratches me deep and I’m suddenly flesh. But something goes missing at the same time. A hole opens up in the body. We have to peer inside–the grotesque comes then. The wound makes body horror possible, after all. But Black Hole takes a turn. What is inside the wound in that image? Blackness. A hint of something, maybe, but it seems to merely contain what it everywhere else. The wound itself becomes a black hole. In fact, we know a wound by the blackness underneath it–mere flesh isn’t a wound in Black Hole:

So that isn’t an “authentic wound.” Here is an example of a wound in Black Hole:

The face, in being wounded, becomes a wound. It becomes a hole.

The stark black and white of Black Hole is very much intentional on Burns’ part. He says that

In this case, it really had somewhat to do with the character of the story, the feeling of the story…a real visceral feeling of what those shapes are, what those images are, the textures, the forest. It starts to be a real character in the story, the atmosphere, the lines. Color doesn’t seem like it would enter into the story at all; it would be wrong. [2]

The world of Black Hole could only be in black and white. It could only be about absence and presence. However, it isn’t Manichean. It isn’t about light fighting dark and trying to bring something beautiful into the world. It isn’t a heroic struggle at all. Instead, blackness is the default. The vast, uncaring universe of decay and absence, of nothing-being, is the standard. Life is an anomaly here. What do we find when we see the wound? We see the base reality of things–we see the structure of it all, the ground of being. We see the sucking hole of the real. To quote Ben Woodard, the white on the page is “something that will fill space till the cosmos burns too low for anything to again cohere, ending only in an ocean of putrescence spilling over into the boundless void of extinction.”[3]

How else can we read the following panel?

The act of life, of will, is merely a flash that is extinguished in the dark.

It is. It is a mirror of the true reality of the world, of the underlayer. This is the full aesthetic experience of Black Hole. There isn’t a savior in the comic, though it does appear that The Bug merely disappears at some point (read the supplement to this post). There isn’t a victory over tragedy. The kids infected with The Bug being excised from society isn’t unique. The strange and senseless violence that peppers the comic isn’t a phenomenon generated in response to its internal world. The blackness at the root of existence wasn’t created from whole cloth.

These things are all happening all the time. While the world of Black Hole might look fantastical and terrible, it really isn’t. We can try to hold it at a distance. It feels impossible. The closing image draws us in–it sutures us into the folds of the fictional world.

The kids of Black Hole are in there, somewhere. The left spiral arm? And so are we. At the middle of that great unthinkable mass? A black hole, sucking it all in, collapsing in on itself.

You can buy Black Hole here.

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