Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole sucks you in, true to its title, with irresistible momentum. Taking place in mid-1970s Seattle, the backdrop to Burns’ own adolescence, it chronicles the impact of a curious sexually transmitted disease that causes its teenage sufferers to physically mutate in a variety of wild ways. The story zeros in on two personable characters: easy-going yet sensitive Keith, and Chris, the girl he’s besotted with, who is both popular and kind.
The kids in Black Hole like to hang out in local woodland, at a secret, unmonitored place where they can drink and get stoned under a protective canopy of huge trees. At first glance, it’s idyllic, but just up the hill, where the brush gets dark and dense, there’s a makeshift settlement where the most disfigured victims of the disease hide out, shunned by their peers as well as the wider community. Here, among the most ostracised, mutilated body parts are starting to show up.
It feels strange to write a straightforward synopsis of Black Hole, because Burns’ visual narrative is all-enveloping and confounding, with hallucination, dream, memory, premonition and real-time action all intermixed. A seething mass of detail captures your eye, binding you into the claustrophobic space of the story. Splits and slits, twists and corkscrews, op art vortices and tendril motifs proliferate; everything’s unstable, penetrable, capable of mutation.
Burns’ chosen medium is scratchboard, a drawing surface developed in the 19th century and popularised by illustrators in the mid-20th century. Consisting of a layer of white china clay on board, coated with black ink that can be scratched into with customised scribes, it was an expedient way for illustrators and publishers to emulate the dramatic black and white contrast of wood-cut prints. Burns is a dizzying master of this form. In his hands, darkness becomes luminous. His nightscapes are shiny and almost wet-looking, like phosphorescence in a black sea.
If Black Hole’s dazzling fragments can be unified by any one theme, it’s the destructive potential of sex, love and desire, which pulls Chris and Keith into increasingly murky and desperate territory. Most obviously, sex can make you sick, monstrous and ostracised; more insidiously, thwarted love festers into self-harm, obsession and violence. In Black Hole the heightened social stakes of adolescence take on grotesque proportions in the hidden, anarchic space of the woods.