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Black Hole by Charles Burns

A graphic novel by Charles Burns

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Charles Burns, You Have My Attention

  • Feb 12, 2008
  • by
Pros: Humor, horror, mystery, the 70s... what more could I ask for?

Cons: May be offensive to immature audiences

The Bottom Line: A great graphic novel with an interesting, thought-provoking storyline. I'm adding Charles Burns to my "To-Read" list.

I'm always trying to find new graphic novels and their authors and illustrators. Often, I pick a few by different authors, hoping to find someone who's style I'll like, then I can find more books by that same author. Recently, I picked out a handful of titles at once to take from the library, and the first one I decided to read was Black Hole by Charles Burns. Lucky me, on the first try I found a book I liked a lot, and I'm excited about finding more of Charles Burns' work.

Black Hole is set in the 1970s in Seattle, Washington where a sexually transmitted disease is spreading through the high school population. "The bug" seems to affect people slightly differently: some of them are very noticeably disfigured while others may just have bumps on them or (in one specific character's case) a mouth on their neck. The story revolves around two main characters who share a biology class in high school, Chris and Keith and begins in that classroom: a frog dissection induces some very eerie visions for Keith, and had me interested from the get-go. Keith has a crush on Chris, as do many of the boys, but Chris is interested in Rob. After a drunken encounter with Rob, Chris becomes infected, only to find out after a group of her peers sees her disfigurement. With Chris now "unavailable," Keith meets an interestingly tempting girl named Eliza, and eventually he becomes infected as well. Planet Xeno (as Keith and his friends call it), a forest-ey area above Ravenna Park has become a hideout of sorts for some of those who have been infected, and eventually Chris finds a home there, and Keith becomes a constant visitor as well.

Black Hole was originally serialized over the course of 10 years, and each issue's story is told from one of the four main characters' personal viewpoints. This style really pulls the characters individual personalities up to a phenomenal notch, as do their various interactions amongst themselves and with others. The 70s presence also comes through very clearly, with the characters' appearances and pastimes in a way that seems subtle but very effective and clear. The teens all enjoy some of the traditional 70s activities: smoking marijuana, drinking beer and always having a good time, and while they fear "the bug" they still enjoy their sexuality, too.

Burns' illustrations complement his story so well, you can tell he spent copious amounts of time on them. Though all black and white, their detail makes each frame punch through with its presence and importance. The characters all have their own unique appearances, and their expressions are always clear, almost seeming to be frozen. Burns also uses his creative license with the structure of his story, sometimes formatting with traditional frames, sometimes flowing all over the place, but always keeping my eyes glued to the pages.

Charles Burns has really got something with Black Hole; he not only entertained me with his horror/almost sci-fi story, he made me think. The people who've come to stay on "Planet Xeno" have obviously been out-casted, but who were they before? Some of them are recognizable to the main characters, but some of them weren't; they only add to the mysteriousness that surrounds their small community. The sexually transmitted disease in this story is obviously science-fiction, but the teens in their often drug-induced daze don't always quite know what to think of it. While it's scary and surely nobody wants to get it, it's also quite intriguing, and we all know when you're caught in the moment that caution can sometimes be thrown to the wind. Black Hole seems to play on the coming-of-age story and adds humor, mysteriousness, and horror to make it a one-of-of-a-kind story.

My only complaints would be that some of the ends seemed a little too loose for me; I was left wanting more and feeling almost abandoned. Some people may be offended by the frequent drug-use, but I think it really adds that "was it a hallucination, or what?" element to some parts of the story, as well as playing on the culture of the time. Also, there is (obviously) quite a bit of sexuality and nudity, but considering the subject matter I don't think that's uncalled for. This book is obviously meant for a more mature audience.

Charles Burns has really sucked me in with Black Hole. I'm amazed at this book and the fact that he took ten years to write and illustrate it. It's absolutely wonderful; another great example of variety in a graphic novel. I can't wait to read more!


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More Black Hole (graphic novel) reviews
Quick Tip by . March 22, 2012
An unsettling, allegorical tale of adolescence and mutation in the 1970s. Part coming of age drama, part Cronenbergian body horror. Burns' superb writing and bold black and white artwork make this a highly engrossing and highly impressive read. Not one for the easily shocked.
Quick Tip by . December 02, 2009
A graphic novel that you enjoy reading, like a novel. Stark & compelling illustrations.
review by . November 09, 2008
Black Hole by Charles Burns
Outstanding! Absolutely the best graphic horror novel ever written, and brought together in one book that I literally finished in only a few hours. Then I had to go back, and peer once again at the wonderfully twisted graphic cells.     Forget herpes and AIDS, this story is about a $exually transmitted disease that is sweeping through the teen population in Seattle WA during the 70's. Sure, it may be fatal, but when teenagers are so concerned about looks and cliques and fitting …
About the reviewer
Laura Elizabeth 'Anderson' Brack ()
Ranked #319
I'm brand new to Lunch and looking to get settled. I write on epinions.com as laurashrti, and enjoy writing product reviews.      I'm a 27-year-old library employee working … more
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The prodigiously talented Burns hit the comics scene in the '80s via Raw magazine, wielding razor-sharp, ironic-retro graphics. Over the years his work has developed a horrific subtext perpetually lurking beneath the mundane suburban surface. In the dense, unnerving Black Hole, Burns combines realism—never a concern for him before—and an almost convulsive surrealism. The setting is Seattle during the early '70s. A sexually transmitted disease, the "bug," is spreading among teenagers. Those who get it develop bizarre mutations—sometimes subtle, like a tiny mouth at the base of one boy's neck, and sometimes obvious and grotesque. The most visibly deformed victims end up living as homeless campers in the woods, venturing into the streets only when they have to, shunned by normal society. The story follows two teens, Keith and Chris, as they get the bug. Their dreams and hallucinations—made of deeply disturbing symbolism merging sexuality and sickness—are a key part of the tale. The AIDS metaphor is obvious, but the bug also amplifies already existing teen emotions and the wrenching changes of puberty. Burns's art is inhumanly precise, and he makes ordinary scenes as creepy as his nightmare visions of a world where intimacy means a life worse than death.
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ISBN-10: 037542380X
ISBN-13: 978-0375423802
Author: Charles Burns
Genre: Japanese Horror, Gaphic Novel
Publisher: Pantheon (October 18, 2005)
Date Published: (October 18, 2005)
Format: Hardcover: 352 pages, Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.8 x 1.6 inches
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