I wasn’t very popular in high school. I wanted desperately to hang out with the cool kids, but they avoided me and ignored me. My unpopularity was a disease that they didn’t want to catch.
Charles Burns makes social diseases of this sort the literal premise of Black Hole. In the novel, there’s a sexually transmitted disease (which I recently heard is now called a “sexually transmitted infection.” Apparently, it’s not a “disease” unless there are symptoms) that manifests in strange ways. Some people with the disease are able to hide the symptoms: skin that sheds like a snake’s, webbed fingers and toes, a tiny mouth that whispers what you’re really thinking. But others are forced into hiding because the change in their appearances is grotesquely apparent, and there’s no hiding that they have the disease.
Burns takes a raw look at the world of adolescent friendships and the very real pain they cause. Teenagers do crazy things, but it’s often because they’re feeling pain and isolation, and they don’t know how else to cope. Burns follows this pain and isolation — sometimes obvious, but sometimes hidden — to conclusions that may seem farfetched, but are disturbingly common to the reactions that many of today’s teens have to their own perceived social “diseases.”
Now, I have no problems admitting that I’m quite the prude. There’s quite a bit of nudity in this graphic novel, and it was jarring for me. When I come across graphic scenes in books, I can usually skip ahead to where the coast is clear. But a picture is worth a thousand words, and I often unwittingly read entire scenes at a glance that I would have preferred to skip. It would be naïve of me to blame the author for that, and I’m not. But I do want to warn my fellow prudes that Charles Burns puts the “graphic” in “graphic novel” with this one.
Black Hole is a novel that will get to you. It’s jarring, raw, and poignant. It’s not something you’ll forget in a hurry, and that’s both a good and a bad thing.