I don’t really know how to talk about Black Hole. For a comic that feels like the unholy lovechild of Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Lynch’s Lost Highway, there’s a certain coherency in it with regards to basic human emotions, specifically love, fear, and hatred. Despite being focused around self-centered (and sometimes super obnoxious) high-schoolers, Black Hole really knows the human condition. But this isn’t a feel good story in any way. It dredges up the worst of humanity by illustrating the way we treat people who are marked as different than us. There are moments of amazing intimacy, but they are tinged with a very sharp pain.
Okay, so for those possibly uninitiated to Charles Burns’s Black Hole: it’s a story about teenagers who contract a certain disease whenever they have sex with somebody who is infected. So, essentially, it’s a story about STDs that manifest as elements of the grotesque: your skin can molt, you can grow a tail or extra mouths, or have your entire skin become reformed and unrecognizable. Just to name a few. And as comes as no surprise, people who are not afflicted with this disease reject and ostracize those who are known to be infected. At its core, Black Hole shows us the horror involved in our treatment of people we view as unhealthy (and immoral because of so).
As others have noted, the context for Black Hole’s original pub date of the mid-1990s is important to understanding what Burns’s grotesque tale is doing. (The original four issues are also missing from the collected edition but for the purposes of this article I’m just focusing on the elements that were included in the collection.) Set in the 70s, but written in the 90s, Black Hole’s context is one explicitly about our changing attitudes towards sexuality and STDs, specifically AIDS. So Black Hole effectively becomes a visual treatment of how we, as a society on a whole, view and treat those who are ill. We are not always compassionate. We are a species governed and motivated, in a large part, by fear.
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This was just one of those weeks that makes you want to stop the planet and get off. While I was feeling as if there was no escape from the horrible crap happening, I happened across this old Daniel Clowes 2009 New Yorker cover — one of my favorites – and decided to focus on some positive comics stuff as a coping mechanism.
Here is your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
Create the ultimate comics time capsule that aliens will someday discover. Show them the best of comics (and the world? your call!) with the 22* comics you’re allowed to put inside the capsule. Are they the 22 comics you think are the greatest of all time? Or are they the best and strongest representation of what we had to offer in quality and breadth? Are they just the ones you can read over and over again? Are all of those the same thing? Again, your call!
A few simple rules:
#1. You can put in an omnibus if it exists, as 1 entry (example: The Planetary Omnibus – in it goes!)
#2. It has to be already out, as of today (example: The Planetary Omnibus does not come out until January 2014. Damnit! Out it goes).
#3. You cannot put in all the individual trades of a book’s run in the capsule as 1 entry (example Y: The Last Man). You CAN fill the capsule with 22 volumes of the same thing, but even *I* have to question your judgement there!
#4. We’ll make an exception for special books bound together in a case/collection (example: The Collected Calvin & Hobbes can go in, or Bryan Lee O’Malley’s complete Scott Pilgrim series, as well as unique one of kind comics experiments of the form – like Chris Ware’s Building Stories). Unfortunately, something like all the gorgeous Wednesdays Comics in their original format would not work (unless you wanted to use it as multiple entries), but you could put in the collected edition…man, I wish I had room for that. Damn!
#5. Only comics. So, no, as much as you’re dying to put in my brilliant take on female superheroes in prose form (cough>The Girl Who Would Be King<cough), it’s a novel and thus is not eligible. Double damn!
#6. Yes, you can put in single issues, but man that single issue better be good!
For the rest, you guys decide, they’re your lists, I don’t have our fearless leader’s skills or devotion, so I’m not going to make individual rulings beyond the above. Have at it!
Last night I picked up Charles Burn’s Black Hole to read in bed. There are two reasons why this is a bad idea. First, the book is so good that there is absolutely no way that I could put it down without finishing it, so I was up half the night (and it is good enough so that I really can’t rush it, even if I have already read it before.) Second, Black Hole is creepy, not in a generic horror movie way, where I get all twitchy and have to keep looking over my shoulder because I’m so on edge, but in an insidious, creep-into-my-subconscious-and-screw-with-my-dreams way. After I finished reading I lay awake for what felt like hours staring into the darkness and trying not to imagine that I could see anything in it. When I did finally fall asleep, I dreamt about impersonal dismemberment and important shaving rituals which lingered upon waking even though them made no sense. Waking up itself was a shock too, because my eyes were crossed, which has never happened. I couldn’t get them to uncross, and eventually I succumbed to my body and surrendered to sleep for another half hour so that I could wake up in a slightly less physically confused state. It was impressive.