One great thing about watching dorky, ancient reruns of The Addams Family on some forgotten TV channel at 3am is the commercials. (Aside: I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that Morticia Addams was one of my earliest female role models.) Very few of these cheapo late night commercials are for anything very good, mostly for gadgets no one wants or needs. However, when I was decompressing from working too late and thoroughly enjoying The Addams Family in all it’s monochrome glory, I caught a commercial for the library and I suddenly realized that in over a year of living in LA I’d forgotten all about the incredible resource of the library.
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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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.
In case you hadn’t noticed, today is Halloween. It can be hard for me to understand how I can love some horror comic books, yet hold such an aversion to horror movies, so I asked acclaimed horror comic book writer – Steve Niles – if he would to talk about what it is that makes horror comic books so appealing, how he writes, and what we can look forward to from him in the future.
Sonia Harris: It is ironic that horror is probably my most hated genre, yet in comics it is often one I gravitate towards. Perhaps it is because elsewhere there is such a lack of grit.
Steve Niles: There really aren’t many other genres besides superhero in comics. Horror is a great genre. You’re automatically on edge simply because it called horror. The anticipation of being scared is a huge factor.
Popular, successful comic book creators are often accused of being unsuccessful unless they make books for Marvel or DC, but these books are rarely the most lauded. Despite what some readers of the CBR Top 100 Comic Books of 2010 might think, mainstream acceptance of beautifully crafted comic books doesn’t translate to equivalent breakthroughs in the quality of superhero comic books.