I think it’s safe to say that the teenage years can be some of the most exciting and horrific years of our lives. You’re discovering music, books, films, the opposite sex, and all the beauty and pain that come with all of them. You were trying hard to build a world of friends and confidants you could count on and rely on to help you through those years of academia that could make or break you for the rest of your life. Unless you were the top jock or cheerleader, or a top tier academic then things could sometimes get a little messy for you. Awkward conversations; stumbling over your own words in the presence of that guy or gal that made your heart skip a beat. Or even trying to relate to someone that was above you a few levels in the high school food chain.
I was never the Lothario I appear to be today back in high school. I know, I know…it’s hard to imagine me not being the suave, charismatic, and ever-so smooth operator that I am now back in the high school years. But yes, there was a time when I wasn’t this enigmatic and filled with animal magnetism. There was a spot in my life between childhood and adulthood where things weren’t quite so easy for me. A time where being a Rush fan AND a Woody Allen fan wasn’t as cool as it may(or may not) sound right now. That time was high school(well, really that time was probably up to my mid-thirties but I digress.) And after finishing Charles Burns’ excellent graphic novel Black Hole I realize that things could’ve been a hell of a lot worse for me.
If you’re not familiar with Black Hole, I’ll try and get you up to speed. The book takes place back in the 70s and it’s about a group of teens that attend high school somewhere in the Pacific Northwest(Burns grew up in Seattle, so I’m guessing the book takes place in a fictitious version of his childhood home.) There’s a sickness that is spread through the exchanging of bodily fluids among these teens that causes them to turn into these mutated monsters. This sickness, or “the bug” as its referred to by the kids in this book, is essentially the mark of a freak. Once these kids have been infected they’re ostracized by everyone, including their parents. A group of these teens have formed a small society in the deep, dense woods near the ocean where they live like scavengers, eating scraps and trash they find in dumpsters and warm themselves by campfire. They have been forgotten by their classmates and have become merely strange faces staring out from someone’s yearbook.
The main characters are popular girl Chris and popular guy Rob, quiet Keith, and the mysterious Eliza. I won’t go into details, but the book revolves around these four characters’ relationships and how they cope with “the bug” and how it manifests itself in them. Though the effects of this teen plague can be somewhat shocking and gross at times, you forget about those aspects as you get into the story and the book becomes this very sad, perverse, and tragic look at adolescence and the painful truths that come with growing up. Feeling ostracized for how one looks and the friends they keep has been the central theme for high school for a long time, and Black Hole takes that idea and turns into into this surrealistic meditation on teen angst and the awkwardness of growing up.
There are obviously metaphors abound here. You could take “the bug” or teen plague as it’s referred to here as well as a stand in for the pain of growing up, trying to fit in, and generally just wanting to be a part of something. The disease both segregated and brought together these teenagers. They lost their old friends and found a new community of freaks and geeks to live with in the forest. Those monsters sitting around the campfire were those same people that were ignored and picked on in the halls of academia. They were the kids in chess club, National Honors Society, and Latin club. They were the greasy-haired kids in the back of class no one turned around to address as their voice made its way to the front of class.
They were the Rush and Woody Allen fans.
I don’t know why this book affected me as much as it did. Truth be told I wasn’t really a freak in school. Even if I was I didn’t care. I had a small but solid crew of friends. We mingled with everyone. I may not have been pals with the super jocks and cheerleaders, but I certainly wasn’t picked on or looked down upon by them(and if I had been I still wouldn’t have cared.) I think Burns’ take on adolescence and the pain it causes some kids is what feels important to me. Turning the awkwardness of wanting to fit in into this horrific disease that marks kids with the shame of an outward mutation, which in turn makes fitting in impossible, is the best way to get across those awkward teenage moments. And the fact that he doesn’t make light of it adds to the heaviness. There’s no lighthearted scenes or hilarious sidekicks hamming it up here and there to add comic relief. As I read this book I was reminded of River’s Edge. Kids were depicted in this very hyper realistic way in that film; getting stoned, getting drunk, skipping class, having sex, and with a listless fervor that says “We’re gonna die eventually, so what’s it matter?” But the kids in Black Hole seem to have more ambition in life. They genuinely seem to be upset and pained at their situations. They want to be a part of something. They want to be wanted by someone. They want love and acceptance.
And really, don’t we all?
Besides the story, Burns’ drawings are wonderful as well. His style is very specific and detailed. I’m not an art guy, so trying to technically explain his illustrations is futile coming from my head. All I can say is that his illustrations are precise and fit the storytelling wonderfully. The yearbook pics are especially poignant, to me anyways.
Just had to mention the artwork.