Stuff We Love: The strange and sexy vortex of Charles Burns’ Black Hole

Contributed by
Apr 12, 2018

OK, I’ll admit it: Sometimes, I like my comics sexy. I mean, if you can look at beautiful illustrated naked forms drawn by the most talented of illustrators, why wouldn’t you enrich your eyes? Which is probably why I originally picked up Charles Burns’ semi-sordid-yet-seemingly-seminal Eisner- and Harvey Award-winning graphic novel Black Hole in the first place. The pictures say a thousand sexy words. Albeit strangely, and at times, horrifically. 

Or maybe I was drawn to Black Hole — the 12-issue limited series that writer-artist Burns released on Kitchen Sink Press and then Fantagraphics chapter-by-chapter, beginning in 1995, over the span of 10 years — because I never quite grew out of that adolescent stage, as the prior paragraph likely attests. (Or perhaps I was simply hoping for the sexy comic version of the 1979 space opera The Black Hole, Disney’s first foray into the unknown deep spaces of PG theater.) I’m sorry, I grew up watching unmonitored HBO in the ‘80s and that has forever skewed my worldview toward the inappropriate. Not to say Black Hole is inappropriate, per se, but it’s most certainly edgy, and filled with bored teens acting with reckless abandon in the face of a pitiless world. 

Credit: Pantheon Graphic Novels

Regardless of why I was attracted to the book — which is being developed as film by Brad Pitt's Plan B and centers on a group of teens in the suburbs of ‘70s Seattle whose community is plagued by a sexually transmitted disease that shows up as various mutations in the afflicted — the fact is, I was immediately sucked into its mysterious black and white and terrifyingly gray vortex. (I purchased the Pantheon Books collected edition on a Monday, hoping to take it on vacation on Friday, and ended up blazing through and finishing by Wednesday, thus having to buy another beach book). And that attraction grew even stronger as the weirdness of each turned page swirled all the more. 

See, Burns’ story is weird. The sexually transmitted mutations are borderline alien, certainly alienating, and take on all sorts of alarming forms. One guy has another mouth on his throat, which speaks sweet nothings to the girl with a molting skin zipper down her back. And another girl — an artist who resides in the basement of the best doobie dealers on the outskirts of the Emerald City (which is saying something) — has the sexiest dang tail I ever did see, a sentence I never thought I’d write.

Credit: Fantagraphics Studio Edition: Charles Burns' Black Hole

Depending on the severity of the mutations, the afflicted can go on leading a normal life, until the moment they're outed and ostracized, something many teens already feel without sprouting horns. Many of the ostracized are forced to live at an encampment in the woods, essentially a modern-day leper colony. And then the murders start. And that’s when things get really weird.

I won’t spoil it for you, as the story unfolds mysteriously and surprisingly, and sometimes disturbingly. But that’s part of the experience of the vortex, which is also propelled by Burns’ knowing depiction of the times, the freezing winter that followed the Summer of Love, when experimentation, curiosity, and boredom made the gloom of Seattle all the more freaky.