Your teenage years are a fog. Everything is confusing and upsetting and unsatisfying yet exciting and great and the best. You know everything that you “know” and, in your kid-adult ways, you attempt to explain the world to yourself. When you don’t get what is happening in your life, you make up an answer for it. That’s being a teenager.
And being a teenager sucked. You live in a fantasy reality, where you start to have adult feelings and adult situations but you lack the emotional dexterity to handle them. Your main objective is to flock toward anyone or anything that is like minded. Your hormonal brain can’t parse through what is actually good and what is bad for you but, still, you pursue what you think you need without thinking. Every decision you make is the right one—until it isn’t.
Black Hole gives you a hyperbolized tour of teen feelings, of kids in extreme emotional and physical crisis trying to understand life through the filter of a plague. The book is about teenagers in a Pacific Northwestern town that is being plagued by a sexual disease that transforms victims into post-humanoid mutants with various ailments. Some kids end up looking like bumpy bug things while others just grow a tail. Some can pass as normal while others are marred by their side effects. Some even thrive.
There is an obvious metaphor here, that these teens are interacting with sexual information and finding their true selves by “going all the way.” In this book, author and artist Charles Burns uses a disease as metaphor for knowing. This plague is the prize you get for ending your childhood with sexual activity. It’s leaving high school and going to college or running away from home or staying the same. At a certain point, your being a child dissolves in your hands and you are left to either look for where it went, trudge forward without it, or stop what you are doing forever. The main characters in Black Hole—the tragic and love lost Chris, the adjusted artist Eliza, curious kid Keith, and the doomed Rob—all cope and find each other (and lose each other) through the disease. They’ve lost their innocence willingly and are forced to redefine life: they’re thrust into adulthood.
Burns’ book is also a visual treat, a graphic novel composed of mostly white on black frames with an intensely cinematic quality to them. It feels like reading a woodcut, in a world where you can only see two tones because you still are without the sophistication to see beyond two colors in your world. In many ways, the book’s story and visual component are deeply reminiscent of Gary Ross’ classic and criminally underrated film Pleasantville. Save for the introduction of chromatics, the stories feel tied in their being post-modern coming of age stories, where people literally wear their life experience. Wouldn’t life have been so much easier if you could see who was more experienced in life? It’s fun to think about but I can assure you it would all be the same.
At the end of Black Hole, that fog of teenageness—that black hole of puberty you either fall deeper into or pull yourself out of—doesn’t go away. It gets thicker and thinner for different people but it is never not there. A part of it is always bouncing around the brain. When you reach a certain age, that fog rolls in and you spend the rest of your life trying to see through it. But can you ever see through it?