Thursday, March 1, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Black Hole

Black Hole is a story set in the 70's right here in Seattle.  From early on in the story, we find out that there's some sort of sexually transmitted disease going around called "the bug" that manifests itself in a variety of ways.  For some people it comes in the form of hideous mutations, or molting skin, and for others it is something more easily concealable. Either way, once kids get "the bug" they tend to drop out of society and become social outcasts, living in little encampments deep in the woods of various (and if you're from the Seattle area, familiar) parks.

The story follows a few key characters, some who have the bug, some who are about to get the bug, as they traverse the murky waters of high school, and relationships, all while doing their best to either get drunk, get high, get laid, or some combination of the three.  We see these events through the eyes of Chris, a pretty, popular girl; Rob, a popular dude who hooks up with Chris; Keith, a stoner, introspective guy who wishes he could be with Chris; and Eliza, an arty girl who lives with a bunch of stoner college bros.

It becomes pretty obvious early on that the story of the bug is an allegory for the isolation of the teenage experience. While this is an interesting way to explore a topic that has been done over and over again, the author/illustrator Charles Burns decided to add another layer to the story by adding a murder mystery element. Basically what happens is that someone starts killing off the kids who have contracted the bug.  This gives the story a bit of a horror element too I guess, but it never really resonated with me.

The kicker is that neither the epidemic element nor the murder mystery element did much to add life to the story  here.  The reason being is that neither one got enough treatment.  The Bug could have been incredibly interesting, but it wasn't.  Burns seemed content to not explain it at all.  Outside of the teens who got it, no one seemed to really know or care about it.  Are there stages? What causes the mutations?  Is that talking mouth-mutation thing prophetic?  These were questions that burned throughout the entire story that never got answered.  The murder mystery element didn't get the proper amount of development either and sort of just seemed to pop up, then kind of be a thing for a while, then not be a thing anymore.

Instead of focusing on the interesting elements, Burns instead went all in with his characters, which didn't really pan out either.  This area was sort of a wash out for me as I thought the male characters were pretty well done.  Though I wasn't remotely like either Rob or Keith in high school, I still felt like I could relate to both in a number of ways. However, Burns really missed the target with his females, Chis and Eliza.  Both characters were interesting, smart, talented girls, but instead of promoting their strength and individuality Burns fell into the trap of having these women need the help of men to get by in life, which didn't seem to fit with the characters, and is a really annoying character trait to read.

This read wasn't a complete bust for me though, because Burns' art is an incredible, inky, dark work of beauty.  I really enjoyed the experience of turning each page to see what artistic wonders could be found.  Rarely was I disappointed.  The nature of Black Hole's plot requires that Burns draws everything from the mundane to the insane and he does both incredibly well.  I only wish there had been a great story to go with the art.

Sadly, Burns missed out on an opportunity to explore some great plot points and develop some interesting characters.  For that reason, I'm left feeling pretty disappointed by Black Hole.  The wonderful art isn't enough to carry this graphic novel to the heights it had the potential for.

Grade: C-

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