Black Holes Are the Portals of Choice
US: Oct 2005
I froze. I can’t explain what happened. It was like a déjà vu trip or something a premonition. I felt like I was looking into the future… and the future looked really messed up. ke a déjà vu trip or something a premonition. I felt like I was looking into the future… and the future looked really messed up.
—Keith, Black Hole
Donnie Darko is a film that some find difficult and others find revelatory. But regardless of your opinion, you can’t deny what’s striking about the film is how it’s a visual representation of the snake eating itself.
At the beginning of the film, Donnie wakes from a dream on the dusty trails of suburban Virginia. He’s smiling, knowingly, shaking off what he just experienced. The end of the film shows him laughing, then sighing, grinningly, as he falls asleep after his world-saving quest.
Some have argued that the beginning of the film is Donnie waking up in the unstable parallel universe he needs to save the world from. He gets there after going to sleep in “reality”, at the end of the film, giving it this sort of infinity—the beginning is the end is the beginning and so on.
The cycle is perpetual, and every time we turn on Donnie Darko it begins again. This is the same perpetuity the characters of Charles Burns’ Black Hole are stuck in. But unlike Donnie Darko, they aren’t quite aware of it.
And neither are we. In the odd opening chapters, we get images wholly out of context of characters having premonitions of the future they call feelings of déjà vu while others shed their skins and monstrously deformed teenagers hide out in the woods—and no one in the story bats an eyelash.
This construction is both maddening and brilliant at once. Coming to this story, which originally appeared as individual comic book issues beginning a decade ago, with no foreknowledge will leave you feeling a bit excluded. The first three or four chapters exist with no exposition and no sense of place, making the first-time reader think that maybe they missed something. But once you trudge through the heft of the story, return to those opening chapters and they’ll be revelatory.
First, though, you have to trudge through Burns’ tale of teenagers facing not only a future uncertain but a vicious plague sweeping through their ranks. In the late-‘70s, an unnamed disease, transmitted through sexual contact, is deforming and ostracizing many members of Seattle’s teen population. Some develop awful facial deformities that aren’t able to be concealed. These kids are shunned, cast off as pariahs, and many of them go off to live in the woods. Others, like Rob, have symptoms that are easily hid. While no one would envy the creepy second mouth he has growing just under his neck, Rob is able to wear clothing that hides his Scarlet Letter and allows him to navigate both the world of the deformed and that of a normal teenager.
Many have likened the disease in Black Hole to teen pregnancy and an overly exaggerated form of geekdom, and that’s certainly reasonable. The 100 percent infection rate of the disease after sexual contact makes it an appealing allegory for teen pregnancy and, as the story nears its conclusion, we discover that many of the people infected with the disease are geeks, nerds, dorks—whatever you want to call them. Even the two “villains” in the story, Dave and Rick, are revealed to be high on the social outcast ladder. But it’s hard to look at the disease as anything but an allegory for AIDS. Because Burns was writing this story in the mid-‘90s, it’s easy for him to incorporate how many AIDS patients, especially when the disease was first being contracted, were treated as the walking dead, with myths and lies being spread about them out of fear and disgust. What makes the case for the disease in Black Hole being an AIDS-like virus are the physical deformities—disfigurements like a melting face and a tail, for example, could easily be replaced with the gaunt appearance and sores many AIDS patients face—and a scene from later in the story.
When Dave, a dog-faced victim of the disease, tries to buy a bucket of chicken from a Kentucky Fried Chicken, he is pushed around by a jock-type wanting Dave to hit the road. After Dave pulls a gun and pistol-whips the jock in the face, Dave forces him to get on his knees and open his mouth. Dave then spits in the jock’s mouth and says, “See how easy that was? That’s all it takes a little spit. Some saliva and now you’re one of us.” This leads the reader, who has been told through the whole story that the only way to contract the disease was through sex, to the conclusion that any bodily fluid transfer could cause the disease to manifest itself. That, or Dave was just playing on the jock’s fears about the disease and those who have it. But whatever the case, there is a symmetry there with AIDS and the many rumors of its contagiousness that are even current today.
Don’t think, though, that Black Hole is simply a thinly-veiled AIDS tale. Rather, it’s a story about the hardships of being a teenager. Unrequited “love”, drinking, drugs, sex, adult scare-tactics, fear, hope, desire, shame, guilt, lust—all that and more are found here, and they’re not present simply as window dressing. Keith and Chris, the story’s two main characters, embody all that could go right and wrong with the teenagers—and just how messed up things can get.
The number of representations of the teenage years in this medium that are so spot-on can be counted on one hand. It’s no surprise, then, to discover that Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, creators of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and Ghost World, respectively, are among the admirers of Black Hole. Both writers/illustrators understand the pangs and tribulations of growing up, and it’s easy to see Burns’ influence on their work.
Parallels can also be drawn, no pun intended, to the work of David B. in his Epileptic series. While David has similarities in tone and narrative in his work, it’s in the art of the two works where there’s the most in common. Both Black Hole and Epileptic are done in stark black-and-white, and the apocalyptic imagery of the visions, dreams, and even background noise is eerily similar.
But the most interesting symmetry is with Donnie Darko, and it would be interesting to know if Richard Kelly had ever encountered Black Hole. Every time we crack open page one, we’re thrust back into the infinite loop. Keith has feelings he’s experienced this or that before. He doesn’t know what the visions mean, and, at first, neither do we. Like with the initial encounter with Donnie waking and grinning, we don’t know what the hell is happening with Keith and it puts us in an uneasy position.
Go back after reading through Black Hole once, though, and the unease gives way to the same revelation you get after watching Donnie Darko—that what you just read (or watched), and what you’re about to experience again, is a work of genius.
Mad, crazy, off-the-wall, rampant, unparalleled, impassioned genius.