I don’t really know how to talk about Black Hole. For a comic that feels like the unholy lovechild of Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Lynch’s Lost Highway, there’s a certain coherency in it with regards to basic human emotions, specifically love, fear, and hatred. Despite being focused around self-centered (and sometimes super obnoxious) high-schoolers, Black Hole really knows the human condition. But this isn’t a feel good story in any way. It dredges up the worst of humanity by illustrating the way we treat people who are marked as different than us. There are moments of amazing intimacy, but they are tinged with a very sharp pain.
Okay, so for those possibly uninitiated to Charles Burns’s Black Hole: it’s a story about teenagers who contract a certain disease whenever they have sex with somebody who is infected. So, essentially, it’s a story about STDs that manifest as elements of the grotesque: your skin can molt, you can grow a tail or extra mouths, or have your entire skin become reformed and unrecognizable. Just to name a few. And as comes as no surprise, people who are not afflicted with this disease reject and ostracize those who are known to be infected. At its core, Black Hole shows us the horror involved in our treatment of people we view as unhealthy (and immoral because of so).
As others have noted, the context for Black Hole’s original pub date of the mid-1990s is important to understanding what Burns’s grotesque tale is doing. (The original four issues are also missing from the collected edition but for the purposes of this article I’m just focusing on the elements that were included in the collection.) Set in the 70s, but written in the 90s, Black Hole’s context is one explicitly about our changing attitudes towards sexuality and STDs, specifically AIDS. So Black Hole effectively becomes a visual treatment of how we, as a society on a whole, view and treat those who are ill. We are not always compassionate. We are a species governed and motivated, in a large part, by fear.
Here’s the thing: the kids who become infected are not necessarily unhealthy. They are just different. The disease isn’t life-threatening, it just changes outward appearance. It sets them apart because of their actions — actions, that in the text, are attempts at becoming closer to somebody else, an attempt to lessen the gap of adolescent isolation. Sex here is just a search for a deeper, more meaningful form of intimacy (because the sex that occurs in Black Hole is never meaningless, it is also spurned by a need for companionship, for somebody who accepts you and just gets it). This intimacy and acceptance is achieved, but it’s always at a price. By being rejected by mainstream culture and every one who is not infected, the main protagonists do form a sort of necessary and powerful connection.
This is what drew me so deep into Black Hole: it shows both the awful evil side of humanity, that we can drive and hurt and isolate people based simply off of ignorance and a lack of understanding of difference, and the power of intimacy that comes from fear. Some of the connections forged between the kids who have been rejected from normative society are immensely powerful and deep. And it is just as emotionally draining as it is mentally baffling.
But it goes deeper than just looking at how we treat perceived unhealthy bodies. The treatments these characters receive, and the visible markings of the plague, present differently based off of the character’s gender. Chris, the main female character, is originally introduced to us as the object of Keith’s undying affections. She is the girl that Keith is dying to woe, and we get her only as a distant object of his affections (and she is painfully unaware of how deep in angsty love Keith is with her). But then the story shifts to follow her perspective. We see her evolve into a character, who despite seeming like she has it all figured out, is just as lost and searching as everybody else. Becoming infected for Chris elevates her beyond just being the beautiful, unattainable love interest for Keith. It is that which forces her to leave mainstream, normative culture that opens up her characterization to more than just female love interest.
We know Chris is infected before she does, but the moment that her friends find out is loaded. She’s skinny-dipping, and in her bra and panties she walks into the water, her back turned to her friends. Her skin rips open from behind, right along the spine, but the sore is portrayed as a giant vagina (cue my associations of this graphic novel with Videodrome). This image is a very clear signifier of her sexuality, especially given that she gained this mark by having sex — which is also what immediately goes through all of her friends’ minds, as well. It is this mark, and the connotations that come with it, that earn Chris an outsider reputation. Not only is she (unknowingly) brazenly displaying her sexuality, but she is also marked as ill, as different, as a sexualized and therefore unhealthy body. It is a direct remark on how we treat women who display their sexuality: society rejects them, scorns them, treats them as less than. It is the abject. Marked as “unhealthy” and sexualized, Chris cannot remain in mainstream society anymore. And this isn’t an attitude that has disappeared since the late 90s early aughts. Not by a long shot.
It is important that the signs of infection on the male characters don’t manifest in an explicitly sexual way. Robert grows an extra mouth on his throat, and Keith never manifests any signs, despite his sexual relationship with a woman who is also infected. Eliza’s mark of infection is also intensely sexualized: Keith sees her tail and becomes uncontrollably turned on. Whereas Robert is an outcast just for having the disease, he is still portrayed as desirable. The women with the infection, on the other hand, are hit with the doubly-damming mark of infection and sexualization.
Looking at Black Hole in this way allows us to see how studying privilege and intersectionality can work: while all infected characters in the book are ostracized, infected females are hit twice, with the prejudice they face coming at the intersection of their sexuality and their perceived health. As I discussed when I talked about abject bodies in Borderlands 2 and BioShock 2, intersectional conversations around the abject can work to open a pathway for creating a more inclusive attitude. And it absolutely works this way for Chris and Eliza: having to leave normative society makes them dynamic and more than just cardboard characters. Yet I can’t help but feel like Black Hole falls short of the full power of this argument by conforming completely to a white, cis/hetero norm. While it offers a strong discussion around treating others with kindness and respect regardless of their perceived difference, it does this completely within a limited perspective that fails to account for the other ways we exclude and ostracize people. Despite their infection, most of the characters in Black Hole remain fairly privileged, and the conversation becomes inherently limited. It starts the conversation, but we can’t let it stop there.
The point is, that while this was written over a decade ago, attitudes haven’t changed. We still ostracize people based off of a white, cis/heteronormative perception of what a body should be, and this is not just in terms of health, but in terms of gender, race, class, intelligence, physical capability, and so many more. The metaphor of Black Hole is as relevant as ever. And the monstrous way we treat people who we perceive as different or unhealthy hasn’t changed or gone away.