Black Hole by Charles Burns – The Grotesque Imagery of Sex and Adolescence

Black Hole: The Grotesque Imagery of Sex and Adolescence

The Charles Burns comic Black Hole focuses on aspects concerning the coming of age adolescents face as they move from teenagers towards maturation, and the shared experiences most of them go through such as awkward social situations and sexual discovery. The story switches between the perspectives of several teenagers in a small town, however, the imagery throughout is consistent from one character to the next. One teen named Keith dissects a frog during science class and while doing so experiences a hallucination before blacking out. His hallucination serves as a moment of foreshadowing while also working in regards to the comic’s overall depictions of struggles with adolescence, the transformation all of the teenagers undergo following their sexual awakenings, and the obsession with sex including vaginal imagery braided through the comic. Examination of the imagery Keith witnesses early on while hallucinating reveals a pattern emerging which continues through Black Hole. Burns uses these images to continually reinforce his overall theme concerning the shared struggle of growing up and the difficult transition from an adolescent body into a strange new one.

Burns’ comic tells the story of a group of teenagers in the 1970s living through an epidemic of an STD-like plague which turns those infected into mutants. There are many scenes typical of a coming of age story similar to those you might have also seen in films like Dazed and Confused or something newer like American Pie. The group of teens are all into drinking, smoking dope, and having sex, however, they are all seeing the new plague spread worse from one day to the next. Regardless of the warnings against sex and the strange new deformations they all see around town, the kids still continue to have sex with one another. This further spreads the sexually transmitted disease. While it serves as an interesting and horrifying story all on its own, Black Hole is a metaphor for the often bumpy ride through adolescence: everything from high school with all its own specific and unique problems to the discovery of sexual intercourse. This metaphor is further seen in the imagery Burns presents which he braids throughout the comic. In particular, one page early in the comic depicts Keith while he attempts to dissect a frog at school, but hallucinates before going unconscious. This page holds the key to some of the imagery Burns uses in Black Hole and alludes to both elements of plot, as well as theme.

The page itself is divided into five different panels. At the top of the page, Keith’s appears nervous and sweaty, however, only his eyes and portions of his upper face are visible. To the side someone calls out his name, “Keith?”, as if he is unresponsive. This is when Keith is beginning to have some sort of attack before blacking out, which was brought on while dissecting a frog for a science class. Below the top panel are four individual vertical panels each of which with their own image. The first is the frog dissected with a large slit in its belly. The second image is of a foot also with a similarly shaped slit in its sole. Following is another image with similar visual imagery except the slit is now in somebody’s skin like they are trying to tear out of it; the person stands back on, and could either be male or female. The final image in the last panel shows a hand covering genitalia. These are the images Keith sees in response to the dissection of the frog. Afterwards, he passes out. Keith’s state of consciousness and the context of the images are further reinforced by the image in the backdrop of the four lower panels on the page.

It is especially notable how Burns connects the four lower panels with Keith’s hallucinations while still maintaining negative space in the gutter spaces between each of them. The image which connects all four panels on the bottom of the page is a black background with squiggly lines, as well as a circle similar to one a hypnotist might use. The backdrop not only serves as a way to connect these images, it signifies clearly these images are in Keith’s mind. In the page following this one, Burns mashes together the images here and others into four more panels; each of which are again connected by a swirling circle, except a bigger circle with more rings. On the following page, Keith is also present again and looking up at the hallucinations. This directly reverses another aspect of the current page, as Keith here looks down at the four vertical panels.

In the top panel where Keith looks to be sweating and generally not feeling well, his eyes are literally looking down at the images. Not only does he see them in his head, he is watching them unfold on the page below him. Burns includes Keith directly witnessing the images as a heavy handed way of explaining these images are essentially a dream sequence. However, they are not simply a dream without meaning, as each of the four images, which take up most of the page, has particular significance to the comic’s plot and all of its characters.

While the first lower panel simply depicts the frog Keith was dissecting before hallucinating, it also represents the struggles of adolescence. Particularly in the 1970s, and most likely up until about the mid-1990s, many high school students were able to bond over typical activities any high school age adolescent might go through. One such activity being the dissection of frogs for biology. Burns uses the image of the dissected frog as a symbol representative of the eternal nature of the struggle with adolescence. The cut open frog represents a collective experience. Burns then uses the image of the dissection and carries it through each of the others after the first, as the same incision type opening appears in the next two images.

Second is the foot with a cut. The foot itself is a means of travel, and Burns uses this symbol in such a way. This image moves into the next, as a literal pathway, and also as foreshadow; it predicts Keith and his meeting with the STD-like illness plaguing the teens of the comic. At one point Keith and his friends are in the woods where they discover a woman’s skin, as if she shed it like a snake. Later, Keith comes across this same girl who earlier happened to have stepped on glass and also experienced a hallucination during which she saw him. The two come together and eventually have sex. Unfortunately, Keith is not a particularly smart teenager and does not understand that the girl’s strange looking tail is a side effect of the sexually transmitted plague going around their town. This is where he contracts the illness. The image he had seen earlier during his hallucination foreshadowed the girl with the cut foot and the fact she carried the disease.

The final image in the last vertical panel of the page is a hand covering genitals. This is an important image. Not only because it represents a lot of the sexual aspects in Black Hole, but it also ties together the imagery of the four vertical panels on this page. The first three images of these four panels contain the frog, the foot, and a back, each of which has a slit formation in them. Within their own contexts these formations have specific meaning, however, overall they are symbolic in reference to the overall sexual imagery of the comic. The adolescent focus on sexuality in Black Hole is represented by repeated vaginal imagery, which can clearly be seen on this page; a microcosm of the entire comic itself. Though the hand in this final panel could possibly be covering up male genitalia, the images preceding it suggest otherwise, as well as the argument there is not enough room to suggest the hand is covering a penis, as opposed to a vagina. The first three images of this sequence strongly suggest the image would be that of a vagina. Furthermore, the vagina is, at its most base description, a hole. This ties into the idea of the black hole in Burns’ novel, as in a hole one falls into and in which one could get lost. For instance, the black hole of adolescence where everyone gets lost. Similarly, the vaginal imagery is representative of the black hole idea itself: these kids all get lost in the pursuit of sex, here symbolized by the black hole or the vagina. Ultimately the vagina, for Keith in particular, is a black hole which leads to his fate of contracting the sexually transmitted plague.

Though there are specific images which work in conjunction with one another, the overall metaphor in Black Hole is a parallel between the STD-like plague of the comic and the entire experience of adolescence including puberty and the discovery of sexuality. Burns likens the illness to the transformation many young people go through while transitioning from teenager to young adult. On the page where Keith is experiencing his hallucinations, each image presented in the panels is symbolic of themes explored in Black Hole, and several of which also foreshadow future events in the story. Further included on the panels of this page is the vaginal imagery of the vertical opening represented either as a smooth incision or a jagged tear. This allusion to the vagina is braided throughout Burns’ comic, as a constant reference point to recurring themes of adolescent sexuality. Burns includes a narrative text box on this page which makes no attempts to deny the vaginal imagery, as Keith narrates the story be saying “I was looking at a hole… a black hole and as I looked, the hole opened up”. In this one page, the entirety of Black Hole is present through both images as well as words. The five panels on this page work together to present a key to Burns’ imagery in the comic, and also as a way of foreshadowing later events in the story while also essentially explaining the meaning of Black Hole‘s imagery without resorting to absolute exposition.