Like a lot of geeks, I have an mp3/wav file of "Mahna Mahna". At the end of the mp3 file, Statler and Waldorf have a conversation that goes something like this.

W: "That was wonderful!"
S: "Bravo!"
W: "I loved that!"
S: "It was great."
W: "Well, it was pretty good."
S: "Well, it wasn't bad."
W: "Well, there were parts of it that weren't very good, though."
S: "It could have been a lot better."
W: "I didn't really like it."
S: "It was pretty terrible."
W: "It was bad."
S: "It was awful."
W: "Ah, it was terrible!
S: "Get them away!"
W: "Boo!"
S: "Boo!"

My mindset reading Black Hole, the 10-year horror comic project of artist/writer Charles Burns, was a little like that. Well, I don't think I ever got to the "Boo!" point, maybe just to the "It could have been a lot better" point, but the slow eroding of good feeling serves my purpose pretty well.


The premise of Black Hole is fantastical/horrific. In the book, teenagers have the potential to be struck with "The Bug" a STI that causes mutations, some more horrific than others, in whoever catches it. I first heard of this book through an Amazon.com recommendation and at first dismissed it as a "bad teenagers having sex tale" and put it in the "I don't think I'll read that" mental category, but after reading about Burns' work and hearing how amazing it was and seeing the very cool interior covers of the book which had normal looking teens on the front interior and mutated kids on the back, I decided to give it a chance.

Then after I bought the book, I listened to a review that said there were lots of unique males to identify with and, "Oh, there's a girl ... a girl who likes sex" I got a little worried.

Still, I read it and, no, there is no character who is just "the girl." Unfortunately, Black Hole has a few problems that really bugged me.

First of all, while everyone mentions "The Bug" in their reviews, the story isn't so much about "The Bug" or the real-life ramifications of one. Black Hole, instead, takes place in a world with "The Bug" the same way it takes place in the mid-1970s. There's little world building. It's not a panorama of the effects on the teenagers. The story focuses on two characters and their coming to sexuality in the time of The Bug: Keith, a stoner guy, and Chris, a straight-A student girl.

(Actually, few of the reviews make it clear that Chris IS the second narrator, something that strikes me as rather bizarre.)

I'll start off with the best part about this book: the atmosphere. Throughout the comic, Burns develops the dread feeling brought by "The Bug"/queer strange doings in the night as well as the feeling of growing up very well. Burns does an interesting thing where he provides captions with a large amount of detail. In a normal comic, this could seem excessive. But in this comic, it provides a feeling sort of like virtual reality. I can see the kids, say, sitting in the woods smoking pot, but then also get details of the damp air and the sounds of animals and the feeling of safety the forest provides. Some of you may be rolling your eyes and going, "Well, if I wanted that I could get a book without pictures!" but I really do think it enhances the experience. I don't think the details would have worked without Burns' distorted, creepy art, either. He also draws the faces/look of that era pretty well ... or at least I assume from seeing pictures/movies of that time period.

The plot itself follows a few different paths. Keith's story is about how he likes Chris, but becomes entranced by a college-age woman named Eliza who has a sexy symptom* that makes him want to have sex with her despite the consequences. But WAIT! As time goes on Eliza has a DARK SECRET! (Guess) Also, Keith smokes a lot of pot and his friends are pot-smoking choads and that messes with his head. Plus, he can't decide between Chris and Eliza. In Chris' story, she meets up with and falls in love with Rob, not knowing he has the Bug. (He didn't lie to her, BTW. It was a semi-contrived misunderstanding.) They break up, get together and then are met with TRAGEDY. (Guess) Oh, and someone else is killing the teenagers with The Bug and using their bones for Blair Witch-style arts and crafts projects.

I'll work from backwards to forwards. The murder plot blows. It's not very interesting. It provides a shallow climax and the ultimate reveal of the bad guys is underwhelming and stupid.

Chris' story I mostly liked. One reviewer on Amazon said it seemed like Chris was being punished for having sex. I disagree (in fact, I didn't get that feeling about any of the plots**). The story is your standard girl meets boy, girl loses boy to war/car crash/tragic disease, girl moves on plot that shows up in YA literature and songs like "Last Kiss." I thought Rob was a bit of a shit, especially considering his previous girl, but I overall liked Chris' character arc, how Keith's feelings for her were never requited by her, how she needed to consider her selfishness regarding her ex-Non Bugged friend***, and the final "peace with the universe" panel.

What I DIDN'T like so much was when the murderer character turned into the RAPIST-because-you-won't-fuck-me character, as well, and Chris has to run for her life. Well, actually, I would have been OK with this too, because 1.) text establishes rapist character is a douche and 2.) she does escape. HOWEVER, this plot point was compounded with what happened to the OTHER female character.

Which brings me to Keith's story. For the record, I didn't like Keith. Unless they have something else going for them, like Jay and Silent Bob's crazy dynamic, stoner people and stoner characters bore the hell out of me. But that didn't bother me as much as how the story treats the lust-somehow-turns-into-love of his life, Eliza.

Eliza seems like an interesting character. She's an artist, and her art has eerie parallels to the strange doings in the woods. She is comfortable with her deformity and even fetishizes it, taking control of what would seem to be a defect. But we never see Eliza AS herself, but instead as the object of Keith's lust. (This is in contrast to Chris' paramour Rob, who does get his own scenes without Chris in them.)

When we first see her living at the house of some college drug dealers, she's a sexy vixen who makes baloney sandwiches and tries to seduce Keith. When we see her again, her face is battered and she has a harder edge, but still wants Keith. In her later scenes, she's out of the house and better, but she reveals what happened. They ... dun dun dun ... RAPED HER (and destroy her artwork, adding a spiritual to the physical element). But now she is with Keith, so everything should be fine.

I'll give Burns some special-school points for this one. At least Keith wasn't her primary motivation for getting out of the bad house. In fact, while the story implies she will do better with the presence of Keith in her life, it does show that she can do fine with her recovery on her own. I also am not against rape stories in principle. As an abuse survivor, I do think sometimes depictions of rape, even explicit descriptions, can be a form of catharsis for the survivor.

But I didn't get that from this story. And I felt cheated that I didn't get to see Eliza AS HERSELF. She's always filtered through Keith's lustful eyes. Even after she tells him about her rape and he tells her he'll protect her, the overall feeling I came away with is that Keith is happy because he can be a protector. Plus, SHE'S HOT and SHE LIKES SEX!

Which ... great. I think the character had potential to be a lot more than that, but Burns didn't think she was worthy of her own voice, to the point where that bad review of the comic could call her just "the girl." By not giving her the story of her own rape, he reduces his own, potentially great, character and reduces her tragedy into something that could make Keith a hero.

And, given that I watched ANOTHER review that said "One of the horrors of this comic is seeing a girl with a tail and wondering ... would you fuck her?" he clearly didn't encourage any of his male audience to see her as anything beyond that, either.

What a shame.

* Actually, one thing I noticed was that all of the girl characters' deformities never take away their essential beauty. Chris' skin peels off (a la Husk in Generation X). Eliza has a tail. Rob's sex partner Lisa has webbed fingers that she can hide with bandages. Even the two nameless girls at the pit don't have any visible deformities. Meanwhile, there are a few male characters (albeit not the main characters) whose faces are melting. It's a very odd artistic choice. I don't want to play the authorial intent game, so I won't, but I will say it made the girls' presence in the pit not very explicable (I'm GUESSING that they're hanging out with their now-ugly boyfriends, but that isn't supported by the text) and cuts off the drama that could be mined from the female characters losing their beauty that society tells them is necessary.

** FYI, I don't think "The Bug" is meant to be AIDS either. On the most superficial level because AIDS kills and "The Bug" is just unpleasant. I'm part of the "metaphor for puberty/dark side of sexuality" camp.

*** They break up because Chris makes fun of her friend's David Bowie makeup. It's more effective than I make it sound and ... hey, at least it passes Bedchel's Law!
From:
Anonymous( )Anonymous This account has disabled anonymous posting.
OpenID( )OpenID You can comment on this post while signed in with an account from many other sites, once you have confirmed your email address. Sign in using OpenID.
User
Account name:
Password:
If you don't have an account you can create one now.
Subject:
HTML doesn't work in the subject.

Message:

 
Notice: This account is set to log the IP addresses of everyone who comments.
Links will be displayed as unclickable URLs to help prevent spam.
.

Profile

quietprofanity: (Default)
quietprofanity

Most Popular Tags

Powered by Dreamwidth Studios

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags