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A Visual Masterpiece (Black Hole Review)

You haven’t truly experienced visual horror until you’ve dived into the depths of Charles Burns’ BLACK HOLE.

At first glance, BLACK HOLE could be easily perceived as a classic teenagers-coming-of-age-in-the-woods type horror. A cliché. However, once you reach page three it quickly becomes clear that this graphic novel is not quite what it seems...

Set in Seattle, BLACK HOLE creates a visual metaphor for the 1970s AIDS crisis that tore relationships apart with its misinformation. BLACK HOLE is a story that combines teenage angst, lust and love with themes of envy and rejection. The story focuses on Keith, Chris and Rob - a group of high school students who battle with prejudice, sexual frustration and isolation when a feared disease known as ‘The Bug’ starts spreading amongst them. ‘The Bug’ can only be contracted through unprotected sex, leading to a series of complex decisions for our protagonists. 

Now this is where it gets interesting...Teenagers with the disease display physical abnormalities and symptoms, effectively marking them as outcasts in society. These abnormalities are hugely diverse in nature, ranging from sprouting extra limbs to your standard rash. One of my favorite examples of this is showcased on the inner cover – Burns parodies the idea of a High School yearbook, using the format to showcase the impact that ‘The Bug’ has had on the students’ physicality.

From second mouths to tails to horns and more, Burns takes you on a Surreal journey of delusion that will have you on the edge of your seat. What’s most impressive is his ability to make you feel physically disturbed to the point that you actually need to put the book down and grab a cuppa before diving back in. 

Obscure angles, Burns’ trademark heavy black inking and the absence of colour make for an edgy horror-meets-noir reading experience that complements the solemn tone of the story. Dark backgrounds and chaotic panel layouts allow the reader to feel as lost and isolated as the protagonists do in their judgemental, claustrophobic world. This is magnified by Susan Moore’s heavy lettering – a lot of people don’t realise she lettered the book and quite frankly she needs more credit!

At its core, BLACK HOLE is about loss and acceptance. Essentially, learning to live as your true self and embrace your flaws.  What I find most remarkable about it is Burns’ ability to tailor a story that cultivates such believable relationships and interactions, whilst also acting as the most bizarre and wacky thing your eyes will ever feast upon. Multiple perspectives let you see even deeper into a wonderfully terrible world you’ll never want to leave.

And if all that isn’t enough to peak your interest, there’s a murder mystery side plot that is devilishly addictive to read. Originally published by Kitchen Sink Press as a series of twelve issues, BLACK HOLE is now available as a hardcover omnibus. Do you have the stomach for this indie cult classic?

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