Monday, August 9, 2010

Black Hole by Charles Burns - Questions & Answers

Have you ever flipped through a graphic novel and said, "WHOOOAAA, what's going on in that panel?" Every other page or so of Black Hole is a "WHOOOAAA" page. Burns' beautifully illustrated work took him ten years to complete and it shows. The drawing style is almost instantly recognizable to the point that he has regular gigs drawing covers for magazines and advertisements.

Black Hole is set in Seattle in the 1970s and chronicles the lives of four teenagers. Sex, drugs, STDs, sex, and drugs are abound. This is the most adult graphic novel we've read so far, at least from a surface viewpoint. It's also a great book club choice if I do say so myself because some plot elements are ambiguous and there are symbols and motifs on every page. Burns is much like the other author/illustrators we've read (Mike Mignola, Jeff Smith); their graphic novel(s) took years to complete, but turned out to be a critically acclaimed work of art.

Here are the questions and answers that were discussed at the graphic novel book club at Koelbel on August 29th. Thanks to everyone for contributing.

1. What is the significance of the woods?

Those who are infected with Bug are sent to the woods where they can hide in peace and be independent and isolated. It is where they felt they should be, the woods are a representation of their choice to banish themselves from society. Trashing the house later in the book means the infected are recreating an atmosphere more like their home into the woods.

2. What is the importance of yearbooks?

The front and back cover feature before (normal) and after (infected) pictures, a representation that nothing is simple and these aren’t just happy teenagers. Even the kids who don’t have the Bug still have things going on behind the scenes. The pictures are frozen, posed, and superficial, only representing the surface of who these kids are. Yearbooks are not representative of who people are/were inside and what they do.

3. Why was Black Hole set in the 1970s? What commentary is made on the generation?

Parents are more involved this generation and there's arguably more societal pressure to go to college and get a job. It’s less relatable to people of Generation Y. The 1970s culture was full of drugs and sex, the perfect atmosphere for Burns to use to comment on what was going on with teenagers then.

3a. What if these events had occurred to teenagers now? How would they react?

Arguably, kids have more awareness about STDs and more access to information on the Internet, so a widespread STD such as Bug would be less likely to occur. This generation also does not have the "free love" attitude that carried from the sixties into the seventies, so perhaps the STD would be less widespread.

4. How did you feel when you were reading Black Hole? Was this the author's intent?

Confused, grossed out, concerned. Depressed. Infected or dirty, it gets under your skin. The combination of Burns' super realistic drawings and surreal creepy drawings made for an uneasy feeling.

5. How does Burns distort fantasy and reality? What role did dreams play?

Jeremiah says dreams are surprisingly well portrayed, he feels that dreams run into reality much like how Burns illustrates them. Dreams were used to inject important symbols and ideas into the story. The reader is never quite aware what events are fact or fiction while reading Black Hole.

5a. Compare the way dreams are portrayed in graphic novels to other mediums.

Dreams are much more effective in graphic novels, the authors don’t have to spend all kinds of time explaining the scene as they would in a book. Unlike other comics or mediums, Black Hole's artistic style is the same in dreams and reality, the content is just different. They don’t change colors or lines like they do in other mediums so the transition feels more natural.

6. What is the significance of water? Why do the infected seem drawn to it?

Traditionally, water represents birth and purification. Swimming makes Chris feel better, perhaps its the only place she can truly feel clean. Erika suggests that puddles and diffusion can change and distort an image, so perhaps Burns is playing with the parallel of the distorted physical manifestations that are found on the infected.

7. Describe Burns' art style. Why did he choose to illustrate Black Hole this way? Is there any feel he was trying to evoke?

Burns' style is instantly recognizable and consistent. In this book, he chooses to draw quite realistic people with unsightly features such as unibrows, pimples, and partial mustaches. This provides a stark contrast between the science fiction-esque imagery and the realistically drawn characters.

8. Would Black Hole be better/worse in color? Why or why not?

I think drawing Black Hole in color would take an already disturbing and grotesque graphic novel over the top in terms of tolerance. Burns' style is already so emotive and impressive that color is not needed.

9. How is Black Hole different from other critically acclaimed "hipster" comics such as Jimmy Corrigan?

Other "hip" graphic novels such as Ghost World and Jimmy Corrigan, which are essentially non plot driven studies in human tragedy, are different from Black Hole. Elena argues that the characters in Burns' work have some chance at redemption and both character and plot progress are made. We also wonder if this and other graphic novels are so critically acclaimed because they are esoteric so a critic gives it a good score to keep from looking stupid.

10. Is there any significance to the absence of parents in this graphic novel?

It represents that nobody cares about anyone else. In this generation, parents are more involved and kids are pushed more towards success. In the 70s, it was more hands off parenting. It seems at least in Black Hole that parents are willing to overlook, don’t want to get involved.

11. What is the importance of Eliza and Keith escaping to the desert at the end?

A desert is the complete opposite of a wet and tree-filled Seattle. Perhaps such a dramatic physical change of environment can help these two forget the horrific occurences back in Seattle.

12. What is the significance of the conversation between Rob and Chris before they first have sex?

The conversation is a play on the embarrassment of being a virgin versus the embarrassment of having an STD. Rob wants to tell Chris he's infected, but she thinks he's talking about being a virgin, so she tells him not to worry about it. This is representative of the lack of responsibility and communication teenagers have and how easily an epidemic like this could spread.

13. What do the mutations caused by Bug represent? Each mutation seems to vary depending on the person (tail, mouth, face, etc.). Why?

We didn't really get to this one in club, I'm hoping to hear some of your thoughts on it. Jeremiah argues that Rob's neck mouth says his unconscious thoughts and fears, but what does the tail or any other deformations represent?

14. What is the difference between the "normal" kids and the infected kids? What does this represent?

The "normal" kids are mostly burnouts and drug users while the infected tend to be a bit more inclusive. However, there's a complete lack of any truly "normal" characters in Black Hole. Where is the football team, the cheerleaders? Burns chose to represent a few factions, both of whom could be argued to be equally deviant.

15. Neil Gaiman was writing the screenplay for a movie adaptation, but he left the project in 2008. David Fincher (Fight Club, Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is still set to direct. What do you think of Hollywood's tendency to adapt every popular graphic novel into film? Would Black Hole adapt well?

The combination of Gaiman and Fincher could have been perfect, but now the future of the project looks uncertain. The current tendency towards superhero movies also makes the project a rough start. If the director was not careful, the film could be ridiculously campy and not purposely funny. It could detract from the real message.

16. Black Hole offers little plot resolution in the end. Is there any reason for this? Is there emotional resolution?

We didn't get to this one, either. Thoughts?


  1. Even though this wasn't one of the questions above, most of the discussion really lent itself to this question: Does a good piece of literature have to be a good book?

    Rich alluded to this question, saying that this book is more suited for a college lit class than a night table. And I think that we did and can agree that this is a brilliantly creative, detailed, layered, complicated work.

    But, so what? Yes, he puts symbolism in it, yes there are tons of little hints and clues and connections and sort of "Easter Eggs" in there that you can't find unless you read it multiple times and/or talk about it with other perspectives.

    Or does it really matter in the general sense if it's a good book or just a good work? It matters in the sense of what time or place I read a book -- and this one probably is more suited for the couch or a comfy chair than the bed or the toilet.

  2. Josh makes a good point. We kept coming back to the fact that most of us didn't like this book, but still felt that it was "good work".

    Richard and Vrilina (sp?) posited that it was a terrible read from the perspective that escaping into the dark, hopeless reality created by this book was not fun in any way.

    I feel that this is a literary catch-22, because, it's true, Black Hole was a horrific journey into some very dark places, but I think that's the point. It didn't just tell you about kids lost in the woods - it made you feel like a kid lost in the woods. Not a pleasant feeling, but bravo to the author for doing one hell of job making us feel awful, I suppose.

    Yet the other point you make is good too - I think that a work like this will affect everyone differently based on where you're at with life. I was pretty shocked to hear that Elena actually liked it. Not just in a "oh this is good literature" way, but because it dealt with gender roles in a very sensitive manner. I never would have seen that, but her background lent a different view that made the powerful images in this book meaningful, not just shocking.

    As for plot resolution, Nick, indeed there was very little. I think that was, again, the point. It was meant to be a window into this stage of these peoples' lives, but life keeps going after the last page. There was still some resolution - I think the title suggested that some of the characters got "sucked in" to a well of self-destruction that eventually ended many of them, yet Rick (right name?) and the tail girl escaped the pull of it's gravity. So there was enough resolution for me, but I am pretty forgiving of an open ending.

  3. I'm starting to think that without the esoteric content, symbolism, and other plot developments, Black Hole would have indeed been a bleak and hopeless book. Without the extra content, Black Hole chronicles some depressing teenage burnouts riddled with STDs that give them grotesque features. At least with the extra content thrown in there, the reader is given space to interpret that maybe things aren't as bleak and hopeless as Burns would have you think.

    P.S. Jeremiah, I think It was Keith and Eliza (tail girl).