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A Warped Masterpiece of Teenage Angst,
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This review is from: Black Hole (Hardcover)
I don't often buy graphic novels (with some notable exceptions) - despite my continuing adultescence and status as a member Generation-Y, I'm not really that into typical comic books or superheroes - you'll never find me in a Spiderman T-shirt and I find the writing in even some of the "good" comic book serials, well, a bit far-fetched and stupid. I'm glad I took a chance with this one, though and I hope you, dear reader, will too!
Set in Seattle in the early/mid 1970s, "Black Hole" inhabits the damp, sticky, slightly wiffy world of teenage angst, as it following the lives of a group of senior high school kids over the course of a long (somewhat rainy and miserable) summer: so far, so "Dazed and Confused".
The fantastical conceit here (don't worry, no vampires or werewolves in sight), is the underlying presence of a disturbing, teen-only epidemic that's gradually infecting our young charges one-by-one. "The Bug", as it's referred to colloquially, is spread via sexual contact (or is it?) and manifests itself in the form of a spectrum of strange physical mutations - from the subtle and concealable, to monstrous physical deformities; X-men it ain't. Regardless of the severity, the over-riding fact seems to be this: once you've got "The Bug", that's you forever. Those afflicted find themselves ostracised by their peers and some seek refuge by running away into the local woods, leaving them vulnerable to drink, drugs and other perils...
Clearly the disease trope has parallels with the AIDS epidemic of the 80s, particularly in the early years when a diagnosis of the so-called "Gay Plague" was effectively a death sentence, and where fears about blood, hygiene and transmission vectors lead greater society to condemn and quarantine those unfortunate sufferers. Having said that, it would be lazy to allow such a pat interpretations; there's a whole lot going on within these beautifully bound pages.
Teenage themes abound: identity, personal experimentation, awkwardness, conformity vs. independence, ennui, isolation and otherness all feature prominently but the story unfolds an elliptical, open-ended and deliberately ambiguous manner. The heavy symbolism in the drawing (lots of slits, incisions, breaks and openings, the title itself), combined with beautiful draughtsmanship in the monochrome inking, suggests layers of complexity and meaning bubbling under the surface - I can't remember a graphic novel that truly demonstrated the uniqueness of the art-form so clearly; makes you think that maybe Alan Moore was right about the futility of adapting them for the screen. Notably, luminaries such as David Fincher have tried (and subsequently given up).
Like Moore, there's an undercurrent of eroticism prevalent throughout which (unlike Moore) thankfully never feels like exploitation or just there for male gratification; it adds a heady credibility to the thick, hormonal atmosphere - there's a strong autobiographical element here for the writer it seems. The All-or-nothing extremes of youthful emotions are captured with succinctness, sensitivity and poignancy throughout. That's not to say there isn't a brutal, sinister quality to it as well, with echoes of Columbine and Astoria in the background.
Some other commentators have mentioned there's a lack of humour - probably have to agree - which can make it a bit depressing. In addition, due to stylistic choices by the author, some of the characters look quite similar, which, combined with the semi-flashback structure, can initially cause confusion between key characters. These are fairly mild criticisms of what is a masterpiece of the genre.
Maybe you never read graphic novels. Perhaps were maybe put off by the macho "costumed vigilantes" of "Watchmen" or "The Dark Knight Returns"; perhaps you thought comics were just corny and superficial. If you find yourself in that position, maybe take a chance with "Black Hole" - it might just change your opinion....