Gasping neck wounds and protruding tails: scrambled sexuality and dermatological disorder in Charles Burns’ Black Hole
May 22nd, 2008
This post contains some pretty strong stuff, so if you’re under 18 or easily offended, it might be better if you turn round and go back the way you came in.
Okay, so I’m a comics geek and we’re always the last to get picked for the squad, and when the numbers finally whittle down to us, our selection is always greeted with moans and groans. But I was popular enough off the playing field, so I didn’t give a toss about that. Football’s rubbish anyway. No, what really got me was shower time. It’s bad enough hitting puberty without having to strip down to your nadgers in front of a room full of braying schoolboys. Anyone that had an inkling of hair down there, or was starting to grow or droop a little was fair game. I remember how poor old Simon Hudson’s massive, hairy willy was always a source of vicious fun.
‘It looks like an elephant!‘, they’d cry.
Flash forward three years and the mockery’s still a go go, just that it’s the bald kids who are taking the flack this time. You couldn’t win. Everybody got a taste of shit pie. Everybody joined in with the taunts at some time or other. We were all bastards. By commenting loudly on other’s *deformity* we were somehow diverting attention from our own funny bits – the strange shapes and eruptions that burst and sprouted from our hard, clean, pre-pubescent skin. But there was another motivation too, apart from denial, for all the pointing and name calling. We wanted to look, to marvel, to test out the new language we’d use in this new world. We just didn’t want other people to know how fascinated by all of it we really were.
Step into the time-teleporter for a third time and our fizzing molecules settle into human form once more, somewhere in a field in deepest darkest East Sussex. This time I’m ten years old, traipsing through shoulder length corn with my brother, my friend Scott, and my then nanny, Wendy.
‘How do I know I won’t be gay?’, I ask.
I mean, I had a girlfriend [AAAaaw! - ed], Suzannah, and I definitely felt something powerful for Sarah Cox when I was 7, but was it lurve? Adolesence was on the horizon and I’d heard that it did things to you. I had yet to settle. It was all free-floating, up for grabs, for negotiation. Who knew what twisty contortions I’d undergo? Would I recognize the end result?
Would I be happy with it?
Or would it be like being buried alive?
And this time we venture back further still to a bedroom in the year 1978 where a young poodle tosses and turns in the night, reliving his least favourite nightmare. He’s left the safe confines of the dream living room, dream mum and the house-that-he-knows and begun, once again, the spiralling journey down, down, down the lonely staircase shrouded in red curtains. Each step, he knows, will bring him closer to the basement and the cackling crone that waits for him there. And he cannot will his feet to turn back. Who knows what terrible operations she will visit upon him… She stirs and stirs the swirling, noxious mixture in the vast metallic vat on her stove, like she has all the time in the world….
The nigredo, or ‘blackening’, is the first stage in the alchemical process, where the base matter separates out into the individual elements that inform it and, one by one, they begin to putrefy. The shadow-self of rotting, twisted flesh and mind has to be confronted and reassimilated into consciousness before the aenigma regis, the divine mystery, can unfold.
The alchemical laboratories of medieval and Renaissance Europe are so often depicted containing, not just pots, bubbling pans and steaming alembics, but other strange items like the suspended body of a crocodile or the cadaver of a toad. In fact, the toad was, in some manuscripts, one of the key symbols/ingredients of the nigredic process. It represented matter and soul in its sulphurous state – unclean, primitive and reptilian. But alchemists did not deny the physical, instead they desired to sublimate it. The end result of their work was to reveal the golden eagle that resided in that hunched, scaly, sickly body, and by doing so ascend to the Divine.
THE TOAD WAS BLACK
Charles Burns’ Black Hole refuses to turn away from it’s denied, fleshy subject matter. Instead it looks it straight in the face, pins it to a wall and rips out its guts. Perhaps its goals are less noble than those of Paracelsus, but its intention is certainly to bring all the hidden material that informs so much of our repressed, physical, life to light. Burns’ comic tells of the disturbing reality that festers beneath a small American town in the late 1970s, where ‘the bug’ – a virulent, sexually transmitted, skin distorting disease – wreaks havoc upon the flesh of its teenage inhabitants. It focuses primarily on three protagonists: Chris, a popular cheerleader type, Keith, a stoner, and Rob, a fairly straightforward (but from the outset already infected) love interest for Chris. But Chris straddles two realities – the world above, with it’s parties, shopping malls, dates, made for TV movies and high schools, and the world below, full of alien sex and kids whose deformities are so acute they’ve left home and gone into hiding, sheltering and forming their own outcast community in the dense woods that surround the town. All the lead characters will come to know this secret landscape/society intimately before the strip is through, because they will all contract the bug. Black Hole chronicles their journey from the light to the dark and what they do with it when they get there.
It would be tempting to indulge the obvious here and leap straight to the bug-as-AIDS metaphor, but I’m sure there’s already a ton of stuff of this type cluttering up the web. In short, it would be too obvious, and it isn’t really what interests me about Black Hole in the first place – in large part because I’m not sure its a terribly accurate parallel to draw. In fact I think its a fairly specious one. Sure the bug destroys lives, but not physically. It’s the townspeople’s response to the disease that fucks up its victims, not the disease itself. Indeed, its often conclusively stated within the text that the physical transformations it engenders can serve as a powerful lens through which we can reinterpret identity/the self and a gateway to exciting new brands of sexual pleasure. The bug isn’t necessarily limiting. In fact all those feelers and bony protrusions could, can and sometimes do act as tendrils connecting each of the main players to a radically overhauled sensual reality.
If only it wasn’t for those arseholes in the shower.
That first panel precis the whole thing very nicely, thank you. The chapter heading introduces itself as Biology 101. It tells us that this is a comicbook experiment whose focus is the body – a bold foray into the occult environment of the forests of veins, innards, spleens, tracts and cancers that compose our secret selves. This is the world behind the red curtain and these are the black magics of the gnarled witch who inhabits it, her cauldron frothing and bubbling with unspeakable things – torn limbs, faeces, sperm and other mystery fluids. But this is the body of an amphibian with all its conotations of damp, dark, wet places. This is the body of an alien, as all bodies ultimately are, and the hole torn in its chest is the portal, the siege perilous we have to confront if we are to seriously engage with this work.
‘It’s what’s inside that counts!’, goes the war-cry of Oprah Winfrey fans the world over.
Charles Burns agrees. Black Hole takes literally the standard narrative/thematic trope of 80s teen movies in that it sets about illuminating the private, hidden selves of its characters, exposing their insecurities, their sense of alienation, their deviancy and the hard fact of their physical bodies to the harsh light of day. But it doesn’t conclude, a la The Breakfast club, that once it’s all out in the open we’ll be greeted with love, cuddles, acceptance and a real, honest to goodness girlfriend. In Black Hole we’re not the vessel for a luminous being of radiant light, in point of fact we’re not a vessel at all, but we do contain….*things*. What we contain, however, might make others sick to look at. The girls will faint as the toad’s sliced open, and we’ll probably be told to put it away or just fuck off for good. Our skin and id are rigorously policed by our society, our peers and our super-egos, and woe betide anyone that allows them free expression. That way ostracism lies.
Teenagers are obviously the most fertile ground for exploring what happens when our physicality detonates into new forms. If Black Hole is a metaphor for anything, its the confusion, terror and excitement of this bodymind-warping period in each of our lives, when we are opened up to a whole new realm of experience. We slough off our childhoods, in order for the revised and eroticised body of the adult to emerge.
But it’s a very difficult time, and it’s hard to enjoy all the sensual novelty on its own undefinable terms. The sudden rush of teenage transfiguration is obscured by the desperate urge to reduce it all to something knowable safe and unthreatening. Everything gets lost in the all too predictable ritualistic jeers to ‘get them off!’ so that everyone can see ‘that lilly white ass!’. And the heteronormative sarcasms buried beneath statements like ‘I think I’m in love!’ defuse the lumpy, inert, dangling reality of the penis and its forbidden, glaring physicality. The thing itself seems like a strange creature from another dimension intruding on the scene. That can’t be what all the fuss is about, can it? That curiously inert trunk of flesh? That hairy sack? What is this weird beast caught up amid all that bluster and emotional armour? Let’s have a look at what’s underneath the layers and layers of laddish bullshit, shall we? How do we really appear beneath our clothes? What happens when we take our *suits* off and let it all hang out?
The teenager as depicted in Black Hole is symbolic of the broader feelings of confusion, disgust and fascination we all feel towards our bodies and our sexuality all of the time. The Conservative MP who turns out to enjoy the whips and chains and handcuffs of the S&M dungeon, the housewife who dreams of being violated by the tall dark stranger, the jock who likes to kiss boys – what do we do with these twisty versions of ourselves, but try to hide them behind a respectable veneer, the right clothes, the right language, the right groomed and scrubbed heads, shoulders, knees, toes and sexy bits? The flesh will not do as it’s told – it’s unruly and frightening and it won’t be boxed away. All of us have experienced homo/poly/whateversexual desire at some point in our lives, all of us have enjoyed pain, all of us have degraded ourselves or someone else for kicks and we all know about the sexy contours of the swimming pool or the plant – we’re just, by and large, deeply fucking dishonest about these things. Black Hole makes the darkness visible. It tells us that these unseemly cul de sacs on the road to pleasure, no matter how hard we try to negate them, are always hanging there, suspended, ready to be plucked. It understands that sexuality is a continuum instead of a binary, either/or process, just as a child does when he wonders about the sexual orientation of his future self. The penis would get as much pleasure from a man’s mouth as it would a woman’s, assuming the closed off heterosexual has no knowledge of the sex of the person performing the act. These aesthetic distinctions reside in our minds. And Burns is having none of it. He knows that, no matter how much we protest that we are normal, that we are straight, the body will always have its freakish way and its surface is never flat and dull, but always fantastically twisted and perverse.
Okay, this sequence clearly depicts Keith, and by inference the reader, being reborn as a sexualized, adult being as he sinks into the cavity in the frog’s belly, passes into blackness and reemerges with secret knowledge. This primal scene – this descent into a whirlpool of sperm tadpoles, phallic serpents, tangled, broken skin, death and the fragmented, washed up effluage of teenage lives – prefigures the experience of reading the comic and depicts, beautifully, the tatty building blocks of the walled-off self. This is the genetic code of the new Keith. The Keith that is the subject of Burns’ fascinating experiment. Is his being being flushed down the plughole here, or is he spurting forth, exploding from the centre? It’s difficult to find your way hereabouts. Up is down and left is right and all times seem to collapse into a moment. The gun, the vagina-like hole in the foot, and, again, the similar tear that stretches across the length of Chris’s back, the discarded bones – all of these things are important story elements that will occur later. The entire narrative is intuited in one massive, prenatal rush that posits the text not as a progression from point to point, but as a whole process. An organism. Because the realm of the flesh and the heart – of touch, taste and feeling – isn’t concerned with linearities. It lives in the endless sensory, mythic moment of pain and pleasure and orgasm – the eternal DNA coiled timeless and snake-like inside our genes. The teenage experience is forever and its uncalled for bodily explosions are a timeless component of the human experience which, despite our best attempts to compartamentalize them, refuse to be boxed away quite so easily. Our flesh and its vivid, scarlet desires spills out into the psychic environment in ways that we will forever try to forget, but lurk, unseen and waiting, nevertheless. And all the primary characters, in the dream sequences that criss-cross the book, will experience this fundamental, primeval, sensual reality.
And Burns takes this idea to its obvious conclusion. Just as in Woodring‘s zany frankverse, Burns’ small town America – its trees, it’s lakes, its rock formations and its toilet bowls – contain a brooding, gaping animism.
Are those bushes or veins? Is that a beach at night or are we looking at microscopic photgraphy of an arm, say, or our intestines?
In Black Hole, our sexuality, our unfolded epidermis, is everywhere. We cannot escape it. Everything is fetishized, an extension of our skin-hunger, and, resultingly, even the ragged edges of a broken bottle or the brutal surfaces of a gun become imbued with a kind of iconic, libidinous power – novel territories of shattered bone and ripped feet – hard gun barrells and the sharp fingernails of shattered glass embedded in our backs. All of these things act as new and original entry points for suffering and pleasure. The reader is invited to venture forth, using the characters of Keith, Chris and Rob as hir vehicle, into this reconstructed, scrambled vision of the body. The body exploded out into the waking world, messy, slimy and beautiful.
It seems essential to Black Hole’s success that Burns chose to portray his character’s adventures in vivid black and white. Everything is constructed out of light and shadow. Particularly the shadow. As if we, the reader, and Burns himself, are peering into the gloom in an attempt to fathom the sunken mysteries that lie within it. The entire comic is presented to us as one vast black hole which we must penetrate if we are to unearth its treasures. Or is it the folds of the text’s skin? You see, the black and white serves another purpose, too: making good on the promise above, it confounds any clear differentiation between the flesh of the characters and their surroundings. This heightens the feeling that we are looking at a superorganism, the cells of which we might politely call Liza or Keith, but that inevitably extends beyond them – a sea of skin covering the land. Nowhere is this idea more powerfully articulated than in chapter 10, Window Pane, where Keith stumbles through the forest loaded on LSD and comes to the terrifying conclusion that it is alive, that the path itself is the winding spine of a monstrous creature, and it’s giant, baleful eye, the Moon. Unlike Woodring’s anthropomorphised bushes, houses and trees, however, the universe of Black Hole rings with a different kind of life, always fleshy as opposed to plastic and, unlike almost everything in Woodring’s work, fiercely sexy. And in the same way that the extended cartoon universe of Frank suggests the unbounded possibilities of a world outside the rigidly policed physical and moral jail cell of conventional toonland, so does the uncharted skinscape of Black Hole imply a similarly wide-ranging, perhaps shocking, plethora of psychosexual experiences. An environment of unrestricted pleasure and pain, where the traditional semiotics of sexuality, gender, sensuality, beauty and ugliness are destabilized and shuffled like a deck of cards.
Whether they like it or not, Rob, and Keith’s girlfriend, Liza, are made to sport mutations that perform sexual functions and serve to complicate their genders in outlandish ways. Liza’s phallic, protruding tail is not only, an indicator of sexual pleasure, what with it’s snaking and stiffening in response to her progress towards orgasm, but also a source of said pleasure itself. Holding it actually turns her on. It feels good. Sexy good. And this is all quite beside its implied potential as a masturbatory tool in and of itself…. Rob’s considerably more uptight about the vaginal mouth beneath his collar, but eventually, when he feels at his most safe having sex with Chris, he gives in to the revised eroticism it provides. In fact, it would appear that without the added stimulation it affords, his sexual encounters have previously been incomplete and that by letting Chris lick and kiss it, he’s opened himself to the fullness of his sexual potential. Gender starts to look blurry around the edges, like an out of focus photograph. Rob has a woman’s genitals in his neck and Liza has a penis attached to her spine. But is it a vagina or is it a mouth? The gasping neck wound is the repository and mouthpiece for Rob’s unspoken fears and lusts. It moans during coitus and later it whispers his nightmares to Chris while he sleeps on the beach. In the everyday world we have inuendo and our signs and signifiers point in one direction. Mouth equals pussy. Woman equals pussy. Gun equals cock. Man equals cock. In Black Hole these straight, conceptual throughlines are sabotaged, endlessly collapsing in on themselves.
etc…. (see below)
Burns relocates meaning, sexual symbols and gender signifiers like a big land developer relocates villagers and be-dreaded road protestors. The wound in the foot opens up to reveal a phallic tube that unfolds into a picture of a sea serpent who guards the fleshy gateway to an unholy womb of human filth and wasted lives. And who knows what we will find if we’re bold enough to voyage further inside this twisty genatalic labyrinth. Roles reverse and each intimation of a reproductive organ contains the suggestion of its opposite. It’s difficult to say where we are, what we will become or indeed what functions as what in this russian doll depiction of desire and self. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s only the popular kids at school that have a problem with it. the trick is to give in. To float with it.
‘Will I be gay?’
Who the fuck knows what you are?
When this stuff hits us, it is confusing and limitless. I probably had a more extensive sexual education than most kids before I ever had an orgasm or touched a girl’s special bits – Wendy and another nanny, Sandy, saw to that (and for the more unpleasant minded among you – NO, that’s not what I mean) – but that doesn’t mean that when it all eventually happened I had any kind of substantial handle on it. Who knows what I would have morphed into if I hadn’t learnt that this was right, and that was wrong. How many of our hang ups, neuroses and indeed psychoses are the product of the sexual and physical tramelling we’re constantly subjected to? Burns points out how grossly unfair it all is, how terribly unhappy it makes us that our most private selves have to go into exile, relegated to the filthy hovels of the unspoken, cowering in the tight thickets of our back-brains and nervous systems.
Our dreadful hideaway….
But tonight there’s visitors around the campfire. Rob, Keith and Chris all eventually make their way to this forgotten zone, fleeing persecution and seeking acceptance. Here they meet the other lost children, all of whom sport glorious and nauseating mutations of their own.
Some of these transformations are obvious, worn on the face, whereas others hide beneath the clothes. It’s telling that at least one of these sad specimens, Carla, never reveals her condition. We fail to glimpse the terrible truth that catapulted her from the cosy space of home and out into the night. Or do we? The kids around the camp fire are described as ‘losers’ and ‘freaks’ – they were the kids no-one spoke to at school. Perhaps the metaphor is fairly heavy handed here. Carla is, put simply, a fat girl. Burns could be underlining the fact that even this smallest of physical transgressions roots her firmly in the category of the unwanted. Could she be the skinny kid who brazenly dared to get big and flount the strictures of the body police? Whatever. They’re all unhappy, some probably suicidal, and I’m not sure Burns blames these sorry creatures for what happens next.
Out there in the badlands things decay, invert and go wrong. Denied healthy expression, the blacker urges of the body corrupt and dissolve the individual’s humanity. Before long, two of the outcasts are engaged in murder and, together, begin to litter the forest with doll-like visions of septic, misogynistic reality.These frightening totemic forms represent the mind untethered from the actual fact of bone, tissue and blood – a disturbingly alienated mind, shut away from the outside world and genuine interaction. They feel like an attempt to reconstruct a fallen, fragmented humanity. The last ditch efforts of a Frankenstein’s Monster mind to somehow explain and articulate itself, before the loosely bound string, wood and bone that hold it together gives way before the roaring dark. ‘Go no further!’, they warn, ‘You’ve seen enough!’
And we have.
Because madness and death are the ultimate black holes, and their inexorable, crushing gravity will, before the story is out, claim at least five lives.
Dave, the most disaffected of the runaways, denied the affections of the object of his desire, Chris, eventually loses it altogether and kills his partner in crime, himself and three others. This dark chain of events begins with a jock picking on Dave in a liquor store, demanding he leave the shop without food because his hideous appearance is too ‘scary’ for his girlfriend. And this is the meat of it. Everything that placed Dave in the position he’s found himself in by that point – the homelessness, the vilification, the abandonment by friends and family, the deep, deep sexual alienation he feels – all of it is right there, in microcosm, bursting out of the cruel jock’s mouth. And finally he decides he’s had enough and he goes on a killing spree. As I pointed out above, Burns is at pains to point out how awful these kid’s lives are and how difficult we make things for ourselves. There’s something so real about the casual, banal unkindness of the macho, swaggering bastard denying a homeless man a meal just because he doesn’t look right. Again, it’s not the contortions of the flesh that are at fault, but the repressive cudgels of society at large. Perhaps Dave represents the next stage in human evolution, like an X-Man, but we’ll never know because he hates the world too much to stay in it and he wants to wipe it clean of his stain generally, using bullets to cut his friends from the Earth as though they were tumors.
But the moon-eye continues to gaze down on the survivors and the beast lumbers on.
Rob bites it, but Liza, Chris and Keith survive and, as the book draws to a close, begin their individual journeys across America. Although the scary stuff is never forgotten, the comic ends on a hopeful note. They’ve come out of hiding and the real business of dealing and getting on with life can begin. True, we have no idea how things will resolve themselves, but there’s the feeling that Keith and Chris are growing up and beginning to accept themselves. As the picture blurs and the channel starts to fizz with the interference of whatever it is we’re going to do when we put the book down, we leave Keith in bed beside his partner, Liza, as he slowly drifts away, returning to the tidal seashore of dream, womb and childhood, and the flotsam, jetsam, and forgotten trinkets of our discarded lives wash over him. Chris makes her way out to the shore too – our final glimpse of her resting in the crinkles and creases of the sea, gazing up into the night sky. ‘How could I leave all this behind?’, she wonders, exhausted with the tired, aching mysteries of the body, pointing to the fact that there are deeper mysteries still. In the end, the nigredo was only the first operation. It’s easy to get lost in the fleshy zones, but, Burns reminds us as we spin out and up into the Milkyway, we must always remember to keep one eye on the heavens, just so long as we don’t forget to be a little kinder to the different inside ourselves and those around us down here on the ground. Because, cornily, its only by ripping open the armour of our incarcerated, forbidden biology – the meat of who we are – that we open ourselves to the limitless possibilities represented by the stars. Burns, whether he knows it or not, is intuiting the latter stages of the alchemical process in the final images that complete his piece. Gold from shit? Black Hole’s too adult to fully endorse trite shit like that, but hopefully…..
For all of its apparent obsession with deranged faces and genetics run amok, Black Hole is still a distinctly anti-ocular piece. No, I’m not back in ‘It’s what’s inside that counts’ territory (although,as I’ve said previously, it does seem to make that claim, both literally and as a social rule), I just think that its primary concern is the realm of sensation. Throughout it, like the characters, we feel ourselves bound in a tight wad of fleshiness. We feel our bodies more vigorously, our skin closing in like a trap, or extending in tattered, fraying dispersions across the page. It is an acutely resensitizing work, and for all of its body horror, it holds out the promise of something more. Looking up at the sky with Chris, we feel relieved to have escaped – to be outside – but our appreciation of the glimmering, distant lights above would never be the same if we hadn’t been made to experience our physical forms so intensely, disturbingly and wonderfully. It feels as though it’s the first time in the course of the story that we really ever really get a glimpse of the world around us – that we ever really see it – without the filter of our suffocating, awesome biomass intruding. As I’ve mentioned somwhere up there, because it is anti-ocular, Black Hole isn’t too bothered about the neat categorizations that define our waking, everyday lives. It doesn’t give a monkeys about this being a table, that being a wood, or this, over here, being a man or a woman. Left or right. Good or bad. Burns brings home to us the everpresent but forsaken understanding that the needs of the body will so often conflict with the ways in which we’d prefer to view ourselves. We can flagellate and starve the toad as much as we want, but we can still never fully turn away from the fact of its existence.
Black Hole invites us to get to know it a little better, warts and all. It’s nice to see the old boy out of the cage and running wild, if only for a little while and even if the thrills it provides are largely vicarious because, well, we’d never knowingly allow ourselves do….that…..would we?
Earlier on this week, before I got started on this post, my girlfriend sent me out to get some toilet roll, and on the way I almost bumped into a man with a severe deformity. I like to think that I’m getting better at not staring, at treating people with a bit of dignity, but how does one pull away from the warped aesthetic gravity of a face like that? I returned with the toilet roll 10 minutes later and got on with the business of blogging, doing the washing up, hoovering the flat, being a boyfriend, preparing for work and general everydayness, until now putting his face to the back of my mind.