In the first chapter of Charles Burn’s graphic novel Black Hole, Keith looks down into a slit in the belly of a dead frog. Keith, one of the protagonists, is in his high school biology class, and he tries to explain that something strange is going on. His narration indicates that sexualized energy is high in the room: the girls’ overtly feminine repulsion to the frogs is matched by the boys’ masculine posturing, and Keith himself has been assigned an attractive partner he wants to impress. At this point, it would be natural to write, “but we can sense something beneath the surface, far more unnerving than sexual tension and frog dissection.” Charles Burns has cultivated a distinctive inking style based on the firm, tapered lines created by a brush (Chute). In Black Hole, there’s no blending, stippling, or crosshatching, just pure black and white in greater or lesser proximity to each other. The effect is a world in constant high-contrast, with abysses for shadows, and round forms that seem to have an especially tactile solidness. It’s an endlessly felicitous look for a horror comic, imparting the solidity of the real to Burn’s monstrous inventions and making the repeated assaults on the integrity of real things more monstrous. Seeing, from Keith’s perspective, the round, dead frog on the flat pan, the cut calling to mind the squinch of tearing rubber, and the obviously-biological but still incomprehensible shapes of the animal’s innards, the reader understands why Keith is transfixed by that gap.

As Burn’s style is ideally suited to this horror comic, so the horror comic genre/medium is suited to a story that is not only about adolescents, as tales in the genre frequently are, but is an allegory of adolescence. I implied earlier that one reading of this scene and its exquisite visual construction holds that Burns is building readers’ anxiety in anticipation of extraordinary horror—an irrefutably correct interpretation. But the other thing this scene does is make you feel how weird the situation actually would be for teenagers like these characters, regardless of any impending horror or secret underbelly.

In much of the world where Western-style education is practiced, adolescents are the only group forced to reflect on the human condition through literature. For this reason, and because it’s an eventful time in a person’s development, they’re the focus of a great deal of literary energy: books about them, books at them. As protagonists, they’re easy to read as children forced into maturation through confrontation with the adult world, or as novice-adults lacking the wisdom that comes through experience. Such readings are a kind of accurate, but they don’t fully engage with the adolescent worldview—a perspective frequently overlooked because this paradigm is easily, sometimes eagerly, forgotten. Nevertheless, a concept of human development that places the adolescent on a straight line between the child and the mature being is only a kind of accurate. In a 2008 review of recent studies on adolescent development and advancements in neuroimaging technology, Casey et al. clinically describe adolescence as: “a developmental period characterized by suboptimal decisions and actions that are associated with an increased incidence of unintentional injuries, violence, substance abuse, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases” (111). Apart from being a fair summary for Black Hole, this introduction defines the frustration scientists of the mind (and parents!) have felt when observing teenagers for years: at the peak of intellectual development, they’re notorious for making “suboptimal,” i.e. dumb, decisions—with frequently exciting, but also frightening and tragic consequences.

One model recently proposed to explain this apparent discrepancy is called the “imbalance model” (án 268). Supplementing MRI studies showing expanding and contracting volumes of different types of brain matter over time (Giedd et al.), with human and animal behavioral experiments, this model suggests that while the prefrontal cortex or cortical control regions of the brain continue their steady development, in adolescence there’s a bump in development in the subcortical limbic regions. Loosely defined, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for rational behavior, and for regulating more impulsive brain activity, like that inspired by the limbic regions, which deal with risk and reward, among other things, and are greatly affected by context—stress, emotion, the presence of peers (Galván 268, 272). A graph of this model looks like this (fig. 1):

Fig. 1

 

And the hole in the frog out of which tumbles visions of the consequences of Keith and his peers’ “suboptimal” decisions looks like this (fig. 3):

Fig. 3

Description: black hole 002.jpg

The world looks the same to adolescents as it does to adults, but it feels different, deep down in the brain. As a horror comic, which is also an exceptional work of artistry, Black Hole is uniquely able to portray the experience of having imbalanced systems. In comics, Burns is able to simulate an alternate understanding of temporality, and as horror, Black Hole foregrounds emotion and risk.

Concluding that adolescents are impulsive is not exactly a modern scientific breakthrough, but the awareness that this impulsivity should not be disregarded as mere immaturity has only recently developed. Long-term imaging studies and behavioral tests performed on a number of age groups have finally made comparisons between children, adolescents, and adults possible. Summarizing experiments on temporal discounting, Stanovich et al. note that although teenagers, compared to ten- and eleven-year-olds, are better able to value a larger delayed reward rather than an instant small reward, they are substantially less capable of prudent valuation than adults (357). One interpretation of these and similar results is that, despite their comparable neurological maturity, adolescents are less able to “imagine future consequences without having to carry out the behaviors in the physical world” (Giedd et al. 24). Giedd and his co-writers actually characterize this frontal lobe activity as “time travel.” While Chris and Keith both have portentous visions and dreams in Black Hole, neither is able to make sense of these warnings until he or she has lived through the experience. An adult reader, better able to sense danger based on past experiences than these teenage characters (gist-based reasoning), is equally helpless to choose another course.

Description: black hole 003.jpgApart from the sensation of being borne along by the narrative against our better judgment, Black Hole’s panels often act as windows into a different conception of time. The section after “Planet Xeno” begins with a full-page splash: an overhead view of Chris in bed—although, it’s so early in the story, and she’s in such a different context than biology class, a first-time reader may not realize it’s her until a few pages later when she recognizes Keith in her dream. We can intuit that the squiggly-bordered panels contain dreams. Although our eyes and the sss-sound of Chris saying/thinking “swimming hole” carry us from the real world into her mind, these moments are not occurring sequentially. Both Chris sleeping, and Chris walking then stepping in glass then pulling a scroll from her wound, etc. are happening simultaneously—happening now. When the panel borders straighten out, the real and dream images are congruous in form and content: the page where Chris awakens is divided into two vertical panels, one depicting the Keith-head snake wrapped around Chris’ legs underwater, and the other looking down on Chris’ pained face. She’s upside-down, adding to our disorientation, and the folds of the sheet over her body mirror the swirling water in her dream.

In a similarly-shaped panel immediately opposite, Chris sits up, right-side up again, revealing the nightmarish tear in the skin of her back. Reading such a sequence, it’s impossible to escape the sense of dream time. And while the next panels progress in a more typical sequence—this happens, then this, then this—there’s no way to reckon how long it would take to pull your skin off, and there’s no dialogue or sound to guide us after the panel in which Chris pulls down her face. Given the freedom to experience these moments at our own pace, Chris’ ordeal could last seconds, or forever. Finally, the image of her skin stretched on the dead branches reminds us of Keith’s discovery earlier in the book: suddenly, we realize we’re in the past, that Chris has already been extracting herself from her skin, maybe for some time. It’s possible to lose sympathy for Chris later in the narrative, as, like a teenager, she’s often introverted to the point of selfishness. However, we have this sequence as a touchstone to remind us of the desolate sensation of being lost in horror without a sense of what the future might hold, or if it will ever arrive.

Refusing to think about the future and not being able to imagine the future are categorically different conditions, and many elements of Black Hole’s construction work to create the sense of an inescapable, and overwhelming, present. A scan of the pages reveals an extraordinary visual unity, a product of Burns’ previously-mentioned style, and a story in which equally-startling images appear in dreams, visions, drug-induced hallucinations, and waking. Much of each chapter/issue is spent trying to catch up to its opening scenes. Moving down to particulars, symbols of growth and progress are absent or distorted. The single child, Chris’ younger brother, and few adults seem to inhabit another world—they’re like other species our main characters cohabitate with. (They do have differently-constructed brains, after all.) Even Jill’s older sister in “Windowpane” and the drug-dealing college kids seem like foreign others, rather than developmental eventualities. Some of the most salient images in Black Hole make a horrific joke out of the life cycle: the always-already-dead frog, the weird creature in Keith’s dream in “The End” that’s a sort of frog-baby one moment, and a withered husk the next, and there’s the recurring tadpoles in disturbing contexts.

Typical symbolism of paths and horizons is also made disturbing, rather than hopeful. Exploring the woods in “Planet Xeno,” Keith finds “other trails…trails leading to all kinds of sad little forts. Piles of sticks and boards surrounded by a litter of candy wrappers.” Even in the woods, where teenagers go to escape, paths only lead to sad little termini scattered with non-biodegradable garbage. Similarly, Keith’s acid trip begins to spin out of control while walking on the dirt road to Revenna Park, which turns into a “terrible living thing.” Burns shows us this terrible hallucination, but not Keith’s earlier, more pleasant mirage of a “deep, dark blue” sky with the first stars coming out. Of course, the sky is either black or white in Black Hole, and often seems to hang behind distant trees like a flat screen, as though there are no other places. The most beautiful, and most horizon-like, horizons occur in Chris’ mind as she approaches orgasm, and the different-sized stars in “Under Open Skies,” give the best sense of depth beyond the character’s immediate surroundings—but even this effect can be misleading. Miserable and drunk in “Summer Vacation,” as Chris falls asleep in a strange bedroom, the “cheap, glittery shit” on the ceiling turns into stars. That the subverting of symbols for progress ends as the book begins to come to a close, especially in the splash page for “driving south,” is an indication of the characters’ growth.

Still, as they say, you have to walk on the heaving membrane of a monster’s back before you can drive down the regular road. Reading Black Hole in its serialized form over the course of ten years must have been a very different experience, and one which precluded the depth of immersion possible with a single volume. Instead of feeling simulated adolescent time, readers of the comics were privy to the information that at least one girl grew out of her manifestations of the bug. I imagine this would enable a fuller, more intellectual relationship with the material. Conversely, without this information, the decision to sleep with obviously-infected partners is harder to understand rationally. Absent atmosphere and context, Chris and Keith’s first sexual encounters with Rob and Liza, respectively, are like morality plays of how adults see this kind of behavior. Watch in dismay as a young woman, drunk on illegal wine, seduced by the romance of the night, sleeps with a more experienced, diseased young man because she doesn’t have all the information!

A scientific explanation for her behavior goes like this: as a teenager, Chris’ dopamine systems are either hyperactive or hypoactive (charmingly, the evidence on this matter isn’t conclusive), but either way, the effect of dopamine, the chemical released in the human brain after success, means much more to her than it does to the average adult. She’s either craving dopamine more, or she gets a bigger high off it. Note how she begins her recollection of Marci’s party with the reflection that she “was so happy, so up…we all were” [emphasis in the original]. Emotion is foregrounded. In fact, Keith and Chris are frequently preoccupied with managing their emotions, and it would be difficult in a world like theirs. Compounding effects of drugs and alcohol aside, it would take conscious effort to stay even-keeled when your classmates are sprouting webbed fingers and the woods are filled with sexual-sadist sculpture. I fervently hope the facts of their existence don’t ring any bells, but the effect—a justifiable fatalism—should be familiar to reformed adolescents.

Fig. 5
Besides a focus on her own emotions, Chris’ narration at the start of Marci’s party reflects an awareness of her peers: “we all were.” Research indicates that adolescents take more risks in the presence of their peers than adults or children, again emphasizing not that the adolescent brain is immature, if immaturity were the issue, children would be most susceptible. Rather, a teenage brain is different. The gap between the development of limbic systems and the prefrontal cortex that would regulate them is biggest during these years. A risk taken with positive results is an incredible windfall, while the brain lacks tools to assess some very dangerous situations as such. Furthermore, as one would expect, these effects are compounded by atmosphere and context, of which Black Hole has a lot. The phrase peer pressure has become hopelessly clichéd, but Burns is able to enact it visually, returning literal meaning to the concept. The scenes in which the characters make their most destructive decisions—Chris chooses to leave the party with Rob, or to go swimming in her underwear, Keith decides to sleep with Eliza, or doesn’t force everyone to leave the McCroskey’s house—are often just after or surrounded by panels with close-up faces (fig. 5). Like everything else in Black Hole, every face is high-relief, individuated, detailed; they crowd into panels, look down from high angles, or are lit from below, constituting their own oppressive atmosphere the characters, and thus readers, are compelled to respond to—sometimes in “suboptimal” ways.

If danger is unavoidable because of the irresistible tide of neurochemicals and peer influence, it’s also pretty sexy. As a teenager, Keith would have an easier time imagining the immediate rewards he stands to gain from sleeping with Liza than the eventual consequences. But this mechanism is hard to figure in images, and occurs too far below consciousness to manifest in words. It’s standard practice in horror texts to play on the borderline of titillation and fear, and in Black Hole, this fortuitously communicates the adolescent risk-drive far better than the scientific imbalance model. Apart from making his subjects more real, the solidity and precision of Burn’s shapes can invest his characters with beautiful clarity (fig. 6). Eliza especially approaches high-contrast perfection.

Fig. 6

Description: black hole 001.jpg

Better than Catcher in the Rye, and far better than David Copperfield, Black Hole is able to create in the reader a sense of the strangeness and isolation of being an outlier on the path of human development. Teenagers in a world governed by rules with which adults are familiar, and adept at living within, appear immature and irrational. To fully sympathize with their behavior, it helps to have an insight into the way adolescents perceive their world. It’s possible to forget the conjoined magnetism and repulsion caused by a member of the attractive sex’s body, or the feeling of helplessness as one’s own body rebels. It might even be desirable to forget these things. But in doing so, we risk idealizing a time which is profoundly challenging.

Another scientific model put forth to explain the adolescent risk-drive comes from evolutionary biologists, who suggest that, in the crucible that formed the modern human animal, risk-attraction was often a desirable trait (Ellis et al.). In this schema, males who navigated dangerous situations successfully gained positions of social dominance and became more sexually attractive. (Rob is the only character who has two sexual partners.) In serendipitous congruence with horror texts, the internal clock shifts to provide more energy at night, when the highest volume of romantic pursuits occur (Ellis et al. 4). Also leaning towards the horrific, evolution would favor adolescents who faced risks successfully, or those who avoided risk altogether. As in Black Hole, those who didn’t survive the dangers they confronted would die, and take their genes with them. While this model fits, it offers more by way of explanation than insight.

As a collected novel, Charles Burns’ work is both an allegory for adolescence, like the evolutionary model, and a simulation of how it feels to be an adolescent, providing internal insight like the imbalance model. The first function depends only on the plot, which could possibly be presented in another genre or medium, with a few omissions. But the unique recreation of the reality which spawns so many “suboptimal” decisions is best accomplished by a horror story, told through juxtaposed words and images. In post-modern scholarship, even if it’s not postmodern, it’s important to resist making universal claims, and safe praise credits Black Hole with being an engaging record of adolescence in 1970s suburban Seattle. But its obvious situation in time and space actually invites comparison to experiences farther afield: its particularity precludes unreflective identification, so that even those of us with very similar experiences perform imaginative work. Accepting specificity, and working around reality, Burns has created a work which I believe approaches a near-universal affective experience, because, rather than in spite of, the fantastical, horrific things he draws.

Works Cited

Burns, Charles. Black Hole. New York: Pantheon, 2005. Print.

Casey, B.J., Rebecca M. Jones, and Todd A. Hare. “The Adolescent Brain,” Annals of the New

York Academy of Sciences1124 (2008): 111–126. Electronic.

Chute, Hillary. “Charles Burns [Graphic Novelist/Illustrator],” The Believer. January 2008. Web.

Ellis, Bruce J., et al.“The Evolutionary Basis of Risky Adolescent Behavior: Implications for Science, Policy, and Practice.” American Psychological Association 11 Sept 2011: 1-26. Electronic.

Galván, Adriana. “Risky Behavior in Adolescents: The Role of the Developing Brain.” Reyna, et al. 267-289.

Giedd, Jay N., et al. “Anatomic Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Developing Child and Adolescent Brain.” Reyna, et al. 15-35.

Reyna, Valerie F., Sandra B. Chapman, Michael R. Dougherty, and Jere Confrey, eds. The

Adolescent Brain: Learning, Reasoning, and Decision Making. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 2010. Print.

Stanovich, Keith E., Richard F. West, and Maggie E. Toplak. “Judgment and Decision Making in Adolescence: Separating Intelligence from Rationality.” Reyna, et al. 337-378.

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