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Charles Burns’ Black Hole and Animality

November 29, 2013


In Charles Burns’s Black Hole we see a paradox of subversion. The characters in the weird teen romance Burns depicts are mutated, bestial, diseased. They are also amplified through animality.  In the visual metaphor, they seem to partake of an alternative cognition. They seem to think and feel differently, abnormally. Yet, their alterity is co-opted by the comics form. That is the paradox.

blackp34t1This is so, because the teens are thoroughly objectified as bodies. Viewers look at them throughout the comics as both characters and as ciphers–embodied symbols of a particular type of Otherness.  That is why there is that backdrop of sex, crowding up backpanel spaces with weeds and spooky foliage (hiding mutilated dolls tied to branches like a macabre exercise in “where’s waldo?”).

Black Hole reprises a familiar binary of vision versus touch. This binary functions thematically, producing dual modes of reading or knowledge.

Emphasized throughout Burns’ strange tale of libidinal teens is the proposition that the eroticized zone of the human’s tangible body may be best visualized in a comic through surreal extensions. For example, the heroine of the text has what appears to be a tail.

burns2That tail doubles, of course, as a kind of penis in illustrations of her naked body alongside the male hero, who possesses a vagina with teeth on his chest.

burns_blackhole001The ‘queering’ of the body thus produced celebrates not the objective, ocular perception so valued by the art-historical tradition of say, the still-life painting, for example. Rather, it celebrates contingency. This new type of knowledge of contingency is available to tenable exploration but may never be wholly known by perception of any kind.


Nevertheless, because the comic is primarily a visual document, it projects its fantasy of carnal knowledge according to the priorities of the visual. The visual finally subsumes any such thing as touch–or tactile sensuality– into the performance of its own totalizing authority. To kindle the animal therefore as both a new mode of reading (through touch) and as an emergent variation on the human body (the image of the girl’s tail, for instance) is to endorse a supposedly obsolete notion of the human.images

In line with a tradition at least as old as the Enlightenment, the comic proposes the human to be supreme author of a knowledge that is primarily mediated as a visual constuct. That is why the animal in such comics always functions as mask or costume, beneath which lies the human, whose universality is reified in the process.

< Portions originally published in “Animal Subjects of the Graphic Novel” in College Literature 38.3 (2011) >

  1. Don’t we all wear masks and costumes?

    • We do. Some of these characters are shown to be reduced to their masks completely, radically collapsing the distinction between wearing and being.

      • I think you’ve captured it: the word “reduced” is critical in this context. And tragic. A very insightful post.

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