We All Fear The Lizard Queen: Affect in Charles Burns’ “Black Hole”

Blackholecover

“The appeal is very direct – right into the viscera, before it gets to the brain”

–          David Cronenberg[1]

Released in a compendium edition in early 2005, Charles BurnsBlack Hole met with much critical acclaim: described as ‘encompassing’[2], ‘skin crawling’[3] and even ‘threatening’[4] the overarching theme from many of the reviews was highly unusual; there was the expected nod to the graphic style but the key to most responses was the highly charged impact the work had had on the reader. The focus was undoubtedly on the works astonishing ability to produce an affective response. Described by Eric Shouse as ‘a non-conscious experience of intensity; [affect] is a moment of unformed and unstructured potential… [Through which] we are forced to be concerned and concerned immediately’[5] – unconscious and almost unexplainable, affect touches the reader to their core. Through the remainder of this essay I intend to attempt to unpack how Burns manages to produce, with both his graphic imagery and his narrative, such an intense response.

For Shouse affect can have many roots, however in Feeling, Emotion, Affect a stress is placed on the non-verbal and non-narrative as an effective producer of affect: ‘given the ubiquity of affect, it is important to take note that the power of many forms of media lies not so much in their ideological effects, but in their ability to create affective resonances independent of content or meaning’ (Shouse, 24/12/2012). As a graphic novel, Black Hole then has an advantage over other forms of media in resonating with its audience, as its heavily inked black and white images affect the reader from an immediate visual response. Through the removal of colour, Burns’ work relies heavily upon shadow and shading to create images aligning much of its visual style with expressionist cinema. The first panel in Racing Towards Something also illuminates this stylistic relationship as the jagged lines and sharp verticals and diagonals of the forest and lake scene mirror the severe lines in expressionist set design (the piercing triangular treetops are highly reminiscent the pointed rooftops in The Cabinet of Doctor Cagliari, 1920). Expressionist films are known for their focus on showing personal subjectivities and internal states through their visual iconography and this device is clearly at play within Black Hole. In A Dream Girl there are multiple frames of Keith looking out of a highly stylized window at the rain: here pathetic fallacy and the bold images of expressionism merge to form a foreboding and charged response. The pure visuals of Burns’ work strikes the reader in a prepersonal way: we see and before even acknowledging the narrative we are affected.

The narrative flow of Black Hole at first glance should be alienating to the audience, the fractured movement between multiple first person narrators leading to textual confusion: Guardian critic Christopher Priest outlines, in his review Down with the Kids, a problem separating the characters – ‘are all teenagers alike?’ (Priest, 29/12/2012). However this continual shifting viewpoint, I would argue, helps build the affect of Burns’ story. By allowing for a range of characters to lead the text the audience is asked to associate and understand the troubles of not one maladjusted-teen but many, suggestive of the universality of the fears of alienation and bodily change that is felt during adolescence and puberty. Black Hole further disorientates the reader as the near epistolary form of the text is related through a fractured chronology which Philip Brophy correctly claims ‘disrupts the orderly, civilised telling of the tale intended by the narrators to build audience unease’[6]. The uncertainty felt within the reader reflecting the uncertainty of puberty itself.

Compounding this, Burns is able to use the multiple narrator format to build deeper psychological resonances with the reader by manipulating Freud’s notion of ‘the uncanny’[7]. Based in concepts of déjà vu and aesthetics, Freud theorises that through artistic repetition the audience can become aware of ‘something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it through the process of repression (Freud, sect. II, par. 26): we are forced to remember something from within ourselves through the art. By allowing multiple narrators to cover the same narrative points and the use of multiple flashbacks within the text (for example, Chris and Rob both relive their sexual encounter in the graveyard repeatedly within the book) Burns ‘temporally disorientates’ his readership and aligns the readers experience of the text with the characters personal subjectivities[8]. By reliving important sexual encounters and feelings of isolation and rejection through the text’s characters we are forced to remember similar encounters within our own past. Although not necessarily conscious of it, Black Hole takes us back to our own adolescence through our living the adolescence of fictional characters: the novel’s affect comes from within our own repressed subconscious memories of the troubled of our pubescent pasts.

Black hole 1

 

Burns is undoubtedly aware of these multiple layers of self (subconscious mind and conscious mind) as his imagery surely stems from this fracture. Andrew D. Arnold, in A Trip Through a ‘Black Hole’, poetically described the bodily mutations of Burns’ characters as ‘corporeal manifestations of their inner souls’ (Arnold, 26/12/2012); each characters’ unconscious fears are represented through physical ailments. A good example of this conclusion is Rob’s smaller mouth on the base his neck which reveals repressed inner feelings (after it calls for Chris his girlfriend responds ‘you may know how to lie but that little mouth on your neck sure doesn’t’, from Who’s Chris) suggesting a psychological desire to speak his mind that, due to societal repression, is only freed after mutation; a theme that is  strikingly similar to David Cronenberg’s psychiatric patients whose bodies mutate after they are forced to repress their anxieties in The Brood, 1979. However, unlike Cronenberg whose focus is on the trauma of motherhood, Burns places his characters on the cusp of adulthood in which expectations surrounding how to act can feel their most restrictive – the scene in which Chris is grounded in The Woods is very telling, in terms of pubescent mentality, as Chris struggles with being trusted as an adult (‘you know we have always trusted you’) and grounded like a child (‘I wasn’t even allowed to use the phone’). Through Burns’ unnamed disease people are forced to exhibit that which affects them most deeply and these struggles they face are universally understandable. Chris malts her skin, suggesting a fear of change and growth; Keith grows mutations similar to the tadpoles he once let die, suggesting a fear of responsibility: we, the audience are so affected by this because, whether consciously or not, it is human to hold these same fears.

However it is not just the subconscious mind that is reflected through the body horror in Black Hole it is the also very physical horror of puberty itself. A time in which there appears to be not only a separation between the conscious and subconscious but a distinct separation between the mind and body: a struggle in a physical self-becoming, a trauma horror critic James Marriot calls ‘the battle site for control’ (Marriot, 226). Strongly suggested through the chapter heading Racing Towards Something, the character Chris may be most explicitly linked with images of adolescence and frequently female puberty. As previously mentioned, there is the obvious connotation of skin-shedding and growth, a suggestive metaphor between Chris and a growing snake, but writer Pui-guan Man takes this image of puberty further to suggest it is in fact ‘a metaphor for menstruation’[9]; as the womb cyclically grows and then loses its lining so does Chris grow and shed her skin. Chris is frequently related to other images of menstruation both overtly, in Racing Towards Something she has a period, and implicitly as the vaginal shaped wound on her foot is shown to bleed – her menstrual pattern becoming increasingly identified with the uncontrollable (‘God it’s about time’, Racing Towards Something). Therefore it can be said that part of the affective response to Black Hole comes from the readers’ relationship to a body that is outside of mental control – Chris cannot control what is happening to her – something that is deeply rooted in the psychological trauma of the changing hormonal body during puberty. Psychoanalyst and film critic Andrea Sabbadini notes that ‘body horror plays on the fear, disgust, shame and apprehension about one’s… bodily functions (usually internal ones), their mystery and our inability to control them’[10] and this affective horror is highly bound in Black Hole with a subconscious fear of the uncontrollable nature of (frequently female) puberty.

This stark disjunction between conscious mind and body is also explored by Burns through the sexual body, as it is not only in puberty that our body is beyond our control, but in lust; Keith exemplifies this in Bag Action as he declares ‘I could feel myself getting hard…’ which linguistically separates his conscious physical desire from his bodily function as he is only aware of his arousal after his body begins to respond. Within Black Hole the best example of the sexual body/mind dichotomy is perhaps the character of Eliza, whose venereal disease mutation is a short dog’s tail at the base of her spine. Critic Tanya Krzywinska argues that in cinema ‘when humans become beasts it is almost always figures as… the dominance of instinctual drives… figuring the sexual terms of the primal’[11]; simply put, the best way to visually depict raw sexuality is through animal imagery. Eliza is the most sexually free of all of Burns’ characters, first appearing to the reader, in Bag Action, with her genitals exposed and associated with phrases such as ‘orgasmic’ (about a sandwich) – she is also visually related to pornography in Dream Girl, in which her nude body depicted is suggestive of the opening page’s “exotic magazine” frames.  Through viewing Eliza through Keith’s subjectivity alone we, the readers, are invited to sexualize her and indeed think of her pornographically: her mutated body connoting a strong sexual desire and in turn our response (especially as we align our consciousness with Keith’s) should be an implicit erotic desire too. Eliza is designed to create an, all-be-it subconscious, lustful response – to create an affect of desire in the reader. By playing on the separation of what our conscious mind wants and the way our body reacts to sexual imagery Burns is forcing the same type of disjoint in his reader that his images depict.

eliza

This is further complicated through the “non-normative” sexual responses depicted within Black Hole; as the notion of male and female is complicated in a process of sexual defamiliarisation the reader becomes increasingly uncomfortable as sexual roles collapse. Pui-guan Man correctly writes that within Black Hole ‘certain bodies hold both male and female signifiers that plausibly represent transgender identities and same-sex attraction’ (Man, 20/12/2012). The opening on Rob’s neck has a distinctly vaginal shape, which within Seeing Double Chris seemingly enjoys kissing – this scene, with the “suggestive” text (‘it was warm and salty…’) has been read as depicting a form of oral sex; Rob becoming both a male and female partner for Chris. Similarly, in Bag Action, Keith’s dream sequence confuses both his and Eliza’s gender: as the sequence draws back from a naked Chris the scene is framed by the inner-thighs and pubic area of a woman on her back, appearing from the top of the cell is Eliza’s tail which takes on the role of a phallus. In this sequence Keith is feminized, within the dream is shown from his perspective yet it is a female pubis shown, and Eliza becomes his male partner. As Man puts it ‘[sexual affect and] body horror is thus entwined with a polymorphous, androgenized ecstasy’ (Man, 20/12/2012).

Critical essayist Robin Wood, in Introduction to the American Horror Film, 1984, relates the connection between deviant sexualities and body horror narratives through the phrase ‘teenagers endlessly punished for having sex’ [12]. For Wood depictions of overt sexuality, of which in Black Hole there are many, never go unpunished (‘the release of sexuality is linked inseparably [in film] with the spreading of venereal disease’ (Wood, 216)) and incite the reader to be more morally conservative as a response. Through building affective horror a moral lesson is taught to arts respective audiences. This theory finds some credence in Black Hole as ‘[the characters] come to inhabit their own fascination with the grotesque’ (Man, 20/12/2012); nightmarish artworks (Bag Action), explicit pornography (Lizard Queen, Dream Girl), dirt (Lizard Queen), mutilated dolls (Rick the Dick) and the repeated image of a dead frog with a vaginal shaped cut (first seen in Biology 101) build the rich iconography of Black Hole and expose the state of Burns’ characters as both literally and metaphorically unclean. The adolescent interest in sexuality becoming, for Wood, ‘a common ideology’ (Wood, 203) that the text looks to expose to force the reader to reconsider their own perspective. For Wood body horror (and thus in this context Black Hole) is affective as it forces the viewer to judge their subconscious self for, what the conservative reader would deem, the moral good.

On the other hand, I would contend that Wood has not quite understood the point of these body horror narratives: most of who’s creators are not easily described as socially conservative. The audience is asked by Burns to relate directly to his characters on one level through the narrative progression of the text and then through the stark imagery available to him through the graphic novel form. The diseased body in Charles Burns’ Black Hole is not a punishment for sexual promiscuity or to affirm normative values of sex and gender but instead, by de-naturalising sex and adolescent changes, it acts as a symbol that unifies the audience in affective horror. Puberty and early sexual encounters are great levelers – one of the few unifying experiences of human existence – and the focus of body-horror narratives around this specific point in life reminds us that our bodies where too once alien and other. We respond to the text through recognizing ourselves in the exaggeration of bodily mutation: ‘a portrait of high school alienation itself’ (cover to Black Hole) Black Hole is affective though the normative nature of bodily deviation. There is a ‘changeling’ status given to the adolescent body and an otherness of sex and sexual desire (‘it exceeds rational control and is subject to perpetual change’ (Krzywinska, 158) and Black Hole (along with most body-horror narratives) invites the reader become psychologically engaged and related to his characters through the evocation of personal memories of adolescent alienation and sexual desires, which he then distorts and exaggerates into physical afflictions.

Yet perhaps the key to understanding Black Hole is through the term “affect” itself: The Oxford English Dictionary defines affect as ‘a desire or appetite; spec. a passion, lust, or evil desire’, ‘a feeling or subjective experience accompanying a thought or action or occurring in response to a stimulus’ and ‘an abnormal state of the body; a disease or disorder’ [13]– surely then Black Hole is about nothing if not affect.

Bibliography:

Arnold, Andrew D. A Trip Through a ‘Black Hole’, October 21st 2005, Time Magazine http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1121476,00.html

Brophy, Phillip, ‘Horrality – The Textuality of Contemporary Horror Films’, Screen (1986) 27 (1): 2-13

Freud, Sigmund, The “Uncanny” : http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/freud1.pdf viewed 26/12/2012

Krzywinska, Tanya, Sex and the Cinema, Wallflower Press, University of Columbia, 2006, page 159

Man, Pui-guan Monstrous Bodies: Sexuality and Body Horror in Charles Burns’ ‘Black Hole’ and George Saunders’ ‘Sea Oak’ viewed 20/12/2012 http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/constellations/monstrous_bodies/3

Marriott, JamesBody Horror – The Fly (1986)’, Horror Films, Virgin Books, London, 2004

Oxford English Dictionary Online: viewed 26/12/2012 http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/3321?rskey=zUz7OU&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid

Perna, Laura “There Was Something Screwy Going on . . . ”: The Uncanny in Charles Burns’s  Graphic Novel Black Hole’ http://ejournals.org.uk/bjll/[z7-15]_ARTICLE_1_PERNA.pdf viewed 26/12/2012

Priest, Christopher Down With the Kids November 19th, 2005: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/nov/19/comics

Sabbadini, Andrea The Couch and the Silver Screen: Psychoanalytic Reflections on European Cinema, Brunner-Routledge, New York, 2003

Shouse, Eric. ‘Feeling, Emotion, Affect’. M/C  Journal 8.6 (2005). 08 Nov. 2011

http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0512/03-shouse.php

Wood, Robin, ‘Introduction to the American Horror Film’, Movies and Methods Vol.II, Bill Nichols, University of California Press, Berkley, 1985

Filmography:

The Brood (USA, 1979, David Cronenberg)

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligary (Germany, 1920, Robery Weine)


[1] The self-proclaimed “king of body-horror” quoted in James Marriott,Body Horror – The Fly (1986)’, Horror Films,  Virgin Books, London, 2004

[2] Arnold, Andrew D. A Trip Through a ‘Black Hole’, October 21st 2005, Time Magazine http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1121476,00.html

[3] ibid

[4] Priest, Christopher Down With the Kids November 19th, 2005: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/nov/19/comics

[5] Shouse, Eric. ‘Feeling, Emotion, Affect’. M/C  Journal 8.6 (2005). 08 Nov. 2011

http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0512/03-shouse.php

[6] Brophy, Phillip, ‘Horrality – The Textuality of Contemporary Horror Films’, Screen (1986) 27 (1): 2-13.

[7] Freud, Sigmund, The “Uncanny” : http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/freud1.pdf viewed 26/12/2012

[8] Perna, Laura “There Was Something Screwy Going on . . . ”: The Uncanny in Charles Burns’s  Graphic Novel Black Hole’ http://ejournals.org.uk/bjll/[z7-15]_ARTICLE_1_PERNA.pdf viewed 26/12/2012

[9] Man, Pui-guan Monstrous Bodies: Sexuality and Body Horror in Charles Burns’ ‘Black Hole’ and George Saunders’ ‘Sea Oak’ viewed 20/12/2012 http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/constellations/monstrous_bodies/3

[10] Sabbadini, Andrea The Couch and the Silver Screen: Psychoanalytic Reflections on European Cinema, Brunner-Routledge, New York, 2003, page 131

[11] Krzywinska, Tanya, Sex and the Cinema, Wallflower Press, University of Columbia, 2006, page 159

[12] Wood, Robin, ‘Introduction to the American Horror Film’, Movies and Methods Vol.II, Bill Nichols, University of California Press, Berkley, 1985, page 216

[13] Oxford English Dictionary Online: viewed 26/12/2012 http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/3321?rskey=zUz7OU&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid

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