Guest author Chase Ledin explores how comic books become a significant platform for HIV/AIDS narratives with the example of Charles Burn’s Black Hole (2005) series.
Black nights. Bone-like branches. The stars open from a single orifice. The orifice leads from a foot to a frog in an untimely, but careful, post-human gesture. It connects us, the horror of the mouth opening from the neck and the skin breaking loose from a human spine. On the beaches of somewhere USA, we open ourselves and are opened to the detritus of bones pieced together by twine. We are severed arms distended in space while holding a joint. Our world, Planet Xeno, is entirely black and white. It is heterospective. It is also queerly oriented. Through the black universe we unfold.
This is Charles Burns’s comic book series Black Hole (2005). Written fourteen years after the first documentation of HIV in the United States, Burns narrates the profound anxieties that suture sexuality to the national body. His bildungsroman captures the “mutations” of growing up in the U.S.: the failure to respond to the AIDS crisis, lack of systemic emotional and mental health support systems, and alienation and isolation in adulthood. He dilates the apertures of U.S. subjectivity.
More than simply a bildungsroman, Black Hole pulls the viewer into the sexual body to imagine life with and through the anxious national body. Burns seems to ask: How might we mold our frustrations about sexual desire and society into a future? He characterises bullying, fears of adulthood, sex/uality, a/gender and ostracization to explore this question. Yet, the central concern of his narrative is not adulthood as such. Perhaps terrifyingly, his use of a sexually-transmitted virus called “the bug” predominates the significance and relevance of his comic series.
The bug is grafted onto adolescent bodies through sexual contact. It circulates and enacts a monstrification of the body. Because the series was composed between 1995 and 2015, it provides a parallel with AIDS subjectivity during the 1980s and 90s. Burns situates his characters comfortably in some 1970s small-town; yet they do not live in a “pre-AIDS” cultural body. By constructing a sexual bug by way of AIDS crisis, Burns symbolises a metamorphosis of self-realisation, body autonomy, and sexual community read through the complexities of AIDS experiences. He illuminates HIV discourses to explore the normalisation of a “mundane virus”.
Acquiring the bug entails becoming the bug itself. His characters live through the prism of the viral body. They do not experience (visualised) internal harm. Hence they return to, or perhaps enter into, a normal life after viral crisis. Normalising the viral condition, Burns evokes considerations of how the “post-AIDS” viral body functions after (social) death. How can we create meaningful social lives with and, perhaps, beyond the viral body? By aftering the viral body — the “after” AIDS that emerges through a virus that spreads but does not kill — he departs from the “inextricable” viral body of 1980s discourse. Having learned from the chronic “wonders” that emerged from effective treatment, his narrative locates the “possible futures” endemic to these viral bodies. The viral body becomes an object of wonder and possibility. The aperture changes, writes David Jarraway (2000), from spectacular representations to speculative futures as the author reconciles the possibility of living with the viral body.
The mid-1990s marked a crucial shift in biomedical interventions in the AIDS pandemic. With the dissemination of combination therapies (HAART), HIV infection could be managed. Fewer people progressed to an AIDS diagnosis, at least those who could afford healthcare coverage and treatment. Within this shifting medical landscape, Burns constructed a narrative of viral body progress. He was interested in the possible futures of the viral body and speculated how we might experience sex and desire with a chronic and managed virus that lingers. Thus, his mundane virus emerged as a means to consider what life might look like once we grow into viral bodies in the long-term.
His narrative might be considered an early harbinger of the affective and queer discourses that attempt to think about healing from the AIDS crisis. Though he does not speak directly to the AIDS crisis, his mundane virus embodies the suppression of, and growth from, a spectacular medical and emotional crisis. It affects no visible fatalities (despite, as Kane Race  reflects, the short- and long-term side effects of combination therapies) yet compels the very forms of social and emotional ostracisation that occurred during the 1990s. His characters navigate food shortage, the loss or change of social groups, isolation from past forms of living, and a re-orientation of personal purpose. Like many who “miraculously” recovered from HIV, Burns’s characters swiftly resume living after (sexual) crisis.
This swift return to life suggests that the series is an exemplary post-AIDS narrative. As Eric Rofes (1996) writes, post-AIDS envisions new social configurations without disrupting (entirely) the corrosive conditions of chronic illness and biomedical regimentation. Dion Kagan (2015) has argued that this speculative approach recycles metaphors and HIV “positive images” to think through previous forms of crisis narratives. A narrative like Burns’s Black Hole considers how the viral body creates new social conditions while also learning from — in effect, returning to — the past. It enters into new social configurations of the present and extends the possibility of life by removing entirely the embodiment of viral death.
Black Hole represents “positive images” and considers how the heterospective body might live beyond chronic illness. Yet, moving beyond Kagan’s framework, the series uses these “squeaky clean, asexual or monogamous, life- and love-affirming” viral bodies (Kagan 2018, p. 10) to ignite a conversation about how to improve sexual health education with affective-body orientations. The mundane virus pushes individuals into new social and emotional configurations where, intensively and introspectively, they consider the traumas of the national body and the emergence(s) of their sexual desires. The mundane virus redraws the social boundaries where health, shame, affect and the sexual body intersect. It asks the reader to consider how we might feel once we let go of the terror and shame often associated with sexual (re)awakening.
As Thomas Yingling writes, “[HIV] is something that moves within a history that is only partially its history” (1991, p. 292). In the process of reading Charles Burns’s Black Hole, we open ourselves to and are opened by many conflicting histories of the anxious national body. The mundane virus is partial — even ineffectual — to the sexual body. The orifices that lead into whirlpools and universes leave up for interpretation possibilities of life with and beyond HIV. Burns’s narrative challenges us to consider whether “human” and “healthy” might be helpful concepts for thinking about the sexual and “post-viral” body. Or if there other ways — indeed, other sexual discourses and configurations — to consider when thinking about life “after” AIDS. In what ways can we approach social life through and into the black hole of the anxious national body?
At the risk of losing ourselves in the romanticism of some post-human relation to chronic HIV, Burns’s narrative provides us with a cultural platform upon which to consider what comes after crisis. Indeed, if crisis is what constitutes the fascination and horror with the sexual body, what might emerge through the production of a “mundane virus”? Burns seems to suggest that, without resolving the tensions between the sexual body and the national body, the mundane virus opens our imagination to the affective capacities of the viral body. In doing so, we discover that living after crisis is not simply an erasure of the viral body. Rather, living beyond crisis, and into the black hole of the future, entails a movement toward and into the viral body. We embark on an integral and embedded journey into the complexities of the national body which enables us to (re)assemble the “post-AIDS” present and helps us to heal.
Ahmed, S. (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotions. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.
Burns, C. (2005). Black Hole. London: Jonathan Cape.
Jarraway, D. (2000). From Spectacular to Speculative: The Shifting Rhetoric in Recent Gay AIDS Memoirs. Mosaic 33(4), pp. 115-128.
Kagan, D. (2015). ‘Re-Crisis’: Barebacking, Sex Panic, and the Logic of Epidemic. Sexualities 18(7), pp. 817-837.
———-, (2018). Positive Images: Gay Men and HIV/AIDS in the Culture of ‘Post Crisis’. London: I.B. Tauris.
Race, K. (2001). The Undetectable Crisis: Changing Technologies of Risk. Sexualities 4(2), pp. 167-89.
Rofes, E. (1996). Reviving the Tribe: Regenerating Gay Men’s Sexuality and Culture in the Ongoing Epidemic. New York: Harrington Park Press.
Walker, L. (2017). Problematising the Discourse of Post-AIDS. Journal of Medical Humanities, pp. 1-11.
Yingling, T. (1991). “Acting Up: AIDS, Allegory, Activism,” in Fuss, D. (ed.) Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. New York: Routledge, pp. 291-310.
About the Author
Chase Ledin is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. His research explores the cultural representation(s) and epistemologies of “post-AIDS” in contemporary media, culture, and theory. He has broad interests in the archivalisation of HIV/AIDS histories, the politics of STI treatment and prevention since the 1980s, pedagogical approaches to queer sexual-health education, and the sociology of health and illness.