“And Then It Spreads”: Contagion and Disease as Metaphors of Sociomoral Contamination in Charles Burns’ Graphic Novel Black Hole

Article Summary by Arindam Nandi and Avishek Parui

This article examines how Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole situates states of contagion and disease as metaphors of social and moral contamination. Set in suburban Seattle in the 1970s, Black Hole depicts the lives of a set of teenagers in the midst of navigating a sexually transmitted plague. As symptoms of the disease, the infected teenagers of the city suffer ‘strange’ bodily mutations in the form of aberrative outgrowths and misshapen cavities. This work explores the various signification(s) of these mutations and transformations through a study of the “monstrous body” as postulated by theorists such as Margrit Shildrick and Julia Epstein. Furthermore, we examine how these pathologically altered bodies are complexly represented in Burns’ novel as ousted to the margins of urban space, marked as socially and morally stigmatized. Drawing on sociologist Erving Goffman’s work on stigma and medical humanities theorist Laura Otis’ ‘membrane model of identity’, this article investigates how Burns’ Black Hole dramatizes the social reception of a sexually contagious virus through practices of panic, violence, and segregation. Finally, engaging with the works of contemporary political thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben, Judith Butler, and Roberto Esposito, this article illustrates how Burns’ fiction foregrounds the ethical need to reevaluate conventional strategies of isolation and otherization in the face of an invasive pathological contamination, through a reconsideration of biopolitical notions around engagement, contagion, community, and (auto)immunity.


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Portrait of Arindam NandiArindam Nandi is a doctoral research scholar and a part-time research assistant in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras specializing in English Literature. He has previously completed his Masters and MPhil in English Literature from the University of Calcutta. While his MPhil work had concerned an exploration of Michel Foucault’s anti-establishment politics in the works of Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera, his current PhD research engages with the study of disease, biomedicine, and immuno-politics in post-eighteenth century literary and cultural works.


Portrait of Avishek ParuiAvishek Parui is Associate Professor in English at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras and Associate Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy. He is the founding chairperson of the Indian Network for Memory Studies (INMS) and faculty coordinator of the Centre for Memory Studies (CMS) at IIT Madras. He is the author of Postmodern Literatures (Orient Blackswan, 2018) and Culture and the Literary: Matter, Metaphor, Memory (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022).

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