REVIEW: Black Hole Heart Explores Friendship through Horror

Full Black Hole Heart cover showing a girl with her hair exploding into the shaded background and stalks of corn.

I am the kind of person who wants everything to make sense, and for everything to have a reason. Perhaps paradoxically, I also LOVE horror, a genre where questions often go unanswered, or the source of the horror is never fully explained. Horror stories examine relationships in ways that don’t follow normal logic, and I find that exciting and fascinating. Sometimes, people change irrevocably in unexpected ways. Friendships end, and can’t be repaired, but they still influence our lives.

Black Hole Heart

Cathy G. Johnson
Self-published
2020

Black Hole Heart cover by Cathy G Johnson featuring a girl whose hair explodes into the shaded background

Friendship is the focus of Black Hole Heart, a horror comic by Cathy G. Johnson that just took home the 2020 Ignatz award for Outstanding Minicomic. The story takes place in a rural, truly middle-of-nowhere town, and tracks the now-broken friendship between Rebecca and Sally. Rebecca is a surly teen, sick of her job at the Live Bait Family Buffet and her life in a tiny town. Sally is sick, and her sickness seems to have taken over her life. Their families are neighbors and the girls were friends as children but no longer seem to have a connection. However, the newly licensed Rebecca has to drive Sally to the hospital twice a month for doctor’s appointments, otherwise her father won’t let her use the car. It’s hard to avoid anyone in a small town, but Rebecca is strangely keen on avoiding Sally, and seems especially wary of her illness.

Johnson’s setting for Black Hole Heart creates a perfect, lonely atmosphere. The stalks of corn on the cover are immediately echoed in the background of the Live Bait Family Buffet – a lonely building that greets readers on the first page and through the windows of Rebecca’s car. Later, Johnson also reveals that Rebecca and Sally’s houses seem to be nestled in a wooded area where they played as kids, adding to the sense of lonely helplessness the setting creates. The comic is illustrated in heavy gray pencils and black inks, and all the natural backgrounds use eerie, kinetic line work and shading. As Rebecca’s car rushes past the lush fields, tall stalks blow in the wind, concealing a fox Rebecca spots as she drives. Later, the curved trees and vegetation in the woods where the young girls play feel like they are always creeping up the panels, always moving. Earning her license is supposed to grant Rebecca freedom, but the atmosphere Johnson creates suggests that there is no escape available.

Panels from Black Hole Heart by Cathy G Johnson of Rebecca driving through fields and spotting a fox.

As readers, we don’t necessarily root for Rebecca’s escape. She’s a rude teenager, and she isn’t particularly polite to Sally. As a server she’s as respectful as is necessary to maintain her job, but no more. However, over the course of the comic it becomes clear that Rebecca is afraid of something real and terrifying, but the people around her either don’t see it or won’t discuss it. Why is Sally sick? Does her mother know anything about what’s happening to her? Later in the comic, a brief moment of intimacy also raises the question – what did Rebecca and Sally lose? What could their friendship have been?

Black Hole Heart’s story is non-linear, and each vignette from Rebecca and Sally’s past or present raises more of these questions. Reading the comic digitally made me wish I had a physical copy. While Johnson moves between these questions smoothly, using weather and clothing cues to help notify the reader  we’ve jumped backwards in time, the transitions between vignettes feel very page-turn based. There are also dramatic reveals that occur when the reader moves to a new page, and it’s much less satisfying to discover them while scrolling as it would be to discover them as the page turns over.

Rebecca and Sally drive through fields while Sally feels sick.

Regardless of the reading format you choose, Black Hole Heart and its reflection on a complicated female friendship will stay with you a long time. Purchase a copy from or read it for free on Johnson’s website. Read it alone in a field of corn, if you can.

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa is a queer librarian and intense cat mom. She spends her days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts at @alenkafiga.

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