Comics College | Charles Burns

Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.

This month we're looking at the body of work from one of the medium's masters of horror, Charles Burns.

Why he's important

As with Gary Panter, Lynda Barry and Mark Beyer, Charles Burns came to prominence during the indie comix scene of the 1980s mainly thanks to his contributions to the Raw anthology. As such, he was one of the more significant members of that generation to change the general public's (and the fan's) conception of what comics could be like and about. His work immediately garnered notice both for his thick brush work, where the ink threatened to swallow the page, as well as for his subject matter, grotesque displays and stories (occasionally told with a wink) that drew both on classic sci-fi and horror as well as an awareness and disgust of the body and its urges. Like filmmaker David Cronenberg, Burns was fascinated by the relationship between sex and death and the anxiety both produced and those themes show up in his work time and again.

Since those initial comics, he's only gotten stronger as a storyteller and artist. His work become richer and his characterizations are less cartoonish and more fully developed and empathetic. As a result, he's become one of the most significant and striking cartoonists working in America today.

Where to start

Burns' finest work to date is Black Hole, which makes it the best place to start on our tour. Routinely regarded as one of the best comics of the past decade -- hell, the past 20 years -- Burns' tale of a sex plague that turns teenagers into literal, disfigured monsters marked a real turning point for him as an author. Without losing any of the creepiness and grotesquery that made his work so memorable, he was able to create a cast of characters that was richer and more sympathetic than anything he had ever attempted before. He captures the awkwardness, pain, cruelty and naiveté of adolescence with remarkable accuracy. More to the point, gone is a lot of the distancing irony and humor that marked his early work, making the horror here all the more stark and unsettling. This is arguably Burns' darkest work to date, but it's also his most compassionate.

From there you should read

It was Burns' early work for anthologies like Raw that first garnered Burns attention from the comics community -- short stories that combined wise-ass humor with grotesque images and sexual anxiety to produce a hallucinatory, almost surreal effect. Fantagraphics has collected the bulk of this material in three oversize volumes, each one designed to look like classic Tintin BD hardcovers, right down to the endpapers. Although some of this material, like Blood Club has been collected and published elsewhere,  remains the best and most accessible way to delve into these stories. There's El Borbah, about a hard-boiled detective who's also a Mexican wrestler; Big Baby, an immature young boy with an overactive imagination and a knack for getting into trouble; and Skin Deep, an unrelated collection of creepy tales, the best of which is easily "Burn Again," about a religious cult.

Further reading

X'ed Out, Burns' latest work, is the ongoing story of Doug, a seemingly lost and confused young man, zonked out on pain pills, with a tragic past that only is made available to us in bits and pieces (although it apparently has something to do with the disappearance of his girlfriend). In between, he hallucinates he's a Tintin-like character lost in a Burroughs-ish world. Or is it a hallucination? The skill here is not in the plot itself or the characters, but in the telling, the way Burns ebbs back and forth from the nightmarish fantasia to the real world and back again. It's this constant shift between the imaginary and the concrete that gives the book such a haunting feel. The second volume, The Hive, is expected to arrive in October.

Ancillary materials

Considering the varied career he's had as an illustrator, working with such noted publications as The New Yorker, The Believer, Time and many more, it's kind of amazing that none of his commercial work has been collected. Hopefully, Pantheon or Fantagraphics will rectify that terrible oversight sometime soon.

Kitchen Sink Press, on the other hand, released Modern Horror Sketchbook way back in 1994. I couldn't track down a copy of this long out-of-print tome, though I imagine it's pretty much exactly what the cover suggests. It looks like it's going for really high prices online, so if you see an affordable copy in your local comic shop, thank your lucky stars.

The one oddity in Burns' bibliography is One Eye, which focuses on the cartoonist's interest in photography. The small book, from Drawn & Quarterly, is a collection of paired photos that, when sandwiched next to each other, form odd, incongruous relationships. At times the juxtapositions are inspired, at other times considerably less so. Either way, it's far from essential book.

Then there's Facetasm, a humorous "mix and match"-style book (like the children's books of yore) Burns did with Gary Panter back in 1998. The book has been out of print for years, but copies can still be found here and there if you're willing to spend more than the original cover price.

Burns has dabbled in film and television on occasion as well. He's one of the contributors to the animated anthology film Fear[s] of the Dark, and his character Dog Boy was adapted to the small screen as part of MTV's Liquid Television show.


Next month: Jacques Tardi

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