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Charles Burns:

Body Horror In Black Ink

Have you come across that anonymous strip-format advertisements for Altoids, the peppermints in a retro tin, currently running in comic books and magazines? According to these masochistic strips, the experience of eating the ‘curiously strong’ mints is likened to having your tongue impaled by a stiletto heel, electrocuted between two wires or scorched by a branding iron. In another example, a cool Altoids addict drifts through the night streets, oblivious to the tramps and lechers, as she laments, "People… they have no idea what real pain is."

These high profile adverts may be many people’s first exposure to the perverse imaginings of Charles Burns. He was the perfect choice to add an unmistakable edginess to this campaign. It seems like a good moment to dig a little deeper into America’s undisputed master of sophisticated creepiness.


See an animated Altoid ad by Charles Burns here.

There seems to have been one theme that has been obsessing him right from the start: the queasiness at our physical and mental changes triggered by the sexual awakenings of adolescence and more broadly the fears of losing control over our own bodies through accident, disease, surgery or worse. In his two earliest published single pages in RAW magazine #3 (1981), a moment of young romance in And I Pressed My Hand Against His Face sparks a kaleidoscope of weird connections: images of biological cross sections, Japanese monsters and insects breeding. Wackier but no less unsettling are the ideas behind his other debut page, Dog Boy. In this, a loser is given a dog’s heart during an illegal transplant operation. When the animal’s instincts take over, he can’t stop himself licking his girlfriend’s face and sniffing other girl’s bottoms.

Further dog boy capers followed and were adapted with mixed results into a live-action slot for liquid TV, using plastic hairstyles like the old Max Headroom shows. In his subsequent longer stories for RAW, Burns reinterpreted the over familiar romance and horror genres into surprising twisted shapes.

These pre-occupations are the products of his childhood immersed in the schlockiest trash culture, from exploitation films on late nigh TV to monster mags, bubblegum cards and, of course, old horror, crime and love comics.

"My father was a scientist who once wanted to be a cartoonist, so I was able to read comics without being told they were going to rot my mind. As a result, my mind rotted."

Burns grew up in the sleepy suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. Partly out of these experiences emerged Big Baby, a bald kid with an overactive imagination and a sleepwalking problem. In the 30 page Curse Of The Molemen (1986), the boy’s fascination with movie monsters becomes blurred with what lurks beneath the veneer of respectability: his parents’ lies to him and a neighbour’s domestic violence towards his wife.

As Burns explained, "He’s a kid who’s trying to make sense of this unfathomable reality, the horror of real life." It’s a chilling, underplayed piece that sticks in the mind.

In sublime contrast, Burns’ passion for the photo-comics and movies starring Mexican super-wrestlers like El Santo in their crazy masks inspired another of his recurring characters. El Borbah is an overweight, wrestling detective, a "pissed-off, money-grubbing, beer-drinking guy with no moral scruples." Using his brawn more than his brain, he barged through a string of bizarre Hard-Boiled Defective Stories.

Burns had been at college with Matt Groening. Before The Simpsons, Groening made his name syndicating his own weekly strip Life In Hell and Burns followed his example. He serialised his expanded remixes of Dog Boy and the RAW story A Marriage Made In Hell and came up with Burn Again, a new 64-page parody of sinister cults and Jack Chick’s evangelical comic-strip tracts.

Now in demand from bands and magazines as an illustrator, Burns also branched out by designing the concepts for The Hard Nut, an innovative version of The Nutcracker ballet produced by Mark Morris. In 1995 however, the siren call of comics lured Burns back to the drawing board to develop his body horror fixation into Black Hole. Raging hormones and a contagious plague are mutating a group of high school students; Keith sheds his skin like a snake; Rob has a second mouth under his throat; Chris has grown a tail. How do you catch it? How long can you keep it a secret? How will it affect your first experiences of sex, drugs and maybe love? How long do you have left to live?

Spanning twelve 32-page issues, Burns is taking his time here to unravel the anxieties and alienation of being a teenager. He does much of this through a trance-like slowness, acutely observes internal monologues, and by revealing encounters from more thane viewpoint. An escalating sadness and dread pervade every page of what promises to be his masterpiece.

Throughout, his drawing is precision itself. Shadows and textures on bodies, hair, clothes, and vegetation, shimmer with his zigzag brush strokes, as jagged and surgical as a chainsaw. There is no room for gray in Burn’s comics. His is a black and white world, much more black than white, saturated with the darkness of the soul.

Posted: October 2, 2005

This article first appeared in 2003 in the pages of Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics.

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Burns at Pantheon
Burns at Fantagraphics

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