Big Baby by Charles Burns
'Big Baby: Teen Plague' (1982).

Charles Burns is an American comic artist, known for his otherworldly horror comics. His instantly recognizable drawings combine crisp, highly stylized linework with dark, disturbing imagery. Burns’ visual power is matched by his strong storytelling abilities. Although he acknowledges his fascination for "weird stuff", his stories still are among the most captivating and intriguing graphic novels ever created. His works are veritable page-turners with plot lines that reveal deeper, psychological themes upon re-reading. Stories like 'Dog Boy' (1981), 'Teen Plague' (1989), 'Skin Deep' (1992) and his magnum opus 'Black Hole' (1994-2005) delve deep in teenage angst about body transformations and sexually transmitted diseases. Despite the psychological and sometimes semi-autobiographical nature of his work, Burns still likes to throw in some black comedy occasionally. And while the haunting element is never far away, not all of his comics can be categorized as horror. Besides stand-alone stories, he also created the long-running series 'Big Baby' (1982), 'El Borbah' (1983), 'Black Hole' (1994-2005) and 'X'ed Out' (2010-2012).

poster by Charles Burns

Early life
Charles Burns was born in 1955 in Washington D.C. The Burns family moved around a lot, before settling in Seattle around 1965. One of Burns' earliest influences was the European comic creator Hergé, whose 'Tintin' stories he gazed at, long before he could read. During his childhood, the series was still largely unknown in the United States and it never quite reached mainstream success. Yet his father had bought some of the earliest English-language translations. Hergé's graphic style, the so-called "Clear Line", influenced Burns' own artwork. The memorable and often haunting images in 'Tintin' left a deep impact on him. Another major influence were the horror comic magazines Creepy and Eerie of publisher James Warren, and the EC Comics artists Al Feldstein, Johnny Craig, George Evans and Reed Crandall. He also enjoyed Chester Gould's 'Dick Tracy' and Will Elder's work for Mad Magazine. Through Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's 'Rat Fink' and underground comix legends such as Robert Crumb, Kim Deitch, Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso, Burns discovered more adult and alternative ways of storytelling. He additionally devoured the horror movie magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland and enjoyed watching B-movies.  

One of his most unusual influences are Japanese woodblocks. The sharp and precise line work appealed to him, as did the simple drawings of big-faced people with tiny features. Later in his career, Burns additionally expressed admiration for Joe Coleman, Josh Alan and Drew Friedman, Jaime, Gilbert and Mario Hernandez, Peter Bagge, Daniel Clowes, Loustal, Joost Swarte, Ever Meulen, José Munoz, Carlos Sampayo, Jacques Tardi, Marti Riera and Barney Steel.

The Cat Woman Returns
'The Cat Woman Returns' (1979).

Early career
Burns studied engraving at the University of Washington in Seattle (1973-1975) and Central Washington State College in Ellensberg (1975-1976). In the latter school's paper, he published a comic strip, 'Crypto Wander Lust'. He also founded a magazine of his own, called Weepy Gash. In 1976 and 1977, Burns studied photography at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Two of his fellow students were the future cartoonists Lynda Barry and Matt Groening, with whom he worked on the campus magazine Cooper Point Journal. Burns mostly made photo comics that fell between humor and horror. Between 1977 and 1979, he got a postgraduate degree in the arts at the University of California in Davis. For a while, he was mainly active as a photographer and illustrator. His interest in comics resurfaced after making the photo comics 'The Cat Woman Returns' (1979) and 'Ill Bred' (1979). Particularly the latter story convinced him that he could tell captivating narratives. His comic strip 'Mysteries in the Flesh' (1980) saw publication in the Oakland, California punk magazine Another Room.

RAW and other alternative magazines
Burns' work caught the attention of Art Spiegelman, who gave him the opportunity to publish in his comic magazine RAW. In 1981, Burns' work debuted in its third issue. One issue later, he designed his first cover. He would contribute work for RAW well throughout the decade. Other U.S. magazines that printed his work were Rolling Stone, The East Village Other, Weirdo and The New Yorker. Some of his cartoons also appeared in Hugh Hefner's Playboy, but Burns felt he had to make his work too "straight" in order to get it in there. Several of Burns' comics from the 1980s were stand-alone stories, like 'Dog Boy' (1981), 'The Voice of Walking Flesh' (1982) and 'A Marriage Made In Hell' (1984). Many were later collected into the graphic novel 'Skin Deep' (Fantagraphics, 2001).

European period
Charles Burns spent large parts of the 1980s in Europe. In 1982, he moved to France, where he published in Métal Hurlant, the magazine appearing in the States as Heavy Metal. Between 1984 and 1986, Burns lived in Rome, where he got involved with Lorenzo Mattotti's Valvoline, a group of avant garde comic creators and graphic artists. His comics were printed in various European magazines, such as Frigidaire, Alter Alter and Dolce Vita (Italy), El Vibora (Spain) and the German edition of Heavy Metal, Schwermetall.

After his return to his home country, Burns taught comic art at the School of Visual Arts in New York. The TV show 'Liquid Television' (1991-1994) on MTV brought his work to a wider audience when it adapted one of his comics, 'Dog-Boy', into a live-action segment. The show also adapted the work of other RAW artists, including Mark Beyer ('The Adventures of Thomas and Nardo'), Richard Sala ('Invisible Hands'), Drew Friedman ('Uncle Louie's Travels') and Peter Bagge ('The Blockheads').

Black Hole, by Charles BurnsBlack Hole, by Charles Burns
'Black Hole' covers #5 (1998) and #10 (2002).

Horror comics
Burns found his niche in the 1980s, drawing horror comics with a retro-1950s feel. The stories either take place in seemingly "normal" white suburban American neighborhoods or use stock clichés found in comic books from that era: pipe-smoking husbands, docile housewives, innocent little boys, rebellious teenagers, mad scientists, hard-boiled detectives, and grotesque monsters. His drawings look like any slick mass-produced product from that time period, yet this mundane atmosphere is twisted into something far more horrific and uncomfortable. The characters in his comics have something otherworldly about them, even the people who aren't revealed to be monsters. This unnerving effect is achieved partly by Burns' art style. As Lynda Barry once wrote: "You can't believe a person could do it with regular human hands. It's the kind of drawing that would have scared the pants off you in grade school, not only because the images are so eerie but because they are too perfectly done, and not good or evil enough for you to tell what you are supposed to think about them." Burns often gets his inspiration from a visualized image, and builds his plots from there. To him, stories also function on an unconscious level, and reveal more hidden truths to the audience in the end. Many of his comics feel like a fever nightmare. Underlying themes of alienation, peer pressure, puberty angst and sexual anxieties slither throughout the tales.

Blood Club by Charles Burns
'Blood Club', featuring Big Baby (1992).

Big Baby
Charles Burns' first series was 'Big Baby', which debuted in RAW in 1982. The “Big Baby” in the title is actually just Tony Delmonto, a teenager with a baby face and a large bald head. He lives in an American suburb and enjoys typical children's activities, such as playing with toys in his room and going on a summer camp. He is a young, impressionable boy who gets immersed in reading comics and watching horror movies. However, in this seemingly safe environment, darker monstrosities lurk in the shadows. In 'Teen Plague' (1989), Tony is sent to bed early by his babysitter, because she expects a visit from her boyfriend. As he reads his horror comic about extraterrestrial alien infections, he becomes convinced that the teenagers in his life suffer from some icky "teen plague". In 'Curse of the Molemen' (1982), Tony is intrigued by a swimming pool dug by his neighbors. In 'Blood Club' (1992), the boy witnesses the ghost of a dead child at his summer camp. 'Big Baby' was collected in book format by Kitchen Sink Press and in 1999 published into one volume by Fantagraphics.

Living in the Ice Age
'Living in the Ice Age' (Hard Boiled Detective Stories, 1988).

El Borbah
Burns showed a different side of himself in his second series, 'El Borbah' (1983), which centers around a private detective with looks inspired by the iconic Mexican wrestler El Santo. His name was derived from John Borba, a friend of Burns. The anti-social and chain-smoking crimefighter lives in a strange, futuristic world full of robots, mutants and extraterrestrials. The stories are a combination of science fiction, film noir, superhero comics as well as a parody of all these genres combined. El Borbah’s tough and no-nonsense character appealed to readers. His badass lines are drenched in irony, though, especially given the weird environment he lives in. All 'El Borbah' stories were collected in one volume: 'Hard Boiled Detective Stories' (Pantheon Books, 1988).

Mutantis by Charles BurnsMutantis by Charles Burns
‘Mutantis’ panels (1982).

Weekly comics
Burns also tried his hand at weekly comics. In 1982, he made  'Mutantis', a series of black comedy one-panel cartoons for the Seattle magazine The Rocket. Early parts of one of his stories, 'Burn Again' (1989), appeared in his serialized ‘Big Baby’ strip. Some religious groups complained about its plot line, featuring people with blisters in the shape of Jesus' face and a God-like creature with one eye, and the serial was discontinued before completion. As a result, readers had to wait for the conclusion of the story until it was published in the Burns collection ’Skin Deep’ (Penguin Books, 1992).

Experiments in the 1990s
Charles Burns let loose when he made two crossover comics with Gary Panter. Their first project was 'Facetasm' (1990), where they created drawings of various heads that roughly fit a generic template. Afterwards the pages were cut into three parts (eyes, nose, mouth) and fit into a spiral bound book. This allowed readers to flip back and forth between these mutated characters, making different facial combinations. Another collaboration with Panter was 'Pixie Meat' (1990), for which novelist Tom DeHaven wrote a story to fit the bizarre images.

In 1991, Burns created the oddity 'Naked Snack', serialized in two issues of Mark Landman’s underground comic book Buzz. 'Naked Snack' was based on a sketched out 'Spider-Man' story by John Romita from a 1980s 'Marvel Try-Out' book. In its original context, readers could trace, ink and color the sketches into their own version. Burns took this template to a different level and redrew everything in his own style. He changed the text in the speech balloons, the character- and background designs and sometimes switched panels in the lay-out to fit his story better. The plot became a new story about people selling meat of sentient animals on the black market.

Black Hole by Charles Burns
'Black Hole' #4 (1997).

Black Hole
Burns' longest-running series of graphic novels is 'Black Hole' (1995-2005). The stories revolve around a group of teenagers during the mid-1970s. They live in fear of a mysterious sexually transmitted disease, which causes bizarre body transformations. The unlucky ones who are contaminated become social outcasts and have to deal with their conflicted emotions. 'Black Hole' is in many ways a culmination of themes Burns explored before, most notably the trauma of teenagers growing up, worrying about social status. The series also shows the way teenage sexuality is discouraged in U.S. society, and brings up metaphors for the AIDS crisis. Burns takes his time to develop his characters' personalities and social interactions, while painting an atmospheric rendition of 1970s Seattle. Many fans consider the work his magnum opus. The first four issues were released by Kitchen Sink Press, until the company went out of business. Fantagraphics then picked up the series. Over a decade, twelve issues of 'Black Hole' were written and drawn. In 2005, Pantheon Books collected the entire series in one volume.

Sugar Skull by Charles Burns
'X'ed Out': 'Sugar Skull' (2014).

X'ed Out
In October 2010, Burns released the first part of a new series, 'X'ed Out'. The second and third installments ('The Hive' and 'Sugar Skull') were published in October 2012 and in the fall of 2014, respectively. They are also available in the single-volume collection 'Last Look' (Pantheon, 2016). The story revolves around a young artist recovering from a head injury. At night he is plagued by intense nightmares that refer to both personal traumas and iconography from Hergé's 'Tintin'. The protagonist's design, name ("Nitnit" is an anagram of Tintin) and quiff are obvious references to Hergé's character. The rock island in the story is taken straight out of the ‘Tintin’ episode  'The Black Island', and the mushroom-shaped egg is borrowed from 'The Shooting Star'. Burns even spoofed the logo of the old 'Tintin' magazines, the character portraits printed on the endpapers of every Tintin album and the old back covers where Tintin presents the available titles on a huge board standing on an island. While European readers probably noticed the Tintin references, the same allusions went right over the heads of American audiences less familiar with the series. Burns’ motivations for using Tintin in his story came from his childhood, when reading the Tintin stories his father brought him sparked his imagination. As he browsed through the inside and back covers of the albums he noticed several characters and objects he couldn't identify, because he didn't have access to all the Tintin titles. He used to fantasize about who and what these people and things would be like. These mysterious ingrained imagined images from his childhood were fleshed out in 'X'ed Out'.

X'Ed Out by Charles Burns
'X'ed Out''

Free Shit
In 2019, Fantagraphics released  'Free Shit', compiling a series of Burns’ handmade sketchbook zines of the same name, which previously circulated only among his friends. All 25 issues of the past two decades were made available in this volume.

In 2019, Burns released the first volume of a new series of graphic novels, 'Dédales', which was first published exclusively in France by Éditions Cornélius. The second installment came out in 2021. The story revolves around a strange boy named Brian, who is passionate about horror movies and drawing. Feeling comfortable in his self-created dream world, he meets a woman, Laurie, with whom he starts talking about his passions, dreams and hidden personality.

Graphic and other artistic contributions
In 1983, the year Hergé died, Charles Burns drew a personal homage to 'Tintin' as part of a huge exhibition in Barcelona by the Joan Miró Foundation, 'The Imaginary Museum of Tintin: Homage to Hergé'. Burns was one of the American comic artists to be interviewed for the documentary 'Comic Book Confidential' (1988). In 1991, he illustrated a cover story for Time Magazine about government and business surveillance and spyware. His work was published in The New Yorker, L.A. Weekly, Esquire, but most notably The Believer, for which he designed the cover for every issue between 2003 and 2014. In 2001, Charles Burns contributed to 'Little Lit - Strange Stories for Strange Kids', published by RAW Junior, and illustrated the cover. 'One Eye' (Drawn and Quarterly, 2007) is a collection of paired photographs by Burns that juxtaposes a staggering range of objects and locales.

In 1990, the avant-garde band The Residents released the album 'Freak Show' (1990), which spawned a 1992 comic book adaptation, 'The Residents' Freak Show' (Dark Horse Comics), in which Burns visualized one of the songs into a comic strip, as did Kyle Baker, Brian Bolland, John Bolton, Matt Howarth, Dave McKean, Pore No Graphics, Edwin "Savage Pencil" Pouncey and Richard Sala. Les Dorscheid provided coloring. Burns illustrated the book cover. A limited hardcover book was released as well, sold with a 13-minute CD titled 'Blowoff', inspired by songs from 'Freak Show'.

Music industry
Charles Burns has also been much in demand as a cover artist for the music industry. In the early 1980s, he livened up the covers on several compilation cassette releases on the SubPop label. In 1990, Burns notably illustrated the cover of Iggy Pop's 'Brick By Brick' album and its lead single 'Candy'. He also designed album covers for MC 900 Ft Jesus & DJ Zero ('Hell With The Lid Off', 1989), Orup ('Teddy', 1998), Sugarfix ('Disconnected', 1999), The Clarendon Hills ('All Day, All Night, All Right', 2002), Carl Hiaasen & Dominic Raacke ('Sumpfblüten', 2007). His art appears on the covers of various singles: 'Meating My Head b/w 20th Century Rake' (1990) by Lubricated Goat, 'Time Of Your Life/ Seven Shades Of Blue' (2000) by The Yo-Yo's and 'In The Garden Of Evil' (2015) by Will Oldham. Together with Justin Green, he illustrated compilation albums like 'The Human Breakdown Of Absurdity: MSR Madness, Volume 3' (1998), 'I'm Just The Other Woman: MSR Madness, Volume 4' (1998) and 'When All Of The Shit Hits All Of The Fans: The Hand' (2018).

In 1991, Burns was conceptual designer for a modernized interpretation of Tchaikovsky's ballet 'The Nutcracker' by choreographer Mark Morris, titled 'The Hard Nut'. The piece premiered in the Brussels Opera De Munt. Burns co-wrote and performed the track 'Big Baby' on the album 'Oh, I Guess We Were A Fucking Surf Band After All…' (2016) by Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet.

Together with Lorenzo Mattotti, Marie Caillou, Blutch, Pierre di Sciullo and Richard McGuire, Burns co-directed the French animated film 'Peur(s) du noir' ('Fear(s) of the Dark', 2007). The film is an anthology of six horror stories, based on designs by these six comic creators. Burns directed the second segment, which tells the harrowing tale of a boy who is haunted by a bizarre human-shaped beetle.

Charles Burns' comic 'Black Hole' won seven Harvey Awards (1998-1999, 2001-2002, 2004, 2005, 2006) for "Best Inking" and "Best Graphic Album of Previously Published Work" in 2006. The same year it also received an Ignatz Award for "Outstanding Anthology or Collection". At the 2007 Festival of Angoulême in France, the book also received the jury prize for "most essential album". In 1999, his artwork was exhibited in Pennsylvania and Seattle.

Legacy, influence and recognition
Burns has received admiration from artists like Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, Robert Crumb and Jim Woodring. He has furthermore influenced people like Martin Ander (with whom he is often compared and confused with), Erik Kriek, Tim Lane, Ulli Lust, Nunsky, David Sánchez, Maarten Vande Wiele and Erik Wielaert. The album 'Silent Shout' (2006) by Swedish electronic duo The Knife and the song 'The Pit' (2012) by Silversun Pickups were inspired by Charles Burns' 'Black Hole'.

Burns In Hell
In November 1995, Charles Burns (left) had an exhibition,'Burns In Hell’, in Kees Kousemaker's Galerie Lambiek in Amsterdam.

Interview with Charles Burns by Darcy Sullivan

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