Big Baby by Charles Burns
'Big Baby: Teen Plague'.

Charles Burns is an American comic artist, notorious for his otherwordly horror comics. His instantly recognizable drawings combine crisp, highly stylized linework with dark, disturbing imagery. Apart from his visual power, Burns is also a masterful storyteller. While he acknowledges his fascination for "weird stuff", his stories still rank among the most captivating and intrigueing 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 in there now and then. And while the haunting element is never far away, not all of his comics can be pigeonholed as pure horror. Besides stand-alone stories, he also created long-running series. Among them '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 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. A second 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 dug 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 BaggeDaniel 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 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 achieved a post-graduate 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 punk magazine Another Room from Oakland, California.

RAW and other alternative magazines
His work caught the attention of Art Spiegelman, who gave him the opportunity to publish in his prestigious magazine Raw. In 1981, Burns' work debuted in its third issue. One issue later he already designed a cover. He would contribute work for RAW well throughout the decade. Other U.S. magazines that published 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 would later be collected into the graphic novel 'Skin Deep' (Fantagraphics, 2001).

Move to Europe
In 1982, Burns moved to France, where he published in Métal Hurlant (Heavy Metal). Between 1984 and 1986, Burns lived in Rome where he got involved with Lorenzo Mattotti's Valvoline group. His comics were printed in various European magazines, such as Frigidaire, Alter Alter and Dolce Vita (Italy), El Vibora (Spain) and Schwermetall (Germany).

Return to the U.S.
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. The show adapted one of his comics, 'Dog-Boy' into a live-action segment, along with 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 and #10.

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, 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 otherwordly 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 visual idea, and builds his plots from there. To him, stories should function on an unconscious level too, and reveal more hidden truths to the audience in the end. Many of his comics feel like a fever nightmare. And yet, underneath the cheap thrills, the real horrors lurk. 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
Burns' first genuine series was 'Big Baby', which debuted in RAW in 1982. The 'Big Baby' in the title is actually just a teenager with a baby face, namely a big bald head. The boy, named Tony Delmonto, lives in a typical American suburb and enjoys typical children's activities, such as playing with toys in his room or going on a summer camp. He is a young, impressionable boy who gets immersed in reading comics and watching B-horror movies. However, in this seemingly safe environment, darker monstrosities lurk in the shades. 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 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).

El Borbah
Burns showed a less horror-themed side of himself in 'El Borbah' (1983). The series 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 hold the middle between science fiction, film noir, superhero comics or a parody of all these genres combined. El Borbah appealed to readers because he is a tough and no-nonsense character. 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

Weekly comics
Burns also tried out weekly comics. In 1982 he made a series of black comedy one-panel cartoons for the Seattle magazine The Rocket, published under the name 'Mutantis'. One of his stories, 'Burn Again' (1989), was published in small press magazines. Religious groups forced the story to be cancelled halfway, because of a plot line about people with blisters in the shape of Jesus' face and a God-like creature with one eye. As a result, readers had to wait for the conclusion of the story until it was published in book format.

Collaboration with Gary Panter
Burns let all restrictions 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 bound into a spiral bound book. This allowed readers to flip back and forth between these mutated characters. Another collaboration with Panter was 'Pixie Meat' (1990), for which novelist Tom DeHaven wrote a story to fit the bizarre images. Yet another oddity in Burns' oeuvre was 'Naked Snack' (1991). This comic 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 amateur initiative 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 now became a story about people selling meat of sentient animals on the black market.

Black Hole by Charles Burns
'Black Hole' #4.

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 conflicting 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. But also the way teenage sexuality is discouraged in U.S. society. The tale additionally brings up metaphors for the AIDS scare. However, beyond the subtext, 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 quit. Fantagraphics reprinted these four titles and continued the series afterwards. In total, 'Black Hole' counts twelve issues, written and drawn over a decade. In 2005 Pantheon Books collected the entire series in one volume.

Sugar Skull by Charles Burns
'X'ed Out': 'Sugar Skull'.

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 released in October 2012 and in the fall of 2014, respectively. They are also available in one volume: 'Last Look' (2016). The story revolves around a young artist who recovers from a head injury. At night he is plagued by intense nightmares that refer to both personal traumas and iconography from Hergé's 'Tintin'. Both the protagonist's design, name ("Nitnit" is an anagram of Tintin) and quiff are obvious references to Tintin, while the rock island is straight out of 'The Black Island' and the mushroom-shaped egg is borrowed from 'The Shooting Star'. Burns even spoofed the logo of the old 'Tintin' magazines, as well as the hall of portraits inside 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 winks went right over the heads of American audiences, who are less familiar with the series. Burns therefore felt the need to explain his motivations. When he was a child, Tintin sparked his imagination for two different reasons. First of all because he liked the stories, but secondly because the references to the other stories tickled his imagination. As he browsed through the inside and back covers of the albums he noticed several characters and objects that he couldn't identify, because he didn't have access to these other albums yet. He used to fantasize about who and what these people and things would be like. All these images got so engrained in his mind, especially since most of it was so mysterious to him, that he used them in 'X'ed Out'.

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

Free Shit
In 2019 Burns released a compilation of a series of handmade sketchbook zines, 'Free Shit' (2019), which previously circulated only among his friends. All 25 issues of the past two decades were made available in one volume.

In 2019 Burns released the first volume of a new series of graphic novels, 'Dédales', which will be exclusively published in France first. As of 2020, they are not available in any other languages yet. The story revolves around a weird 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. She is more rational and reserved, but nevertheless keeps talking with him, for reasons not entirely clear in this first volume so far… 

Graphic and other artistic contributions
In 1983, the year Hergé died, Burns drew a personal homage to 'Tintin'. This work was part of a huge exhibition, 'The Imaginary Museum of Tintin. Homage to Hergé' organized in Barcelona by the Joan Miró Foundation. By the end of the decade, his notability had increased to the point that he was one of the American comic artists to be interviewed for the documentary 'Comic Book Confidential' (1988). In 1991, Burns 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 whom he designed the cover of each and every issue. 

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, as well as Kyle Baker, Brian Bolland, John Bolton, Matt HowarthDave McKean, Pore No Graphics, Edwin "Savage Pencil" Pouncey and Richard Sala visualized one of the songs into a comic strip. Les Dorscheid provided coloring. Burns illustrated the book cover. A limited hard-cover special was released as well, sold with a 13-minute CD titled 'Blowoff', inspired by songs from 'Freak Show'. Two years later, a CD-rom followed, 'Freak Show', with a cover illustrated by Richard Sala. In 1995 The Residents released another CD-rom, 'Bad Day on the Midway' (1995). The project was originally proposed as a script for a TV series in collaboration with David Lynch, but eventually these plans fell through. The CD-rom features designs by the cartoonists Leigh Barbier, Steve Cerio, Ronald M. Davis, Georganne Deen, Poe Dismuke, Bill Domonokos, Doug Fraser, Peter Kuper, Dave McKean, Pore No Graphics, Jonathan Rosen and Richard Sala - who visualized the song 'Oscar's Story'. A companion book was released the same year, followed by a soundtrack album the next year and a novel in 2012. Another cartoonist who made a comic book about the Residents is Adam Weller.

In 2001 Charles Burns contributed to 'Little Lit - Strange Stories for Strange Kids', published by RAW Junior, and even illustrated the cover. 'One Eye' (Drawn and Quarterly, 2007) is a collection of paired photographs by Burns that captures the strange undertones of a staggering range of objects and locales. 

Other media
In 1991 Burns was concept designer for a modernized interpretation of Tchaikovsky's ballet 'The Nutcracker', titled 'The Hard Nut' by choreographer Mark Morris. The piece premiered in the Brussels Opera De Munt. Originally iconic ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov was set to star in the play, but due to a knee wound he eventually had to be replaced. 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. 

Album covers
Burns illustrated the album cover of Iggy Pop's 'Brick By Brick' (1990) and of the lead single 'Candy'. He also livened up album covers by 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). Finally, he also livened up various releases on the SubPop label. 

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 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 BarryRobert 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 had an exhibition in Kees Kousemaker's Gallery Lambiek in Amsterdam, called 'Burns In Hell'.

Interview with Charles Burns by Darcy Sullivan

Series and books by Charles Burns you can order today:


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