Charles Burns is one of the most notorious authors of 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. Burns was born in 1955 in Washington D.C. The family moved around a lot, before settling in Seattle around 1965. One of Burns' earliest influences was Hergé, whose 'Tintin' stories he gazed upon before he could actually read. His father had bought some of the earliest U.S. translations, while the series was still largely unknown in the rest of the United States. Both the memorable imagery as well as Hergé's "Ligne Claire" ("Clear Line") had a deep impact on Burns' own comics.
A second major influence were the classic horror comics Creepy and Eerie by 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 in Mad Magazine he particularly appreciated Will Elder. Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's 'Rat Fink' and underground comix legends such as Robert Crumb, Kim Deitch, Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso led him to more adult and alternative ways of storytelling. Burns also devoured the horror movie magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland and watched pictures in this genre in theaters and on TV. One of his most unusual influences were 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 he also 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.
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 he published a comic named 'Crypto Wander Lust' in the school paper. He also founded a magazine of his own, called Weepy Gash. From 1976 to 1977, Burns studied photography at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Two of his fellow students there 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 held the middle between humour and horror. He also achieved a post-graduate in the arts at the University of California in Davis between 1977 and 1979. 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). The latter story proved to him that he was able to tell a captivating narrative. In 1980 he drew 'Mysteries in the Flesh', which saw publication in the punk magazine Another Room from Oakland, California.
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 felt he had to make his work too "straight" in order to get it in there.
In 1982, Burns moved to France, where he published in Métal Hurlant (Heavy Metal). In 1983, the year Hergé died, he 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. 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). After his return to his home country Burns taught comics art at the School of Visual Arts in New York. By the end of the decade his notability had increased to the point that he was one of the many American comic artists to be interviewed for the documentary 'Comic Book Confidential' (1988). The TV show 'Liquid Television' (1991-1994) on MTV also 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 artists from RAW, including Mark Beyer, Richard Sala and Peter Bagge.
Burns found his niche in the 1980s, drawing horror comics with a retro-1950s feel to them. The stories either take place in some seemingly "normal" white suburban American neighbourhood 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 straight and 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, building his plots up from there. To him stories should function on an unconscious level too, which reveals 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.
Several of Burns' comics from the 1980s were one-shot stories, like 'Dog Boy' (1981), 'The Voice of Walking Flesh' (1982) and 'Teen Plague' (1989). 'A Marriage Made in Hell' (1984) received a spin-off named 'Big Baby' (1986), which became one of his longer-running series. 'Big Baby' revolves around a young, bald-headed kid with a baby face. The stories are set in an every-day neighbourhood, but he encounters terrifying visions and creatures along the way. 'Big Baby' was collected in book format by Kitchen Sink Press. 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 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. 'El Borbah' (1983), for instance, centers around a private detective whose look was inspired by the iconic Mexican wrestler El Santo. El Borbah's 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. Pantheon Books collected them in 1988 under the title 'Hard Boiled Detective Stories'.
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. 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 graphic 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 colourize the sketches into their own version. Burns took this amateur initiative to a different level and redrew everything into 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.
In the 1990s Burns' star rose. He designed the album cover of Iggy Pop's 'Brick By Brick' (1990) and illustrated a cover story for Time Magazine in 1991, about government and business surveillance and spyware. Burns' 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 1991 he 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.
In 2001 he 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 Charles Burns that captures the strange undertones of a staggering range of objects and locales. 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. 'X'ed Out' harks back to Burns' first memories as a child. Its visual look is clearly influenced by Hergé's 'Tintin'. The story revolves around a young artist who recovers from a head injury. At night he is plagued by intense nightmares that refer both to personal traumas as well as Hergean iconography. Both the protagonist's design, anagramic name ('Nitnit') and quiff are obvious references to Tintin, while the rock island is straight out of 'The Black Island' and the mushroom-shaped egg 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 all the titles in the franchise on a huge board standing on an island. While many European readers immediately caught the Tintin references the same winks went right over the heads of most American audiences, who are less familiar with the franchise. Burns therefore felt the need to explain his motivations a bit more. As a young child Tintin sparked his imagination for two different reasons. First of all because he liked the stories, second of all because he interpreted some imagery differently. 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 all the 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'.
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 comics creators. Burns directed the second segment, which tells the harrowing tale of a boy who is haunted by a bizarre human-shaped beetle.
Burns has received admiration from artists like Matt Groening, Lynda Barry and Robert Crumb. In 1999 his artwork was exhibited in Pennsylvania and Seattle. His 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 November 1995, Charles Burns had an exhibition in Kees Kousemaker's Gallery Lambiek in Amsterdam, called 'Burns In Hell'