The Atrocious Dimension
His plots play out like fever dreams, swirling through time and perception, but Charles Burns’ aesthetic style alone is enough to make you queasy. In a class on underground comix, I was assigned Burns’ most popular tome, Black Hole, as an introduction to contemporary comic art. During the second session on Burns, a few of my classmates begged the professor to let us move on. “I just can’t look at this stuff anymore,” one of them said. She was sitting close to the projector screen and a page from Black Hole from superimposed on her hair. I remember it being these panel: My only qualm with Black Hole, though I do love it, is the sinister use of yonic imagery. Some useful information emerges from the vaginal openings Burns draws in his character’s feet or throats, but mostly it’s just more nightmares. Flipping through Burns’ book, you begin to feel tension building around the image of what most characters call “the slit”. Oh great, another evil vagina, come to absorb you and your agency. What I found most exciting in Black Hole were the repeated images of monstrous teenagers.
They experience bodily changes which mirror “normal” stages of puberty (i.e. new patches of body hair, sensual urges toward others, changes in skin texture), becoming alienated from unchanged teens around them.
The kids in Black Hole are altered and mutated by a sexually transmitted infection (or something, it’s never fully explained.) Although they have a lot in common, they fall into isolation by blaming each other, losing themselves in numbing drug use, or fading into repetitive nightmares which blend into Burns’ depictions of reality. The reader is left questioning what’s real and what isn’t.
As far as monsters, the most engaging depictions in Black Hole are the yearbook-photo style drawings lining the jacket. Readers love these anonymous, twisted, rotting teenagers so much that they’ve even recreated some of the portraits in photos Burns’ teen faces are made grotesque with the addition of insect parts, or by the omission of recognizable human traits like eyebrows or hair. It’s funny how a teen with vicious acne and greasy hair is considered “normal,” while a teen with larger teeth and a rotting scalp becomes something else, something more disturbing, simply because we don’t recognize these changes. Monsters, again, need to be slightly unfamiliar or surprising.
It would be a disservice to Charles Burns to discuss his flair for monstrous images without discussing his other pieces. So far I’ve found The Hive trilogy more engaging, as its set in a world different than our own. His use of flat color, without depth of focus or gradients, makes his creatures look as if they’ve been drawn for children, and this makes the books more uncomfortable to read.
The long, strange trip that began in X’ed Out and continued in The Hive reaches its mind-bending, heartbreaking end, but not before Doug is forced to deal with the lie he’s been telling himself since the beginning. In this concluding volume, nightmarish dreams evolve into an even more dreadful reality…
The series centres around a troubled young man, Doug, in a non-linear narrative interspersed with dream-like sequences, varying levels of reality among a man who has overdosed, a weird world of worms where a reverse Tintin named Nitnit is finding his way, and angsty drama that will be familiar to readers of Black Hole.
I just finished reading Sugar Skull yesterday, well in fact I reread the whole thing starting with the first album and by God it definitely is a striking masterpiece. Charles Burns manages to make reality seem even worse than his nightmarish visions. It is a blend between Eraserhead and something by Daniel Clowes but I thought it was way better than anything he had done so far. Pushing his strange world into ours. It is very harsh. Very sarcastic. Almost traumatic. For sure I enjoyed every page of it. I must admit I had doubts that it would be good and that the wait wouldn’t be worth it but it was… but then again that’s just me…. Charles Burns always was and remains my favorite Graphic Novel author.
Burns has been producing this work at a slow rate of 64 pages every two years so it hasn’t exactly been a quick ride but who cares. This is one of my favorite comics of recent years—despite the low page count, every panel is filled with allusions, color-coded mystery and a complete world that it takes many readings to unpack. And of course, perfect cartooning.
Interesting in The Hive and X’ed Out, the first two installments of Burns’ most recent collection, is the hierarchy of monsters. Burns doesn’t explicate his monstrous society through character dialogue, but his art suggests some monsters, though capable of fear and trauma, are just food for the larger, humanoid creatures.
In a sequence that has haunted me since I read it, an unintelligible creature eats an obviously terrified worm-monster. There are a few questions at play here: what separates a monster from an animal? Is this larger creature a cannibal, or is he simply eating the way we eat, popping prey into his mouth? His sneer suggests that he’s aware of the worm’s fear (or worse, he’s into it.) Burns’ narrator, who bears a disturbing resemblance to Tin Tin, looks on in stunned silence.
“Six years ago, when I started working on this project, I conceived the books as three separate books, even if they tell one complete story,” Charles Burns says about his just completed trilogy, which started with “X’ed Out,” in 2010, and was followed by “The Hive,” in 2012. The last installment, “Sugar Skull,” comes out September 16th. Burns, who turns fifty-nine this month, told us what inspired him:
The format of the three hardcovers is based on Tintin in its Franco-Belgian comics album format. I know it’s unusual for an American artist of my generation to be growing up with Tintin. These days, you can find it in all the bookstores, but, when I was growing up, there were just six books that came out and they just didn’t do very well.
Luckily, I had those books growing up. When I was five years old—I couldn’t even read yet—my Dad, who went to bookstores and libraries all the time, brought back one of those early Tintin books for me. It felt like the first book that was just my own. My sister read it, but it wasn’t for her—it was specifically for me. Also, it stood out from all of the other comics that I’d seen—the beautiful color printing—it was a world that you could really enter. It made a huge impression on me.
In those early American editions, there were six volumes, and then, at the very bottom of the last book, it said, “Look for additional titles coming soon.” And, of course, I looked for additional titles for years and years. Eventually, when they started being imported to the U.S., I found the British translations, but it took a long time. So as a kid looking at the books, I was filling in the holes, the missing pieces—kind of making up my own stories, I guess—looking at the back cover and seeing images that didn’t appear in the stories I knew. Now, the book I made—all three books—feels complete to me. I had a pretty firm idea of what the story was going to be when I started, but many things changed while I was working. In the end, all the pieces fit together the way I wanted, or as close as I could get. I feel like I’ve said everything I need to say.
See below for a few pages from “Sugar Skull”–though we strongly recommend that new readers start at the beginning.
“You have no idea…..”
”It’s not like here’s Anti TinTin”
As for other works: Burn’s Big Baby is interesting, because monstrous humans are difficult to depict in graphic novels. Burns’ protagonist, Big Baby, is both childlike and devious. Big Baby is a particularly impressionable young boy named Tony Delmonte, who lives in a seemingly typical American suburb until he sneaks out of his room one night and becomes entangled in a horrific plot involving summer camp murders and backyard burials. Burns’ clinical precision as an artist adds a sinister chill to his droll sense of humor, and his affection for 20th-century pulp fiction permeates throughout, creating a brilliant narrative that perfectly captures the unease and fear of adolescence.
Fears of the Dark , Burns’ short animated segment had some interesting moments. His creaky insectoids, as they cared for their victim, were pretty unsettling. As usual, I wanted more from the human characters; Burns’ humans tend to appear numb, or only vaguely ruffled despite the atrocities he puts them through.
”A Reluctant Habit”
Excerpts from ”El Borbah”
“Are the El Borbah stories actually, you know, important? Hell no. This is Burns pop recycling at his manic and hysterical best. For all his later work, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Burns is, you know, a really funny guy. And never has this been more on display as through El Borbah’s adventures, vague detective tales where our hardboiled antihero is a misanthrope in a Mexican wrestling outfit, unraveling mysteries with equal doses of contempt and fisticuffs, like every weird television moment of the fifties and sixties exploding onto a page. El Borbah is a giant book with beautiful stuff inside. Well worth it at twice the price.”- Matt Fraction at www.artbomb.net
”Big Baby is a particularly impressionable young boy named Tony Delmonte, who lives in a seemingly typical American suburb until he sneaks out of his room one night and becomes entangled in a horrific plot involving summer camp murders and backyard burials. Burns’ clinical precision as an artist adds a sinister chill to his droll sense of humor, and his affection for 20th-century pulp fiction permeates throughout, creating a brilliant narrative that perfectly captures the unease and fear of adolescence. “At once alluring and grotesque, Burns’ imagery has been eagerly embraced by the counterculture, mainstream media, and a recalcitrant art world without ever compromising his strikingly singular aesthetic.” – Juxtapoz
“The work of Charles Burns is a vision that’s both horrifying and hilariously funny, and which he executes with cold, ruthless clarity… It’s almost as if the artist… as if her weren’t quite… human!” – R. Crumb
“These comics are brilliant, loaded with humor and a love of B-movies, pulps, and old comic books. ‘Curse of the Molemen’ is a classic of modern cartooning, and alone would make this book worth buying.” – John Porcellino
He certainly has an eye for round, jutting ugliness, and I admire how tension undulates through most of his stories. More uncomfortable than horrifying, Burns is a classic for any monster-lover. I imagine I’ll give his books to a teenage kid one day. At the very least, I think any offspring I’d have would enjoy Uncle Death: