Burns, Charles 1955–

views updated

Burns, Charles 1955–

PERSONAL: Born 1955, in Washington, DC; married Susan Moore (a painter); children: two daughters. Education: Evergreen State College, B.F.A., 1977; University of California, Davis, M.F.A., 1979.

ADDRESSES: Home—Philadelphia, PA. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Fantagraphics Books, 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115.

CAREER: Graphic artist, cartoonist, illustrator, and writer; Mark Morris Dance Company, concept and set designer for The Hard Nut (contemporary ballet), 1991. Worked in art gallery; created a campus magazine; experimented with photographic novels. Exhibitions: Charles Burns, Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts, Morris Gallery, 1999.

AWARDS, HONORS: Pew Fellowship in the Arts, 1993; multiple Harvey and Eisner award nominations for Black Hole series, 1994–2003; included on Comics Journal list of Top 100 English-Language Comics of the Century, for Black Hole series.


Big Baby in Curse of the Molemen, Raw Books & Graphics, 1986, published as Curse of the Molemen, Kitchen Sink Press (Princeton, WI), 1991.

Hard-Boiled Defective Stories, edited and designed by Art Spiegelman and François Mouly, Pantheon/Raw Books (New York, NY), 1988.

Skin Deep: Tales of Doomed Romance (originally published in Big Baby comic-books series, 1988–91), edited by Art Spiegelman and R. Sikoryak, Penguin (New York, NY), 1992.

Blood Club, Kitchen Sink Press (Princeton, WI), 1992.

Charles Burns's Modern Horror Sketchbook, Kitchen Sink Press (Northampton, MA), 1993.

(With Gary Panter) Facetasm: A Creepy Mix & Match Book of Gross Face Mutations!, Gates of Heck (New York, NY), 1998.

El Borbah (originally published in comic-book format), Fantagraphics Books (Seattle, WA), 1999.

Big Baby (originally published in comic-book format), Fantagraphics Books (Seattle, WA), 2000.

Contributor to Raw magazine, Rolling Stone, Village Voice, Heavy Metal, National Lampoon, Death Rattle, Face, New Yorker, Time, and New York Times Magazine; contributor to publications in Italy, including Vanity, in France, including Métal Hurlant, and in Spain, including El Vibora. Creator or contributor of self-syndicated comic strips to newspapers and to comics anthologies, including Freak Show: The Residents, Dark Horse Comics, 1992, and All-American Hippie Comix, Kitchen Sink Press (Princeton, WI), reprint edition, 1995. Illustrator for album covers for musicians, including Iggy Pop. Author-illustrator of Black Hole comic-books series, Kitchen Sink Press, 1994–98, Fantagraphics Books, 1998–2003.

ADAPTATIONS: Live-action version of comic-book character "Dog Boy" serialized for MTV's Liquid Television.

SIDELIGHTS: American cartoonist and graphic novelist Charles Burns is a leading figure of the modern countercultural "comix" movement. He is best known for his stark black-and-white drawings and his surreal characters and stories. Burns's style of illustration has been compared to that of the cartoonist Chester Gould, who created the "Dick Tracy" comic strips of the mid-twentieth century. Burns was an early contributor to editor Art Spiegelman's avant-garde magazine Raw and has contributed illustrations and cartoons to numerous magazines and anthologies. As the author of a news release from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts posted on the Absolutearts Web site wrote, "Dark, funny, and disturbing, [Burns's] gothic imagery and texts are emblematic of our millenial age."

Some of Burns's most famous cartoon characters are the 400-pound Mexican wrestler-private detective El Borbah; the odd and imaginative suburban boy Tony, called Big Baby, who tries to come to terms with the world of adults; and Dog Boy, an otherwise-normal teenage boy whose heart was transplanted from a dog and contributes to his strange canine behavior.

The collection Hard-Boiled Defective Stories follows El Borbah through five adventures, in which he rescues missing persons, investigates a suicide, and exposes a scheme at a sperm bank. Ray Olson, in Booklist, commented that for lovers of "Dick Tracy" and 1940s Batman serials, "El Borbah looks awfully good." C. Carr, writing for the Village Voice Literary Supplement, concluded in a review of Burns's book: "as always, he's drawn an ugly world so cleanly and coldly you'd think he was using a knife." Mark Pawson, in a review for Variant online, described Burns's black-and-white lines as "ultra-clean" and "scalpel-sharp."

Big Baby in Curse of the Molemen shows Tony's vivid imagination. He dreams up a horror story as workers dig up the neighbors' backyard to build a swimming pool. In a Village Voice Literary Supplement review, Carr wrote that Burns's "drawings in sharp blacks and whites—no grays—vibrate with more drama than usual. And help us to develop an overactive imagination like Tony's."

The collection Skin Deep: Tales of Doomed Romance features three stories—"Dog Days," a Dog Boy adventure; "Burn Again," a tale of the junkie evangelist Bliss Blister and his strange encounters; and "A Marriage Made in Hell," in which a returning veteran's reconstructive surgery makes a mockery of his marriage. A Publishers Weekly contributor called these stories "thoroughly amusing recreations of trashy pop entertainment," while Margot Mifflin, in Entertainment Weekly, observed that Skin Deep shows Burns "alternately at his bleakest and most uncharacteristically wholesome." Olson, in Booklist, called Burns "probably the best of the noir satirists" and said that readers who can laugh at their passions "may be quite tickled by Burns' japes."

Burns collaborated with illustrator Gary Panter in the 1993 book Facetasm: A Creepy Mix & Match Book of Gross Face Mutations!, a horror version of children's mix-and-match books, in which readers can combine portions of faces on three horizontal panels to make up to 7,000 different weird faces. Pawson called the combinations "creepy" and "gross." Marc Spiegler, in a review of the book for Wired, commented that the faces "seem drawn from fever dreams" and show "the intermediary stage as a human turns ghoulish."

Burns writes often about teen angst, especially in his acclaimed 2003 comix series Black Hole, which is set in the 1970s and deals with the Teen Plague, an outbreak of fictitious sexually transmitted disease that affects only teens and causes bizarre transformations in victims' bodies. In an online interview with Alan David Doane for Comic Book Galaxy, Burns said that many of the stories from Black Hole are based on autobiographical information, including "a lot of my socialization, growing up," although it is disguised. A contributor to Whole Earth called Burns's work in this series a combination of "stunning graphic style … and a truly warped mind."

Burns was also a concept and set designer for the contemporary ballet The Hard Nut, first performed in 1991 and based on Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. Dale Harris, in a review of the production for the Wall Street Journal, said its "dark, absurdist view of childhood, its terrors and fierce loyalties," seem spawned by Burns's influence. Harris also praised the "brilliant black and white sets," inspired by Burns, as well as the cast's colorful costumes. Martha Duffy, in Time, called the ballet a "radical reworking of The Nutcracker" that is "rude, boisterous, and more than a little, well, nutty."

Burns's work has been very popular both in Europe and in the United States. In the interview with Doane, he acknowledged the influence and inspiration of Gould and of cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman and others. He explained that his style and characters have developed over a long period and that he prefers black-and-white images over color. Burns called his work "low-fidelity comics."



Clute, John, and Peter Nicholls, editors, Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1993.


Booklist, August, 1988, Ray Olson, review of Hard-Boiled Defective Stories, p. 1878; November 15, 1992, Ray Olson, review of Skin Deep: Tales of Doomed Romance, p. 570.

Books, June, 1990, "Comics for Grown-Ups," p. 4.

Entertainment Weekly, December 4, 1992, Margot Mifflin, review of Skin Deep, p. 60.

Publishers Weekly, October 19, 1992, review of Skin Deep, p. 74; October 11, 1993, review of Skin Deep, p. 56.

Time, December 28, 1992, Martha Duffy, review of The Hard Nut, p. 67.

Village Voice Literary Supplement, February, 1986, C. Carr, review of Big Baby in Curse of the Molemen, p. 3; May, 1988, C. Carr, review of Hard-Boiled Defective Stories, p. 3.

Wall Street Journal, January 4, 1993, Dale Harris, "A Cracked 'Nutcracker'," p. A7.

Whole Earth, spring, 1998, review of Black Hole, p. 28.


Absolutearts, http://www.absolutearts.com/ (October 8, 1999), "Indepth Arts News: Charles Burns."

Artbabe, http://www.artbabe.com/ (August 6, 2003), "Charles Burns."

Comic Book Galaxy, http://www.comicbookgalaxy.com/ (December 28, 1999), Alan David Doane, "Interview: Charles Burns."

Fantagraphics Books Web site, http://www.fantagraphics.com/ (August 6, 2003), "The Charles Burns Library" and "Charles Burns Biography."

Lambiek, http://www.lambiek.net/ (August 4, 2003), "Charles Burns."

Little Lit, http://www.little-lit.com/ (August 6, 2003), "Charles Burns Spookyland."

Variant, http://www.variant.randomstate.org/ (August 6, 2003), Mark Pawson, "Zine & Comics Review."

Wired, http://www.wired.com (August 6, 2003), Marc Spiegler, "The Many Faces of Disgust" (review of Facetasm: A Creepy Mix & Match Book of Gross Face Mutations!).