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“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 he weren’t quite… human!”
Robert Crumb

Charles Burns (1955- ) portrays a disturbed world of dark horror and kinky science in his comic strips, the product, he admits, of over-exposure to American pop culture in his youth. “My father’s a scientist who once wanted to be a cartoonist. So I was able to read comics without being told they were going to rot my mind. As a result my brain rotted…” Underneath his distinctive ice-cold, hard-edged, black and white art work are dark and disturbing stories that deal with childhood traumas, loss and alienation. A common theme in his work is physical transformation and invasion, “... it’s this fascination I have with the separation of the mind and the body. And how the body can manifest a psychological state.” With his teen-plague stories, which culminate in Black Hole, Charles Burns deals with sexual anxiety. “Obviously, the direct AIDS metaphor is there - there have always been sexual diseases floating around, but now there’s a killer. I was just thinking about sex being this dangerous and frightening thing rather than what it’s supposed to be, which is just the opposite. I think when you’re an adolescent, that’s what’s affecting you the most, the kind of anxiety about who you are and what sex is.” Burns was an early and regular contributor to Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine and his provocative work has also appeared in publications such as Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA with his wife, painter Susan Moore, and their two daughters.

Essential Reading:

X’ed Out
Pantheon, 2010

Doug is having a strange night. A weird buzzing noise on the other side of the wall has woken him up, and there, across the room, next to a huge hole torn out of the bricks, sits his beloved cat, Inky. Who died years ago. But who’s nonetheless slinking out through the hole, beckoning Doug to follow. What’s going on? To say any more would spoil the freaky, Burnsian fun, especially because X’ed Out, unlike Black Hole, has not been previously serialized, and every unnervingly meticulous panel will be more tantalizing than the last… Drawing inspiration from such diverse influences as Hergé and William Burroughs, Charles Burns has given us a dazzling spectral fever-dream - and a comic-book masterpiece.

Paul Gravett says:
Comics can be an unusually effective medium at conveying states of mind, whether shifting naturally or altered by drugs, delirium, delusion, depression or other factors. Several recent graphic novels literally let us see the inside of another person’s head by harnessing the flexibility of their illustrative styles, their special effects budgets limited only by the author’s imagination, and through the harmonies and dissonances between texts and images. As the sofa bed-ridden, self-medicating youth Doug laments, “...the images slip in… seep down into the back of my head and come up behind my eyes. The same stuff over and over again.” This sensation also seems to describe the way the reader of X’ed Out is gradually enveloped by this recurring nightmare and its looping feedbacks.

Black Hole
Fantagraphics, 2005

A sexually-transmitted teen-plague is haunting the lives of high school teenagers, causing grotesque deformities and skin conditions. The most seriously afflicted are forced to set-up camps in the forest set apart from normal society. Black Hole exposes the darkest undercurrents of adolescence with it’s stark images of disease and horror.

Paul Gravett says:
Raging hormones and a contagious plague are mutating a group of high-school students: Keith sheds his skin like a snake; Rob has a second mouth under his throat; Chris has grown a tail. How do you catch it? How long can you keep it a secret? How will it affect your first experiences of sex, drugs and maybe love? How long do you have left to live? Spanning twelve 32 page issues, Burns is taking his time here to unravel the anxieties and alienation of being a teenager. He does much of this through a trance-like slowness, acutely observed internal monologues, and by revealing encounters from more than one point of view. An escalating sadness and dread pervade every page of what promises to be his master piece.



X’ed Out (2010)
One Eye (2007)
Black Hole (2005)
Skin Deep (2001)
Big Baby (2000)
El Borbah (1999)
Facetasm with Gary Panter (1998)
Modern Horror Sketchbook (1994)

Black Hole #1-12 (1995-2004)

Best American Comics 2009 (2009) edited by Charles Burns

The Comics Journal #148


Online Resources:
Paul Gravett’s Articles
Fear[s] Of The Dark

Adam Baumgold Gallery
Galerie Martel

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


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