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The Thick Black Line

Charles Burns' Prints Are Nice, But Read the Books

By Christopher Skokna | Posted 11/7/2001

Charles Burns

Spur Propaganda Gallery through Dec. 7

"Ummm . . . The darkness! Soothing black ink! Hard straight lines . . . Ahh! Uhnn! Uh!"

That's how cartoonist and illustrator Charles Burns describes his own artwork during a guest appearance in a 1997 issue of fellow cartoonist R. Crumb's Self-Loathing Comics. Burns' Self-Loathing self-portrait--all thick, mechanically straight lines and black, black ink--contrasts sharply with Crumb's busy lines and never-ending crosshatching.

Burns has been providing that sort of contrast since he appeared on the underground-comics scene in the early 1980s, in the pages of Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly's RAW magazine. In that seminal publication, Burns' clean lines and fields of black ink stood out among the scratchier, more expressionistic style favored by other contributors. And his stories stood out too. While most of the RAW gang told tales of modern urban America, Burns' stories hearkened to the 1930s and '40s, taking their tone from the pulp fiction, comics, and film of that era.

His restrained-but-creepy drawing style and familiar-but-twisted storytelling soon made him a favorite of art directors. Burns illustrations have showed up on the covers of rock albums, such as 1988's Seattle scene-heralding Sub-Pop-200 compilation; his work now regularly graces the covers of major magazines such as Time. Meanwhile, the 46-year-old artist, a Philadelphia resident, has continued with his own comics work. He has produced four long cycles of comics--Big Baby, El Borbah, Skin Deep, and Bad Vibes, now all being rereleased by Fantagraphics Books in hardbound volumes--and has been working since 1994 on his fifth and most ambitious, Black Hole (Fantagraphics), a semi-autobiographical epic about a sexually transmitted plague afflicting teenagers in the Seattle suburbs.

Striking as Burns' illustrations-for-hire are, they lack much of the horror and the humor of his comic-book work. The distinction is starkly clear in the current exhibition of Burns' work at the Spur Propaganda Gallery in Hampden. The gallery, housed inside the Spur Design graphics studio, has hung plenty of examples of both sides of Burns' oeuvre. And while the make-readies for record covers and magazines are fun to look at, the original art and covers from the comics are magnetic.

If you can hold off on heading straight to the comic-book pages, the first print to grab your attention might be "Skin Deep," the cover to Burns' 1992 collection of the same name. In this color print an emaciated, bald man/mutant wearing only a pair of boxers stares straight out from what looks like the world's nastiest landfill. A futuristic and/or ancient city lurks in the background.

Like much of Burns' illustration work, whether for clients or his own book covers, "Skin Deep" looks symmetrical from a distance, the right and left sides seemingly mirroring each other. Look more closely, though, and the differences emerge. To the man's right, there's a mutant-looking fish eating and excreting others of its kind, an egg with legs that's broken and oozing yolk, and a tiny wild boar eating a human leg. On his left are a baby Tyrannosaurus, a volcano crater spouting lava, and a centipedelike creature, again with human legs. That's six or seven nightmares for the price of one.

"Skin Deep" contrasts with the first commercial piece you come across, an original poster for Iggy Pop's album Brick by Brick. It's amusing--there's a bee-boy, a floating brain, a baby in a skull mask--but that's all it is. The poster lacks real goose-pimple-inducing creepiness. It's just a bunch of "Charles Burns" characters with no deeper connection.

A black-and-white self-portrait of Burns in his studio is another highlight. He draws himself with floppy dog ears and some sort of beastly body. Just-completed illustrations hang to dry in the background, and tools that look more like surgical instruments than drawing utensils sit on his worktable. On a bookshelf are toy monsters and robots. This I believe.

Then comes the overtly commercial work. Elvis Presley, William Burroughs, Lou Reed, and Monica Lewinsky get the Burns treatment. They're all pleasantly eerie, but boring. And a lithograph titled "Beyond Recognition"--a tentacle-mouthed creature tied up in ropes with a snake looming over his shoulder--is done in a style different than the artist's usual thick black lines. It's muddy, splotchy. Burns might be compelling, but he's not versatile.

Finally comes the really good stuff--a selection of pages from the Big Baby story "Blood Club" and some from the El Borbah story "Bone Voyage." Here are examples of what Burns does best: use the clichés of old comic books and film noir--mad scientists, tough detectives, beautiful-but-deadly dames--to build creepy tales of the real-life traumas of childhood, loss, and alienation. In "Blood Club," the ghost of a child visits Big Baby while he's out paddling around a lake at summer camp. In this short excerpt, Burns' timing is very good, creating a great cliffhanger.

But it's disappointing to be left hanging. That's the trouble here, as with most shows featuring the pages of comic-book art. The pages are nice to look at (and, in this case, are superior to the stand-alone illustrations), but they can't tell the full story. You leave the gallery hankering not to see Burns' work, but to read it.

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