Monday, June 02, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #152: Skin Deep by Charles Burns

In comics, like prose, authors usually start short before they go long. So there's nearly always some early works of less than book-length: short stories or novellas, single-page gag strips or six-to-eight page anthology fodder. For some creators, those works are better left buried where they were originally published -- they would just show where the author started from, not any meaningful destination.

But others were essentially themselves from the beginning, and Charles Burns was one of those creators. His silkily inked pages, all precisely rounded and eerily perfect (or perfectly eerie), were quintessentially Burnsian even in the '80s, and his stories were uneasy and unsettling back then as well. So even those short stories -- the pre-Black Hole works loosely organized around characters like Big Baby, El Borbah and Dog Boy, and the midnight, out-of-time world they inhabited -- are still vital and true, still as Burnsian now as they were when they appeared in RAW and other places thirty years ago.

Skin Deep collects three of those stories, only very loosely linked to each other. "Dog Days" is the major Dog Boy story, and Dog Boy leads us into "Burn Again," a long -- it's roughly the size of a European album -- story of religion and family and dread and aliens. And that story lightly ties into "A Marriage Made in Hell," where what at first looks like a loose frame story about a woman writing a Depression-style "bad romance" story on deadline tightens into that bad romance. Each story starts one place and goes somewhere else -- even "Dog Days" begins with Big Baby and a friend having a camp-out before Dog-Boy shows up and takes over -- perhaps showing that Burns was trying to tie all of his works together. (Or perhaps just so he could sell them to the same outlets by saying they were the "same thing" -- sometimes the boring explanations are more true than the artistic ones.)

So this is early Burns, but the stories are very much like the kind of thing he still does today: he settled into a style and a look early and has worked it assiduously since then. And anyone who discovered him with Black Hole or X'ed Out has this book -- as well as the companion volumes El Borbah and Big Baby, which are a bit more thematically unified -- to look forward to.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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