Thursday, May 14, 2020

Free Shit by Charles Burns

Apparently, if you're a cartoonist and go to shows to sell your stuff -- sketches, self-published comics, comics published by other people, merchandise, whatever -- you also get a steady stream of people who don't want to spend any money and just want "free shit."

For whatever reason, Charles Burns decided to humor them, and started creating quick 8-page minicomics actually titled Free Shit around the turn of the century. Now, it doesn't look like he made them to actually humor the grabby lookie-loos, but instead gave them to "friends and VIPs" at conferences, which makes me think of Free Shit as a particularly odd business-development resource.

After almost twenty years, Fantagraphics collected the first twenty-five issues of Free Shit into a book of the same name -- though the cover coyly only has a FS, possibly to make it safer for work. (Note: very little of Burns's actual work is safe for work anywhere normal.)

It's a small hardcover, and it has all of the pages of those twenty five issues -- 25 x 8 = 200 pages of comics, sketches, collages, and other image-making detritus -- and basically nothing else. There's no front matter, and only a single page note from Burns in the back, saying more or less what I did above but in a more personal way. There isn't even a title page to say "Free Shit by Charles Burns," just a half-title with a big FS.

This is only rarely comics art; it's not in sequence. Instead, Free Shit is full of sketches, ideas, small finished ink drawings (lots of head-and-shoulders views), things that seem to be ripped out of mid-century magazines (and may well have been), and other random things. For example: Free Shit #8, the "special literary issue," was entirely made up of columns of hand-written phrases, presumably potential titles for something-or-other.

Burns' work skirts the verges of body horror regularly: his people, even the ones with normal body proportions and features, are fleshy in a vaguely unsettling way. And many of the people and things in these pictures are not of normal body proportions. But a sketchbook is hard to make creepy, so it's just images -- weird images, odd images, bizarre images.

This is obviously just for Burns fans, but it's a nice package for people who like sketchbooks -- smaller and more portable than usual, and cheaper than many "big selection from the sketchbooks of" books. The one thing it isn't -- unless you steal it from a store that is actually open right now -- si Free Shit. And that's just ironic enough to be awesome.

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