Born in Washington D. C., Burns was only a young tyke when he moved with his family to Seattle in 1965 (not so coincidentally the eventual locale of his semi-autobiographical magnum opus, Black Hole).
Burns’ childhood was steeped in Mad magazine, Roger Corman horror flicks and the television culture of that time. After attending high school in the mid-’70s and discovering underground comics artists such as R. Crumb, Burns went to Evergreen College, where he would meet such soon-to-be famous cartoonists as Matt Groening and Lynda Barry. He subsequently attended graduate school at the University of California, Davis.
It was while Burns was living in Philadephia in 1981 that, flipping through channels on his TV, he stumbled across a wrestling show; his fascination with a huge wrestler with a tiny mask and many tattoos led to the creation of “El Borbah” — so named in honor of the Mecxican wrestlers Burns admired, and his friend John Borba. He drew his first El Borbah story, “Robot Love,” in 1982 and placed it with Heavy Metal; the character also made an appearance in RAW magazine, where Burns became a regular. Burns would later create a “RAW one-shot,” Curse of the Molemen, starring his Big Baby character, which was published as a 32-page hardcover in 1986.
Moving to Italy in the mid-’80s with his wife, he became influenced by the Italian comics scene, joining the “Valvoline” group of artists founded by Lorenzo Mattotti, and began publishing his work there. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1986, he experimented with a weekly strip (“Big Baby,” 1989-1991), collaborated with Gary Panter on Pixie Meat and worked on stories for various horror anthologies.
In 1994, he began the most ambitious and best work of his career, Black Hole, for Kitchen Sink. Upon Kitchen Sink’s collapse, he moved the series to Fantagraphics in 1998, finishing it in 2004. This tale of modern horror focuses on a plague that can only be transmitted between sexually active teenagers. Since its debut, Black Hole has been a multiple Harvey, Eisner and Ignatz Award winner, and made The Comics Journal’s list of the “Top 100 English-Language Comics of the Century.” It was collected as a hardcover by Pantheon in 2005.
The “El Borbah” stories were published as Thrilling Defective Stories by Pantheon in 1988. The “Big Baby” strip material was published as Blood Club, a full-color comic, by Kitchen Sink in 1991 and a graphic novel from Penguin called Skin Deep in 1992. Fantagraphics subsequently collected all this material in three hardcover books: El Borbah, Big Baby and Skin Deep.
A prolific and highly-sought magazine illustrator, Burns has done covers for such magazines as Time and The New Yorker, and is the regular cover artist for The Believer. He’s designed the sets for a New York production of The Nutcracker called The Hard Nut and produced album covers, including the spectacular fold-out that graced Iggy Pop’s “Brick by Brick.” His advertising gigs include the ill-fated O.K. Cola brand (alongside fellow Fantagraphics cartoonist Daniel Clowes) and a huge campaign for Altoids in 2003 which included several comics pages.
Burns lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife, painter Susan Moore, and their two daughters.
Featured books by Charles Burns (click covers for complete product details & ordering information)
El Borbah [Sold Out]
Skin Deep [Softcover Ed.]
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The Comics Journal #148
All books by Charles Burns