Skin Deep

By Charles Burns (Fantagraphics Books/Penguin)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-167-1 (PB, Fantagraphics) 978-0-14016-543-2 (UK Penguin)

I’s nearly St. Valentine’s day, and the time for extreme efforts for little discernible reward, so here’s a classic treatise on love and affection, inexplicably unattainable in the its native English language. Worth the hunt though…

Charles Burns is a creative force with his roots firmly placed in 1950s kids’ culture (B-movies, cartoons, EC comics and especially Mad Magazine) and talented fingers in many areas of the creative media. As an illustrator, graphic designer, photographer, film-maker and especially cartoonist, his slick, precise methodology tells stories and evokes responses from a place that is dark, skewed, beautiful and overwhelmingly nostalgic.

His comics work blends horror, true romance and Film Noir sensibilities with sensationalistic fascination for the grotesque and absurdist; all delivered in a slick, meticulous, heavy linear style reminiscent of woodcut prints; with huge swathes of solid black, like darkness and light suspended and perfectly balanced in a Cold War on every page.

This gigantic softcover (297mm high x 224mm wide) was the third in a series collecting all the artist’s work prior to the landmark publication of the incredible Black Hole, with the three interlinked – or rather perhaps, overlapping – stories here all originating between 1988 to1992. They were slightly revised after debuting in his Big Baby weekly strip and – in the case of ‘A Marriage Made in Hell’ – the legendary Raw Magazine. All in their own manner examine the theme of love in the modern world.

Leading off is ‘Dog-Boy’, the simple tale of a young man who has a cut-rate heart transplant and finds himself increasingly taking on the characteristics of the canine who provided his new ticker. Just because he acts a little differently, does this mean that there is no girl out there for him? This tale formed the basis of a 1991 MTV serial for the Liquid Television TV programme…

This leads to the outrageously funny and deeply unsettling ‘Burn Again’ wherein reformed televangelist Bliss Blister once more falls under the influence of his huckster father, as well as his own wife, who use him to con the religiously gullible. Unfortunately, what only Bliss knows is that God – in the form of a hideous, diabolical extraterrestrial Cyclops – is coming to end mankind’s self-inflicted woes…

The book ends with the aforementioned and intensely disturbing story-within-a-story ‘A Marriage Made in Hell’. When horny new bride Lydia finally marries her war-hero husband she regretfully discovers that he won’t consummate their union. Just what is the fantastic secret of battle-scarred veteran John Dough, and how does Lydia cope with the incredible situation she finds herself trapped in?

As well as these staggeringly dry, wry and funny tales there is also a selection from the Burns sketchbook, a look at some of those altered story-pages and a brief commentary from the artist himself.

This volume is also available as a hardback edition and was previously released as a Penguin book in 1992. You stand more chance of finding that these days, but if you’re intrigued and can read almost any European tongue, this stuff can be yours in the twinkling of a search engine. Funny old world, isn’t it?
© 1988-1992 Charles Burns. All Rights Reserved.