Charles Burns came to our attention most recently with Black Hole, an epic tale of teenagers ostracised by a bizarre sexually transmitted disease, which leaves them mutated and disfigured. Before starting on this 10-year project however, Burns was publishing occasional short stories in the comic anthology RAW. Some of this work is collected here, in four stories featuring his bald American schoolboy Tony Delmonto, also known, because of his appearance, as Big Baby.
Tony is loosely based on Burns himself and is obsessed with horror and science fiction. He reads disturbing comics, perhaps aimed at a slightly less naive audience, about secret alien invaders who use sexually promiscuous teens as hosts. Because of his relative innocence and habit of believing what he reads, he presumes this is exactly what’s happening when his babysitter gets a love bite on her neck. Later in the book, when his summer camp leader forbids him from visiting an island on a nearby lake because it’s haunted, he takes it at absolute face value.
In fact, like an episode of Scooby Doo, there usually is a mystery to be solved, though it isn’t a criminal trying to scare off snoopers with a werewolf suit. Instead it’s the sad story of a messed-up small-town American grown-up, making bad decisions and trying to cover up their appalling errors of judgement. In many ways it could be argued that the ineptitude of the adults’ inability to control themselves and their lives is more scary than the horrors Tony imagines, because as adult readers, we know these nightmares are all too real.
Burns’ style is unique. His deeply contrasting black and white is perfect for the B-movie inspired stories; and his characterisation is spot on, with guilt-ridden men always breaking into a sweat, sharply contrasting the wide-eyed innocence of his youths.
Big Baby is a glorious snapshot of innocence on the cusp of being lost to the harsh reality of the world. But when that innocence is based on the young Charles Burns, it is hardly surprising that it’s peppered with dinosaurs, war, plague, aliens and zombies. Black Hole may remain his masterpiece but this is great fodder for those looking to read more of Burns’ wonderful work.