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NewCityNet Baby Steps

By Ben Winters

MARCH 13, 2000: 

Big Baby by Charles Burns (Fantagraphics), $24.95, 96 pages

The gulf between alternative and mainstream yawns a bit wider in the world of comics than it does in music. There are measurable differences between Soundgarden and N'Sync, but we're still talking about verse/chorus/verse and a recognizable set of Western harmonies. Try reading the epic cartoon histories of Art Speigelman or the boisterous decadence of Ray Crumb, and then compare it to, say, "Green Lantern." They're all drawings, but we're really talking about two entirely different art forms.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the work of Charles Burns: His "Big Baby" is about as far from Action Comics as the North Pole is from the South. The titular "hero" of this collection is an earnest grade-schooler named Tony, an unlikely protagonist, slow and luckless. Like comics-page Calvin with his Spaceman Spiff fantasias, Big Baby dreams up wild stories to fill the tired, dull hours of childhood; unlike Calvin, Big Baby's tend to be accurate. There really are Molemen buried in the lawn next door, and there really is a teen plague at the local high school. Reality blends seamlessly, and creepily, into the surreal. The next-door neighbor is a paranoid drunk, but the Molemen aren't Tony's imaginative explanation for the guy's odd behavior and strange hours: The neighbor is a paranoid drunk, AND there are Molemen. It's great.

What Burns does so incredibly is to force our gaze toward the dark, painful corners of childhood, but his style his so subtle, the ride so enjoyable, that he wrings out the emotional resonance of his stories without meaning to. In the final story in this collection, our pitiful hero grudgingly travels to Camp Watakoma for the summer, where he is initiated into the cool kid clique, sees naked lady pictures, and is scared by the camp's traditional ghost story. When the ghost, inevitably, appears, it looks so terribly real -- a hovering specter of raw flesh with a horrified expression captured on its face -- that I gasped. In that one image, Burns forcefully reveals how a fun little ghost story from an adult can explode in the mind of a child; all his work trembles, just beneath its crude surfaces, with all the spookiness of never knowing exactly what's out there.

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