James Burns is a very interesting cartoonist. It was a pleasure last year to review his work. A Life Half-Forgotten is an impressive piece of memoir comics, or “autobio,” as this work is commonly referred to within comics circles. Burns taps into his childhood with a confidence and curiosity that sets the bar high. It challenges and inspires each of us to reach back and take a closer look into the past.
Analyzing one’s childhood can be a daunting task. Where to begin? As an exercise in recovering memory alone, you have quite a job ahead of you. When did life truly begin for you? For Burns, life seems to have begun in preschool as he dutifully accepted a box of crayons at the start of the day. He goes on to write and draw his way to insightful observations. All the forgotten traumas come home to roost. Burns made it his goal to sift through the big and small details and see what mattered most. This is a childhood in a Central Ohio suburbia during the 60s and 70s. With great care, and a good dose of humor, Burns explores the high and low points: freedom and privilege as well as murder and divorce.
A LIFE HALF-FORGOTTEN by James Burns
Burns plays with that special ambiguity inherent in comics as he casts himself in this first-person narrative. We have Burns at the beginning playing host followed by him appearing to walk back into his childhood past. He is now a child but he appears to remain an adult. His face retains the same mature features in many panels but also seems to shift to a softer and younger version in other panels. The results, for my tastes, give the scenes an added edge. These are all memories, after all, with a dream-like tone. The black & white with gray tones also helps to heighten the sense of searching into the past.
As Burns puts it, we are all dealing with fragments when it comes to our personal memory. One person paints a picture based on childhood while a sibling paints another. We are summoning up phantoms. We are asking our phantoms to dance again. Burns points out that his recollections seek a greater truth. He acknowledges that he wasn’t concentrating on capturing anyone’s likeness. Instead, he wanted to try to understand things better like the tragic death of a classmate.
Now, I’ll get back to this wonderful tension between the adult Burns seeking out his childhood self, with Burns depicting himself as a child but with an adult’s face. It makes for some very compelling passages. I think I like best where he looks back at how much he enjoyed wearing a Superman costume for Halloween when he was seven years-old. He loved it so much that he ended up wearing the costume on a regular basis underneath his street clothes, just like Clark Kent! It’s such a sweet and innocent recollection–and there’s a depiction of Burns, as a child in a Superman costume but with an adult’s face. It’s an scene filled with haunting melancholy and one of the more striking images I’ve seen in comics this year.
Actually, there are more scenes I could get into. I’ll also mention here the birthday party for Burns when he turned six. That’s another passage that I find very moving. The conflict between nostalgia and truth can take a rest here. For one moment of pure joy, Burns is having a grand time with friends in his backyard. He’s having cake and ice cream. And he gets to play with the most amazing toy fire engine, his featured birthday gift. You attach a garden hose to its side and it gushes out water through its tiny fire hose! I would have loved one of those toys!
A LIFE HALF-FORGOTTEN by James Burns
The murky world of memory is evoked quite well and Burns manages to snare some of his childhood ghosts. He manages to sit down with them, talk to them, play with them, and reach some sort of closure. This book invites the reader to do the same.
Visit James Burns right here. You can find A Life Half-Forgotten at Amazon right here.
For a sampling of some of the best independent cartoonists today, one great source is the NOT MY SMALL DIARY anthology, edited by Delaine Derry Green. Cartoonist John Porcellino, known for his “King Cat” comics, has called Delaine’s anthology, “One of the most important comic-zines in history.” Here is a look at Issue 19: Unexplained Events, which showcases the work from 43 talented artists.
Panel excerpt from Kevin Van Hyning’s “The Curse of Macbeth”
So, the theme of “unexplained events” leaves open a wide field of opportunities from things that go bump in the night and beyond. One of the most inventive, jarring, and downright entertaining pieces comes from Kevin Van Hyning. It’s a pretty messed up misadventure and I hope and pray that nothing close to this actually happened to Kevin. Like a lot of creative people, myself included, Kevin has many outlets, like performing on stage. In “The Curse of Macbeth,” we see what can happen when an actor confronts the age-old superstition of daring to say “Macbeth” before a show. It’s supposed to be very bad luck! And, as it turns out in this comic, it’s the sort of bad luck that can knock your teeth out! Inspired work! A big takeaway for me is learning of this curse as I don’t believe I’d ever heard of it before. But it has a long tradition dating back to the very first time it was performed in 1606. Teeth kept being knocked out and worse!
David Lasky’s “Mothman”
As a cartoonist myself, who has observed and commented upon the comics scene for many years, I am delighted to see page after page of inspired work from familiar and new talent. What you find in this book is a treasure trove of comics experimentation. Each creator is working within their own special confines, powered by their own personal engine. This is a fascinating book and a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary comics. Each artist you visit here is like a little island onto itself. We paddle ashore and reach the Isle of David Lasky. Here we find enigmatic work giving out a melancholic howl. In the one-page “Mothman,” we find the distinctive Lasky poetic comic. Relax your shoulders and linger over it.
Panel excerpt from “My ‘Unsual’ Sighting’ by James Burns
The universal symbol for the unexplained seems to always go back to UFOs. And so I close with a piece by James Burns, “My ‘Unusual’ Sighting.” The most eerie and creepy incidents are beautifully underscored by the mundane. Often the most profound things must compete with the most banal and so it is in this comic. It is 1966 and a bunch of kids innocently look up in the sky and seem to be watching their favorite sci-fi show in the clouds–but they’re not. Or what are they seeing? Ten years later, Burns is eighteen and has an opportunity to possibly confirm his most wildest speculation. But he’s still a kid–and what is he supposed to do if his suspicions are correct? Nicely done and a fitting example to a most impressive collection of work in comics.
Be sure to keep up with Not My Small Diary at Delaine Derry Green’s My Small Web Page right here.