For a society with such a long history – and for that matter, a society that likes to take pride in this longevity – the British are often quite bad at preserving it. (It was a Yank after all, Sam Wannamaker, who worked to make the site of the original Globe Theatre more than a plaque next to a brewery.) More than any other aspect of their culture though, the Brits’ mistreatment of their venerable comics history – a culmination of more than a century of sequential art-making – is possibly at the top of the list of crimes against cultural preservation. At the time of this being published, I can go to many-a-comics-store (physical or digital alike) and taste the many blessed fruits of American comics history stretching from EC Comics to E.C. Segar. It’s not perfect by any means – many valuable works pop in and out of print and the level of restoration are… often shaky (looking at you recolored Dark Horse horror archives!). But people try, and try often, and that means something on its own.
In the United Kingdom, however… there’s the Treasury of British Comics: a still-young subdivision of 2000 AD publisher Rebellion that publishes relatively few of the massive archives the company bought. There are smaller venues as well, of course, who are often and unfortunately limited by budgetary and shipping issues, like the incredibly well-curated teams of Dark & Golden , Hibernia, and even occasionally Secret Oranges, the newsletter of former-designer for Fleetway comics Steve Cook – and while these venues are important and do their best to preserve the history, these are drops of water in a very large bucket that seems to be forever leaking.
American comics companies knew to preserve original art, if only for the very mercurial motives. Meanwhile their British counterpart treated it like so much trash. Read this statement from a Comics Journal piece by one-man-comics-archive David Roach: “In the mid-2000s I sorted out the old comics art then held in the IPC warehouse, where only work felt to have resale value or worth as capital had survived. It was seen as a commodity, and the art believed to be of no value was burnt.”
Burnt! Crimes against art, history and the history of art – in broad daylight! (OK, I guess it probably took place in some basement, but you get what I’m saying).
Case in point: the career of one John M. Burns. I’ve been thinking about Burns more recently because he had just announced his retirement from comics-making. Being 85 years old he more-than earned his rest. Truth be told, however, I am often thinking of John M. Burns with no need for an excuse. If most men (according to social media) think too much about the Roman Empire, I think too much about the scene in Nikolai Dante in which the protagonist kills a professional executioner with his legs, while smirking.
Burns was born before World War II and Burns has been making comics, professionally, for over six decades. He is a living link to the past of British comics, right there alongside giants like Frank Bellamy and Ron Embelton, and he kept working alongside a new generation of giants from Ezquerra to McMahon. He was producing pages– his latest serial The Order just came to a close recently– with a whole new generation of artists without ever losing a step. Burns never needed an old age discount. If anything the young guns struggled to keep up with him.
And yet, frustratingly, so little of his work is available to the public. Like many of the more modern audiences, Burns came to my attention through his work in 2000 AD. Like pretty much everyone else in that magazine – but the difference was that Burns was someone that truly stood out amongst the crowd.. Sure, he did painted stuff when everyone else did, but unlike the dozens of lesser-Simon Bisley copycats – all of whom were seemingly trying to cover a lack of storytelling with over renditions and murky colors – his work was straight out of the classics: as composed and boldly dramatic as anything. His storytelling was note-perfect, but never at the cost of a good shot that seemed to come from the pen N. C. Wyeth. The world of Judge Dredd wasn’t made with realism in mind, but Burns’ paints and pencils made it, at least, plausible.
Burns himself was apparently no fan of the character, as it clashed with his need as an artist to keep things realistic. As he said to an issue of Illustrators magazine: “You can’t make the character anatomically correct if he’s wearing that gear.” Still, even if didn’t like the Dredd world, and even if some the scripts he got were particularly lackluster (the early 1990’s were not the best period for Judge Dredd comics) he never gave it less than 100%. You can witness the dynamic work on stories like “Raider” or the powerful action of “The Chief Judge’s Man.” If the script was bad he made it good, and if the script was good he made it great. He made things so much more when working on strips that were in his wheelhouse, like the fantasy-oriented Witch World, or the crime drama The Banditti Vendetta.
Seeing these works for the first time, it was clear to me that this was some young gun, trying his best to show everything he got…so imagine my shock to learn that this was an artist already in his 60’s when he started at the galaxy’s greatest. It was probably close to the shock people felt if they saw the marvelous Jack Kirby art of the 1970’s only to realize it was merely the tip of the spear – the notion that even at some of what you think is their best, that there is so much more to that artist. Yet Kirby’’s odder works, thanks to years of perseverance and republishing, can be found at ease. (Even something as outré as his Spirit World was given a decent collection in the 21st century.)
Wanna read any of the dozens (hundreds?) of strips and stories Burns lent his considerable talent to? Good luck, and you better start trawling online for random issues of Look-In or TV Century 21 and hope for the best. You might, if you’re feeling lucky, find two whole pages of his work. Want to see a collection of anything before his 2000 AD period? So do I! His sexy science fiction strip Danielle was last reprinted in 1984 by Ken Pierce Books (at least you can find copies at non cutthroat-prices), his short stint on Modesty Blaise was reprinted by Titan in this century, and then there’s a Classics Comics adaptation of Jane Eyre. Other than that…. Nothing.
His Seekers strip? no
His work on Spanish mainstay El Capitán Trueno? Nope
His boxing strip from the relaunched Eagle? Zilch
His beautiful children’s work from magazines like Robin and Diana, so delicate in its expression of wonder? Not a page.
His supernaturally horny Penthouse Comix shorts, standing shoulder to shoulder (or is it butt cheek to butt cheek?) with Milo Manara? Likewise.
There’s so much of it, and so much of it is missing. Drops in a bucket.
What is it that makes Burns’ art so special? What is it that makes our loss of his long history so great? After all, Burns never seems to think of himself like an auteur. The final words he gave to that Illustrators special were “It’s only a job, after all.” Appropriate for an ethos of someone who grew up when comics was just a job and as something there on the stands one week and then gone another – years before the rise of graphic novels and the notion of the ninth art as, well, proper art to be preserved.
This attitude of ‘it’s just a job’ also helped Burns to work in dozens of different genres rather than becoming pigeonholed into a singular field. While a Burns page is always easily recognizable, especially nowadays as his fundamental approach to illustration becomes less and less common, you never quite be sure what it is you’ll get from him: his violent and fantasy-filled visions of the 2000 AD years give no hint to his past as an illustrator of children’s comics.
Burns was recruited by Link Studious straight out of technical college, which means he got into commercial artwork early, and with proper professional guidance. His style, whether in color or black and white, has the unmistaken mark of pre-war illustration in which everything must be solid and recognizable; scenes of grand fantasy are allowed as long as the figures remain plausible. To everything Burns draws there is mass, presence and an attention to details –especially the clothes (which is rather funny considering how easily his female protagonists tend to lose theirs) that never distract from the overall image.
It’s a sort of solidness that could easily grow boring, but through decades of work Burns continued to refine and develop his style. While many other older British comics can offer some of that same solid figure-work, few possess Burns’ boldness of form, and willingness to ignore choking page layouts. Though quite old-fashioned by today’s stranded, the manner in which his figures often burst through panels was not so typical at the time. If the work was rushed by a crushing deadline, it never appeared so. Every panel by Burns is like a painting in miniature – so perfectly composed and realized that one might think it was meant for a museum rather than the pages of a literal throw-away comics magazine.
Going back to Nikolai Dante (as I’m often wont to do) I look at two contrasting pages from the “Tsar Wars” storyline: The first, a single splash page depicting a futuristic assault on a sea-based headquarters. Take away the caption boxes and what you have here is every pulp cover to every science fiction magazine of the early 20th century rolled into one and maximized times a hundred. Even in something that stands by itself, not necessarily part of sequence, Burns finds a way to charge with kinetic energy – the two planes on the top of the page as they are blasted away, spinning at different directions, below the water splashes from various impacts of armament, men and material.
Contrast that triumphant image with later in the same storyline: Nikolai, walking amongst the fields of the dead, finding the banner his side used to hoist and knowing the war is lost, shattering it with a defiant swing. The house of Romanov is no more, only the man Nikolai remains. It’s still recognizably the same artist, even working in the same mood, but the emotion and roughness of the attitude is all different. Like the best of the 2000 AD crew, Burns could keep his je ne sais quoi, his personal mark as an artist, while still applying it to wholly different scenery (even within the same storyline). In his pencils and brushes there exists both tragedy and triumph. Beauty and horror. Childlike wonder with adult sexuality.
The ‘just a job’ thing has often been a hindrance to makers of comics, allowed to treat the work as disposable. With Burns the very same thing went in an opposite direction: because everything was just a job, everything deserved the same level of dedication, and because he grew up as a pro in an environment that was both nurturing and competitive, that level of dedication was always ‘everything.’ I have written before that there are scant few comics artists who never to seem to have drawn a bad page (even if the story itself was bad, or the coloring was bad, or the reproduction was bad) and burns was amongst these hallowed few; right next to Ezquerra and Aragonés.
What happens next? For Burns, hopefully, a long and comfortable retirement. The man did his duty, to the artform if for nothing else, and gave more than could be asked. But what would happen to the work he left behind? According to a downthetubes article about his retirement Paul Duncan is working on a book, since 2021 at least, which hopes to scan all available original art by John M. Burns. All power to him, and I’ll definitely be there when the pre-orders open, but it appears to be something with more of an appeal to the adult collector, certainly few children care much for original art, then to the original audience of many of his stories: children and teens.
Even the stuff meant for adults, from Danielle to Zatari, isn’t hinted of being collected as a story. Just as art appreciation. But Burns was, and is, first and foremost, a storyteller. I want to see a collection (well, collections) of his stories. To read them and enjoy them for what they are. The craft is self-evident. History of a popular art form such as comics shouldn’t be kept (only) in museum-worthy art books, it should be made available for all.
There isn’t much of an audience for these old stories, at least not right now, but that’s because people don’t know anything about them. Just as I can read, and enjoy, works of ages past from America, Japan and France so should I be able to access the best of the British. John M. Burns was the best. John M. Burns is the best. The art speaks for itself, if only we could listen to it.