Charles Burns at Partners and Son, honoring indie comic royalty

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Tasso Hartzog chats with Partners and Sons founders Tom Marquet and Gina Dawson about the origins of their new art gallery and comic book shop, and he learns about the importance that the art of Charles Burns has played in their current operation. Burns has a show opening on Friday, September 9, 2022, from 6-9 p.m., at Partners and Son. Be there!

Charles Burns. Courtesy of Partners and Son.

A few weeks ago, Tom Marquet and Gina Dawson painted the walls of Partners and Son. The walls looked great before, but Marquet and Dawson, the eponymous partners behind Philly’s only independent comic book store and art gallery, are prepping the space for a special guest, and good wasn’t enough. On September 9, Partners and Son will open an exhibition of posters and prints by Philadelphia cartoonist Charles Burns.

The photo shows a black and white image of a young man's face with embarrassing marks all over it.
Charles Burns. Courtesy of Partners and Son

Burns is best known as the writer and illustrator of Black Hole, a beautiful and disturbing comic book series, later collected as a graphic novel, about a group of teenagers struggling with the spread of a mysterious STD. Set in suburban Seattle in the 1970s, the story is rendered in Burns’ signature inks, which look like a cross between a woodcut and a romantic 1950s comic strip. myself included, can trace their obsession with the medium to Black Hole.

Born in Washington, DC, and raised in Seattle, Burns attended Evergreen State College alongside cartoonists Matt Groenig and Lynda Barry. After art school, he moved to New York and became an early contributor to RAW, the comic book anthology magazine founded by Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman in 1980. He’s as close as it gets of indie comic royalty.

For Dawson and Marquet, and for their gallery, this exhibition is important. When the couple opened Partners and Son on September 13, 2019 — a Friday and also Dawson’s birthday — they had already been considering opening a “gallery slash comic shop” for a few years. They first conceived the idea while living in Brooklyn, where they were involved in a few artist-run spaces, but it wasn’t until they left New York and its stratospheric rents that it started. to look realistic. “When we got here and realized we could have a storefront, I think that changed things quite dramatically,” Marquet told me.

A photo shows a gallery wall with images of comic book heroes above it and below are comic books and zines on two shelves.
Illustrated by Charles Burns. Photo courtesy of Partners and Son.

The shop started as a personal project more than a lucrative business; Marquet and Dawson knew a few cartoonists in Philadelphia, but they weren’t yet sure there would be a market for the kind of art zines, experimental comics, and small-press books they wanted to sell. “I’m a sculptor, Tom is a cartoonist, it’s this kind of dream combo of, ‘Let’s do a slash gallery comic store,'” Dawson said. “But the comics in it aren’t necessarily like I have to pay the rent.”

Very quickly, however, they realized they had found a niche. “We’re filling a hole here,” Dawson said. Local cartoonists have started to come by regularly and a community has grown together around Partners and Son. One of these local cartoonists was Burns. “The first time he walked into the store,” Dawson recalled, “Tom texted me and said, ‘Charles Burns is here.’ And I was like, ‘Just be cool.’

An hour later, Marquet texted back, “I wasn’t cool.”

Marquet grew up with X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but soon stopped buying them, “because comics cost money and library books are free”. For about ten years, he stuck to novels. And then, when Marquet was an undergrad majoring in English and studio art, his painting teacher invited Burns to give an artist talk. Burns was working on Black Hole at the time; he showed the students pages of the comic strip and told them about his “object”. It was, for Marquet, “a eureka moment”. He realized that comics could be more than superheroes in costume; that in fact, they could be just as powerful as the fine arts and literature he studied in his classes. After that, Marquet discovered a surprisingly well-stocked section of comic books in his college bookstore and read anything he could get his hands on. Dawson met Marquet a few years later, in graduate school. She remembers him telling her early on that she had to read Black Hole. “It was basically a prerequisite to date,” she said.

It is reasonable to assume, given this history, that Partners and Son might not exist today without Burns and Black Hole. That’s why Marquet spent a week repainting the shop: “It’s a big deal,” he says, because it’s a big deal.

Despite its relative seriousness, the exhibition, Charles Burns: Posters and Prints, was born out of casual talk. One day, Burns stopped by Partners and Son to drop off books and prints for the store’s donation shelf. “He said something about how he could give us more here and there because he had so much,” Dawson recalled. “And I just blurted out, ‘Well, if you ever want a show!'”

After a few exchanges of messages, Burns invited Marquet to his home and opened the archives. They looked at flat folders filled with posters and prints dating back decades, made for concerts, for comic book festivals, for fun. Working from such a pool of material was a welcome challenge for Marquet and Dawson.

“For us, the curatorial part is selecting what’s going to go on the wall, where it’s going to go on the wall, and how we’re going to draw the relationships between those things,” Marquet said. He and Dawson want the series to examine the “wider arc” of Burns’ work, which in style and content has varied greatly between his early comics and the present. The exhibition will include serigraphs, offset printed posters, lithographs and a series of fake comic book covers; there will be collaborations with Gary Panter, Patrice Killofer and Art Spiegelman. To accompany the show, Burns created a zine—a “micro-retrospective catalog”—printed in risograph by Risolve Studio in Lancaster, PA.

Longtime fans of Burns’ work – people like Marquet, Dawson and myself for whom Black Hole was a revelation – will leave the exhibition with a deeper understanding of his art and his recurring visual obsessions. Newcomers, on the other hand, who hear “black hole” and think of the astronomical phenomenon rather than the comic, will surely come away as fans. And everyone, fans and newcomers alike, will be haunted by the grotesque beauty, the alluring weirdness that could only have come from Burns’ masterful brushwork.

Charles Burns: Posters and Prints can be viewed at Partners and Son, 618 S 6th St., September 9 through October 16. An opening reception will be held on September 9 from 6 to 9 p.m. Burns’ share of proceeds from the exhibit will be donated to Philabundance and the Youth Art and Empowerment Project.

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