At the juncture of fiction and memory, of cheap thrills and horror, lies the dark world of Charles Burns' art. His stories, appearing in alternative comics such as RAW since the early 1980s, take comic book cliches - wiseacre kids, sinister scientists and tough-as-nails detectives - and rearrange them into disturbing yet funny patterns. Beneath this interplay of familiar iconography lurks the real traumas of childhood, traumas of loss and alienation.

Similarly, Burns' ice-cold artwork polishes a "conventional" comics look to the nth degree, underlining the artificiality of what we take for normal. At times, Burns' work suggests that our worst fears about mainstream comics are true: that they are stamped out by machines programmed by someone who is slowly going insane.

Recently, Burns has branched out, becoming one of independent comics' most notable writer/artists. He helped design a ballet based on The Nutcracker, did a cover for Time and produced a nightmarish cover for Iggy Pop's album Brick By Brick. He has also steered his unusual weekly comic strip into new markets, exposing hordes of unsuspecting readers to the joys of demented deities, inadvertent sex-change operations and dead kids who won't stay dead.

Charles Burns lives in Philadelphia with his wife, painter Susan Moore, and their two young daughters. It's a cliche, but Burns does seem jovial and down-to-earth, not at all the lost soul his stories might suggest. At the same time, he shies away from deconstructing his art; as he makes clear, he would prefer that readers delve beneath his work's seductive surface alone.

DARCY SULLIVAN: You were born in Washington, DC.
Wasn't your Dad a serviceman?
CHARLES BURNS: He was an oceanographer, working for the government. I can't describe much about his job.
SULLIVAN: Did you move around much?
BURNS: Yeah... I spent a majority of time growing up in Seattle. Before that, I lived in Boulder, Colorado, Maryland and Missouri.
SULLIVAN: How old were you when you settled in Seattle?
BURNS: Fifth grade, I guess. Somewhere around 1965.
SULLIVAN: What kind of place was Seattle to grow up in? BURNS: Well, I was lucky enough to have kind of a nice neighborhood with woods around. I wasn't living downtown - suburbs isn't the right word, but it was the nice part of town.
SULLIVAN: Did your Mom work, too?
BURNS: No, she didn't.
SULLIVAN: Did you have brothers and sisters?
BURNS: I have one older sister, three years older than me.
SULLIVAN: When did you get interested in comics?
BURNS: As far back as I can remember. Before I could read; I just liked picking up stuff. My father also had an interest in them, and would bring back books from the library, anthologies of Pogo and Li'l Abner, that kind of stuff. I would look at them and somehow they struck a chord. He had the paperback anthologies of the early Kurtzman MAD, so that had an effect on me. Also, very early on, I had very early American editions of Herge's Tintin. They must have been fairly obscure, because I don't hear too many people talking about them.
SULLIVAN: Were your parents pretty encouraging of your reading that type of thing; did they mind at all?
BURNS: They weren't encouraging, but they weren't discouraging. I would be able to look at stuff that I wanted to, for the most part, and not have it thought of as trash that should be thrown out. I mean, I had friends who, if a comic book was in the house, it got thrown out. The backlash from the '50s was still present. And I remember my father kind of checking out what I was bringing home. But there wasn't really much that you could buy that was deviant.
SULLIVAN: Were there any kinds of comics they frowned on?
BURNS: Later on, in the early '60s, I picked up the old monster magazines. They didn't frown on them, but they were like, "Ecch, maybe you have too many of these:" It wasn't any big deal. If they were concerned, they didn't make it that clear to me. I could pretty much get what I wanted to.
SULLIVAN: What type of stuff were you buying?
BURNS: By the time I started buying stuff myself, it was just the normal fare. MAD magazine and superhero stuff like Batman and whatever was out there. I would look for anything that looked cool. And at the time, there wasn't that much.
SULLIVAN: Did you read Creepy and Eerie?
BURNS: Yeah, later I read that stuff, too. I think I had one issue of Creepy or something like that torn up, but that was the extent of it. "I don't want you reading this garbage!"
SULLIVAN: How about the schlocky reprint books that were often quite gory? Like Weird?
BURNS: I had friends who bought those, but I was kind of repelled by those. Now I find some occasionally and I can enjoy them for whatever they are, but back then I thought my friends didn't have any taste. You know, "This isn't the good stuff."
SULLIVAN: Did you have an appreciation of artists at that time?
BURNS: Oh, yeah; absolutely. There was a look, a style of artwork that I liked. The things that affected me the most were the reprints in MAD. They really blew me away - looking at Bill Elder's stuff and how everything was thrown in deep shadow, how it was put together. There was, for me, this very creepy atmosphere. You look at it now and it's lighthearted and funny, but back then it seemed kind of creepy. I always liked the atmosphere of it. In a way, you get affected more by the atmosphere of [Elder's] strips than by the way he drew a face or anything like that.
SULLIVAN: Were there superhero artists that you enjoyed?
BURNS: I wasn't so aware of that. I always liked the kind of bad Bob Kane Batman - the shading and the shadowy characters. I always liked the cartoony stuff rather than the more serious, more realistic look.
SULLIVAN: How about artists in the newspaper strips?
BURNS: I don't remember being affected that much. I really liked Chester Gould's Dick Tracy. That was one of