Reviewed by Gerard Elson
It’s been a big twelve months for Tim Burton. Tim Burton: The Exhibition drew record crowds during seasons at both New York’s MoMA and Melbourne’s ACMI, and his visually brillig (though otherwise rote) Alice in Wonderland became just the sixth film in history to pass the billion dollar mark at the global box office. In an unlikely turn of events, the hermetic pop auteur was also appointed head juror for the Cannes International Film Festival (where his panel had the acumen to award Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s exquisite Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives the Palme d’Or).
Now, just in time to catch last-minute festive shoppers comes a final serving of Burton for 2010: Faber’s ‘Christmas’ re-issue of his 1997 book of illustrated verse, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories.
I first came to Oyster Boy as a socially hopeless teen – back in the late 1990s, when few other people in my small-town highschool knew or cared about Burton or his work. On its pages I met a carnival of spiritual siblings, tremulously rendered in ink and pen. Now, of course, they’re recognisable variations of Burton’s archetypal ‘noble tragic’ – a stoic vision of adolescent torment, as typified by his most perfect creation: Edward Scissorhands.
Where the grotesque youths of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Henrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter were intended as mirrors – and caveats – for crude and disobedient kids, the dejected figures of Oyster Boy, are, in the main, guilty of nothing save for their wryly metaphoric disfigurements. In many cases, they still meet undeservingly cruel ends (Oyster Boy himself is swallowed as a last-ditch aphrodisiac by his own shamed and impotent father), or quietly resolve themselves to Sisyphean suffering (‘Life isn’t easy/for The Pin Cushion Queen/When she sits on her throne/pins push through her spleen’). Yet they never complain, nor seem embittered, nor seek to settle the score. If they teach us anything, it’s that though life often sucks and other people can be jerks, there’s dignity in not allowing the injustice of it all to corrode your spirit or compromise your character.
The book is comprised of 24 character cameos, largely authored in simple poetical verse and illustrated in Burton’s distinctive Edward Gorey-via-Quentin Blake linework. Stainboy, the pint-sized would-be superhero whose only discernible gift is the ability to leave a greasy blemish wherever he treads, is an embodiment of Burton’s frustrations with the scuppered Superman Lives, a movie project he devoted a year to immediately prior to the book’s initial publication. Elsewhere, we meet Robot Boy, the abject upshot of his mother’s ‘unholy alliance’ with a microwave blender; and Roy the Toxic Boy, a carcinogenic tot with a fatal allergy to the great outdoors. Voodoo Girl’s pin-punctured heart, just like Edward’s scissor hands, is a perfect optical allegory for the eternal Catch-22 of the retiring outcast (‘if someone gets too close to her/the pins stick farther in.’). Stick Boy and Match Girl are star-crossed young lovers (‘could a flame ever burn/for a match and a stick?’), and Melonhead is a miserable man/fleshy fruit mutant consumed by suicide fantasies.
Given his career-long affinity for put-upon outsiders, it’s easy to accuse Burton of solipsism. But characters like Melonhead – who, unlike most of his Oyster Boy kin, is the cause of his own unhappiness – make it clear he’s not one for wallowing in self-pity. (And after all, we saw how well that worked out for Sweeney Todd…) The MoMA/ACMI exhibition proved that Burton continues to maintain a febrile prolificacy, sketchpad and watercolours seemingly ever in-hand. And it’s precisely because so many of his Oyster Boy characters seem conduits for his own personal catharsis that they manage to strike such a chord. Like the best of his film work, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories finds universality through idiosyncrasy.
It must be said, however, that it’s hard not to approach this re-issue of Oyster Boy as anything more than a cynical cash grab. Ignore the festive dust jacket. The volume contained only four Yule-inspired pieces when it was first published in 1997, and that’s no different in 2010. Had the publisher wished to capitalise on Burton’s recent cultural ubiquity – not to mention his enduring status as the Grinch-with-heart’s Christmas adjunct of choice (cf. Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns and the Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas) – they might have inspired more good faith by seeking rights to publish a new holiday-themed collection of his picture and verse work, mined from the exhibition’s copious content. Trimming Oyster Boy in tinsel (well, there’s a Christmas stocking on the jacket spine, with two of those four aforementioned festive pieces decking either side of the cover) is both disingenuous to readers who might be seeking a seasonally-themed stocking-filler, as well as off-putting to those wishing to add Burton’s tome to their personal library on its own merit. (‘Why does it look like a Christmas book?,’ I imagine unimpressed teens grilling mystified parents on December 25.)
Needless to say, your own feelings about Burton’s signature strain of darkly lighthearted wit will determine whether the book is for you. If you’ve been disenchanted with his recent spate of hired-gun film work (the sublime Sweeney Todd is arguably the lone passion project of his last handful of films) but have never met Stain Boy, Staring Girl, Jimmy the Hideous Penguin Boy and co., don’t be deterred. Deceitful new cover art notwithstanding, Faber’s new edition of Oyster Boy is a timely reminder of what first made the world fall in love with the timid, shock-headed Poe fan from Burbank all those years ago.
Gerard Elson authors the film blog celluloid tongue. On occasion, his writings appear elsewhere too. He’s the DVD specialist at Readings St Kilda, as well as Ms LiteraryMinded‘s lesser half stupendously generous, intelligent and lovely partner. [nb: LM edits guest posts, sometimes including the bio.]