Comics can be strange. Rich men processing their grief by dressing up as a bat, pummeling street thugs and adopting an orphan/sidekick. Perfectly logical, right? And that is one of the more “grounded” examples. One of the sources of richness within the medium has long been the play between creators who favor naturalism versus absurdity. Coming down squarely in the latter camp is Bob Burden who dreamt up one of the most surreal series in comics’ history: Flaming Carrot Comics. Chronicling the mundane and outrageous adventures of its titular hero, Burden crafted a book that defies reason. Narratives would take sharp left-turns or, in some cases, drop-off entirely. Plot points from decades ago remain dangling to this day. Like his fellow absurdist Steve Gerber, Burden’s strengths as a storyteller did not include long-term plotting. Where Burden’s talent did shine, however, was writing and illustrating one of the funniest, most odd-ball comics ever published. Also, like Gerber, Burden’s output has retained its edge over two decades later.
It is rather apt that the Flaming Carrot’s creation was quasi-accidental. In the prose piece “The Flaming Retrospective!” (Flaming Carrot Comics #24, 1990), Burden discusses the semi-aimless life he lived after moving to Atlanta in 1976. He gives the impression of being a bit of a schemer, hatching various money-making opportunities (writing a Sheena screenplay, forming a distributor of B-movies) which never went anywhere. At the same time, he was taking advantage of the pre-speculator days of fandom when many pieces of comics history could be found inexpensively, if one looked long enough, which is exactly what he did. Burden roamed the city’s thrift stores and flea markets in search of a bargain. Burden is a bit elusive on the subject of how he earned actual income, implying that he profited from all these collectable purchases. He admits that it made talking up women in bars awkward. Sometimes, when the inevitable question of occupation arose, he would make up something ridiculous like “I sold guns to the Indians and left it at that.” All in all, Burden paints his post-college life as a care-free, lackadaisical period.
This extends to his recollections on the birth of the Flaming Carrot. One night he returned home to discover his roommate Lamar Waldron hard at work on Waldron’s contribution for the debut issue of a small-press fanzine (“or direct market book, if you will”) Visions. Waldron had been laboring on the same splash page for a week, and so, in the spirit of competition (sigh, men), Burden decides to make his own eight page story in a single sitting. Burden picked the Flaming Carrot at random from the several ideas he had been entertaining but never developed. From his inception, the character’s emphasis was on the ridiculous. His outfit was made so outlandish that most fans do not think twice about it. (Why wear flippers? Why not?) Waldron accepted the story for publication, which meant that Burden’s first published comic tale appeared under a Neal Adams cover and alongside a Jim Steranko interview. Oh, and the finished version of Waldron’s contribution. Regardless, the year was 1979 and a hero for the ages was born.
The initial Flaming Carrot tales are rough (both narratively and visually) but its unique tone is there from the start. Over time, Burden refined his style, as the character moved through various independent publishers. The Flaming Carrot bounced from Visions to Aardvark-Vanaheim to Renegade to Dark Horse. Dark Horse would be Flaming Carrot’s longest running home (#18-31, 1988-94), though, the book would fail in adopting much of a regular release schedule. Burden never grew out of his millions of ideas phase and would continue pursuing projects (some related to Flaming Carrot, some not) that would often detour into dead ends. Still it is during this period that Burden hit his heights as a creator.
One favored narrative device of Burden’s was “day in the life” setups which allowed the Carrot to aimlessly meander about his home of Iron City. Such segments gave Burden the freedom to filter the mundane side of life through his surreal lens. In #24, Flaming Carrot wakes up next to a giant size pencil and laying on top of a plate of leftover spaghetti. A TV blares “some nameless soap opera” featuring a man being controlled by his alien hair transplants. The narrator observes that the Carrot’s possesses a toaster once owned by Lyndon Johnson. In #28, he wakes up besides the pool of an Econo Lodge, which gives him the chance to give out his card to some bathing beauties (“Do not call the zip code.”). (More than once the lifestyle choices of the hero seem to reflect those of his creator). Over the next few pages, Burden depicts Flaming Carrot’s everyday activities. Many of these are one panel snapshots such as “12:58–Feed ducks!” and “2:25 –Kids running down Lumber Street with 45 RPM records on their ears . . .” Usually some caper would develop, drawing the Carrot into even zanier scenarios. Through it all, the Flaming Carrot maintains the same non-plussed, can-do attitude. His determined, if at times dim, personality is one of the most engaging aspects of the book.
One of the key elements in the Flaming Carrot’s success is Burden’s artwork. Often when an artist works in a cartoonish style, the result is an emphasis on the wacky aspects of the story. Burden takes an opposite approach, presenting the Carrot’s exploits as matter-of-factly as possible. All the absurdity from Uncle Billy’s mail order jungle bride to a dog with trousers to a visit from the Man in the Moon are treated like everyday events. Even the Carrot’s own outlandish appearance goes little remarked upon by the citizens of the fair city. The result is a visual equivalent of deadpan which only strengthens the humor. Burden has quite a fertile imagination along with the necessary artistic skills to portray it on the page. His stories are full of the perplexing, odd and ridiculous, all rendered with his precise, clear line work. While his narratives might take many twists and turns, the art keeps the tone consistent throughout the story. At the same time, Burden’s illustrations deserve an honored place in comics’ Surrealism Hall of Fame.
The Dark Horse years are also noteworthy as Burden’s most high profile due to gaining permission from Mirage Studios to borrow their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The crossover (#25-7) could have been a cash grab (the finale even features a Todd McFarlane cover), but instead is one of Burden’s wildest romps. It helps that the Turtles are a rather surreal concept themselves, so their sharing space with the Flaming Carrot feels completely natural. Essentially Raphael grows intrigued by the concept of “adult” and decides to leave the sewers and observe some in their natural habitat. He comes across some Vague Dudes who zap him with an amnesia ray. Luckily the Carrot is on the scene to lend a hand. One bread advertisement and pair of plungers later and Raphael is rechristened The Dark Avenger. They join up with Flaming Carrot’s fellow Mysterymen (a motley assortment of blue-collar heroes and Burden’s best side project). Eventually the other Turtles notice Raphael’s absence and go searching for him. In the end everyone gets swept up in the latest diabolical plan from The Evil Umpires.
The Evil Umpires are one of Burden’s most inspired concepts. Essentially they are malicious performance artists in search of ever outlandish pranks. Their membership draws from “mental health halfway houses, college art schools and failing garage bands.” Their escapades include filling in the crack in the Liberty Bell, placing a two-headed cow on Alabama’s State Highway Commission and stealing all the chairs in Lubbock, Texas. Also, their leader hosted Saturday Night Live once. Their current plan involves using Frankenstein’s head (recently escaped from the Natural History Museum) and rockets to steal the Umpire Empire State Building. And yes, they dress in full umpire regalia. What else did you expect?
The Turtles crossover could have been an overstuffed mess; indeed, Burden had to go back to Mirage for permission to extend it to three issues after the script for the second ran way too long. Instead, it is an impressive showcase for all of Burden’s skills. It contains plenty of his zany antics and odd-ball humor. His art is full of imaginative designs and visual gags. It even has a rollicking, action packed finish.
Burden ceased producing regular Flaming Carrot stories after #31 appeared in 1994. The character remained at Dark Horse but only popped up sporadically. In 2004, the Carrot bounced one more time to Image who published a four issue limited series, plus a one-shot with photographs for illustrations. The Photo Comic Special is sadly an instance where Burden’s talent does not overcome the gimmick, resulting in a rather lackluster endeavor. No new issues have appeared since then. Burden’s voice is one of the most unique in the history of the medium and it would be a shame for it to remain silent. Surely he still has plenty of ideas rolling around in that delightfully demented mind of his.