El Borbah shows how tough he is. Artist: Charles Burns.


Original medium: Comic book
Published in: Raw
First Appeared: 1983
Creator: Charles Burns
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El Borbah isn't exactly a superhero. But then, he isn't exactly not a superhero, either. And he isn't exactly a Mexican wrestler, but he looks a lot like one. One of the ways he resembles a superhero is in the fact that Mexican wrestlers have a tendency to make themselves look sort of like superheroes, complete with full-face mask. As to what he actually is, exactly — that's a little hard to say. A tough-talking, tough-acting, extra-noir-style private detective, perhaps? Maybe, but he isn't a whole lot like a private …

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… detective either, at least one who operates in a realistic world — or a world like the one inhabited by most fictional private detectives, for that matter.

Whatever he is, El Borbah is the unique creation of cartoonist Charles Burns, whose other work includes the graphic novel Black Hole. Burns introduced his character in "Robot Love", which appeared in a 1983 edition of Raw magazine, the anthology of avant garde comic book work founded and edited by Art Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly. Raw's most prominent contribution to the world of comics is Spiegelman's own Maus.

El Borbah is a tough guy — a tough guy like Gladstone Gander is lucky. That is, in him, toughness rises to the level of a super power, like that of Fearless Fosdick, who shrugs off holes going clear through his body, so readers can see daylight on the other side, as mere flesh wounds. Similarly, El Borbah can calmly regard a wound that readers just saw go all the way through his shoulder and out the other side, and tell the perpetrator it's lucky he didn't hit any vital organs, because then he'd have been really peeved. His dialog peppered with gratuitous insults and extravagant threats, El Borbah toughs his way through a landscape that includes corpsicles revived into cloned baby bodies, clubs for wealthy perverts that offer opportunities to throw pies at helpless women, megalomaniacs who plot to take over the world by impregnating unsuspecting fertility clinic customers with fifth columnists, and similar bizarre atrocities.

Under the rubric "Defective Stories", each accompanied by a false cover purporting to package the story like an old pulp magazine, Burns placed five "El Borbah" stories in Raw over the next three years. In 1988, Pantheon Books (Peanuts, Jimmy Corrigan), an imprint of Random House Publishing, collected all five in a book titled Hard-Boiled Defective Stories. In 2005, Fantagraphics Books (Prince Valiant, Little Orphan Annie) re-collected the same material into a volume simply called El Borbah.

Burns hasn't revisited El Borbah since the 1980s.


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Text ©2010 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Charles Burns.