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The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories

posted by Mel. on 4/17/01

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.

To the pop culture layman, the casual geek, the media prig and the erudite mumblings of critics anywhere in the civilized world, this seminal picture marked the official beginnings of Tim Burton's weird spread of genius poison through the mundane production landscape of Hollywoodland. Those in the know can usually pop off a few retread hairballs about Frankenweenie and Vincent as well as Burton's dubious beginnings as a drafting board jockey at Disney for the sake of good party impressions, but there's a lot about everyone's favorite creep that goes unchecked by common knowledge.

For instance, everyone knows that Burton has--as Entertainment Weekly or Greg Kinnear would put it--a "thing" for death. That he likes his movies dark. That he has an affinity for tragic and Byronic cinema built around spectacular freaks, often meticulously crafting twists on tired formulas of good and evil by making the milquetoast majority out to be the antagonists of the respective piece.

After that, you have people who know that Burton styled his magnificent screenplay for Edward Scissorhands after his own experiences as a young college ghoul in conservative bastions of expression like Valencia and Burbank. They know that Burton toes the line of commonlaw marriage with girlfriend Lisa Marie. They also know that there is, and will never be a "Presley" after the aforementioned name.

If you make a tiny incision and draw back that layer of tissue, you'll find fans closer to the core. Not necessarily the diehards, but people who can point out where Danny Elfman is standing in the Penguin-pelting scene from Batman Returns, wherein a mob of Burton's common dullards turn on their freakish icon and bombard him with vegetables. They know who Denise DiNovi is and what a significant role she's played in championing Burton's artistic sideshows. They can sketch a timeline of collaborations with such Burton principles as the incomparable Jeffrey Jones, Paul Reubens, Glen Shadix and their ilk.

And they also tend to know a thing or two about the chemical beauty of Tim Burton's more poetic side.

Burton's brain is a national treasure. Within the fine valleys and fleshy wrinkles of that grey matter wad lies something that has bypassed the concept of normalcy altogether en route to creating a cryptic legacy. Those who jumped on his bandwagon for Batman and Scissorhands then fell flat on their faces after Batman Returns and Mars Attacks! are quick to snipe about how formulaic his look and the essence of his films are, but so it goes with the brittle adulation of the brainless.

Those who really and truly enjoy what Tim Burton does don't get off on comparing the musical themes of Pee-Wee and the Red Triangle Circus Gang; they don't wring their hands after a commercialized bomb and they don't buy into the hype. Clockwork and likewise, this is the exact reason why Burton's poetry is still the trump card of those who savor the fruits of his malignant machinery--even with the come and go of his "name" value, his writings are still too edgy for the mediocrity of the media. Reading The Nightmare Before Christmas is like getting a cocaine dose of Dr. Seuss snorted right into your cerebral cortex. In terms less serrated, it's the real stuff--no homogonized studio fiddling, no advertising campaigns, no snipping and taping in the editing room. As with the best fringe lunatics, what comes from Burton's brain bubbles and corrodes itself right to the surface of his acidic anecdotes and cyanide prose.

The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy, released in '97, is the first commercial collection of Burton poetry. Its injection into the market barely made a ripple on many radars, due both to rarity of printing and the fact that a lot of mainstream peddlers were reticent to stock what they felt was certainly a 'specialty title' without best-seller staying power. Burton was enjoying a routine crucifixtion to the media question mark for his godawful misstep in the execution of Mars Attacks!; bloated, aimlessly authored and choking half to death on star power, the flick came off more like Burton's official fuck-off to the Hollywood power production than the films that preceded it.

Like a kid with a nuclear warhead, Burton had hit his commercial peak of clout; the studio honchos apparently concluded that anyone else would have at least skimmed budget with the cast that Burton brought in for his spectacular bomb, but due to his unrelenting 'weirdness', Dark Tim had screwed them right into red tape bondage. Tim was stuffed in the doghouse with a freak stamp firmly affixed to his forehead, and the inkmark was still fresh when Oyster Boy made its debut.

Many people don't realize that this literary black spot wasn't the first one a Burton book was plugged with. Three years earlier, the unabridged publication of The Nightmare Before Christmas had drawn the hackles of and ire of a few politicking parent-interest groups for its macabre message and deliciously twisted drawings. The film it was based on may have been hailed as a pivotal piece of cinema for its resurrection of the slumbering stop-motion art and reaped a bounty crop at the box office, but the book itself settled nicely in half-off bins and bottom shelves at retailers everywhere. The commercial belly flop of the book wasn't a detriment to the overall fiscal success of the project considering the landslide of merchandise that Touchstone and Disney pumped into the market, but it remained an underappreciated casualty of yet another Mouse House steroid sales campaign.

Oyster Boy has enjoyed an inverse version of the same old love-hate relationship that exists between Burton and marketeers. On one side of the coin, Burton's usual casts of freaks and outsiders are a tough sell for the big financial returns; flipside, even the most stalwart studio fathead knows that he can draw from his fans. And after wading through obscurity for nearly four years, Oyster Boy has ripened in the public eye thanks to a sudden kick of lavish media attention for Burton's small productions starring several characters from the poetry collection. With a wry smirk and a funny little gleam in their eye that would make St. Nick puke, fairweather cinema icons like Roger Ebert can't help but to cluck their tongues and tell us all that "Tim Burton is at it again".


What Oyster Boy is, in the international language of the voluntary social exile, is geek love. Dedicated to Lisa Marie (As are many facets of Burton's other creations), the book is twenty-three poems based on an entire carnival of classic Dark Tim creations: Oyster Boy, the undesirable half-infant and half-bivalve title character, Roy the Toxic Boy, Voodoo Girl and others. The poems themselves range between simple two-line standards and entire verses, sharing in the reacurring themes of Burton's best work. Parents who damn the name of the callous God who saddled them with their malignant babies, peers who rail in horror, faceless authority figures whose disasterous direction and advice usually leads to gruesome outcomes.

Burton has a flawless ability to pick and choose his words. Oingo Boingo fans will easily understand his native tongue to come from the same underside nation as Elfman: laying waste to social order, the precious hypocrisy of man and the price of being a cultural cancer. Less is definitely more in the case of both men, but it doesn't matter--when you're as gifted at simplicity as conception, you can get away with it.

For instance:

The Pin Cushion Queen

Life isn't easy
for the Pin Cushion Queen.
When she sits on her throne
pins push through her spleen.

Each piece is accompanied by an original Burton drawing, simple watercolor and ink scrawlings that somehow manage to bleed soul through a bare two-dimensional design. Afficianados will be right at home with the style, and those who are uninitiated won't find it hard to recognize Burton's flair for minimalist madness. Ninety percent of eventual artistic design on his films come from notebooks of crude scribbles that aren't far off the mark of his finished sketches--not surprisingly, his poetic pacing is a perfect hand-in-six-fingered-hand companion to his visuals.

Ironic as it is, the translation of Oyster Boy's antiheroes to the much-balleyhooed Shockwave productions hasn't proven to be nearly as satisfying as the presentation of the poems themselves. Though it may be the most battered and threadbare cliche' of modern entertainment times, it still rings true here: the book is still better than the movies.

Burton has opted to base his serials around Stain Boy, a relatively minor accessory to Oyster Boy's bench of losers and outsiders. A standard Burton anti-hero, Stain Boy is routinely commissioned by the perpetually pissed off chief of the Burbank Police Force to bring his contemporaries to justice for punitive offenses: our first episode finds Stain Boy exploding Staring Girl's skull with a lamp shaped like a bunch of grapes. The second marks a decline as Stain Boy does battle with the putrid ozone of Roy the Toxic Boy, then picks up a bit more into a third piece that pits Stain Boy against a new villian, the mysterious Bowling Ball head.

The shorts are just that; anywhere from a minute to two minutes long, featuring a fitting look of stark animation and miniature scores by Elfman. The shorts aren't anywhere in the neighborhood of bad per se', they simply resonate with an oddly unsatisfying feeling. After such a brilliant and promising show of simple force on the paper page, the bells and whistles of moving pictures just don't add up.

If you don't have the book, go snag it. Set off a few black candles, zip open a pack of Djarums and let that brain juice flow--your repressed goth will pout like never before.


"My name is Jimmy, but my friends just call me 'the hideous penguin boy'."

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