INTERVIEW AND PORTRAIT BY SAMMY HARKHAM
harles Burns is the author and artist behind uncannily creepy comic books like Black Hole, Big Baby, and Skin Deep. In his work, he’s created a world that feels like an eerie parallel to those of David Lynch and some of Lovecraft. It’s reality, tweaked and menacing and always just familiar enough to feel almost plausible. His best-known work is Black Hole, which tells the story of a group of teenagers who become infected with a horrible disease that causes disgusting mutations, rendering them outcasts who shun society and hide out in the woods. It’s a perfect allegory for the awkwardness and alienation of adolescence. It’s sort of like Dazed & Confused on a permanent dose of white blotter, like one of those never-coming-down bad trips made real. It’s a classic.
The first installment of Burns’s new book, X’ed Out, was just released. Like all of his work before, it juxtaposes the real with the otherworldly. This time, Burns’s own rememberings of his time as a punk rocker/pretentious art-school kid alternate with a surreal complementary story line in which a Tintin-ish character wanders through a Burroughs-esque city of monsters, intrigue, and paranoia. Waiting for volume 2 is going to be tough.
Sammy Harkham, who interviews Burns here, is one of the most talented and original voices of the comics generation that appeared after Burns and his peers. Sammy’s ongoing book series, Crickets, tells stories that veer from the weird to the historical to the personal and realist, all connected by deep humanity and wit. Harkham is also responsible for the comics anthology Kramers Ergot, which is the best regularly published thing of its type since the glory days of RAW in the early 80s, which—hey, look at the threads coming together here!—was a showcase for the work of Charles Burns.
The independent-comics world is a strange ongoing saga of peers, rivalries, and hierarchies. It would make a great soap opera if the players were a little less pale and slumped. But Sammy and Charles are, luckily, friends and mutual admirers. Here is what they had to say to each other over the phone last month.
Vice: How do you start a project like X’ed Out? And, you know, this is a question I’ve always had about Black Hole as well. Do you begin with a heavy outline?
Charles Burns: With Black Hole, and with this book as well, there was a skeletal outline. I mean, there’s a complexity [in these books], and if I want to have an important image that shows up early and doesn’t get resolved until much later in the book, I need to figure out how that’s going to work. Like in Black Hole—plot threads that get introduced early on don’t get resolved until the middle of the book.
But the way that I work is also open-ended enough that there’s room to explore new ideas as they come to me. I guess the best way to describe it is that I know the story, and I’m working out how to tell that story.
I would assume that, like most cartoonists, you take a long time to complete the whole thing and that new ideas might be popping up or you might be changing as a person as you go.
With X’ed Out, my original plan was to do a story about my life in the late 70s, when I was involved in the world of punk rock. And, you know, there were a couple of false starts there. I was initially doing this black-and-white story, and it was rendered in a very similar way to Black Hole and I was just not happy. I was looking at this work like, “This is awful.” Anytime you have that feeling, it means you should tear up those pages and start again. So there were two or three false starts before I really wanted to have some way of pushing myself into unknown territory. One of the things that was helpful was taking on a color book, with two major plot threads—one that takes place in this more cartoony Tintin sort of world, and then another thread that’s much more in my typical…
Grounded, let’s say. More reality based.
More typical of the world that I look at.
So was it a eureka moment of, like, “Oh, color”? Once you introduce color it changes how you write.
It certainly does that. But, kind of backing up a little bit, the way I work is I write and write and write and just keep notebooks—crappy notebooks so I don’t feel intimidated about filling them up with ballpoint-pen scrawlings.
So you write in text at first?
Primarily, yeah. There are usually a few little visual notes here and there, but it’s mainly just text. I compile all my ideas and do my best not to censor myself in any way. I just let anything enter into it. And what I found myself doing was taking all these notes on this kind of Tintin character and also doing all this work on this punk story. And so the eureka moment was combining those two threads. When I was thinking, “Tintin, of course, that kind of Franco-Belgian album format,” full-color books came to mind. And that was something that was very fun to do. As you mentioned, when you work in color you have this whole new set of tools for telling a story. And I didn’t want to just do a colorized version of my black-and-white work.
Endpapers from Black Hole #11, 2003
Was it daunting to have this huge palette opened up to you?
It wasn’t daunting. There are things that you can achieve with color that you simply can’t do with black and white. There are ways of telling the story where you can suggest mood or you can have key colors.
In addition to the Tintin motif running through X’ed Out, there are also recurring references to Burroughs and his idea of Interzone. Was he someone you were thinking about when you were writing? I know that you’ve talked about him being an influence on you in the past.
It’s not so much in the writing itself, but more how he influenced me during a specific time in my life. The protagonist is a reflection on who I was and what I was thinking. In the late 70s I was reading a lot of Burroughs, and I was suddenly involved in punk-rock culture—kind of wholeheartedly embracing it. Burroughs really fit into that worldview. His kind of dark humor and the clarity of his writing really impressed me. When I was starting work on this book, I reread a lot of his pieces that I hadn’t read for years. It was interesting to revisit that and reflect on his work now that I’m a middle-aged guy as opposed to a twentysomething dude.
Was it partly to get yourself back into the headspace of that character?
A little bit of that, yeah. I mean, I’m showing this character who’s fairly naive, and he’s getting up and doing a kind of spoken-word performance piece, and I wanted it to feel kind of naive. I think that there’s a certain age at which a lot of people embrace writers like Burroughs, and then they kind of internalize that sort of work. So, yeah, I wanted to have this art student who wants to do Burroughs-inspired spoken-word pieces. I actually included some cut-up writings from Burroughs in the text as well.
You worked on Black Hole for ten years. Did you feel completely spent afterward? Like, emptied out of every idea you’ve ever had? I find that as soon as I’m asked to do another story after I’ve just finished something, my first impulse is to almost do the exact same thing because my head is still there.
Right, and like I was saying before, the first attempts on this story really did feel like I was falling back on what I was comfortable with in Black Hole. When I was done with that book, I intentionally took on a couple of projects that had nothing to do with comics. I was asked to do this animated movie, and I took it on for a couple of reasons. Partly, I wanted to get out of my little studio that I’d been sitting in for so long and do something that was collaborative. And I wanted to go work in Paris for a little bit, that was a highlight as well. There was a number of cartoonists who were involved in the movie project who I knew and liked their work. I guess it was like pushing myself out into a world that was really not something that I knew or was comfortable with. So that was good. I also did a little photo book during that time.
And then did a time come when you said to yourself, “OK, enough time has passed. I’m going to sit down and come up with something”?
I did that, yeah. There’s this feeling, this frustration sometimes, when you’re not actually working and producing something—where you’re in that stage of formulating ideas but you actually just want to work. You know, you want to be involved with the process.
Even though there were a couple of false starts because you felt like you were harking back to Black Hole too much, there are elements in X’ed Out, like a couple visual motifs that you’ve played with for a long time and certain looks for characters, that feel familiar in a nice way. It’s definitely not a sequel to Black Hole, but we can immediately tell that we’re in your universe.
Oh, yeah. Most artists, most cartoonists, most writers come back to the themes that are important to them. There are people who, in some way, write the same story over and over again. I’m not quite doing that, but there are certainly things that bubble up to the surface—influences and ideas that keep coming back again and again.
Front cover of Black Hole #4, 1997 How do you feel about having the first part of this story released when you still have so much more work to do? Will the response to the first episode have any bearing on where you go from here in terms of the story?
I think that I’ve reached a stage in my life where—at least hopefully—I’ve been able to put blinders on enough that I’m not influenced by the immediate response. I guess I would feel bad if every single review I read and every person I talked to said, “This is a pile of shit.” You know, that would make me feel bad.
Or if everyone kept using the same terms to describe it, like, “Well, it’s very dense, Charles.”
I try to trust my instincts and trust my ability to put together a story.
What is your daily schedule like? Do you keep regular hours for your work?
Pretty much, but I still do other projects that come in. I have a show that’s coming up in Paris, so I’ve been gathering a portfolio of prints for them. But yeah, I sit down and write every day, one way or another. Sometimes I’m sitting there looking at notes and then looking at a blank page in front of me and nothing is coming. And then there are the days when the writing starts flowing. I can’t ever totally predict it. But I do sit down every day and make an attempt at writing, that’s for sure.
So as much as you know what the structure of X’ed Out will be, you still have to come up with ways to get it out?
It goes back to knowing the story and then finding a way of telling that story. That’s the hard part. I’m sure that you’ve been around people who can tell an amazing story and you’re just transfixed, and then you can hear someone try to retell the same story and it’s like, my God, let me out of here.
Then there’s someone like Dan Clowes, who’s says that he’ll be working on a story and as soon as he realizes what the story is actually “about,” he’ll see what he’s tapping into as far as his own life, and it kind of stops him. He loses interest in it. But, anyway, what else, Charles? What else can we talk about?
Let’s see, one of the two questions I get the most is, “What about the Black Hole movie?”
I’m acquainted with a lot of film people since I live in LA, and Black Hole does come up. I don’t know if that’s because they know I’m a cartoonist, and so they talk to me about it, but Black Hole is like the golden ring. Everyone wants to write a script of it. Everyone wants to make it. Everyone’s tried to do a draft. And you’re not really involved in any of that, right? Like, you don’t care?
It’s not a matter of “I don’t care,” but when I was done with the book and there was that period where I could have tried to write a script myself, I made a decision not to. I mean, I certainly would be involved as far as offering opinions, but as far as direct involvement… I just wanted to move ahead. I didn’t want to spin my wheels with a project that may or may not ever happen.
Right, you never know with movies.
But I do know that I can sit down at my table and draw a new comic. I know that that’s possible, even if I were to just end up walking across the street and photocopying it at the little copy place, I know that I can come up with something.
You’ve done some set design too, right?
Yeah, it was for the Mark Morris Dance Group. I worked on this thing called The Hard Nut. My official title was concept designer, I think. I did drawings and worked on some of the ideas behind this dance, which was an updated version of The Nutcracker. This is kind of mind-blowing, but it’s been 20 years since I did that. It’s going to be performed again at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this holiday season.
I haven’t seen it in years and years, so I’m actually going to go see it. That should be fun.
Front cover of Nitnit #3, 2010OK. So, here we go: When do we see the next book?
Oh Jesus Christ. No, sorry.
People want to know.
I’m slightly over halfway through with the second book. How’s that?
There’s a frustration where I’ve just been back here in my studio for a couple of days and my time has been spent taking care of all the various little things like emails. I won’t really be back to work for a couple more weeks. But I’ve got pages waiting for me, so that’s good.
You’ve been living in Philadelphia for a long time.
My wife teaches at Tyler School of Art, so that was the reason we moved here way back when.
And do you like it?
Yes. I like big, decaying East Coast cities. It feels right.
Are you engaged with what other people are doing in comics right now?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m always interested in everything that’s out there, and I actively look for good work. I haven’t quite reached that bah-humbug stage yet in my life.
When you were first starting to do comics, there was a certain vibe of mid-50s Americana in your work. Even looking at X’ed Out today it still seems so true.
The style of my artwork as well as my way of telling stories did come out of the kind of work that I grew up liking and kind of emulating—imitating certain kinds of line quality. By the time I was working on Black Hole, there was something much more personal there, something where I wanted to tell stories that were more character driven and not so much about comics per se, or about a certain style.
Cover of the Yo-Yo’s “The Time of Your Life”/“Seven Shades of Blue” single, Sub Pop, 2000 Front cover of Johnny 23, 2010
Not about ironically playing with a certain notion of Americana.
Right. Black Hole is about a disease that affects teenagers, and about the lives of those particular characters. In some way, the other elements are incidental. I mean, of course it plays an important role, but it’s not just about, you know, an STD that deforms teenagers. That’s not what the story is about. The story is about characters who are struggling with their adolescence and finding their way through that portion of their life.
There’s a certain well of pop culture that you go to for inspiration: horror movies, Godzilla movies, old comic books…
There’s work that I grew up with and looked at and internalized. It is still in my subconscious, and I pay attention to that part of myself, and those images come through. For example, I looked at Tintin books when I was really, really young—before I could even read—and so there were elements of the stories that I didn’t understand the relevance of. In The Secret of the Unicorn there’s one scene where Tintin is down in this basement. He’s been kidnapped. He wakes up and there’s this intercom that’s stuck on the wall. And in my mind, I had no idea what an intercom was, but I could tell that there was a voice balloon coming from this little hole in the wall.
It seemed like this kind of disembodied mouth that was stuck into this wall, and it really took on a creepy feel. And so X’ed Out is not about Tintin, but it’s certainly about my reaction to some of those images that I internalized at that point in my life.
Do you have older siblings? How were you seeing Tintin before you could read?
I had an older sister, but my dad was interested in comics. He went to the bookstore and the library every week and picked me up these American editions of Tintin. There were six of them that were published in the early 60s, or late 50s, and I’ve yet to run into another American cartoonist of my generation who even had any knowledge of those books. I guess the distribution wasn’t very good. .