The inner worlds of Charles Burns
With his strong imagery where profound unease meets platic perfection, Charles Burns is definitely an artist one recognizes at first sight. Often compared to David Lynch, he took a decade to complete Black Hole, and just brought to conclusion (with Sugar Skull) the trilogy that began with X'd out. From Burroughs to Tintin, portrait of a creator haunted by his obsessions.
Xavier Guilbert : Last time we met, it was after Black Hole was finished, and you had just published the first image of X’ed Out. Now, the last past of — I’ll call it “the Nitnit trilogy”.
Charles Burns : No one else knows how to — I refer to it that way. It sounds a little pompous, every time you use the word “trilogy”, but I can’t think of any other…
Xavier Guilbert : And that last part has been released late 2014.
Charles Burns : Yes, it came out in the Fall here, and I think at the same time in France.
Xavier Guilbert : So that’s what, three books over a four-year span ?
Charles Burns : They came out every two years.
Xavier Guilbert : So compared to the lengthy process that was Black Hole, you’ve been on a roll ?
Charles Burns : Well, nobody else thinks so, but it seems — I mean, the thing is, as far as the pages produced… it’s probably about the same, it’s just the fact that Black Hole was a longer book, and took a longer time to collect. But yeah… let’s say : here’s three books, three albums.
Xavier Guilbert : One of the main novelties, I’d say, is color. A couple of your books have been published in color — I’m thinking of two stories of Big Baby (Curse of the Mole Men and Blood Club).
Charles Burns : Yeah, that was an odd thing in that that was something that was offered to me, by Dennis Kitchen who was publishing at the time. The stories were created in black and white and meant to be in black and white, but it was like — oh, let’s try that. I used the kind of traditional blue line method, where you make transparencies of the black and white artwork and use a watercolor paper and paint the back of it. And I thought it would be kind of fun, but it wasn’t. I think I did maybe ten or fifteen — maybe about half the book, I painted. It was just taking forever and ever and ever. So I handed it off to another person that Dennis knew who did watercolors. At least there was a guide to the kind of way that I was painting it. And the second one was entirely painted by the other guy. The result, I wasn’t really happy with, to tell the truth. It’s just one of the things that I thought : okay, let’s try that and see how it looks.
Xavier Guilbert : In my opinion, it shows that it’s been thought and conceived as black and white, with the way you use black to express a lot things, from volume to lighting. And adding color kind of lessened that impact.
Charles Burns : I agree. I mean, again, for me, it was maybe just the novelty of like, let’s see how that works. Yes, it ends up being more like a colorized version of a beautiful version of a black and white movie. You know — that idea that : well, nobody likes black and white, let’s colorize it ! (laugh)
Xavier Guilbert : For the Nitnit trilogy, it seems that you really embraced color.
Charles Burns : Absolutely.
Xavier Guilbert : You’ve been using it for storytelling, such as a way to convey the different worlds within the story : the dream world, the past and the present, each with a different palette and different colors. In Black Hole, you were using the panel borders, with the squigly lines, to achieve the same result.
Charles Burns : Sure.
Xavier Guilbert : Obviously, there’s a reference to Tintin, so making it in full color was probably linked to that, but — how much time did you take to understand how color would work ?
Charles Burns : Well… I realized that I would be able to use color in the storytelling, in the narrative, in the same way — I’m trying to think of a good example. In the same ways that with comics, comics are different than prose, in that with prose, you’re describing textures and colors and atmospheres — you’re describing everything ; whereas in comics, you’re showing it. With color, you’ve got another level of things that you can show. You can — for example, in X’ed Out you’ve got the pink blanket, that’s a significant thing. I don’t have to write about “a pink blanket with cigarette burns on it”. I can show it, maybe you don’t know what it is the first time you see it, but there’s a repetitive — you see that come back again to the story, and your brain makes that link, I think, much faster. Just like : “pink, okay there’s that pink again” and that sort of thing. The same way, like with a deep red — I think, maybe one of the first time you see the protagonist’s potential girlfriend, she’s in the photo lab and there’s the right light of that. Yeah — those kinds of things reoccur, and they build on themselves. So the next time you see that, maybe in the back of your mind, you’ll think : okay, the other occasion we saw that particular color…
Xavier Guilbert : Basically, it’s extending something that was already present in your work. Looking at Black Hole, there are these kinds of recurring elements, be they shapes or… I’m thinking for example of the cut arm that is at the very beginning, and there are a lot of things evocative of that, building on and taking different meanings throughout the narrative as the story progresses. As the reader starts figuring out what is really happening, and how things fit together.
Charles Burns : Right. Things that are not necessarily explained, but — while you’re reading the story going through, maybe the first time you don’t remember that repetition ; maybe the third time you’re starting to pick up : “okay, there’s this…” So the images weave through, circle through. A lot of the themes are brought out in that way. Yeah, that’s — that’s how I work, how I write. Or trying to. (laugh)
Xavier Guilbert : Was it enjoyable to work with color ? Or had you to change your habits, since you’ve been working with black and white for so long ?
Charles Burns : Erm, yeah, it was one of the things where I wanted to push myself in a different direction and try that — and really, not do a colorized version but use color and integrate it into the story. The one thing that was kind of frustrating, is that I’m used to having imagery kind of emerge out of blackness — using a lot of ink and shadow. And with color, a lot of the drawing was much more open, you know — not as open as something like the clear line work of Hergé, or Joost Swarte, or Ever Meulen, or all the classic Franco-Belgian cartoonists. It’s not that open. But, on the other hand, to take advantage of the color and have some kind of luminescent color, I needed to leave it much more open. Where I could use a very deep color as the background instead of putting black in. There were things that I really had to think about, and adjust the way that I normally think about drawing.
Xavier Guilbert : Would you say that the dream world, with the hive, was more of a challenge for you ? Because that’s definitely the part of the story that’s the closest to the ligne claire.
Charles Burns : Well… I’ll say that the — it has more to do with the subject matter and the writing. For me, the emotional substance that’s in the more realistic story, that’s more difficult for me to draw, for me to — for me to kind of face, and think about. There’s something more enjoyable doing the kind of — the invention that takes place in the kind of fantasy world. Yeah, I just want to draw five more pages of — you know, the character Johnny 23 or Nitnit, I just want to see him walking through the desert, and… that’s kind of fun, that part. Drawing the guy meeting up with his girlfriend and seeing his son — that was like : “oh, shit !” (laugh) “how do I face this ?” Yeah, there’s those things. Of course, you know, in the Nitnit world, there’s some pretty dark moments as well, of course.
Xavier Guilbert : It’s interesting, because those aspects of the dream world were things that you had kind of put aside in Black Hole. I’m thinking about some of the stories that are in Skin Deep or even in Big Baby, where it goes all the way in the grotesque. There’s the bug, in Black Hole, but it’s not like — okay, let’s cut off his head and graft it on the body of a dog.
Charles Burns : (chuckles) No.
Xavier Guilbert : This sounds more like the science-fiction from the fifties. In Nitnit, it’s not going back to that, but using it in a different way.
Charles Burns : Yeah I mean — I don’t go back and read my work all that often. I mean, actually, I haven’t for a long time. But I notice, when I writing, there’s… For example, the other day, I pulled out a drawer of old, old comics. I had friends visiting, and I was kind of joking around and said : “oh, I’ve got to pull out some drawings I did in high school.” Drawing I did when I was smoking pot, or whatever it was as we were talking about that. And then I’m looking at those, and there is some symbolism and imagery that I’m using now. I mean, I haven’t look at that for a while. So there’s certainly very strong, internalized images and themes that continue to circle through my work. That I’m aware of. I’m always aware of that. Trying not to repeat myself, or do exactly the same story… I mean, I’ve been writing a lot recently, and thinking about what I — you know, what I want to approach. And… yeah, when I finally find some solution, I’m like : “oh, but I’ve already done that…”. I think it’s probably a part of any writer’s life. You think of — I don’t know, whatever author you want to talk about, and that something that happens.
Xavier Guilbert : To remain on technical aspects. I noticed that throughout the Nitnit trilogy, there’s kind of a new approach to the page layout. You’re still sticking with the 3×3 grid that was also present in Black Hole, but you introduce the vertical subdivision, as is obvious in the first page — the page that is present before the book actually begins, and which displays a simplified version of the X, the Hive or the Skull. In Black Hole, I have the impression that the use of the page was more towards an expansion : you started with the grid panels, and some panels ended up invading the whole page.
Charles Burns : Sure.
Xavier Guilbert : While in the Nitnit trilogy, with this subdivision, you’re using it to break the rhythm, to have successions of very short cuts, and in the end, it brings the storytelling towards fragmentation.
Charles Burns : Yes. I mean, I wanted to — it was very specific, the thing that… what I was doing in Black Hole was — I wasn’t using that grid, I had some system of how I was laying out the page.
Xavier Guilbert : In Black Hole, the invasion often happens in a vertical sense. On a lot of pages, there are only three very long panels that take all the vertical space of the page. Sometimes it’s cut in half, with six panels…
Charles Burns : There are halves, thirds and quarters. Yes, there is that. With this, I stuck with a three-tiered page.
(interrupted by people talking and passing us by)
Sorry, that’s why I can’t listen to — someone was playing music in the studio the other day, and they were like : “what’s the matter, don’t you like Wire ?” And I’m like : “yeah, I just saw them in concert a month ago, but my head’s gonna explode because I can’t, you know…” (laugh) It’s like some little irritating bee that’s flying around my head.
So. I knew I was going to do a kind of fragmented story, and something that was fairly — maybe fairly difficult ideas to follow. So I wanted to use like a very traditional, three-tier page. But then using those subdivisions to — in some cases, almost like a period, or to show the transition very clearly. “Okay, this ends — there’s a little black panel, it’s almost like a period, and then there’s color leading into another segment.” In some cases as you were saying, a succession of almost like a little stutter of images that are all placed together. And so yes, there is a way of playing with that rhythm, that I hadn’t done as much in other books.
Xavier Guilbert : It’s very consistent throughout the three books. That’s something you decided…
Charles Burns : Yes, everything — if you’re thinking about the page layout, you have three tiers, and the subdivisions of those tiers are six. So you can do, you now, full panel, half panel, thirds, and sixths. And it doesn’t deviate from that — I think there’s maybe once or twice I have like a sixth of a page, and then I divide the rest into two. That’s the only time…
Xavier Guilbert : Erm, more than once.
Charles Burns : Maybe a few times…
Xavier Guilbert : There are a few times. What is interesting is that it’s often used as a way of putting side-by-side two aspects of the same person. I think the first time that happens is when Doug is out at a party, and he wants to suddenly relax. He’s done his stuff, it wasn’t well received, and you juxtapose the “normal” Doug with his “crazed” self, which is very reminiscent of the Iggy Pop disc cover you did in the past.
Charles Burns : Sure, dramatic.
Xavier Guilbert : And there’s the same thing happening, maybe on the same page with Sarah, with her in a normal lighting and then with the red background in the photo lab. It’s very symmetric — with Doug normal then dramatic, and Sarah normal then dramatic. It kind of encapsulates the page, and the sixths are at the beginning and the end of that sequence. There’s definitely a lot of attention to structure there.
Charles Burns : Oh, absolutely. I mean, there’s nothing — I’ve said this before, that… some of the writing or the structure imitates collage or cut-up. I mean, there are references to William Burroughs, cut-up. What William Burroughs was doing, was cutting up a page of existing writing, and then collaging it, moving it around and seeing connections between that writing. I wasn’t doing that at all, I was doing something that maybe visually imitates that, but was very very controlled. There’s nothing random about any of the imagery, there was nothing — yeah, there was nothing random about the structure at all. It was closely — closely controlled. That was an important part of the writing and the storytelling.
Xavier Guilbert : How much time did you spend just laying out everything, and deciding where everything fits ? When you look at the story, it’s fairly straightforward — a lot of the tension comes from the fact that you don’t know how it’s going to end. Until the moment Doug meets his son, you don’t know whether she’s going to get an abortion or not, because there’s all the imagery surrounding the suckling pig…
Charles Burns : Yes, there’s actually — there’s a lot of things explained, there may be false leads so… You know, Nitnit is bringing the kind of romance comics into the Hive, and she’s almost playing with it. “Oh, I’m missing some issues, and I can’t figure out what happens. Here’s what happens, you know, here’s this girl in an abusive situation, and she’s always falling for guys that are violent and everything else, and then she’s got this new boyfriend and she thinks things are going to be good, and then he gets beat up, and I don’t know what happens next.” So I’m setting — okay, that’s some little structure, some part of the story, that — yes, she’s got a shitty, abusive boyfriend from the past, she starts seeing him, he’s a relatively normal guy, and eventually he gets his ass kicked by her ex-boyfriend. So yeah, all those things play into the story.
Xavier Guilbert : Back to my original question, how much time did you spend crafting the story ? Because from what you just said, I assume you didn’t make it up as you went along…
Charles Burns : No, I didn’t make it up as I went along. However, I set it up in a way that would allow me to have freedom, and let things find their way into the story. I mean, with any book that I’ve ever done, there are pieces where I thought : I absolutely know this is going to happen, and this is going to happen, and this is going to happen. I know what the emotional tone is, or what emotional tone I want to have, and I also know — you know, how it ends, or where all this is leading to. But with every book, there’s like : okay, I’ve been thinking about this segment and writing it and writing it and rewriting it, and then finally reaching a point where — well no, that needs to be thrown out, it’s not necessary. So there’s always that. I mean, I always have like a rough structure, a rough layout : there were three books, and the idea that he ages, different settings… So that was a given, but there were things, for example… what I found is that the father takes on a much more significant role. I mean, you’re seeing that very early on. You know, his dad sits downstairs, in the basement, and it’s never really explained. Mom’s upstairs. Dad’s sick and he’s kind of cut himself off from the world and his wife. So he’s down in his room and he’s sitting in bed, with his — you know, smoking cigarettes, watching TV. In my sense — so Doug is looking at that, and is aware of that, and doesn’t want to be like that. But then, he is like that. He is doing the same thing that his father is doing. Hiding out, down — actually in his Dad’s basement after his Dad is dead. So yeah — there is that part of it, but it went out a little bit… I realized that that part, that relationship between the son and the father was more important that I had initially thought. So that took on a greater significance.
It allows those things to grow, and those ideas to grow, as I was working. And there was less — my first idea was : okay, this takes place in the end of the seventies, in around San Francisco or you know, in California, and he’s in Art School. All my friends were artists or photographers or musicians, and it’s going to be in that setting. Even if he does performance pieces and there’s a lot to do with photography and the idea of capturing moments in time with photographs, it doesn’t have much to do with punk music that much, or kind of historic — you know, examining a specific time period. It’s more about the characters and what they are struggling through.
Xavier Guilbert : Compared to the way Black Hole was serialized, in installments of what, thirty pages ? Close to the traditional pamphlet format.
Charles Burns : Yeah, and some of that had to do with, as far as the kind of American style of comics at that point. If you think of someone like Dan Clowes with Eightball, Peter Bagge with Hate, Chris Ware with the Acme Library. The idea was that : okay, I was working on a long story, but here’s a way of putting pieces out there instead of working in total seclusion (laugh) for how many years. Now that market’s changed. But that was kind of — a lot of cartoonists that I knew did the typical American pamphlet, and then, for example in Dan Clowes’ case, he serialized a story that continued, the Velvet Glove — I can’t remember the exact title.
Xavier Guilbert : Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron.
Charles Burns : That’s it, thank you. And so that was put into a book. And you know, Ghost World was serialized within there, and that came out as a book. So that made a lot of sense. With Black Hole, I knew that I wanted to do a long story, and it was going to take me a while, and — there’s something about having, you know, material, physical object that comes out, not for a deadline but for just some sense of : okay, this exists in the world, and I’m moving on to the next part of it, instead of total seclusion and no reaction, no anything.
Xavier Guilbert : I was wondering — when you’re working on a thirty-page issue, basically you’re look a this chunk of story. Here, you’ve got three chunks of about 60 pages, so how did it affect your way of approaching the story ? At one point, you have to put out a book, and this book is 60 pages, and you don’t have the same pressure of compressing things, and making sure you’re hitting some important points in just thirty pages. It gives you more leeway in how much you have to reveal to make sure the readers understand enough to want to know what happens next.
Charles Burns : When I was working in Black Hole — I can’t remember exactly, it was like a standard page count. I knew, you know, I was doing the whole story in chapters. So it was : title page, chapter. I could either have a couple of short chapters, or one long chapter, or a fairly long one and a short one — I mean, I was aware of, breaking down the story that way. In this case, yes, it’s a book, and I had to put things together. The reaction to X’ed Out, I think there was plenty of people, maybe because they were thinking — they’d read Black Hole, and they were : “what’s that ? what happened ?” I think the fact that there’s more serialized books in France and Belgium — you know, it was based on the album format, which certainly doesn’t really exist in the US. That idea that — okay, there’s… What’s going to happen in the United States, eventually, as far as I know, is that it will be collected into one volume, and I think people are more apt to read it as a single volume.
Xavier Guilbert : Is that something you regret, that it’ll end up as one volume ?
Charles Burns : Not at all. I did the book I wanted to do, that’s — for me, it’s a concession to my publisher, and to… but yeah, that was something that was agreed upon, with my book agent and Pantheon Books : we need to do this. In a way it might be a certain idea like here’s the hardbound edition and here’s the trade paperback edition. I think — I’d like three separate books, it makes sense to me. I mean, it is divided in a very specific way. So I’m fine with that. It’s not the smartest thing commercially, but I don’t regret it in the least. No. I was lucky to have the books that I — that’s what I wanted. And I can imagine, unless it’s a country that hasn’t published them at all — maybe there’s a country out there that might collect them eventually — but in France or Belgium or Germany or Italy, I think every one can understand : well, here’s a series, and they fit together and you read them and re-read them and you go back to them and see how they fit together.
Xavier Guilbert : You mentioned the timeframe during which the Nitnit trilogy happens. I have the impression there’s a progression in age, and in the outlook of the characters on the world : there’s Big Baby, where it’s about wondering about what adults do ; then there’s Black Hole, which is very much about sex and social interactions among teenagers ; and then the Nitnit trilogy, which is just a little later, and which is not about sex, but rather the consequences of sex, with paternity and the legacy, and how much the sins of the father can become the sins of the son. There are also some references to music : you mention Diamond Dogs in Black Hole, and it was released in 1974. There’s Radio Ethiopia in Nitnit, released in 1976. Since you were born in 1955, that makes you about 21 at that point — which is really consistent with Doug’s age. So I was wondering both about that progression and also the part of autobiography or nostalgia that went into that.
Charles Burns : Sure. I wouldn’t say nostalgia, but autobiography, absolutely. The scene where there’s the direct reference to Radio Ethiopia, that was based on — it had to be later than that. It had to be 1977 — but you looked it up, so I trust you.
Xavier Guilbert : It’s released in 1976, so she has to be listening to it all day long some time afterwards. While for Diamond Dogs, you specifically write that it was “newly released”, so it should be closer to 1974.
Charles Burns : Anyway, that’s nitpicking. (smiling) Nitpicking. But for me, there’s — it’s based on a real situation, going to visit my girlfriend, and her super, super punked out roommate would just play Radio Ethiopia over and over… and it was kind of like the soundtrack. And the other reference there is the song, if you sing the 45, the Patty Smith song I’m referring to is “Pissing in the river”, and there’s all that river imagery too. The idea of like time — it’s all the common classic (laugh), classic things. You know, what does a river symbolize ? Your life moving forward… And yes, the story ends, or part of the story ends actually in the river, and clamoring up out of the water…
Xavier Guilbert : It’s not as positive as a river, because there’s a lot of sewers pouring out into it… it’s not really a positive image.
Charles Burns : No, not at all (laugh). Not in the least. “Pissing in the river”, I don’t know. I was using those things as well, that kind of echo some of the themes and the symbols that are in the story. But yes, certainly it was based directly on — you know, sitting in the morning and eating breakfast, the remnants of — I don’t know, cocaine and beer from the night before, all those things that are there. Thinly disguised, I guess (chuckle). Anyway. But I don’t think nostalgia plays into it in the sense that — I always think that nostalgia is being kind of wistfully wanting to go back to that particular time. And there’s certainly positive aspects of that time, but yes, it was also difficult too.
Xavier Guilbert : Is that something you’re going to keep on doing ?
Charles Burns : I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I have had a number of false starts on stories, and I found — I don’t know if I’m consciously doing that, but found myself kind of thinking : okay, what would be the next thing ? this part of my life ? And that didn’t work, or at least it hasn’t worked so far. So to answer your question : I absolutely don’t know. I found myself — I’ve tried a bunch of different ideas. At one point, I kind of went to an idea of myself in a particular place. We lived up in the mountains in Boulder, Colorado, it was very isolated. So I was going to do a story about isolation. And I thought : hm, I don’t know if I can do another story about isolation… (laughs) Because there’s certain — what I write about, it gets triggered by very specific, strong moments that keep coming back to me, and I try to pay attention to what that is. I think that any writer does that, I guess, unless you’re like — I mean, any good writer I know. Writers I like. I think there’s always that helmet of — you can tell that it’s an authentic voice, you can tell that it’s fiction, but they’re pulling something that’s internal, they’re pulling something out of their experience, and putting it out there. So yeah, I don’t have a game plan as far as… you know, maybe I’ve done my last comic, I have no idea. I’m working on things, I work every day, I’m just — I’m never one to crank out products (chuckle).
Xavier Guilbert : Regarding what you said about including things from your past experience, be it indirect or hidden or transformed. By focusing on a specific period, is it possible you wouldn’t be able to revisit that same period again, having used all there was of meaning for you ? You were talking about the “authentic voice” — would it still be authentic to you if there wasn’t as much of yourself in it ?
Charles Burns : I don’t know. I mean, for me — my earlier stories were not… I wasn’t investing myself — I mean, I was investing myself, but it was just a different way of writing, different ideas. They were more about the ideas, less about the characters. It’s also — I mean, the stories I’ve been doing, I’ve gotta say, and it sounds really dramatic, but they are kinda emotionally draining, and it’s a difficult of place to kind of push myself into. In a certain way, I think I need to do something a little more lighthearted or something (laugh). So maybe, maybe that’s what I’ll do. I don’t know, I honestly don’t know.
Xavier Guilbert : You mean that after Black Hole, you wanted to do something more lighthearted, and you came up with the Nitnit book ?
Charles Burns : No, right now I do. I guess the… I mean, this last story was just like — at least for me, my interpretation of it, it’s a pretty dark ending, as far as I’m concerned. Whereas I think, even though there’s all those struggles in Black Hole, I still see it as more optimistic. You’re seeing Chris go out to the water, and somebody went : “oh, she’s killing herself”. Well, no, she’s like trying to go back to find some part of herself, find some strength. And even though the others — Eliza, they’re kind of like… it’s this kind of very naive… “I’ll get a job, and you can paint all day …” And you know it’s not going to happen, but they’re still — there’s still some strength there and they’re together.
Xavier Guilbert : There’s some kind of closure. You were talking about Chris, she’s on the beach, she realizes she’s got Rob’s picture with her, she buries it in the sand and then she goes out in the sea. And she’s floating, she’s looking at the stars and it kind of connects back to the part of the story where she was happy. There’s a sense of her moving on. It’s the same with Keith and Eliza — and even if it’s naive, there’s this sense of : okay, we had this moment where things were happening in closed spaces, be it in the woods or in the houses, and they go out and kind of free themselves by moving away from…
Charles Burns : Well it’s out in the sun, and you can tell — she’s still fragile, Eliza is still fragile, and he’s calm and saying : “this is gonna work”. And maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but at least — there is that kind of closeness there, they fall asleep together and they can spin off until… the netherworld. But yeah, this is — I mean, my story ends with like : “no, you can never see your son again. No, you fucked up.” (laugh)
Xavier Guilbert : And there’s no way for him to make up for it…
Charles Burns : Some things — I mean, some things are not forgivable. And that’s what — the guy was, you know. I think there’s plenty — myself included — you think you’re doing the right thing, and you go through rough consequences sometimes. But yeah, it was pretty — I mean, there’s a little bit of a light in the sense that you see that he’s established with what looks like a very understanding girlfriend, who’s got red hair, like the girl… (laugh) So there’s at least that. And there is… yeah, but he’s… he’s just…
Xavier Guilbert : You’re showing him at this moment trying to reconcile himself, to make amends…
Charles Burns : Yes, I mean, the story is about being responsible and all those things. Yeah, that’s what I was struggling with. So maybe something lighter, I don’t know (laugh).
Xavier Guilbert : We were talking about nostalgia, I’d like to talk about Tintin.
Charles Burns : Sure.
Xavier Guilbert : This fascination for Tintin, which I checked, was already present before in the Fantagraphic collections, with the inner cover pages. I also found an illustration you did for the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival in 2009 with a Tintin stand-in reading a Nitnit book.
Charles Burns : I mean, all those ideas were certainly floating around. If you look way way back when there was — I think it was in Barcelona, Tintin in Barcelona. There was a Barcelona exhibition where they asked artists to do a piece of artwork referencing Tintin. I know that it was published by Casterman, I’m pretty sure that they actually — it was a catalog. So anyway, way way back then, I did a Tintin… I think it was maybe 82 or something like that ? 82 or 83 ? So yeah, there is certainly — that was always present for me anyway.
Xavier Guilbert : I was also struck by the way you use masks, and especially simplified features. Big Baby has that, with the pinhead eyes ; El Borbah with the mask, and obviously there’s the Nitnit mask that Doug uses. What is fascinating for you in Tintin’s face especially ?
Charles Burns : I mean, it’s — it’s that old question of realism and a character… I mean, you don’t really have any sense of Tintin’s personality, other than he’s a good boyscout, and he, you know, he doesn’t back down. But there’s nothing about his internal world. Not that it would be necessary in any way. For me, that has power and has more to do with just like comics in general and how you can reduce a character down to very very simple elements. Some people do kind of like the hyperrealism and the hypersurrealism. But there’s always some aspect of simplifying things that is fun and is effective. For me, hum… maybe it is nostalgia, I guess. Maybe nostalgia kind of like blurs… I think — I read them before — I mean, I looked at the Tintin books before I could actually read, and I just sad and looked and looked and looked. And I loved delving into that world. So maybe there is that kind of nostalgia at work. I think that I would like the books, or some of the books, if I just discovered them now, I’m pretty sure I would.
Xavier Guilbert : You haven’t read them as an adult ?
Charles Burns : I have, of course, I have all — I have everything, I have all those giant volumes of Hergé’s, everything that came out, every scrap that came out. That’s a pretty amazing series of books, the complete… There’s something also kind of frightening where you’re looking at a timeline, and you know — like 1942, and you can see he dies here, born here, you are here. You know the books I’m talking about, the actual timeline, there’s something spooky about that. Let’s see, where am I on the timeline right now ? (laugh)
But I mean, I think that — again, it’s like that kind of fascination for that kind of other world that I delved into as a child, because he’s always going to exotic places, you know — something that looks middle-eastern, or… wherever he goes, there’s something kind of exotic and foreign about it, even then. That sort of thing plays into the story, but — but it may be some visual references, but it really has nothing to do with the Adventures of Tintin, it has nothing to do with the series at all, other than some kind of visual characteristics of his face and that sort of thing.
Xavier Guilbert : The face is also very expressionless.
Charles Burns : Expressionless, yes.
Xavier Guilbert : Or mysterious. Because talking about Big Baby or El Borbah, these are faces that do not tell much…
Charles Burns : Yeah, I don’t even know — I don’t know specifically where that came from, I know that at a certain point I was… I guess I was just attracted to that look. Some of it had to do with like looking at old Japanese prints, woodblock prints. If you look at it, with the tiny little eyes, and that sort of thing.
Xavier Guilbert : That’s very deliberate on your part. In the Big Baby and El Borbah stories, people are represented with very dramatic and expressive faces — opposed to those blank slates, those indecipherable faces…
Charles Burns : Yeah, there was a more cartoony aspect to it. It’s reduced, the characters are reduced, the characters are more ciphers. You’re finding out — especially towards some of the later Big Baby stories, you’re finding more about him as a character, it’s kind of moving in that direction. But he’s still — you know, it’s not really examining his internal world. You’re seeing him go through these difficult situations…
Xavier Guilbert : Would you say it’s because he’s a child, and therefore his personality still some kind of work in progress ? Or would it be overanalyzing it ?
Charles Burns : I don’t know — for me, it was just… I mean, I created that character : he looks like an alien, and I kinda thought like an alien when I was a kid. And always trying to understand what the rules of the world were, the rules of the adult world. And that’s kind of the key to what this character is. He’s always looking at something, interpreting it, misinterpreting it. So he’s constantly examining those things. Looking out his window, and seeing, you know, something going on in the backyard or — fantasizing about that based on some movie he saw on TV. Trying to come to terms with, you know : there’s the real violence in the world, and there’s the violence that’s on television, the fictional violence. And trying to come to terms, trying to understand what that is. So yeah, that’s kind of where he came from.
El Borbah is that kind of — you know, big, aggressive idiotic side of myself (laugh). Not myself, but I mean, yeah, just kind of that… Dog Boy is like the naive, innocent… and then I kind of delved into characters in Black Hole that really related directly to who I was, who my friends were, what I was thinking about… I felt at ease being able to write female characters, I don’t know. I grew up with women and sisters and girlfriends, and it didn’t seem like some difficult thing to do. I felt comfortable digging into those things.
Xavier Guilbert : Would you say that your first books were some kind of formative years ?
Charles Burns : I don’t know. I mean, the thing that I’ve told — I’ve been asked, or the way I’ve described it in the past was that… I don’t know if I had kind of a preconceived idea of I wanted — there’s comics that I enjoy and look at, and I kind of start emulating those, imitating those. And maybe I was kind of sticking to a kind of preconceived idea of the kind of story I wanted to do. I was never consciously — I guess the way I’ve described it before, is that I wasn’t consciously censoring myself. But in retrospect, I can see — I understand that there were things that I didn’t feel dealing with. That’s too hard, that’s too heavy, that’s too — whatever you want to call it. And I made a really distinct choice to not censor myself, to really try to dig into those kind of recurring images, the feelings that I had during that time, and really push that and see if I could come up with something. I think, it’s funny, part of it, right before I started Black Hole, I had had a serialized newspaper strip. Some of that, the last Big Baby story, one that appears last, that may have been — there is that blister story…
Xavier Guilbert : Teen Fever ?
Charles Burns : Yeah, that’s the Big Baby story, and also serialized was Burn Again, if you remember that from the Skin Deep collection. So those were the things I was doing before Black Hole. And part of it was like — I was thinking : “okay, these are in weekly, free weekly papers”, and I was never really censored, but there was still a sense of — like I couldn’t show this, I couldn’t show, you know, these characters having sex, and the tail snaps off, whatever it is. It was just a thing that would not happen.
Xavier Guilbert : Are you saying it was trying to find a safe place for you, first from an emotional point of view — because the way you describe writing the Nitnit story as a very taxing experience, but also as an outlet to be able to fully express yourself. Publishing Black Hole as it was through Kitchen Sink at the beginning, as targeted at a mature audience, also ensured it would be received in the right way.
Charles Burns : There was always outlets — I mean, those outlets were always available. I mean, for me, you know, things that were in RAW seem like — I could put anything in there and that wouldn’t have been a problem. I was being published by — I mean, Fantagraphics would have published… But I think part of what I wanted — I was trying different things out, so one thing I tried was that : here’s, instead of a regular comic book, here’s all these free weekly magazines that run comics, I’ll try that. Let’s see how it works. My intention was always, in the way in the way that I worked the stories and put them together, I always knew I was going to collect them and put them together. And even then, I was like writing long stories, that I can’t imagine that someone is going to read from week to week — you know, the best weekly cartoons are the people that — Matt Groening’s Life in Hell, or Linda Barry. Linda Barry might have, you know, the characters reoccur, themes reoccur, but it’s four panels and you read it, and if you miss the next month or whatever it is, you see the next comic and you’ll get something out of it. I was trying to have my cake and eat it too : okay, I’m going to do a long story, but I can’t imagine anyone — I had people say : “oh, I clipped them all out as they came out”, but you have to be pretty diligent to do that, you have to make sure you get the paper each week. So I wanted to do long narratives, but I was also thinking like : oh, this could be a great way to present the work and people — people who are not going into comic shops could see it, so there’d be a different audience for that. But again, I just reached a certain point, when I started Black Hole, that I wanted to tell — it sounds dumb, but something that was more meaningful to me. Something that was more — more of an investment on my part. Putting more of myself out there. And — as we’ve talked before, there are points where I was : “I don’t know if I can, this is — this is really fucked up and creepy, and I don’t know if I even should put this out in the world”. The same thing with the last trilogy. There are images that were, you know, visceral, very kind of disturbing stuff. Or just ideas that were disturbing as well. All that shit I show, that egg being laid — “hm, I don’t know, but yeah, I have to do it, so…” (laugh)
Xavier Guilbert : There’s also the scene with the house-head…
Charles Burns : Yeah. Or the pig fetus and the belly — you know, you’re seeing that she’s been, that she’s emotionally disturbed, and you’re seeing cuts on her arms, and he’s having the nightmare of her cutting her belly open and the whole kind of fear of parenthood, of being a parent, of that responsibility. So yeah, it’s like — it’s not like : “oh, this is cool”. She’s cutting her belly and I was like : “oww, shit, how do I show that ?” It’s like — it’s a hard — it wasn’t just trying to play it for, you know, “look how cool this is”, or “this is scary” or whatever it is. This si like : no, you should feel bad. You feel bad when you work on this, it’s a disturbing image. It’s not gratuitous or sexy or anything like that.
Xavier Guilbert : Considering that was a trilogy, getting feedback on the first one, did it impact the other two ? In terms of the imagery and the way it was received…
Charles Burns : Not really. I mean, I have to say that I’m reclusive enough, that if I’m on the Internet and there’s something that I spot, some review — I try to stay away from all of those things, and try not to have… but no, it didn’t have any — I knew I had to tell the story that I was going to tell, and again, I was lucky that I had a publisher that was willing to go along with it. Like : “okay, we’ll do a cloth-bind. Okay, we’ll make this in this format that doesn’t fit all the bookstores” — or, you know, maybe I told you before too, it was like : early on, when my agent was selling the book, the British publisher was saying : “okay, we’ll take it, but it’s very thin for a graphic novel.” Like you know, this is a graphic novel, but I don’t want to work that hard so I’m only going to make a little one. We all know that graphic novels are these big, giant, thick things — but no, here is how I want to do the story. I want to do it based on the Franco-Belgian album format, because — I know it’s not exotic over there in the least, it’s the standard size book, but here it’s — it always felt exotic to me. Or something that I was — I always loved that format, so that’s what I did. In the long run, I want to make the book I want to make, and I feel happy and lucky to have someone go along and agreeing with me. It’s nice.
Xavier Guilbert : The books are really nice, playing with the full Tintin imagery. There’s Nitnit, so it’s a reverse Tintin. There’s Inky the cat, Snowy the dog, and even the inner cover pages, which are printed in blue in the Fantagraphic collections like it is the case in the Tintin albums, it’s red here. It’s funny when you mentioned someone who would cut up and collect all your published stuff and trying to put your work together. Because I’ve got the impression you’re putting out an universe that is extended beyond the pages of the book. I’m thinking of the little book that you put out with Le Dernier Cri, the little piece you did in the 2w box by Bülb Comix, and there’s also the Johnny 23 tumblr…
Charles Burns : Oh yeah, that is mine…
Xavier Guilbert : There are a lot of things happening there, be it putting up things that are obviously your references, there’s the game around the panels from Tintin, which is really mesmerizing : isolating those panels with very little happening and no text. Which brings me back to the cut-ups we discussed earlier, and there’s this sequence in X’ed Out where Doug says : “I’m going do my old Burroughs thing” and I’m wondering if you, Charles, are not doing your old Burroughs thing there, a little bit.
Charles Burns : I don’t know. I mean, part of that feeds into — again, the collage, the cut-up. The kind of — I mean, he really was a writer that — someone I was reading at the time. And it really seemed that he fit into that world of punk as well. He was really showing an incredibly dark side of humanity and America and wherever he happened to be. And there was something very — not hallucinogenic, but there was something incredibly visual about his writing as well. I don’t know if I understand the question, “is it my Burroughs thing ?”
Xavier Guilbert : It’s interesting you mention that, because when you look at Black Hole, for example, which happens in the 70s, it’s also showing a side of that time that is not really positive. A lot of people would put a positive spin on that : partying, sexual revolution, etc.
Charles Burns : But you weren’t there, in that room that I was in. (laugh)
Xavier Guilbert : But to get back to my question, the way you expand the universe across different formats feels as if there are still things to explore. The book at Le Dernier Cri is really interesting in the way it revisits the books. There’s collage, the pages are not following the same sequences… and the language — because there’s a language there.
Charles Burns : Yep. It’s been decoded, and if you look deeply online, you’ll find somebody posted it somewhere. But — yeah, I mean, I’m doing one more book, it’s not a traditional narrative at all, but it’s collecting all the peripheral pieces. Some of the things you’ve seen, some of things I put on — fake comic book covers, some of like the foreign romance comics and a few little snippets of comic strips that… yeah, they kind of give you the sense that there’s these characters, there’s plenty of other stories possible. I mean, other permutations of stories, and portions that go on and on and on. So. I mean, but yeah, fake comic books covers, it’s like : “oh, here’s another adventure of Nitnit”. You recognize some oddball, Interzone — Interzone sort of setting. Burroughs, Interzone. A place were nasty guys are selling magazines in magazine racks, and you’re seeing all those foreign comics in it. So I’m just finishing that up right now. So another book — a full book of that.
Xavier Guilbert : The idea of the crypted language, does that go back to your experience of reading Tintin as a child ?
Charles Burns : Oh yeah, absolutely. For me, it was — when I was young, they published six books, six of his books in the US. And they didn’t do very well, or maybe — for whatever reason, they didn’t do very well. And they were published, I think, 1959, 1960, something like this — 1961. And so, eventually, I got all those six books, but early on, I have like one or two, and looking at the back, you’re seeing all those other characters, like who’s that little boy and girl with the monkey ? and what’s that island off in the distance ? So you were talking about Le Dernier Cri book, it references that : like, looking to that island that has got this kind of surreal — you know, some adventure out there. I wanted to read that book. It took me a long time, and I finally read the redrawn version, which is actually not a great book. And then, finally finally, I got the original Hergé version, which is a great story, and beautiful, and I even go back to find earlier editions, the printing is beautiful. I mean, for me, it’s just something I enjoy, looking at those things. But, erm… where was I leading with that ?
Xavier Guilbert : Reading them as a kid.
Charles Burns : Oh, the idea about that aspect. Yeah, I remember — you know, some kid in class had like a French — his parents were French, I lived outside of Washington DC, so there were a lot of kids coming in from other countries. So I would see — I saw, you know, a French book. And it did have that sense of : here is this exotic — shows all the list, and there’s like twenty books. Whatever it was — and oh, I can’t get those, and they are in a language I can’t understand, and I don’t have access to them. So there’s that part. And my dad travelled and brought me back the Jewels of Castafiore, or whatever it is. I can’t remember the title of it. And I was thinking — that was really a big disappointment (laugh). Because it had just come out, it was like 62 or whatever it was, and he brought it back as a gift. Looking at it — it’s in French, and I was like : can you read this to me ? And then my father : oh, I’ll try. And he’s like : “oh, and in this panel they’re doing this”. I can figure it out what they’re doing in the panel, I want to hear what they are saying, I wanna hear the words that are coming out of their mouth. So — that’s part of it. And also — I travelled enough early on, that I’d go to Italy and Germany, well, mainly France and Italy, and picking up books and of course you’re picking them up for the artwork, because they were things that were not available, but not having half of the experience, you’re missing, you know, the whole other half. So it feeds into that idea as well : here is something that’s exotic and inaccessible. Yeah, that feeling.
Xavier Guilbert : Is it the same idea for the romance comics ? I wouldn’t say they wouldn’t be so alien to you, as for that matter this is something that clearly belongs to American comics.
Charles Burns : I can’t even say — I’m not even sure why I’m attracted to, you know, those romance comics. There’s something — you know, all the stories — the stories are all the same, but like I said, what it’s about : falling in love, not falling in love, or someone liking you or not liking you, it has nothing to — the stories don’t really lead anywhere, they are just like : oh, she behaved this way, and she thought this would be a good way to behave, and then she found out and she lost — you know. Or — she’s got the country boy, the neighborhood boy that she’s always been in love and he’s been in love with her, and then the really exotic city guy comes to town and she falls for him but eventually sees the error of her ways… there’s something about that that kind of — I don’t know, I love the kind of morality themes. And just the visuals, the look of it too — I love the way the characters are drawn and all that. So… But yeah, the book I’m putting together now has a lot of fake romance comics. I think maybe I posted some on my blog. Yeah. And a few other little — it’s more like an art book than anything else. It’s more like an art book of just powerful imagery that… so it’s not, it’s not furthering the narrative or anything like that, it’s just pieces that are kind of surrounding that…
Xavier Guilbert : Is it a way for you to find some kind of closure, even if the books are done ?
Charles Burns : Maybe, I mean — I’ve been writing, but I find myself kind of going back. It’s like : “oh maybe I’ll just put, you know, eight more pages in.” (laugh) So maybe I’m not letting it go. Because it is something that I still find really intriguing, that whole world. Yeah, I could probably do that endlessly. But maybe I shouldn’t.
Xavier Guilbert : You were talking about how the Nitnit trilogy had been emotionally taxing to draw. Is it a way to revisit that world without the emotional price ? A lighter side ?
Charles Burns : Yeah. Absolutely.
Xavier Guilbert : Doing another romance comics is in no way similar to going back to the Hive.
Charles Burns : Exactly. Yes, it is. It’s something that’s enjoyable. Yeah, there’s parts of the story that are kind of dark, but yeah. It’s not delving into the nether regions of the soul (laugh).
Xavier Guilbert : So far, what is your experience with PFC ? I guess that’s the first time you’re doing something like that…
Charles Burns : Yeah, it is. And… so far, it’s — I really wanted to do something that would get me out of my usual studio. Being a cartoonist or an artist is that there’s this incredibly solitary lifestyle. At least for me. And there’s not that — I’m not someone who’s — or very rarely collaborated with other people. Occasionally, there’s social situations where, you know, a friend and I would pass the drawing back and forth and — and that’s kind of it. I mean, there’s usually never any real strategy, but there’s a kind of a pleasant part of that. I can remember working with Gary Panter. He’s just visiting my house, and we’re sitting in the morning, eating breakfast, and I’ve pulled up a stack of, you know, ridiculous old American comics, and we’re just passing the pages back and forth. So I would ink some of his drawings, he’d ink some of mine, and — it was just that. It was just kind of a pleasurable thing — what happens is you start really looking at the construction of how someone draws. You see the pencil and you think about what you can add to it. So occasionally, collaborations look great, sometimes they don’t. What I like about this, or the things we’ve done so far, is that it doesn’t have to be beautiful. It’s the idea of — it’s the thought process, it’s just — you have no time to really create something beautiful or perfect, it’s just moving with the moment, you dive into that. That part’s fun, I’m enjoying that.
Xavier Guilbert : When you were approached to participate, what was your first reaction ?
Charles Burns : Well, luckily now, there’s ways of getting online and looking to see what’s involved and getting some sense of all the details. And I’ve never really done something like that. Usually, when I’m interacting with other cartoonists, or artists, it can be at a convention or something like that, so you’re seeing each other socially, you’re having drinks and talking. And then the other part is signing things for people and that. So it’s a very different feel to it. This is social, but it’s also kind of a work environment, and you’re really looking over someone’s shoulder and… it’s not like trading, you know, trade secrets or something like that, but people are really, you know, asking you how you do this, or just basic questions about how you work. And then seeing someone work, yeah, that part’s nice, I’ve enjoyed that.
Xavier Guilbert : Are you happy with the work that’s been done for the book ?
Charles Burns : I am. It’s a very hard thing to separate yourself from. Because — I mean, the way I usually work is : looking at something over a really long period of time. You put it away, you pull it back, and your eyes are — feel a little more clean. You can see it — you have more time to examine it, think about it, change it, edit it, and because of the time constraints, it’s just like — gotta do it. And the others are — for me, there’s a certain nervousness, or was a certain nervousness, of just — I want to do something good, I want to do something that I enjoy. So — I mean, the piece that we did was fun. I had… anyway, trying to fill in the end of that story, and leading into the next story. Gabrielle Bell — the final panel was, Gabrielle Bell had drawn herself or a woman who’s sitting by the side of the road, on top of a box, and then a car is driving past her and there’s kind of dust from the car. And I’m thinking : oh shit, now I have to draw a car, because I hate drawing cars. But I had to figure out something — and yeah, I eventually found out some way of like — oh, I can do something else, I can find a way of not — of avoiding that. So that part was fun, the thought process : how do I draw something that’s enjoyable, that’s visual, that really does link the story. Yeah, that’s fun.
Xavier Guilbert : And what about the 24 minute exercise ? Is that something you’ve come to enjoy ?
Charles Burns : I was a little bit freaked out — not freaked out, but like… my brain’s not structured that way, typically, but, yeah, I just dove in. My sense is that everyone had a similar reaction, the people that I talked to. I know there’s people that have come back from previous versions of this, but yeah, the people that I talked to said : yeah, just gotta bang it out, gotta come up with something. In a way, I can imagine — one of my thoughts was that it might be more similar to kind of early, very very early American comic book shops, where there’s a bunch of people in the room, and they were really just, in that particular case, they were just providing — they were making a living, and their living depended on how many pages were created. Jules Pfeiffer and The Great Comic Book Heroes, I read that when I was really young, and he gives this kind of perfect — just a great description of what that environment was : guys staying up all night, the coffee — I remember like, “at that some point, we chipped the tiles off, you know, the wall, the room, and we improvised a little stove and cooked eggs on it” (laugh). There was just something like that, and I was : okay. And even this, in a very stupid way, there’s like : okay, I’ve got this little thing of ink, but I don’t have my usual jar of ink, so how do I ? And everybody has their little bottle caps and they’re pouring ink into them, and it’s just funny, it’s just kinda fun to see all that. You know, I’m not used to — working flat on a table, and luckily I found like a piece of plywood. So okay, I can use it as lapboard, and I can see a little easier. So, yeah, it’s been fun.
Xavier Guilbert : Do you have the impression that over the successive days, you’ve kind of warmed up to it ? Because I’ve seen some of the things you’ve done for the 24 minute exercise, and in the first ones there’s pencil and some ink, and then I have the impression that, little by little, you freed yourself from your usual way of doing things.
Charles Burns : Yeah, it’s trying to — find something that works. It’s almost — I think that one of the things that I brought up in a conversation with someone is that the reason — there’s a lot of things that artists do to move forward. I think I was stumbling a little bit, because I was — so I have to pencil this thing, and then I normally pencil and ink, and at one point I was like : okay, pencil’s sufficient to give you a clear idea of what that is. So yeah, just finding things that work. Like : oh, this is not working at all, because I’m trying to struggle with the wrong end of whatever that is. But yeah, it’s a learning process, and in that regard, it’s just saying : okay, I’ve never done this before, and I’m a little intimidated, but I’m going to dive in, and, you know… it works. It’s fun.
Xavier Guilbert : You still can be intimidated, even having had your career ?
Charles Burns : Oh yeah, of course. That never changes. That never changes for me anyway. I’d look over… I think that’s pretty typical of most cartoonists I know. Just like looking at someone’s work, and your jaw drops open and like : “how did you do that ? It’s amazing !” Like looking at Helge’s drawings — oh my God, he’s just sitting there. So of course, now I’m — you know, I pulled out one of his books, and did my version of one of his characters, and just… It’s interesting, to look at something like that and really analyze how and what makes that work, and why that’s interesting. So — it’s funny, my mind, I’m thinking : okay, I’m seeing a woman from the side, so you’re seeing her shoulder, but he’s doing kind of an Egyptian pose, and it’s something you didn’t intellectually think about but then you’re looking at it — how does he do it ? How does that head work ? How does that strange little mouth, and how does he have that really disturbing look on everyone’s face ? So you examine it in a different way you would. You have the experience of that when you’re reading, but when you’re looking closely, it turns into something else. You start examining the structure, how and what makes the drawing work. Not that I can make my version work like his version, but I’m still — you’re still examining it in a different sort of way. That’s fun.
Xavier Guilbert : Well, real collaborative work is when the result doesn’t feel like it’s an assemblage of disparate things, but something in between — and definitely new.
Charles Burns : Yeah, I mean — for example, I don’t know, I would imagine you’ve seen it, but I did a collaboration fairly recently with Killoffer. And initially he mailed me, saying : “hey, I’m going to be editing this issue of a magazine [Mon Lapin, at L’Association], and I’m the editor and I want to collaborate with each artist.” And his strategy was — it would be twelve panels in all, so he cut out twelve panels and partially drew maybe the first three or four. And the idea — so I didn’t know what I was getting. The only discussion we had was : “okay, it’s gonna have something to do with the woods. It could be Little Red Riding Hood — no. It could be Robin Hood — no. Garden of Eden ? yes !” I mean, that’s loaded with all kinds of good stuff. So that’s the only real sense that I had, it was like, okay, it’s gonna have something to do with the Garden of Eden. And — and I know his work well, and I’ve seen his various styles, so my assumption was that — oh, it will be line work. And then these amazing pencil drawings that are just — you know, look so strange and so… I was speaking of being intimidated, I was like : I’m going to ruin this — he spent this time on this work, I’m gonna ruin his beautiful artwork.
Xavier Guilbert : You hadn’t seen his collection of pencil drawings ?
Charles Burns : Oh no, I have, I was aware of that. I was aware of all of his styles, I knew that. But my assumption — I don’t know why, my assumption was that it would be line art. You know, I’m doing line art, he did line art, but suddenly, I have this 3D, like — I still don’t know how he draws this way, I just don’t get it. But it’s beautiful. And what I did from there was, you know, start working on those drawings. I think I read — he had a kind of a vague idea of how, you know, the progression, the story, the narrative. And then I switched things up, put some things in the beginning, and then… moved it around. It was just a — it was some back-and-forth there. Initially, he wanted to have, you know, another mailing back maybe four times. I think we did three. Yeah, three times. But there was a moment I thought : oh, fuck, I can’t believe — why did I ever say yes ? this is too hard ! (laugh) And it really was hard to try, first of all, at least a very minimal narrative, and then just figure out something that would be enjoyable to draw, and something that would fit in with what he’d created already. So I think that one of the last things he sent was — I don’t know if you remember, but there’s just like one of the panels that hadn’t been filled, there was just this weird cloud in the sky that looks like this fetal, this bulbous baby. What am I going to — how am I going to fit that in ? So — eventually I did, and I was actually very pleased with the results. My friend Alvin Buenaventura just did a limited edition of that with a panel per page. Because I really enjoyed just looking at — I guess, that’s how I looked at it initially, it was just like a panel. So he did them full size, and we made a little hand-made book. It has a flexidisc in it, by Will Oldham, so… a lot of things. Yeah, so that was the third part. Will Oldham, who, I don’t know if you know him — Bonny Prince Billy, and he goes by other names — unbeknownst to me, he was a fan of my work and Alvin knew him, and he said : so, do you want to do a single ? And he showed him the artwork, and he actually created a song which is playing off the imagery of the Garden of Eden, and it’s a — for me, it’s a heartbreaking song. I’m like, I have to be careful when I play this song, or I’m going to tear up and cry (laugh). It’s a — so that another third part in the collaboration, that was interesting. So — that exists.
Xavier Guilbert : One last question, which is about the connection to France. You’ve been published by Le Dernier Cri or by Stéphane Blanquet’s United Dead Artists — both publishers that probably would not be the first to come to mind for American artists, I guess. We’ve also talked about the collaboration with Killoffer, there’s also been Peur(s) du Noir… What is it between Charles Burns and France ?
Charles Burns : I don’t know, I mean probably just because there’s such a strong comics culture… Yes, as far as there’s the American comics culture. I’m not dismissive of the Asian comics culture, but it’s… And there’s plenty of books that I like, but I’m not drawn to it in the same way. I guess part of it is that I’ve traveled enough, and you know, the cartoonists I meet, French or German — I don’t know, it’s just… And I like doing smaller projects. I love Blanquet’s work and I’ve been, I saw the new — it’s not new for you, but Helge’s book, and I was : “wow ! do you have an extra copy ? I want that” (laugh). Because they’re putting out great books, and there’s enough publishers — maybe there’s a little bit more — I’m not sure, I was going to say maybe there’s a little bit more of an underground there, but not really. But maybe a culture of — I know that Blanquet’s kind of keeping that going. But… yeah, I think it’s just artists that I admire and there’s that — that’s the kind of link I guess, that I can think of.
[Interview conducted on August 6th, 2015 in Minneapolis, during PFC#5]