Charles Burns

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For a time, I thought that this interview would not happen. First scheduled during the Angoulême Festival, this encounter went through a long string of missed opportunities throughout 2007, to the point I was beginning to accept it as fate. So it was without much hope that I walked up to Charles Burns after a panel held at the Forum du Nouveau Monde during Angoulême 2008, asking him if it was possible to … “Of course.” “When… ?” “Why not right now ?” No more than a hint of hesitation, and the oft-delayed interview finally took place in the quiet of a deserted café. And it was well worth the wait…

Xavier Guilbert : I’d like to start off with Black Hole, not only because it received a prize at the Angoulême Festival last year, but because it was also for you a kind of accomplishment, considering the length of the project. How long was it in the making, ten, twelve years ?

Charles Burns : Let’s say — maybe ten year. Up to ten years. (laughs) Because it’s always one of those — I always kind of … you know, cringe, when I think about the amount of time. On the other hand, it is what it is.

XG : Then how do you keep the coherency of such a project over ten years ? Especially when, reading it in one sitting — it’s very tight and well-structured for something that went through different changes of publishers. How can you keep the Faith in something like that ? And how do you keep it from evolving too much as you yourself might have changed ?

CB : It’s interesting that — I mean, that’s something I was aware of when I started. I always knew that it was a complete story, it was always a complete entity. The reason for serializing it was — for a number of reasons, at that point, in America, it was kind of a typical way of having a longer story put out. You could serialize it, with the idea of collecting it. But … I’m losing my thread, I’ll get better once I have my coffee.

XG : How did you keep the structure ?

CB : As I started — like I said, I always conceived it as a whole. And I started out by charting out the entire story, chapter by chapter. And I think initially it was going to be thirteen issues, like American-sized comics. Since then I had the kind of specific chapters all worked out, because for example there are ideas that I bring out in the first few stories that are only really addressed until the middle of the story, or never resolved. So yeah, I needed to have that structure.
That being said, I was able to kind of — I had the luxury, because of the amount of time, I had the luxury of being able to find better ways of telling the story. It’s almost like, I don’t know, if you think about a story that gets passed down from generation to generation, maybe the story gets sort of streamlined and put together in a better way. The same ideas in the same story, but you find the right words and the right way of putting it together. So things were condensed and things were edited, but because I started then stopped on it, I was able to kind of step back and think about it, reflect on it. Which I think was beneficial in the long run.
So despite the fact that it was — I mean, you’re asking “how were you able to keep the Faith ?” that’s part of what is difficult in that you just — “I hope I don’t get in a car accident before this is done”. And I actually talked to cartoonists who have a contingency in case, you know, with their cartoonists friends : “if I die, here’s the note for the rest of the story”. But, anyway.
That was … I think, on the one hand, the reason it remains consistent is because I would always go back and forth and really wanted it to be this complete, very tight story. And also perhaps because my style of drawing is very consistent, and very concise, and that is a consistency as well.

XG : Having it serialized, was it a motivation to go forward and not look back ? Looking at the whole, are they early pages that you would have wanted to change once you’ve reached the ending ? Or are you satisfied with the way it all turned out ?

CB : You would think with that time period, I would look back and say : “Oh, I wish I hadn’t done this or that.” But actually, I think because I work so slow, or the methods that I work with, by the time it comes down to the final page, I know that it is what I want.
And to answer your other question, having the serialized issue was this kind of motivation that you get some piece and some kind of reward for that. It’s nice to have your work published and just see this kind of finished pieces. Almost like building a house and you say : “Okay, the first floor is done”, and you have something that’s solid and it’s concrete, it’s there.
And it’s also — in a certain way it’s also keeping … I mean, not that I have some huge public, but at least it’s something that’s out there, that exists in the world. So that was good on all those levels.

XG : And how did it feel to get your hands on the big Pantheon collection ?

CB : That was good ! I mean, I was very lucky in that I knew the editor, Chip Kidd, at Pantheon. I was very lucky that I’m friends with him. There was never a moment where I thought there would be some kind of — I don’t know, a strain in our relationship at all. I was able to say “I want this, this, this” and the answer was “yeah, of course”. I was able to design the book, I was able to — ask for the certain kind of paper that I wanted, which is extremely unusual.
So, I was very happy in that regard. And there was nothing about — usually, there’s always some small thing that you think “oh shit, I wish, I wish this would have come out better”, but that wasn’t the case. It really was the book that I wanted and I have no — I can’t complain about it in any way. Because I really had the control, maintained the control on everything.

XG : I get the feeling that Black Hole also marks a major change with your previous works. First, it is by far the longest story — you used to focus on short stories, even if they included recurring characters. Was that a conscious decision at some point ?

CB : It actually was a very conscious decision. I think — I mean, it’s funny, I’ve been going back to my work because I’m putting together a book of illustrations, kind of an art-book, and in a certain way I’m kind of looking at a lot of old work and going through a lot of work and thinking about it. And there were very specific periods of my work, where I was working — for example, I had a weekly newspaper strip where I was serializing some Big Baby stories for a while. And there is a certain feeling in those stories, and there were, you know, certain constraints of what you could put in a weekly newspaper.
And in what preceded Black Hole, there was — for example, there was a Big Baby story that had kind of those teen plagues sort of issues. Big Baby, he had a babysitter, she invites her boyfriend over, and the boyfriend is infected by something, and in this case — I know this is a dumb metaphor — but it’s like a rash that is slowly rising on his body, it’s the shape of a Devil’s head that’s reaching up, and eventually it’s going to reach — it’s going to be visible, but it’s still being hidden by their clothing.
So there were themes in that story, and then there were a number of other short stories that dealt with the same issue. Then I realized I really wanted to do — I really wanted to delve into this much much deeper. And I wanted to have enough time to not rush through, and to really think about it. And the other thing I wanted to do, and I was very conscious of it, was wanting to creating a much more character-driven story. And when I say — I don’t have the right words for it, it’s not being more honest, but perhaps being more personal, having a more personal voice. I mean, Big Baby is definitely one of my persona’s, but — in some ways, through each of the characters in Black Hole, there’s some part of myself that I had to think about — and draw.

So those things were a very very conscious decision. And I mentioned at the talk that I was just at, that there was a period I did a first attempt at the long story. And I was — initially I think the idea was that these characters had actually died, and were coming up, they’re almost — not zombies but people who had come back and were out living in the woods. And the very polarized community — I mean, completely polarized : they’re in the woods, kind of like the bad guys, and then there’s the world outside, the good g… anyway, having this very polarized world, and I realized that that was not something — that it seemed much more like my earlier style of storytelling.
And I wanted to have it much more integrated in the real world, where you have characters that, you know, they button their shirt up, they can hide their disease, for example. Some can, some can’t. And I loved flying with all those things… for example, there’s a character who’s seen in the woods who is overweight. But you don’t know see any other symptoms, and it’s never explicitly — it’s never explain, but there’s the idea that perhaps she lives there because she feels more at home with these characters. So anyway — that was my motivation, to really explore a lot of ideas and to go wherever I wanted to with the story.

XG : I also get the impression that Black Hole feels more personal, because you previously had a certain fascination for the grotesque. With Black Hole, it’s more about something that is more deeply rooted. How did you manage, being fully grown-up, to capture the anxiety of teenagers, who feel their body turning into some sort of — monster ?

CB : It’s funny, I did — because I was probably more emotionally attached to this story than anything I have ever written, and I realize now, and I don’t know if it’s just a personal change in myself, but I realize now, in the work that I’m doing now, that I don’t seem to have achieved that sort of connection to the work. It’s very strange, I feel much more removed from the story. And I don’t know how to answer the question of how I managed to do that — but I did work very very hard to try that, to immerse myself and think very very deeply about what those feelings were.
Again, the way that I work is — writing a huge, huge amount of words where nothing is censored, and there’s never any sense like — “oh, I’m going off on a tangent here, that’s not necessary”. I kept everything. And sometimes finding a very obscure trail would reveal something that was important to the story. So I have — I mean, I could show you a pile of notebooks from the floor to here of this writing that was, I would say, probably, at least 90 % of it was something you would throw away, but out of that you would find that was a unique trail, a unique idea that had occurred to me.

XG : Do you think it was a work you were walking around waiting for the right time to tackle it ? Kind of the tale you wanted to tell from the start, and now that it’s done you get back to something less intimate…

CB : I honestly don’t know. I’m trying to — I have no interest in repeating myself. So in that regard, I told a very specific story. You know, maybe it is my one important story that — maybe it is my one important story, I don’t know. I hope not, but, hum… I know that I couldn’t have told it earlier in my life. I know that I didn’t have the skills, and I know that I didn’t have the temperament to create that story. I think I needed to be mature enough as a writer and an artist to be able to complete that story. I worry about artists who do important, important stories when they are young — and then how do you continue that kind of momentum, and continue with the process of writing and discovering new ideas. So I feel lucky in that regard that I did that story at the time I did.
I think that every artist is — if they are a good artist, it’s a constant turmoil, a constant struggle. For example, the work I’m doing now, is in color, and it’s new for me. It’s interesting to have this new tool, to use. And I’m using it as a storytelling device, not merely doing a colorized version of a black and white story, I’m really thinking about what I can tell with color. And it’s very — it’s a new discovery for me. It’s nice to … I mean, it’s nice not to be repeating myself. I mean, I started the story I’m doing two or three times, and there was a point where I was thinking : “I no longer know how to write, I no longer know how to draw” — you know, I’m done. You know, that frustration. But I think that struggle is what keeps you alive and keeps you creating.

XG : What I felt was really strong with Black Hole, is that from the start, it’s very difficult to know where the story is going to lead you. There are a lot of elements and themes and symbols, and the trip that all those characters are going to go on, growing up and finding their place. And in the end, it felt like some kind of a “road movie”, even if they don’t actually move much.

CB : I’m always — I’ve always loved, even if Black Hole isn’t necessarily … well, I’ve always loved stories that have that starting point, and it’s almost like you start at the top of the river in the story and you can see that very distinct beginning. And I love that idea. With Black Hole, what I really wanted to do what to have the time to look at all the characters very carefully, and see their growth and see them change. And see that they are not one-dimensional, and that they have their life.
But at the very end you have the two characters who escaped to the South-West. And they’re out in the bright sunlight — very briefly they’re out in the bright sunlight and its warmth. And there’s this kind of sequence in the hotel room, where it’s also this kind of very pathetic, almost childish discussion about, you know : “we’re going to have a great life together, you’re an artist and you’ll paint, and I’ll find a job, and …” And even if there is optimism, there is also — it’s a very naive optimism. For me, very kinda heartbreaking naivete. Which is what I remember having, this kind of things — very unrealistic, but on the other hand, it’s not pathetic, it’s not horrible, it’s just a kind of sweet … kind of way of thinking about those characters.
And showing a character who at first seems alive, who seems very kinda tough and world- — you know, tired of the world, or very kinda aggressive and strong. And see that she has this very weak and needy side of her. And you’re seeing things about Keith, who at some point, you can see that even though he’s talking in a certain way about being a nice guy, you can see that he’s doing things that are not — that are very self-centered, and not being such a great guy. I liked being able to explore all of this.

XG : While the virus makes it seem at first like there are the pure ones and the impure ones, the bad guys in the woods opposed to the good guys, things turn out to be more subtle. There are a lot of moral issues that arise, and it’s more about becoming an adult, beyond the sexual aspect. You really managed to capture that moment in the teenage years, where there’s the anxiety of the first time, but also the anxiety about the next. The first time is one thing but — what do you do after that ? You were talking about the end, there’s some sort of closure, but it’s not exactly a conclusion. There’s going to be something afterwards, and there is still some anxiety remaining.

CB : Right, and even — for example, you’ve got Keith who is … it’s very clear that he has this very romantic, naive, idealized viewpoint of Chris. He puts her on a pedestal, he puts her up there, she’s beautiful — he doesn’t really know her, but he’s still projecting all these ideas on her, he has this kind of love for her, that there’s no reason for. It’s purely, a kind of romantic viewpoint. And then suddenly, there’s this very odd situation with a naked girl who’s got a tail, and the fact that he’s aroused, this very kind of … I don’t know.

XG : Animality ?

CB : Primitive — I’m trying to find the right word. Primal, this kind of instinct, this animalistic sort of, instinctive urge, and it’s suddenly — the kind of confusion of him almost wanting to deny that. He has this kind of ideal, but on the other hand there’s something of that purely natural urgency that he feels for the moment that transforms him. He comes to an understanding of what this is.

XG : There’s also the opposition between the suburban life that Chris embodies in a way, with Eliza representing a more liberated, beatnik kind of counter culture. Was that also something you wanted to … ?

CB : All those things play into it. I mean, there’s a part of Eliza’s story where she makes — it’s never clearly discussed, but she makes the reference to the fact that she ran away from home at some point. And alluding to the fact that this idealized family life — perhaps since she refers to a stepfather, maybe there was some sexual problem with the stepfather. So for her, going to the wood, for her to be involved in more subterranean subculture is better than being in this kind of happy, happy-normal suburban middle-class lifestyle.
So she’s making this by choice, whereas Chris, on the other hand, talks about — I think she’s sitting at school, and thinking : “if my parents ever found out, if they discovered, then I have to run away, I have to go, I have to escape to the ocean or someplace”. So for her, it’s very clear that there wouldn’t be the understanding of her parents saying “stay with us, we will take care of you”. They would have no understanding of her change, of her.

XG : It’s interesting, because in Black Hole adults are very much absent from the picture. You’re talking about the influence of the parents, but they are never there.

CB : Yes. That was very intentional, in that … First of all, that was another level of the story that would take it so much more in another direction. And that was just an issue that would just be a totally different story, or turn it in another story. And my feeling at that stage in my life, my world was — my parents existed, but my world was my friends, and our community, and the importance of what we were talking about on an everyday basis. And it was almost, I would find my way into the house, and find my way around my parents to continue my life. So that was just the way I felt about it at that point.

XG : Now that you’re a parent yourself, have your daughters read Black Hole ? What was their reaction ?

CB : It’s funny you brought that point. I was working on Black Hole for quite some time. So when I started, they were younger — I mean, young enough that I was not comfortable with them looking at some of the pages. And so every now and then they would come in and I would turn over some of the pages. You know, coming in in my studio, and I was “this isn’t really appropriate”. And the joke was that, “when you’re eighteen years old, you can read the story.” So, my eldest daughter read it — and liked it. My youngest daughter found it and… “well, I don’t want to read it. You’re my father, I don’t want to put some things together”. But it was funny though, and I understand completely.

XG : You mentioned your next work would be in color and that was something you had no experience with. I’m very interested in the things that you’ve done in various areas — there was Facetasm, that was more playful than what you usually did, but also One Eye your book of photographs that came out last year, there’s also Peur(s) du Noir on another level, and then there’s is your illustration work. What pushes you to try and experiment that, and what brings you back to comics ?

CB : In a way, I guess, there are … three worlds. There’s like the commercial, illustration world, that’s where I do advertising and illustration, and that’s primarily an economic — something I do for money. Not to say that I dismiss it from my work, it is my work, but it’s work that is someone else’s idea, or I’m illustrating someone else’s story, or selling a product or something like that.
And then there’s all those kind of fun projects, like you’re saying, Facetasm or other projects that are either collaborative projects with friends that come in, that I take on, that are fun to do. There are almost — like interacting with people. With Facetasm it was doing something with Gary Panter who’s a good friend of mine, whose work I admire very much. So I’ve done — actually two projects with him. There’s one who’s called Pixie Meat, which was just kind of trading pages back and forth, it was a ridiculous kind of fun comic.
And then of course something like Peur(s) du Noir, I took that on — which is a major project. I took that on after I had done Black Hole, because I really did want to try something new, and try something that was a collaborative project. The nature of doing comics is something that’s such a solitary task, because I do everything myself, I’m sitting in a room by myself, day after day. So this was something that — the movie was something that was very different in that.

XG : Are you satisfied with the result ?

CB : Yeah, I think — I mean, there were constraints. When I look at the work, I can see … if we had another year to fix every little part, this, this and that … I think my eyes, I’m a perfectionist and I always see every little piece that is not perfect. On the other hand, I was very pleased with it, I think it did its job, and I think that there are some great pieces that are in the movie … very good pieces. My initial reason for joining or working on the movie is that I admire all the artists, and I wanted to be involved with them in the movie.

XG : Was it difficult for you to let go of part of the creation process ?

CB : It was. First of all, I was in a very unique situation in that the producers really wanted each artist to be in as much control as possible. Meaning that I wrote the story, storyboarded it, designed all the characters, designed the set. I worked on the music, I directed the actor and actress… everything : the sound design, the editing … which is very unusual, for anyone to have that kind of control. But that being said, after you have everything all set up, in every single part there are things that you don’t control. In some cases you don’t control because you just don’t have the skills. I was very lucky that I had an excellent editor who had a very natural — I don’t know if it’s natural, a very great ability to look and think about the pace and the rhythm of the story. And she was really helpful in that regard, of just saying : “you know, we don’t need this, this and this” and I immediately could recognize that she was correct. So I was lucky to be involved with people who were very talented.
But there were some things, even though you were directing, you could say : “well,” talking to an animator “you need to have him walking through the woods here”. But how do you tell someone how to make someone walk ? (laugh) There’s — I don’t know how to make that character walk. (laugh) So yes, I realized that there is a reason why I sit in a room and work by myself. There is that kind of — I’ve always worked with editors and publishers that have never had any input whatsoever on content, anything other than saying things like “you missed a word” or “the spelling is wrong” or the punctuation or something. I’m trying to think if there’s any … I can’t remember any other time there was any suggestion about a change in content or … for better or worse, but there’s never been any influence in that way.

XG : About that next project you started two or three years ago… it’s going to be in color, it’s also going to be a reference to Hergé’s work…

CB : We can’t mention that at all, but — no, I’m joking.

XG : What strikes me is that — well, Black Hole is set in a very identified time period, but overall your aesthetics and your inking style are very referential to the 60s and 70s. So is it a conscious process, to use a character that was active during that period, and to reinterpret it in your own way ? Maybe I’m over-interpreting here …

CB : No, it’s never a conscious decision on my part. As far as just the actual look of it — again, I would have an incredibly hard time explaining what this new story is, because … you don’t see it, you don’t know. There’s two different threads in the story, and there’s one that does have this kind of hallucinatory Hergé-influenced world that’s very simplified and cartoony-looking. You know, very — not minimal, but more open. Less in the shade, I guess. And then I revert back to a much more typical style of mine.
Someone was looking at it and saying : “you will never get out of adolescence, out of a certain time period”. And I said “well, no, that’s not true. Black Hole takes place in 1973, and this takes place in 1977 or 78.” So we’re moving on a little bit, this takes place during the punk — the advent of the punk era. I was in the Bay area, around San Francisco, from 1979. So it’s around the era when the whole punk movement was all beginning in San Francisco. There’s a relationship there to that. It’s my story about that time period in my life — partly. It’s also about … mortality. (laugh) Not immortality, but mortality … and opiate. (laugh) And William Burroughs. (laugh) William Burroughs meets Hergé.

XG : That’s quite an interesting pitch…

CB : I don’t know — it’s one of those things that I don’t know if I can pull it off, but I’m trying to. I have no idea whether it’s going to be a success.

XG : Is that a way for you to try and — not bring together, but reconcile two aspects of what you’ve been doing until now…

CB : Yeah, I don’t know. I think, when I started it … when I started it, like I said, I started with two different attempts to get into the story. And I just felt that I was repeating myself, repeating the way that I was telling the story. It was — my feeling was that I would never do another comic, if this was the way I was going to proceed. So in a way I almost kinda turned off my editing — the part of my mind that edits things. And I just started working in a very — not a very intuitive way, because I have the story worked out, but I just started working. And I don’t know how to explain.
I guess, part of the feeling is that … the story takes place in the punk era, it doesn’t have to be San Francisco but that’s where I was at the time. It takes place in that time period, and William Burroughs was who I was reading at the time, and thinking about the idea of — of his cut-ups, and how his stories were cut up, and in certain ways I’m incorporating that into my storytelling as well. And hopefully I won’t be too obscure.

XG : How long is it going to be ?

CB : I don’t know. It’s the first time I’ve ever started a story without a publisher or a place to publish in mind. So my feeling is that because it has this sort of franco-belgian feel to it, because of the Hergé influence, I think it will be in a standard-sized album format. Which I know is very generic here [in France], but in the United States, for me it still feels a little exotic. It’s almost the way — I don’t know, maybe the way American comics feel more exotic here. But for me, it has this feeling of … I don’t know, when I was growing up and coming to Europe the first time, and seeing these beautiful, hardback album, I was … “wow… this is what I want”. So I still have that kind of urge to have it in that format. So I think at this point — again, it could change dramatically, but at this point I think it would be maybe two albums, two albums in that kind of format.

XG : And any kind of schedule or idea of when ?

CB : I would love to say “very soon”. But I’m surprisingly slow, it even seems slower than normal. I don’t know why. For me it almost feel like each page is learning how to draw again, learning how to do comics again. And maybe that’s good, I don’t know. But it still is very slow.

XG : To conclude, I’d like to get back on something that appears from this conversation. Obviously, you put a lot of yourself into your work, even if it’s hidden or expressed through different characters at once. And at the same time, you’ve expressed a reluctance to explain things — is that for fear of revealing too much of yourself ?

CB : It’s not in fear of revealing too much about myself, it’s … it’s the fear of not letting the work speak for itself, or letting the reader interpret the work. Because I work so hard at articulating it on paper, to say “oh, this means … this means …”, I feel like I’m only saying one tiny, tiny part of it, where I want the work to speak for itself. It’s that frustration of realizing that I’m not very articulate when speaking about my work, and I prefer to have the work be on its own.

[Interview conducted on January 27th, 2008, in Angoulême.]

Entretien par in March 2008