Writer/artist Charles Burns has had a long and distinguished career in comics. He has been a major contributor to “RAW,” “Heavy Metal” and other anthologies, his work has appeared on the covers of “Time” and “The New Yorker,” and he is the portraitist and cover artist for the magazine “The Believer.” He’s worked in advertising, designed the sets for a production of “The Nutcracker” and produced the fold-out album cover for Iggy Pop’s “Brick by Brick.” Most of his comics work is in print through Fantagraphics in the volumes “El Borbah,” “Skin Deep” and “Big Baby.” All in all, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Burns has done just about everything.
For most people, however, when they hear the name Charles Burns, they think of his magnum opus, “Black Hole.” Serialized between 1995 and 2004 before being collected by Pantheon in 2005, “Black Hole” is set in Seattle in the early seventies and deals with a sexually transmitted disease that causes physical mutations in teenagers. It uses the tropes and atmosphere of horror movies along with the skill of a talented artist at the height of his craft to create one of the great contemporary depictions of adolescence in any medium.
For his new book “X’ed Out,” available this week from Pantheon, Burns is serializing his new story in three volumes – and he’s working in color. CBR News spoke with the acclaimed creator about his latest project.
CBR News: Typically the first question is, “What is the book about?” Someone asked me that about “X’ed Out,” and I said the best comparison I could think of was “Tintin” meets “Black Hole.”
Charles Burns: There’s a little bit of that. There’s certainly a very strong Herge influence. If you just think of the Franco-Belgian style of creating comic albums in that format, the way those European make them which is the 64 pages, 48 pages. A hardbound albums with continuing characters. I was one of those rare kids of my generation who grew up reading Tintin and it had a very profound effect on me, so this is the way that I can kind of reflect on that and play with some of those ideas.
Pantheon previously published the collection of “Black Hole.” What made them the right publisher for this book as well?
I enjoyed working with them in the past. They have a great collection of authors that are doing comics. It was just a matter of enjoying working with them and thinking that I was going to give this book its best chance to get out in bookstores.
Do your projects typically begin with images, story, themes? What is your process?
A little bit of all those things. I had a very vague idea that I wanted to do a comic that took place during the original punk era that I experienced living around the Bay Area in the late seventies. It started out as that. I had a few false starts where I was really doing, not a literal translation, but I was just approaching it in a way that seemed very pedestrian. Very uninteresting, ultimately. I also realized in the process of making notes and gathering ideas, that there were other ideas that were starting to enter into this story. The primary focus wasn’t just about punk culture or that time period specifically. It grew out of that and it grew out of a few false starts. You were asking me how I work, and generally I work just by taking notes and notations and little scribbles, drawings, sketches, that sort of thing, and going from there.
You have a reputation for meticulous work. Is it just a question that every step takes a lot of time?
Yeah, it’s a continual thing. In this book in particular, even though I have a skeletal structure for everything in the story, I’m also allowing for a lot of things to enter into it that I’m not anticipating, which is making the whole process interesting for me. The process is, a huge amount of information gets jumbled back and forth and back and forth and then it gets distilled down to very, very specific, very tightly gridded out comics that you finally see.
You mentioned certain things cropped up while you were writing. I’m curious – what’s changed?
Well, there’s themes that are entering into it. I don’t want to be too specific, because I’m thinking about them. I know what they are, but I don’t want to broadcast them. The way the story starts out, especially in the first book, is really skirting around the central issues. You’re seeing this obviously very traumatized protagonist who’s in bed taking heavy opiates. He’s hallucinating, he’s in really what looks like really bad shape, but we don’t know how he got that way. A lot of the storytelling is his personality, which is not dealing with this central issue. It’s this very elliptical storytelling that skirts around and slowly, slowly centers in on the key elements. In the first book, you’re seeing it start to set up those things. You’re meeting the major characters. There’s a conflict that starts up where the protagonist is at a girl’s house and the door buzzes and there’s a crazy boyfriend who’s outside trying to get in. Again, I’m trying to resist explaining my story, because part of it is that mystery of circling around and telling the story in the way I am.
When you watch or read something, a comic, a book, a movie, whatever, do you enjoy non-linear stories and storytelling?
Yeah. Especially in this case. Those sorts of things were happening in “Black Hole.” There was a lot of jumping around where you had different characters giving their perspective of the story or a series of events. The story had all these jigsaw pieces that you were slowly piecing together and finding this whole story, eventually. This is done in a similar way, I guess.
What led you to utilize the three tiered improvised grid for the book’s layout?
I had really enjoyed spreading out when I did “Black Hole,” where I really was creating all these pages that were really open and really had no constraints. In this particular case, I wanted to have this grid where…it’s a hard thing to explain. I could cut in images that I’d used previously, so there was a kind of rhythm and patterning to the way the story is told. I wanted to have those constraints of this very strict grid.
I’d always wanted to do a book in color. I guess it probably came from reading “Tintin” books when I was a little kid. Before I could actually even read, I was looking at those books, absorbing those books. I wanted to do something different, a different kind of challenge. When I approached the color book, I wanted to do something that wasn’t just doing a colorized version of my black and white work. I really wanted to use color as a means of telling the story, so having that new element was really fun, or is really fun ,because I’m still working to use that as another tool for storytelling.
So it was important that you color the book yourself and not just hand it off to someone.
Oh, yeah. It’s essential. The way that I work is very painstaking and intense, so every single little thing that’s in there, every color, every subtlety, I have to make sure that I’m in control of that. Luckily I have someone I work with who does production and has this very amazing eye to make sure everything looks the way I want it to look. I couldn’t hand it off to someone else. It would just defeat the purpose. Like I said, it’s all integrated together. The color really is an important part of the storytelling. I mean, you can read the story in black and white, but there’s elements you’re just not going to get or see in black and white.
Are you enjoying working in color?
I have, just because it’s new to me. Like I said, I’m discovering things I can do to tell a story that you can’t do in black and white, so that part’s fun.
How has your process changed for this book. Composing an image for say, “Black Hole,” it was a finished image. Here after you’ve drawn and inked it, it’s a still a work in progress because you’re coloring it afterwards and not using black in the same way you previously have.
Well, it’s part of the writing. It’s anticipating what you’re going to be looking at and how it’s going to be. There are areas where I’ve delved back into that dark, chiaroscuro-shaded figures, but I’m aware that there are things color can do very well. There’s a portion of the book that is much more clear lines, open lines, that are similar to the Belgian-French style of cartooning, where color is always an integral part.
This is the first volume of a series of three. From your perspective, are you thinking of them as three individual volumes?
Without giving things away, there is a reason for that. There will be three specific time periods that these books take place in. There’s a reason for that. There is certainly the traditional cliffhanger ending, which I couldn’t resist, but yeah, there’s a reason for it being split into three books.
Is it similar to how you thought about “Black Hole” where it was initially released as separate, serialized chapters?
Not entirely. “Black Hole” was always conceived of as being a book that would be all collected together. I’m not conceiving of this as, “Here’s three books that will eventually be collected into one book.” When I get interviewed by the French and Belgian press, I won’t be answering this question, because it’s a different tradition. I’m kind of emulating that tradition by doing a series of books in this manner. For example, when I was doing a signing in Southern France, there was someone who came up to me and who explained that he was really hesitant to buy “Black Hole” for a long time because it just seemed too foreign to him, this idea of this big volume. He wasn’t used to that idea of the graphic novel format, whereas now, it’s really been assimilated over there and popular over there as well. Here, the questions I get asked are, “Gee, this seems like a really slender volume for a graphic novel.” It’s not trying to pass itself off as a big graphic novel. It’s a different style of storytelling.
So “X’ed Out” is similar to many of the “Tintin” books, where one would end and would lead directly into the next volume?
Absolutely. Initially, I was going to do just two books, and that really was what it was based on. For example, you’d have “Destination Moon” and then “Explorers on the Moon.” There were a few others. “The Secret of the Unicorn” and “Red Rackham’s Treasure.” You have two books that are two distinct books, but they eventually tell a longer story, as this will.
How far along are you into the second volume?
[Laughs] I’m moving slowly. There’s always a guilt factor. I’m a little over halfway through the next book, so I’m chugging along at a snail’s pace, but I am working and moving ahead.
In the tradition of the Franco-Belgian albums, where there’s usually a few years in between volumes.
I’m going to be adhering to that tradition. Hopefully not much longer than that.
It was interesting to hear you mention that you set it in the seventies and that was always the intention, because I think many readers will think it’s taking place in that time, largely because of the associations with “Black Hole,” even though there’s little that specifically dates it to that era.
I always joke about this inching ahead in my storytelling. We’re no longer in the early seventies – we’re getting to the end of the seventies, trickling into the eighties by the time I’m done with the third book.
“Black Hole” is, and I know I’m far from alone in this, one of the great portraits of adolescence of the past few decades, and not just in comics. That time is something that defines a lot of graphic novels, so I’m curious why it’s a time period that you keep returning to and if you have any thoughts on why so many others do as well?
I really can’t speak for others. I don’t know. The only type of generalized answer I can come up with is, it’s such a volatile intense time in anyone’s life. Of course, I could talk about raising children and sitting in my studio each day from six to six or whatever it is, but there’s a level of activity [then]. Your mind and your body are changing so dramatically in that time period. That’s what I was drawn to. Reflecting on that and the intensity of it, at least the intensity of it for myself. I had friends of mine who were slightly older and went to Vietnam, and that was a central focus in their life. I didn’t have that. Mine was more about sex and drugs and going out to listen to music. That was the primary focus. I’m just reflecting on that intensity.
Obviously, it may speak of my lack of maturity as well. I don’t know. It’s certainly something that I find myself returning to.
Do you remember your dreams?
It depends, but I do pay attention to them, and I do try to, not necessarily incorporate them into my work, but I try to incorporate that kind of feeling and intensity. In the second book that I’m working on, there are distinct dream images that play into the story. I pay attention to my subconscious, let me put it that way.
You asked me about the whole process of writing, and a lot of that has to do with not censoring myself in any way and just digging deep and trying to write everything down, even though occasionally there’s situations where, I’m not upset, but I’m not sure it’s something I can actually deal with on the page. So I try my best to dig deep and uncover everything. Subconscious, conscious, all of it.
Where did the title “X’ed Out” come from?
“X’ed Out” specifically has to do with the fact that you’ve got this kid who’s trying to go on a drug reduction. He made this crude map and he’s “X’ing” out the days, almost like someone who’s in prison. In a certain way, that just seemed a good way of addressing his personality during this period of his life where he’s just not really functioning very well and almost in prison, a prison that he’s made or a prison that he’s in, and he’s just “X’ing” out the days.
There’s other connotations as well. There’s the whole punk culture where you’re “X’ing” yourself out of “mainstream society.” That was a theme than ran through that whole entire period.
You’re married to painter Susan Moore – I’m curious about whether you think there’s a thematic influence you’ve had on each other or influences that you share and have each gone in your own direction with?
I don’t know, specifically. I know that we talk about our work. We both do photography. I was more of a photographer before she was, in the sense that when I was in art school I was taking very seriously. There are plenty of references to that in this story. She does portraiture and figurative work, and I think there’s some connection there through the photography and how we look through a lens and how we confront the subject.
Her “Second Skin” series is interesting, where she drew the figure in graphite and their tattoos were be in watercolors, or the figure would be in oil and the tattoos in acrylic. It was interesting to see that contrast, because your work is distinguished by the detailed naturalism of the alien and grotesque and the foreign. Just reviewing the dates, there must have been some overlap between her working on this series and your working on “Black Hole.”
I hadn’t really thought about that. I think there’s ideas that we push back and forth when we’re looking at each other’s work. We’re very dissimilar in a lot of ways, which is good. We’ve never been in a situation where there’s that kind of competitiveness, in the sense that if she was writing a book and her’s got published and mine didn’t get published, or something like that. We’re both working in the arts, but we’re working in a way that’s dissimilar enough to be able to talk about each other’s work and not have any form of kind of competition, which is nice. Trying to get into a show and getting in and the other person didn’t. That’s not the case, which is good.
Fantagraphics has released three volumes of your early work, and for years there’s been talk of a fourth volume to finish collecting those early stories, but nothing’s ever come of it. Is there a reason why?
Well, there’s always been talk of a fourth volume. At a certain point, I kind of pulled the plug on that. It felt like when you get the DVD set and you’ve got all the episodes and there’s that last disc with the extras. I’ve got a couple good stories and some interesting bits and pieces, but they don’t really fit together as a whole book. In a certain way, I would feel guilty I was foisting this collection of bits and pieces. That was my hesitation. So it’s at a stand still. It may come out at some point, but again, I feel like all the other books, in one form or another, hold together and feel like a complete entity. A real book. This would be more like a scrapbook.