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Charles Burns Eats A “Sugar Skull”

by  in Comic News Comment
Charles Burns Eats A “Sugar Skull”

Acclaimed as one of the great cartoonists and illustrators of his generation, with a lengthy career that includes contributions to “Raw” and “Heavy Metal,” “The New Yorker” and “Time,” Charles Burns has also generated an impressive resume outside of comics, having also worked in advertising, designed sets for “The Nutcracker” and serving as longtime cover artist for “The Believer” magazine. His series “Black Hole,” which was released as a collected edition in 2005, won numerous awards and was named one of the Top 100 comics of the century by “The Comics Journal.”

With the recent release of “Sugar Skull,” Burns’ latest opus has come to a conclusion. Serializing the trilogy through Pantheon Books, the cartoonist set out to tell a story in a new way, both in terms of the storytelling and in the size of the pages, using color instead of his traditional black and white approach, and a general rethinking of his approach to work. The result is a tale about being in one’s early twenties, about youth and growing old, fantasy and reality, mortality and the choices that we make.

CBR News: I really enjoyed “Sugar Skull” — reading all three books back to back, and even without pulling apart the details like I did later, it made sense.

Charles Burns: I’m glad to hear that. It’s supposed to — in a very elliptical sort of way. I came up with a strategy of doing three books and having those three books come together to tell a complete story. I’m sure there are some readers who got frustrated thinking about how is it going to end. You don’t always need all the information. I think there’s a lot of things that are suggested and you can speculate about those things.

“X’ed Out” opens with him waking up in a version of his parents basement which opens onto this dreamscape and “Sugar Skull” ends in a similar fashion. Was the intention to make it feel as though he’s trapped, in a sense?

I never like explaining my stories, but there are certain stories and images and plot devices that do have that suggestion of being trapped. The fact that the very first part of the story not only has the hole in the wall, but you’re hearing this buzzing sound — which is the buzzing sound of the intercom that keeps being repeated throughout the story in different situations. Then that very final frame has that torn out intercom — wires looking as if it’s pulled out — but it’s still buzzing. There’s certainly that.

In “Sugar Skull,” we have more scenes of Doug’s dad than ever before and he’s someone who is trapped in his memories.

There’s plenty of moments where Doug is reflecting and/or seeing himself in a situation that is similar to the trap that he saw his father in. The idea of those early scenes with him as a kid looking down into his dad’s basement office and seeing his father there, with a box of photos, obviously trapped in the past and reminiscing about a former life. Then you’re seeing that kind of thing repeated throughout the story and seeing Doug revealing those kinds of characteristics as well.

When you started this project, you said that were interested in color. How has your thinking about color changed as you made the books?

I had previously used color for illustrations, so it wasn’t as though I’d never worked in color before, but when I started working on this series of books, I really wanted to not just do colorized black and white work. I really enjoyed using colors as part of the storytelling. That was a discovery for me, to think about that and think about what color can do. Not only setting a mood or having a sense of atmosphere, but also the repetition of colors clueing you into a mood or just thinking about what color can do — that was something that was a challenge, but something I really enjoyed working with.

There are some technical things that you can do with coloring that layers things that you can’t do with black and white. I’ve always loved the purity of black and white, and there’s a huge amount you can do with that, but having the opportunity to use color was interesting. There are certainly things you can do, like having the foreign comic book covers that people are reading have a purplish ink that sets them off from the rest of the look of the book. Things like that are nice to be able to do.

In “Sugar Skull,” Doug has an X’ed out calendar which has a very different meaning from the calendar in the first volume.

I guess part of that is, I always think about that cliche about someone who’s in prison who’s marking off the days on the calendar. That kind of imagery comes through. A lot of the story has to do with a sense of time and mortality. He’s looking at his father’s life. He’s seeing himself age. He’s thinking about where his life is going. All of those things add up in addition to the straight storytelling.

In “X’ed Out,” Doug’s thoughts were very muddled, in “The Hive,” he was clearer, so the story didn’t jump around quite as much and his thoughts were clearer — my theory was that “Sugar Skull” would be clearer and fill in many of the blanks in the story and the things that happened that he wasn’t dealing with in the earlier books. I was kinda right.

Certainly, I was trying to show his state of mind in different parts. In “Sugar Skull,” you’re seeing that, for the most part, he’s on the wagon. He falls off for a portion. There’s certainly a suggestion that he could easily fall off again, but yeah, I usually try to show through the visuals the characters’ state of mind, whether something is off balance or off kilter or thrown off or scattered. There are moments where Doug is seeing his girlfriend’s ex, and you’re starting to see these fragmented panels showing his reaction. I think about that and trying to show those emotions and reactions in different ways.

In “Sugar Skull.” Doug is clean, and by being clean, he could confront many of the things he was avoiding dealing with in the first two books.

It slowly moves in that direction. Again, you’re seeing in the third book that he’s living with somebody in what looks like a nice apartment. I’m sure she’s the one who keeps it clean. [Laughs] When you’re seeing him for the time there in this bed — which is an echo of him sitting in his parents’ basement on the fold out couch — it’s got a nice bedspread, the colors are warm colors. You see on his side of the bed, the one part of that’s dirty with an ashtray and matches and cigarettes where everything else looks immaculate. [Laughs]

I’m sure you’re used to people having theories about your books. I’m sure after “Black Hole,” people had a million theories.

I like that. I’ve talked to people that see “Black Hole” as being this really negative story, and others thought it was really hopeful at the end. There are certainly those things in there. It depends on the reader. It depends on what they pull out of it. I like to allow for all of those interpretations.

Why did you title the book “Sugar Skull?”

At the end of “The Hive,” you’ve got the Nitnit character who’s walking with his pal and they stop and he buys a little sugar skull. There’s wording that he can’t interpret and he asks what it means and it’s, “I was you.” [Laughs] I was thinking about The Day of the Dead and Halloween. I was thinking about William Burroughs being down in Mexico. There are some references to him eating sugar skulls. His son shows up at the end, dressed in a Halloween costume with a skull mask. I was playing with all those themes and ideas, and so, “Sugar Skull.”

The idea that the dead are close by relates to him and his father, and their relationships to the past.

Yes — taking his father’s ashes. A meditation on mortality. That’s sounds heavy, doesn’t it? [Laughs]

I was trying to find a lighter way to phrase that.

Things come out the way I want them in the book. They don’t really come out in conversation, unfortunately. I’m not as articulate as I’d like to be, and so when I sit and dwell on all these ideas, I write a ten-foot pile of notes and it gets distilled into those books. That’s the best I can do. I’m never very good at explaining them, I’m afraid.

How did “Sugar Skull” change as you were working on it?

Through the entire series, there were portions of it that came out as I was working on it. You mentioned the importance of the father in the book — that became a larger part of the story than I had initially anticipated. I thought there would be something there, but it ended up being a stronger focus. The way that I set it up was allowing for things like that to enter into the story — or to be able to have some flexibility as I’m working. That’s the part that makes it interesting for me. My initial idea was, I’m going to do a story about when I was in art school and listening to punk music. That’s not really what the story’s about at all, and that’s fine, but that can be a starting point. The same way you were talking about someone sitting in bed, seeing a hole in the wall and stepping through that hole. That was my way of forcing myself out into that world and thinking about all those ideas.

So the initial idea behind the books was to explore that period of time and that period of one’s life?

Every time I start a book or a series or something that’s a fairly long narrative, I have a number of false starts. I was doing it not as autobiographical, but I was adhering much closer to what my real experiences were. I realized that I just had no interest in doing that. I had two or three attempts at beginning a story. I wasn’t necessarily interested in punk music, per se. I wasn’t even necessarily interested in art school students. I was interested in that time period — that seemed like a good time to examine. That was a jumping off point.

Have you thought of a name for the trilogy?

That’s a good question. I have thought about it, but I don’t have a definitive answer yet. It is an odd thing. They were really conceived of as three books — and I think they’ll be collected in the US and other countries as a single volume — but the idea of a series and having complete stories in these more slender books is normal in other parts of the world, like France and Belgium. I don’t think there’s that need for them to consolidate them in a single volume, but I think that’s going to happen. It was not a question that I asked myself going into it. I was concentrating on the three books, and I wasn’t thinking about, what do you call it when you put all three together? [Laughs]

You don’t want to call it something like “The Nitnit Trilogy?”

That’s what it gets referred to as right now. I think I refer to it as that, and I’ve heard other people refer to it as that. I don’t know that’s a great idea to print on the cover of a book. Nitnit? What does that mean?

You’ve talked about Tintin being an inspiration for your style and approach, and the Tintin series just had separate volumes even when they were connected.

That was the template for all the Franco-Belgian books. 56 or 64 page books with a hardbound cover was the norm. I was traveling when “Black Hole” came out in France and Belgium, and I remember talking to some people that had finally bought the book but they were like, it seemed so strange. It was this big, square, thick book. It didn’t fit into the idea of what a comic should be for them. All those things are shifting. I did pick a format that’s not very typical for bookstores here in the United States, but it really had to do with me wanting to make that series of books and have them look that way. Luckily, I had a publisher who went along with it. I love the look of the books. I think they turned out beautifully. I had indulgent folks at Pantheon Books.

The book just came out, but you finished it a while ago. Have you started thinking about what’s next for you?

I have. I’ve taken an enormous amount of notes and I’ve been writing and writing. I’ve had some false starts, which is pretty typical. When I’m starting a new project, there’s always this hold over — a hangover — from the previous series. You want to focus on a new project, but there’s this holdover of the way you were thinking before and the way you were writing before. I realize that I need to step back and to come up with something different. It’s not just a matter of not repeating myself or trying to reinvent myself. I immediately launched myself into another colored book and I thought, why does this book need to be in color? I also launched into a story that I wasn’t happy with. I’m going to hold onto the core of the idea, but I realized after many pages that I wasn’t happy with it.

You want the next project to be as different from this trilogy as it was from “Black Hole,” in some way.

Maybe. [Laughs] Not different just to be different, but to make sure that I’m doing it for the right reasons.

What are the right reasons?

Function follows form, form follows function. The reason I did a color book the way I did was based off those books that I grew up with. I wanted to do something in that style. “Black Hole,” I think, would have looked really weird in color. It wouldn’t have worked. I guess it’s possible you could colorize it, but just thinking about the format and thinking about how it’s going to look and why it’s going to look that way — I guess that’s what I mean. Not necessarily having to change my style or anything like that, but I have the opportunity to do whatever I want — so I better figure that out. [Laughs]

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