Charles Burns Takes Readers into "The Hive"

It's been two years since Charles Burns' last book, "X'ed Out," was released. The first volume of a trilogy released from Pantheon Books, it was his first major project since "Black Hole" concluded. This fall saw the release of the second book in the series, "The Hive." An ambitious story told out of sequence featuring two worlds and multiple time periods with a long list of influences apparent and otherwise, including Tintin, the punk movement and more.

With a lengthy career as a cartoonist and illustrator, including regular contributions to "RAW" and "Heavy Metal" and illustrating covers of magazines like "Time" and "The New Yorker," Burns had little to prove after the completion of his magnum opus "Black Hole," but he decided to tell his newest story in a new format, setting down formal guidelines for himself and making the rare move to work in color. CBR News spoke with Burns about the project.

CBR News: "The Hive" feels rather different from "X'ed Out." Was that always the plan?

Charles Burns: The plan was to put together a story in several books. Initially, it was going to be two books, and as I was plotting everything out, I realized I needed three books to sort that out. It's something that I worked out structurally, but I've also allowed it to, not take a life of its own, but allow myself to build on the story and allow for other ideas to enter in as I've been working, which is the enjoyable part for me.

When you were sitting down and thinking out the books, was the idea that each would be different as opposed to three similar parts of a longer work?

I wanted to have them separated. You're seeing the protagonist in a slightly different time of his life. We're seeing him slightly older and in each book we're going to be seeing the protagonist in a slightly different time of his life. That's part of the structure, too.

How much did "The Hive" change from your original notes to the printed book?

The way that I'm writing, there's a skeletal structure of elements that I know I want to include. It's a story that's got a beginning, middle and end, but there were parts of the story that seemed like they were a little off to the side, but now they feel more central to me. Initially the focal point was going to be on a particular point of my life where I was living in the Bay Area of California and in the world of punk music in the late seventies. I was in art school [at that time] so a lot of the things that the character was going through certainly were things that I was involved with or interested in looking at carefully.

I ask how much has changed because you clearly know this larger story but you're very carefully and deliberately parsing out details. How hard is it to do that when you're allowing yourself such openness? How much is set in stone?

Nothing's really set in stone other than the general ideas that I start out with. Nothing's set in stone in the sense of I'm not writing a script and then illustrating that script. The way that I work is really cartooning, meaning, sitting down and putting the visual and the written together and letting that story unfold. I've also set myself up in a particular format, each book is 56 pages, which is the size of a traditional Franco-Belgian album format. It's fitting within that structure. That being said, I haven't reached that point yet, but the last book might be ever so slightly longer. [Laughs] I'm trying to make sure that everything is in there. Maybe it will slip in there at 56 pages -- we'll see.

In a recent interview, Chris Ware said "the real power of comics is writing as you draw." Is that how you think and work?

This series is probably more of that than in the past. In the sense of writing as you draw, allowing things to happen on the page as you're working and allowing yourself to come up with new or better ideas or newer ways. The only kind of example I could give would be if you have ten people and you give them all the same story, you know that one person is going to be able to tell you that story in an exciting way. The theme's the same, the story's the same, but what's changed? There's something about the way the person's telling it.

That's what I'm trying to get at when I'm working, trying to find that way of making the work come alive, the characters come alive, the story come alive, and that's the constant struggle, trying to make that happen. I can look at something that I've drawn and sometimes it feels flat to me and sometimes I come up with something that surprises me. Those are the times you're hoping for; the moments that motivate me to keep doing what I'm doing. That discovering something as opposed to illustrating some text. That's why I've never collaborated with another writer before just because it seems like it would be a real tedious thing to illustrate someone else's ideas.

As part of that, you're working in color for these books. How have your thoughts on color changed and how do you make that an aspect of discovery and not a task?

I've used color in my illustration work. That's always been a necessity and just part of doing commercial work, so I have some sense of being able to use color and how that works, but in this series of books I wanted to have the color be a part of the storytelling process. That's been interesting and new for me to think about how you can use color to help tell the story. How to use color as a storytelling element. Again that's part of that process of discovery for me is finding what works and finding how you can use it.

Do you see yourself doing more color work after this?

I don't really know. I tend to be someone who really focuses on what's going on right now. When I think of the future it's always a little scary, [Laughs] but if I put the blinders on and look down at what I'm doing now, I can focus on that. So I don't really know. I guess my answer would be, if it seems like it would be appropriate for the story, I would certainly use color.

In "The Hive," there's a panel where Doug is reading a comic titled "Nit Nit and the Secret of the Hive" and the cover is the last panel of "X'ed Out" and this is the character he wears a mask of.

That's one of the elements that I was a little hesitant to include. You got the connection between him using the mask and the name and that idea. There's a reference where he's wearing a t-shirt and he's visiting his father in the hospital and his father is saying who's that? He's answering, it's me, and his father goes, no, that thing on your t-shirt. The reference is, it's just this character that I came up with. You have some sense that he's read Tintin like I did and creating this character on his own, looking at these kids books as a source for this world that we see referenced, but having something that explicit, I don't know whether that's something that is necessary for the story.

I got a promotional t-shirt, which was that shirt.

[Laughs] Now you have walk around in it. I had a conversation with them and saying I have no problem with doing a t-shirt but does my name have to be on it? It's odd to think of anyone walking around with my name on their back. That's weird, but I guess it's part of promotion.

Comics keep coming up in the book and romance comics in particular. What's your relationship to romance comics? Is this a genre that interests you?

There was a period when I started to go to comic book stores and realized that some of the comics that I'd read about in the histories of comics were there to be looked at. Most I couldn't afford, but there were some I could. That was when I discovered older romance comics, and discovered that there were also really cheap romance comics that you could buy for next to nothing, at least way back then. I was drawn to the artwork initially, and then to the stories. There was something about those kinds of short stories that were very repetitive and interesting. The idea that you've got these middle-aged American white males writing romance stories for ten-year-old girls was interesting to me. Just thinking of what those stories are and what those stories mean. They tend to be repetitive and they tend to be of a template that you can explain fairly easily.

When I was an art student and had friends in bands, I had a girlfriend that I'd buy romance comics for. I bought her very cheesy nineteen-sixties romance comics, and we'd look at them. There were times I cut them up and collaged them, used them for prints or posters. That's part of what I went through and that's how those specifically found their way into the story.

There's a conversation early in "The Hive" where she's talking about missing a few issues of comic and her frustration over the gaps in the story. Were you laughing at the drawing board as you came up with this?

[Laughs] It's pretty rare for me to laugh while I'm drawing, but it's a good image.

You are drawing a conversation about hating gaps in a story in a story that has gaps.

You're also getting information that's been implied or talked around [in that conversation] as she's describing what happens to these characters. If I'm correct, there's no information that the main character has had abortions before, for example. That's something that's made more explicit there. So, yeah, we're talking about the gaps in the stories, but there's also more information that relate to the real world characters, Doug and his girlfriend.

I have this theory about the books which I just wanted to mention. In "X'ed Out," Doug is drugged and he's weaning himself off them, but he's jumping around, his memories and thoughts are muddled. Now things are becoming clearer as the drugs work his way out of his system which is part of why "The Hive" doesn't jump around quite as much and presumably the third one would be even clearer.

Presumably, yes. I'm working on it right now, and I could give that away. [Laughs] It certainly jumps around back and forth, and more about his personality is revealed. He seemed very damaged in the first book. In the first one he was struggling with drugs. In the second part you're seeing that he's traded that in for what appears to be a drinking problem and acting inappropriately while drinking too much. And the third book -- you're going to have to wait to see how clear and sober he gets or doesn't get. All of those things are related to his personality and who he is and the fact that he's unable to come to terms with part of his personality. In the beginning of the book, you're hearing his voice saying, "I wanted to tell her everything," and it's clear that it's his need to be honest and let this story out, but he's unable to tell it to someone else -- and probably unable to come to terms with it himself. That's an ongoing struggle that he has through the three books.

The final volume is titled "Sugar Skull." Can you say what that means or does that give something away?

That gives something away. "The Hive," I guess, is fairly obvious. "X'ed Out," you can find some references in the book itself to get some sense of where that comes from. "Sugar Skull," I just don't want to explain anything. I could, but that seems like ruining any pleasure there is in reading through the three books and coming up with a solution themselves. With "Black Hole" for example, I've had people tell me conclusions that they've come to about the characters and the plot that weren't necessarily my conclusions and I think that's perfectly fine with me.

Do you have a name for this trilogy?

That's a good question. [Laughs] For most of my European publishers, the idea of having a series of three books is something very normal; there's a whole history of authors that do that over there. I think the idea of having three books that are in a series here, there's always the sense that they have to be gathered into a complete volume, which it's my understanding that we will eventually do through Pantheon Books. I'm not sure exactly what form that will be. I'm digressing here, but the short answer is no. [Laughs] I'm working on it and I have ideas but I haven't come up with a final idea yet. It's an odd concept when you have three books and what do you call all three of them? I don't have a solution.

Is part of that, for you, the result of thinking of the books as three very different and separate volumes instead of a single story serialized in three parts?

You can tell that the format is based on the traditional Tintin books. My original idea was, I'll break it into two books. There were a couple books like "Destination: Moon" and "Explorers on the Moon," where you've got two distinct parts of the story. Anyway, it's three distinct books, and that's the way I would leave it if I had my choice. It will have a beginning, middle and end. It's not just open-ended -- at least, that's my plan. I don't know if everybody's going to agree with me when I'm done. [Laughs] I hope that will be clear.

Just to change topics, you do a lot of illustration work and you're one of the few comics artists and illustrators on your level who doesn't have a retrospective or monograph --

That's something that I've been working on for a while. I've made a few attempts to assemble a book, but these days I've come to the conclusion that I need someone to co-edit the book with me. That's what I'm planning on at this point, to gather a lot of material -- some comics material, but primarily illustration material -- to put together a book.

You're in the midst of the third book right now, and not to spoil anything, but is there anything you've discovered about these books just through the process of making them?

Well, I discovered from working on the whole series that the story doesn't really have much to do with punk rock or music. [Laughs] Other than the fact that you have these characters in a very specific time at art school. It comes out of that, but my sense was that it was going to focus more on that specific culture and I realize that it's much more about a lot of other things. I guess that was one of the first things that I became aware of. I had a couple false starts when I was starting the story, and I think the problem was that I was narrowing it down to, I have to stay within these parameters or stay with this idea, so now it's more like background material or the setting.

You said that you set the books in the Bay Area in the late seventies, but if you had said it's a contemporary story, there's little that would have to change.

I'm not someone who draws in a way that you know instantly -- it may be my lack of skills -- that it's 1973 as opposed to 1983, but for me there's some giveaways. References to what people are wearing and that sort of thing but it's not necessary, per se. "Black Hole" took place in the early seventies, and that's the look of things or the way I remember people looking at that time. I don't know. People are still wearing similar clothing. I still see plenty of mohawks out my window here in Philadelphia, and it's been how many years?

Charles Burns' "The Hive" is available now from Pantheon Books.

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