Charles Burns

For more than 30 years, cartoonist Charles Burns has been creeping people out. First in the pages of Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Raw, then through the exploits of characters like wrestler-detective El Borbah, then with Black Hole, a magnum opus that took a decade to complete, Burns has created unsettling landscapes filled with unrecognizable but oddly familiar life forms that might have crawled right out of his subconscious. He’s a prolific illustrator as well, his style familiar even to those who don’t know his comics. With X’ed Out, the first in a projected three-volume series, Burns is on familiar turf, exploring the neurotic netherworld of a protagonist whose consciousness flits between the real world and an unnamed dreamscape in which he appears as a Bizarro version of Tintin called Nitnit.

Unlikely as it might seem, Hergé’s immaculate adventure comics serve as a persistent touchstone for X’ed Out, which replaces Burns’ imposing blacks with washes of color. (If you thought his inky miasmas were disturbing, wait until you see what he does with flesh tones.) Although it’s only 56 pages long, X’ed Out is a gratifyingly dense work that rewards multiple readings, threaded with recurring imagery that’s impossible to pick up the first time through. Burns leaves plenty of mysteries to answer in future volumes, but the more time spent in X’ed Out’s world, the more sense it starts to make. Burns met The A.V. Club in his Philadelphia studio, surrounded by archival comics collections, monster figurines, and a black Stratocaster, to talk about the status of the Black Hole movie, the formative influence of punk rock, and finding the middle ground between Hergé and William S. Burroughs.

The A.V. Club: Depending on their age, a lot of readers first came into contact with your work in the old Raw anthologies, or through the “Dog Boy” segments of MTV’s Liquid Television

Charles Burns: It’s been a long time. It’s funny. When I talk to people, a lot of people say “I saw that when I was a little kid, and it was really disturbing.” For me, it’s hard to place. It was an odd project to work on, but I thought, “Okay, I’ll try this. What do I know?” It was a collaborative thing. My input was writing the script, and I know the director was a successful commercial director in England, and he had this idea that it was this visual thing. The narrative side of it really didn’t come through very well. There was a situation where I was like, “Wait, I wrote this whole episode, and this whole part’s missing.” “Well, we ran out of money, so I can’t do that.” It was just sort of edited together, and then someone else edited it some more. So that was my introduction to that world of collaboration in film.

AVC: Your visual style is instantly identifiable, and your commercial illustration work greatly outnumbers your comics—

CB: I’m slow.

AVC: And as a result, you’re somewhat undervalued as a writer. The layering of the elements in X’ed Out and the way you play the elements in different worlds, or different mental states, off of each other is fascinating. You have to read the book four or five times before you really start to appreciate it. 

CB: That’s really what I want the book to be, to have all these layers that have this resonance that starts to build up. Maybe you’re reading through it the first time, and you pick up the general flow of it. It’s one of those books, or—the series especially, when it all comes together, really has the repetition of imagery and color, and how all those things start playing off of each other, and how they build up. That’s so much to do with what’s the story is about. The way this protagonist, Doug, is telling his story, he’s kind of circling around the perimeter. So you’re seeing these images, and eventually you’re seeing this damaged character, and you could tell he’s working on avoiding a lot of things. We don’t know exactly what it is, but we’re starting to get a little inkling of this, and this, and this. We see his father, we see his cute, sexy girlfriend he’s interested in, we see these little pieces that are starting to build up.

AVC: You have a single panel of his father in a hospital bed, which doesn’t connect to anything else, but presumably will down the road.

CB: Right, right, right, exactly. So all those little threads—I mean, nothing’s random about any of those images. They’re all little threads that will be pulled together and dealt with, and are there for a reason. It will be three books that are going to come together.

AVC: How much is written now? Do you know where it’s all going? 

CB: It’s outlined. I’m over halfway through the second book. But again, you’re right, I work slowly. I’m going out on some book tours for two weeks, and another two weeks in Europe. So, it’s like, what do I do? Initially, I had thought I was going to do two books, in the form of—you can see all my Tintin books over here—done like [Hergé’s] Destination Moon, Explorers Of The Moon. There are a few books that are double books, two books that told one story in the Tintin series. So it’s based on that, that idea of putting it together. But as I’m working on it, I realized I really needed to have three books.

AVC: Hergé isn’t someone people would necessarily have pegged as an influence before this book came out. At what point did he come into your life, and when did he come into this project?

CB: It is unusual. When I was growing up, before I could even read, there were six books that were translated into American. There were English translations, but these were American translations that were published by Goldman Press. My dad was interested in comics and books and art, and he would regularly go out to bookstores. He found me the first, it was The Secret Of The Unicorn, and he brought that home for me, and I was totally dumbfounded and totally into it. I had seen typical kid comics, but this was really something different. You were really entering into this incredible world. I couldn’t read yet, so it was really examining those pages, reading it a different way than you would as an adult, I guess. Sometimes you’re just reading it to get through the story. This is examining the atmosphere, and the characters, and everything about it. So even though that clear-line, Franco-Belgian look that Hergé developed doesn’t really enter into my style of work. I think a lot of the intensity of the locales and the atmosphere of the stories certainly sunk in. And the characters. 

Anyway, I was hooked at a really early age. I was looking at a lot of different things. The style I started emulating more was the classic comics style. My dad had reprints of Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad comics. They were little Ballantine paperback books; the comics were originally in color, but these were black and white, so I was looking at these black-and-white reprints. And again, this is before I could read. I was a kid that was, not sheltered, but at that age, you’re not out and running round by yourself. You’re at your parents’ house. There were a lot of cultural references—almost all the cultural references, I had no idea what [they meant]. I didn’t know who Sherlock Holmes was. I didn’t know who Mickey Mouse was, but I could tell that was kind of a cute, weird character. So there were all these references to television, movies, books, and I was looking at them very carefully, but not reading and not knowing what the references were. I mean, I grew up with them, so I started knowing what those things were. But even so, you got some sense of a grotesque world. Bill Elder was one of the artists I liked the most, and he shows up most in my work. He has this thick brush-linework, and this dense, not-quite-noir look, but everything is thrown in shadows. There’s grotesque junk around, debris.

AVC: Chicken fat.

CB: Chicken fat, yeah. There was just this look that was really intense, and it took a long time for me to have any sense of how any of that stuff was done. I would try to mimic that sort of line, but using a pen. I knew that cartoonists used pen, so I’d use these little crow-quill pens. It wasn’t until I was probably in high school that somehow I figured it out. There was a guy that was a really bad cartoonist, he did stuff in Kar-Tunz or something. He said, “Oh yeah, you use a brush.” He told me exactly what it was, and I went and used some of my dad’s brushes, and eventually figured out that if you use a better brush, you’re going to get a better line, and so on. So it was just really seeing what that was, trying to mimic that, and just liking the look of that kind of tapered, thick-to-thin line that I’d grown up with. There were a few other things that I looked at, but those were the primary [ones]. On one end, you have that very classic American comic look, and then the influence of Hergé—which, I get it, it doesn’t manifest itself in my work real clearly. [In X’ed Out,] it’s obviously much more. You know, I’m doing something that’s a little bit open lines, everything’s not thrown in shadow. Still, he steps out into this underground world that does have this grime and darkness to it.

AVC: It’s like the story of Roger McGuinn being fascinated with George Harrison’s guitar sound, but being mystified how he got it until he saw A Hard Day’s Night. He’s playing a Rickenbacker 12-string, where the two rows of tuning pegs are lined up right behind each other. There was a moment where he turned the guitar sideways, enough for McGuinn to see he was playing 12 strings instead of six, and The Byrds’ sound was born. 

CB: It’s funny how obvious some of those things seem. I’ve looked at books, too. I was looking at books at the library. My dad actually had books too: How To Do Comics and this and that. But they almost seemed like, “That’s the adult world.” That’s something I could never figure out. I was just kind of looking at the images, having some sense of, “Okay, here’s a bottle of ink, and you have to do that to be a professional.” But dip a brush into a bottle of ink? That’s not a concept. 

AVC: Is the completed three-volume work going to be called X’ed Out?

CB: They’re all going to be different stories. So for the next one, it says “Next: The Hive.” So the next book is called The Hive.

AVC: Is there a name for the trilogy?

CB: No, not in my mind.

AVC: Some people have overstated the similarities between this book and Black Hole, even to the extent of getting things wrong. One reviewer was talking about how the main character in X’ed Out has some sort of STD, which isn’t true. 

CB: Oh, I haven’t read that. I try not to read things this time around. I’m trying to avoid good or bad critiques. All that stuff seeps into your brain. “Oh, maybe it is shitty.” But, no, it’s the book I wanted to write. These [gestures to shelf of Black Hole editions] are the books I wanted to write.

AVC: X’ed Out is grounded in a specific time and place. You have a character listening to a Patti Smith record which places the story in 1977.

CB: Right, exactly. When I started out, originally my plan was to focus on the punk world. That was a really significant part of my life. I was in the Bay Area, there right when all this stuff was happening. Fall 1977, I was around there and just starting to see the bands there. Everything went very quickly. It was something I just really enjoyed. I had friends who were in bands. It was just a part of my life. So I wanted to write a story dealing with that particular period. I did a few attempts, and I realized I was falling back into the way that I had been writing Black Hole. It didn’t feel right, and I just wasn’t happy with the way it was going. I eventually found a way in with a story that wasn’t just about that. It certainly does put it in a very specific timeframe, and there are a lot of ideas that are about that period. But it isn’t just about that specifically.

AVC: Is that the point at which the color element came in? That’s a pretty obvious distinction between X’ed Out and Black Hole.

CB: It’s funny. I had been taking notes and going back and forth. So I had a lot of these ideas, and I just barreled into it, including all this “I’m going to find my way in this way.” There are a lot of ideas. I was allowing all these ideas to enter into it, which was not so much the way I worked before. It feels different than the way I worked before. It’s sort of trusting instinct a little bit more. Certainly it’s constructed to be a very specific story, and it will tell a story in a different way, ultimately, than Black Hole. Black Hole jumps through time as well, but this has a different feel. There are references in there to William Burroughs. Especially the character who’s taking on this… He’s an art student, and I was an art student, and I was reading William Burroughs at the time.


AVC: You actually did some performance art where you stood at a microphone and played a tape with your voice on it, right?

CB: I don’t know where you read that. I probably said something at some point. It was based on stuff I was doing at that point. But Burroughs enters into it, and the protagonist is doing his spoken-word performances, trying to be like Burroughs, being a very artsy-fartsy sort of art student, standing up there doing his performance, and not getting a good reception at that point. Some of the writing, or the way the images are collaged together, has a feeling of a cut-up. There’s nothing random about it the way Burroughs was literally cutting pages and trying to do it almost the way you do a collage, try to put these words together and create cut-up writing that way. There’s references to that, but there’s nothing random about the way I’m piecing things together.

AVC: How much of it is intuitive, leaving little pieces around for you to pick up later? When the character first goes into the sewer, we see a skull with an ossified version of his Tintin hairstyle.

CB: There’s little things like that that are just creating an atmosphere, an environment. Specifically, the idea of having the eggs, eating eggs, all those things are going be an element of the story that’s coming up. Looking at the cover, there’s an apocalyptic landscape with a green river.

AVC: Using color changes the way your linework functions. You’re creating shapes to be filled, not stand-alone drawings. Was that something you wanted to try?

CB: I didn’t want to just do a colorized version, using color to fill it in. I wanted to use the color to help tell the story. With comics, if you’re looking at the pictures and take the words away, you can’t understand the story. And vice-versa. That’s the idea here too. If you bleach the color out, you’re missing a portion of the story. Even, for example, in the very beginning of the book, when you first see this little pink, there’s something burned—

AVC: It looks like flesh.

CB: Right. So you have no idea. But later on, when it comes up again, you’re seeing the reference of his dad smoking in bed [with a pink blanket on his lap]. If you didn’t have pink, you might notice the spots. But for me, there’s something much more compelling about having that memory of that color. When the color appears in a different situation, you’re going to think about that. Also, I don’t have to describe “He was wearing a purple bathrobe. His dad was also wearing a purple bathrobe.” You’re just making these associations. You can see that instantly.

AVC: You can leave things to be discovered as you’re going back and forth between worlds.

CB: So the color can create an atmosphere, and it’s also, like I said, part of the storytelling as well. I’ve worked in black and white so long, and it’s not a crutch, but you’re showing form with shadow and lines. Way, way back when, if you look at my really, really early work, I used to use what used to be called Zip-A-Tone, tone patterns. That was a way of flattening something up and having a surface drop back in space. Eventually, I got rid of all the tone and gradations, and just had everything in pure black-and-white. In a certain way, it goes back to earlier work, where you could show a black evening sky, but when you’re drawing it, there’s nothing there. You’re just using a dark, dark color and putting some stars in there. So it’s fun for me to work that way. That part’s enjoyable to think about how to use the color, and it’s like a new set of tools to think about. I’ve used it for illustration, but that’s different. It’s a singular piece, it’s not working it into a narrative. 

AVC: You said you’re doing all your coloring on a Mac. Is that the first time you’ve used a computer in your personal work? 

CB: Doing color illustration, I would have to come up with different ways of making color work. Early on, I was doing watercolor and gouache, which was really painstaking. It would make me nervous. If you drop one little blob of paint somewhere, or spill something, you’re in trouble. Eventually, I had this weird technique of doing black-and-white linework, and getting a transparency made of it. You know, taking it to get a Photostat—nobody knows what a Photostat is anymore, of course.

I’d go to downtown Philadelphia. They were all over the place, but I went to this one guy. All the stores were like saying, “Ah, sorry, nobody needs that stuff anymore. We’re getting rid of our cameras.” There was one last guy in downtown Philadelphia. I’d go down there and get my transparencies made. The color I would make with almost like an animation cel. I would paint it from the back, or do flat paper color from behind. So it was like you had this overlay of black and white, of linework over the color, like an animation cel. But eventually there was a day I went down there. “Do you want to buy my Photostat camera?” “Oh, shit.” I had to figure out how to get a computer. Do I invest in that, in this dying process? You probably can’t even get the chemicals and all the stuff anymore, I’m guessing.

AVC: It’s like Polaroid closing up shop. There are artists whose process involves manipulating the emulsion as it develops who can’t create in that medium any more. The same thing with Super 8 film.

CB: It’s weird, because I bought some of those. Whatever the company is, there’s some group of guys that took over the factory, and they’re saying you could buy for real expensive [amounts]… Basically, they injected the last really crummy chemicals so you could buy Polaroid film. And I said, “This is great!” The thing is, these look like the really shitty Polaroids you would throw out. It was like expired film they were selling. They still haven’t figured out how to get it up and running. I’m waiting for them to get the really bright [colors back]. I love the saturated colors and the look of that. Obviously, you can see it plays a part in [X’ed Out]. I took a lot of Polaroids. There’s something really nice about that bright, plasticky color. It has an odd artificial look. And the cameras, the SX-70, were really pretty amazing. They were reflex cameras. You could focus through the lens. The early SX-70s, you could put on a tripod, and the shutter would remain open. You could do like a two-minute exposure. There were really pretty odd things you could come up with. They were nice cameras. I’ve still got mine tucked away. Like I said, I tried to buy some supposedly new film, but I guess I didn’t read the print properly. When I bought my camera… You used to be able to take your bad shots; you could get 10 of those, you could send them in and get a roll of film back. These were the stuff you send in. “Does your picture look like this? Maybe your rollers are screwed up, or maybe your film is expired.”

AVC: There are a few things you can read in X’ed Out, like the lettering on the Patti Smith single and the Nitnit comic book. But a lot of the writing, especially in the dream world, is in a language you’ve made up. Even in the real world, when they’re shopping for fruit—

CB: Oh, right, yeah. They’re down in the Chinese market, because they’re walking through Chinatown.

AVC: Why did you decide to make up your own language?

CB: In that case. The first time that you see the unnamed character… I refer to him as “Nitnit,” which is Tintin spelled backwards. He makes a reference to it, too, when he does his performance. When he gets booted out into this world, it has this kind of Middle Eastern look that’s certainly inspired by some of Tintin’s adventures.

AVC: And William Burroughs’ Interzone.

CB: Absolutely. The way Burroughs described the Interzone, which was based on the international zone in Tangier, was that it was this composite city. In other words, it was made up of all these places that he’d been, almost like a dream city. I’ve had those kinds of dreams, where I’m in a very familiar place, but it’s definitely an urban environment. There’s a little bit of that. So Interzone could be Mexico City, where he lived, New Orleans, St. Louis, where he grew up, Tangier, all those things put together. I think that will be the face of, or the look of that city will emerge as the story progresses, as well. There’ll be things — like I just did, I can show you. I just did a page where he’s eating again in the cafeteria of where he works. We’ve got this sushi-like food that’s coming out. It’s some nasty looking things. Almost like Jim Woodring. I was looking at it, “It kind of looks like how Jim Woodring might have drawn those.” That sort of thing. My wife had just found some photographs. She had been to a show in Rome, and someone had been photographing these amazing houses built out of debris. Somewhere in Africa, I didn’t have the info about it, but I found some things online. That idea of cities built into hillsides, on top of swamps, rivers, and that kind of feel to it, a city that just sort of spreads out.

AVC: The way you’re talk about Burroughs constructing Interzone is that it’s almost a palimpsest, an overlapping of layers of memory. X’ed Out functions the same way. The recurring images in both worlds suggest that your protagonist may be recycling them without being aware of it. 

CB: Yeah. Good, so you’re reading carefully! [Laughs.]

AVC: It took a few times.

CB: There’s even situations where I look back, and “Oh, I was thinking this and this and this.” I know that, but I put it in the back of my brain. There are certain associations. “Oh, I already set this up, so I don’t have to re-set this up, because it’s already there.”

AVC: In X’ed Out and in Black Hole, you lay some of the Freudian symbolism on pretty thick. On the first page of X’ed Out, your character wakes up in a long, rectangular room with a hole in the wall at one end, which is obviously an allusion to the womb. You’re almost going over the top with it. 

CB: Oh, yeah, yeah. With a sense of humor, with an awareness and playing with it. Yeah, absolutely. I was just writing somewhere else: “A hole is never just a hole.” Just playing with those things. For example, you’re seeing the intercom, you’re seeing that buzzing hole, later the buzzing intercom when he’s at his girlfriend’s… Well, not his girlfriend yet, but you can imagine it might be happening. But the intercom buzzing, and you hear this threatening voice of some guy out there on the street. Those things start to build. The idea of the intercom that will come back again and again, and you’re seeing the same sort of thing later.

AVC: You sort of single that out, where there are isolated panels coming back, of the intercom.

CB: He’s trying to think of good things. “We were happy, weren’t we?” But he’s thinking of this bucket, this circular image, the intercom, this metaphysical weird hole in this fleshy wall. And this spew coming out of this waste pipe, coming towards him.

AVC: Which happens to be red.

CB: Which happens to be red, exactly. So, all the fetal images, all the egg images, and all that stuff is certainly in there for a reason.

AVC: What’s going on with the Black Hole movie?

CB: I periodically hear things. Paramount Pictures has the movie. They got the rights; I think they’ve re-upped it a few times. For a while, David Fincher was the director that was signed on. He’s still involved as a producer, as far as I know. There was a second script that was written, that I think apparently they’re happy with, which I hadn’t read. At this point, they’re looking for a director again.

AVC: Was it an issue with Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary’s script, or the new one?

CB: I didn’t read the first one, to be honest. It’s one of those things where I know I could have tried to write a script myself, or have a more hands-on involvement. But I really just wanted to move on and move forward and think about another story. My past experience with collaborative work, especially with something… Paramount Pictures is a big movie studio, so you know that your chances of maintaining any control… I know it would be a heartbreaking experience. Very early on, I made the decision not to involve myself directly. I mean, I’ve certainly had plenty of conversations. I’ve talked to some of the producers, discussed my ideas of what this means, or what this means, or what I think the core of the story is, or what I’d like to see. My contract and my contract with Paramount Pictures, it’s almost a 100-page contract. There are long pages like, “You can have this input and this input.” It’s a legal document. But you read the paragraph after that. Basically it says, “But we don’t have to listen to a word you say.”

AVC: “You’re allowed to give us your input, but we don’t have to pay attention to it.”

CB: Exactly. Really, that’s exactly… It doesn’t say it literally, but that’s what it means. So it’s out there. I think it could possibly be made into a good movie. I think it’s a good story that holds up. We’ll see.

AVC: It’s got teenagers and sex. What’s not to like?

CB: Yeah. My next book should have been a vampire story, but I chose not to.