A comic-book Cinderella story, Chris Burnham did his time in the hard world of creator-owned titles before gaining the attention of Batman scribe and comics visionary Grant Morrison. After establishing himself on titles like Nixon’s Pals and Officer Downe with Joe Casey, Burnham was asked to come in for a last-minute deadline save on Morrison’s Batman And Robin, a job that led to more work with DC Comics. He was offered a run on Batman Incorporated, which was quickly followed by an exclusive contract with DC. He’s currently drawing the relaunch of Batman Incorporated, debuting as part of the “Second Wave” of DC’s “New 52” initiative. Burnham chatted with The A.V. Club about breaking into the industry, his work with The House Theatre (where he is an ensemble member), and how he’s prepared for Morrison’s epic story.
The A.V. Club: Were comics a part of your childhood?
Chris Burnham: I was born in Connecticut and lived there for the first seven years, and that’s when I really discovered comics and superheroes and stuff, watching cartoons. The first thing I can remember liking was Battle Of The Planets, the American version of Gatchaman, which is totally a superhero show, just filtered through an anime style. Then Super Friends and Spider-Man, so I loved all that stuff. Had no idea that there were comics of them until I was maybe six years old, and my aunt Barbie gave me How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way, which is the bible of comic books. That’s probably the first time I realized comic book were a thing, and after that I was done. Then when I was 7, I moved to Pittsburgh and grew up there, lived there until just after college. Then moved to Chicago after a one-year stint in New Haven, Connecticut. So I’ve been in Chicago for almost 10 years now.
AVC: What did you study at George Washington University?
CB: I started off double-majoring in finance and marketing, and after two years decided that I didn’t like that at all. So I went into radio/TV production, and did a triple minor of finance, marketing, and fine arts.
AVC: How did that transition into a career in comics?
CB: Not at all really. At the end of four years, I realized I actually did, for real, want to draw comics. In between my junior and senior years I had an internship at a video production house, and the guys that worked across the hall ran a website called Comic-Con.com, Marty Baumann and Steve Conley, who are really awesome comic artists themselves. The realization that you can actually draw comics, that there are actual human beings you go out to lunch with that really do this for a living, and I was like, “Oh shit, I’m 21 years old, I’ve gotta turn this dream into reality.” So senior year of college I was busting my balls doing samples. By the end of college, I realized that four-year degree my parents paid for wasn’t really going to be worth anything. But in the radio/TV classes I did a fair amount of storyboarding, and I definitely incorporate those skills into comics. I was good as storyboarding because I was already drawing comics, and I’m better at drawing comics now because of storyboarding.
AVC: How did you get involved with House Theatre?
CB: One of my best buddies at college was Phil Klapperich, I met him sophomore year of college, and by junior and senior year we had the same major. And senior year, each semester we had three classes together or something, so we became best buddies. And he started The House with his lifelong best buddy Nate Allen, and so they invited me out to be the graphic designer/poster maker/trading card guy. I had nowhere to live and they needed a third roommate, so I came out and did theater stuff for years and years for free.
AVC: We’ve seen a couple shows where projections have been used in a comic book way, having different narrative happening at the same time. Do you think there are connections between theater and comic-book storytelling that could be more fully explored?
CB: At The House we used a number of comic book conceits in our shows. I’m not really sure how comics can incorporate theatrical things. I definitely try to sell my body language in a way that might be theatrical, but I’m not sure if the two really connect. But my entire career traces right back to this 14-page ashcan comic I did for The House, which was theoretically supposed to work as advance promotion for a play that we were going to produce two or three years later. It didn’t work as a promotion at all, but it worked great for getting me comic book work. Every gig I’ve ever had in comics come right out of that Valentine ashcan.
AVC: What were some of the challenges of moving from creator-owned books like Officer Downe to a mainstream superhero title?
CB: There’s not really a challenge, because the mainstream stuff pays you money, so you don’t need to work another job. [Laughs.] The creator-owned stuff, I was never smart enough to find a way to make that pay, so I’d always have to have any number of day jobs or freelance gigs and then be working on comics at night. But now that I get paid actual adult money to draw comics, I can actually do it during the day and be done in a much more reasonable time frame. Nixon’s Pals, the graphic novel that gave me a name for myself, is 92 pages long and ended up taking me a year and a half to do it. I was working a job and doing all sorts of work for the theater company at the time, so I was doing three things with my time. It took forever to get that thing done.
AVC: How long does it take to do a regular sized issue of Batman Incorporated?
CB: It’s possible for me to do an issue in a month, but it’s really hard. A month and a half is a little more reasonable, two months is great. Although two months is really pushing it. [Laughs.] Two months is when the editor starts plotting my torturous demise.
AVC: When did you start working on the second volume of Batman Incorporated?
CB: It was right around the beginning of the year, maybe toward the end of December. [Batman Incorporated:] Leviathan Strikes! came out just around Christmas, and I think I finished work on that just a couple weeks before.
AVC: What does an ordinary day for you look like now that comics are your main job?
CB: [Laughs.] It depends on how much work I’ve gotten done the previous day. But normally I’ll wake at nine or 10, drink my coffee, and screw around on the Internet until I’ve gotten out of my brain, sit down and start working. And I’ll work on and off over the course of the day. Oftentimes my girlfriend will go to bed around 10, 11 o’clock, and I’ll stay up until three, four o’clock in the morning getting stuff done. I’m certainly not working 16 hours a day, but I’m awake and thinking about it 16 hours a day. Even my procrastination time, I’m probably figuring something out.
AVC: Is there any pressure producing a monthly comic with one of the most popular characters and one of the industry’s best writers? Or does that all just slide off your back?
CB: I’m getting alright with it. When I did Batman And Robin #16, it happened so fast that I didn’t have time to freak out about it. I was offered a gig, and I had to be done with those seven pages within a week. So I almost went on super-autopilot and didn’t have time to freak out until the last page. I saved my opening splash with Batman charging down the hallway for last, because I know I can’t handle this right now. A giant full-page splash of Batman running, it’s like the biggest image in a comic. And the script says, “Do it like Neal Adams would, but better.” Jesus Christ, man, I can’t handle that. So I did the other six pages at about a page a day, and spent at least two days finishing that last splash. I nearly choked on that page, I had a serious case of nerves.
And then I had months to think about it before I drew Batman Inc. #4, which was my first full issue, and that was a rough experience honestly. I was drawing #4 at the same time as Yanick Paquette, who was drawing #3, and we were all in the same e-mail chain turning in images together. And that dude’s just amazing. I got completely psyched out by that. And the art in all the stories I had to go through for references, I’m following Frank Quitely and J.H. Williams and Andy Kubert and it’s just, “Oh my God, they’re going to realize I’m a fraud. I’m going to draw one issue of Grant Morrison Batman and be fired and never get to work in comics again.” It was a rough month.
AVC: How did you get brought in for Batman And Robin #16? What was your big break at DC?
CB: My big break is Joe Casey, who I worked with on Nixon’s Pals and Officer Downe. Joe is friends with Grant, and he showed Grant pages from Officer Downe as I was working on them and gave him a copy of the book, and I guess Grant really liked it. When they were screwed on deadline on #16—the comic was initially supposed to be entirely drawn by Cameron Stewart. And then they had to bring Fraser Irving in for a deadline save. And even that wasn’t enough, they had to split Fraser’s pages in half and for whatever reason they chose me to come in at the last minute. It was manna from heaven or something. Apparently I did a good job on those, because halfway through they asked if wanted to come back in the spring for a run on Batman Inc. Yes, sir. And after one issue of Batman Inc. they offered me the DC exclusive contract. I’m pretty hard on myself but apparently I’m doing something right.
AVC: What does a Grant Morrison script look like? How much flexibility do you get as an artist?
CB: He gives me all sorts of rope to hang myself with. He’s pretty explicit that as long as I’m telling the story he wants, I’m free to do whatever I want with it. Adding panels deleting panels, moving panels from one page to the other, as long as I’m nailing everything he’s going for, he’s perfectly open for an artist to screw with the camera angles and panel count and stuff like that. I’m always trying to impress him and my bosses and fans of Frank Quitely, so I’m always trying to top myself and show off. I don’t want this to be a Grant Morrison book drawn by some yahoo, I’m trying to make this a Chris Burnham book that happens to be written by Grant Morrison.
AVC: How much research have you had to do into the Batman mythos? Grant puts a lot of obscure references in there, how much help do you get from your editor?
CB: Lots. I’ve done a lot of research on that stuff. For Batman Inc. #4, the Batwoman issue, I read a bunch of the old Silver Age stuff. And Grant’s always saying, “This is a reference to Batman #158” or whatever, and while you could just look it up and get a picture of it, I definitely like to go and read the entirety of all the stories he’s talking about so I can really nail it in the panel. Rather than just drawing a picture of it, I’m always trying to tell a full story in every panel. I’m not sure if it necessarily comes through or if I’m just wasting time reading three comics of material to draw one panel, but I feel the need to really know what I’m doing. So I probably have done more research than is necessary. At this point, I’ve read just about every appearance of Ra’s Al Ghul and Talia. Certainly not necessary, because the only stuff Grant really cares about is the original Neal Adams/Denny O’Neill stuff, and I’ve read that many, many times.
AVC: Did you ever watch Batman: The Animated Series?
CB: Yeah, I saw the first episode at 3 p.m., right after school or whatever. I was a big fan of that right when it came out. I’m not a full acolyte of it, but I enjoyed the show. And I freaked out, I wouldn’t think of myself as someone who would freak out about [B:TAS co-creator] Bruce Timm, but at the Emerald City [Comic-Con] a couple a weeks ago, I saw him walking down the aisle and I forced a copy of Officer Downe in his hands and could barely speak. I was like a 12-year-old awkward kid at a comic convention: “I draw Batman. Here’s why I draw Batman.” [Laughs.]
AVC: What are some of your personal favorite Batman stories?
CB: There’s a lot. Probably my favorite, I think it’s called “The Demon Within” [Detective Comics #622—624], it was written by John Ostrander with art by Flint Henry and Mike McKone. And it’s this awesome story where there’s a guy in Gotham City who creates a Batman comic book. And the comic has the craziest artwork and Batman is actually killing the villains and a serial killer in Gotham starts taking inspiration from the comic and starts calling himself Batman. Batman has to solve the case, and the pages a perfectly split between the real world action of Batman hunting down the serial killer and the crazy comic book, and it’s just super cool. I’ve read it a million times, and it’s burrowed into my artwork in subtle ways. And of course Batman: Year One I’ve read a million times, and Dark Knight [Returns] and all the Grant Morrison stuff. I’m a big Grant Morrison fan, I had reread the thing three of four times before getting the gig, and I’ve been reading it over and over again since to pick up references to his own material that he puts in his script.
AVC: A lot of stuff happens in that book.
CB: His stuff is really rewarding for rereads, and keeps adding to itself. Especially when you read it with the newer stuff in mind. I’m not sure if it’s really planned out that well if Grant throws so many balls up in the air and then is just really skilled at catching them in artful ways. When you go back and reread him throwing the ball in the air, and you know when he’s going to catch it, it adds that extra bit of juice to it.
AVC: Who are some of your artistic influences, and who are some up-and-coming artists that you’re currently enjoying?
CB: My biggest influence of the last few years has pretty obviously been Frank Quitely, and I’ve certainly been going for that Moebius acolyte style: Ladrönn and Seth Fisher and Geof Darrow and Frank Quitely. Those have been my big guys for last couple years. Doug Mahnke’s similar to that, he’s got a pretty open style for the most part. And I’m trying to bring in more manga stuff recently. Tetsuo Hara, the Fist Of The North Star artist, is one of my favorites. He’s where I got my angular panel style from, and really where I learned a lot of storytelling was from him. I’ve got a full run of Fist Of The North Star manga in the original Japanese, and I don’t read a word of Japanese. Just looking at how pictures can almost perfectly tell the story, there are very few pages where I can’t tell exactly what is going on in that comic, and that’s a really good lesson to learn.
As far as new guys, the first one that comes to mind is James Harren on B.P.R.D. Holy shit, that guy is so good he makes me want to quit. [Laughs.] He’s absolutely amazing and he’s like 24-years-old. And another kid coming up is Tradd Moore, he’s drawing [The Strange Talent Of] Luther Strode. He’s got a style reminiscent of the [Robert] Kirkman guys: Ryan Ottley, Nate Bellegarde, and stuff. He’s awesome, I think he’s going to be a force when he’s got a couple more projects under his belt.