Conducted December 28th, 1999 by Alan David Doane
Charles Burns is one of the most unique talents ever to work in comics. His style pays tribute to many of the creators of the past, but is at the same time unique and modern. It is currently on display in the hardcover Big Baby book and the ongoing Black Hole series, both published by Fantagraphics. I interviewed Charles Burns on December 28th, 1999. My thanks to Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics Books for helping set up the interview.
Alan David Doane: Your work is almost indescribable. It's strange and it's beautiful, it's simple and complex -- how did your style evolve?
Charles Burns: Really slowly, I guess; there was always a certain line quality I admired in other cartoonists, just a kind of slick, hard line. And I kind of just very slowly developed that over the years. It's kind of this gradual progression. And as far as the storytelling and the drawing style, it's a fairly traditional comics style as far as the way the stories are broken down, but then kind of this, I don't know, another surface to it, or kind of, a complexity to it, a visual complexity that I try to attain.
ADD: There's a definite sort of simplistic uniformity to the layout, but what goes on within the panels...I swore I'd never ask a creator this question, but where the hell do your ideas come from?
CB: Well, that's what I was asked every day when I was growing up as far as, like, kids looking over my shoulder when I was drawing. It's just built up really slowly. In my most recent stories -- I have a comics series called Black Hole, and it's a fairly long, ongoing series that's based around the Teen Plague. In the most recent stories, they're really much more based on autobiographical information, growing up as a teenager, and actually including a lot of my socialization, growing up, even though it's fairly (well) disguised. Anyway, again, it's hard to point to any single source. And I never have a perfect answer for that question (laughs).
ADD: The Teen Plague makes an appearance in the Big Baby book, was that the earliest appearance of that idea?
CB: There may have been an earlier story, a shorter story -- but as far as that whole scene, that was the first long story. And then I realized it was just an idea that was large enough that I wanted to explore, so this most recent series Black Hole has been, I'm a little over halfway through, I've got seven issues that I've finished, so it's a long sprawling saga of the Teen Plague. The most recent story is more character-driven, as opposed to just; my earlier stories tend to be more based on some bizarre setting or bizarre ideas.
ADD: I've read El Borbah and Big Baby, and you seem to give a lot of thought to the plot and the underlying tension that's going on -- as far as the plot of the whole Teen Plague storyline, is that informed by your viewpoints about sex and being a teenager?
CB: It's kind of exploring that kind of tension. The Black Hole story has this whole kind of disease allegory, but on the other hand it's mainly just about people coming of age, the characters coming of age. And that kind of, trying to deal with that, the horror of dealing with adolescence, being in a situation where you're not a child, but you're not quite an adult, and the whole disease metaphor, if you will, is really like a catalyst for that kind of, pushing that to a further extreme. Making all those, making the situation stronger than it already is. Pushing it.
ADD: Almost every one of these stories seems to be a metaphor for something else, and it's not always incredibly obvious what that--
CB: (Laughs) Well, it's obvious to me...
ADD: Well, yeah, of course...
CB: ...Comes bubbling up out of my sub-conscious I guess.
ADD: It seems like a lot of the adults, especially in the Big Baby book are these sort of threatening presences...is that how you saw adults growing up?
CB: In a certain way they are, just treated as foreign entities--in some cases threatening. There's one story in Big Baby where he goes to summer camp, so there's just these kinds of -- you're right, these kind of threatening characters that are the adults that are in charge of everything.
ADD: It's almost like the Big Baby character, Tony, is just beginning to experience this secret world of the adults that's this kind of twisted disgusting thing.
CB: Right, it is the one theme that kind of runs through all the stories, is his trying to come to grips with that adult world, or trying to figure out--whether it's him watching a TV movie and being confused by the themes that are going on in that, or watching his next-door neighbor take a swing at his wife; whatever those things are. It's him trying to process that information, trying to come to terms with that adult world. And it generally does come off as being this fairly horrific outlook, what he gets back is very horrific.
ADD: It's an interesting contrast to me that in the El Borbah book, which is almost unrelentingly negative --
ADD: -- in terms of the endings of the stories, I mean I don't think I'm insulting you to say there's no uplifting comment on human nature--
CB: (Laughing) no, no...
ADD: And yet, the end of the summer camp story in the Big Baby book, there's almost a redemptive feel to it--that Tony had a mission for the cause of good.
CB: Right, right.
ADD: As you were doing that, did it seem like you were developing almost a new theme in your work?
CB: A lot of it has to do with the type of storytelling I'm doing. The story you mention is more recent and the El Borbah stories are a little bit older. El Borbah was a character that just kind of stumbled through these pseudo-detective stories, and yeah, you're right, it was more played for very dark humor, and then I think the Big Baby story, more recent, is kind of delving into his personality, his character, instead of just being this...El Borbah's this kind of stumblebum guy who uses his fists instead of his brains, he's just played for laughs. And Big Baby does have this, more rounded out character, even though he looks totally alien (laughs). And in the Black Hole stories too I'm really trying to reach into the characters and have them speak more, have them a larger part of the plot as opposed to just y'know, cipher or stereotype characters.
ADD: Has there been a reaction from the audience in terms of which storytelling style they prefer, and are they following you along on this journey?
CB: I haven't done El Borbah for at least 10 years or so, and there's always people who come up to me and say "When are you going to do another El Borbah story?" So, there's certainly people who like the character and the storytelling. On the other hand, from people whose opinion I trust and appreciate, I've had the most response from the Black Hole series, as far as like the storytelling, the characters, the art--the whole thing all kind of put together. But there's always going to be people who prefer a particular character, or a nostalgic look at the El Borbah character. My mom likes El Borbah more than the stuff I'm doing now (laughs).
ADD: I haven't read Black Hole, you say you're developing the characters more--you're getting more into their heads I take it.
CB: Yeah, and having it not so plot-driven, much more character driven. And also, the fact that I'm doing what's going to end up being a 12 or 13 issue story, a 350 page story, I'm working hard at keeping all the plot threads pulled together and the characters worked out very thoroughly.
ADD: I was trying to spot your influences -- the panel layout and inking style reminded me quite a bit of the EC style -- were they an influence?
CB: As far as the page breakdown and that real rigid style of storytelling. Even though I've recently drifted away from that kind of way the page is broken down...it certainly is influenced by the EC comics, especially Harvey Kurtzman's stories, that had a very rigid...the way they were broken down.
ADD: My thought was that it's kind of ironic that in the '50s you had Doctor Wertham running around proclaiming the ECs were sending everybody to hell, and yet if you were to hand Big Baby and an EC comic to Doctor Wertham, he'd probably see Big Baby and go screaming into the hills.
CB: (Laughs) You were mentioning, as far as influences, that style of Johnny Craig and other EC artists, Will Elder...very kind of dark...
ADD: The work that you do with the blacks, you must go through a bottle of ink for every story, right?
CB: (Laughs) It goes through pretty fast...I think I've slowly, over the years, just moved towards just having big, strong black and white images. There's a couple of occasions where I've had pieces or stories colored, and ultimately realized I'm not really crazy about the results. I mean, I do the color covers, but as far as...I enjoy the look of black and white. Low-fidelity comics.
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