‘I am not normal on the inside’
Recently Charles Burns’ deeply disturbing but also utterly touching and darkly poetic graphic novel Black Hole hit the shelves of the finer bookstores near you. Never, in any novel, poem or song, have I seen teenage angst captured so well as in Black Hole. The book, in my humble opinion, deserves a place among the great classics of American Literature.
Burns has been steadily building on his reputation as a serious comic author for almost 25 years now. He started with short stories, drawn in a clear, smooth style but with very dark undertones, like Big Baby and El Borbah. His story Dog Boy was made into a TV-series for MTV in 1993. A year later he started Black Hole in irregular installments, which took him more than ten years to finish. I spoke to Burns a while ago, when he was still working on the last pages of his masterpiece.
I have to ask you about all the fear and loneliness and guilt in your stories. Where does that come from?
Just from myself. It’s just an expression of thinking about myself, thinking about the ideas that I’m trying to express.
Are these your own fears?
Not all the time. If you’re talking about Black Hole, in that story I am examining the adolescent fears, the transition of going from childhood to adulthood. But I think they are pretty universal though.
Fear and loneliness
I thought Black Hole was maybe also a comment on the way sexuality is regarded in especially the US.
It’s hard to separate those things. I was born and raised in the US, so it’s certainly an expression of all those things. It’s not specifically a comment about American sexuality. The intention was to write a more personal story that involved situations I grew up in. I think in every character in the story, in one way or another, there’s some part of me. There are some things that are specifically autobiographical. Wether those are actual events or wether it’s just a kind of an emotional feeling or expression of myself at that time
Was it hard for you to be an adolescent?
It was hard for myself and for anybody else I knew at the time. It’s a normal thing. When you grow from childhood into adulthood it’s a kind of mystifying experience. It’s a struggle, the fact that you’re growing hair on your face, your sexuality, your coming to terms with what that is… Yeah, there are so many events that are going on in your life at that time still clinging to your childhood, the knowledge that you have to move on into a world that looks unpleasant, maybe.
Unpleasant? In Black Hole it’s sheer horror!
I don’t really want to simplefy the explanation of the story down to these specific terms. There is a lot of ways of reading the story and if you did just read it as kind of a commentary about American ideas of sexuality, that would be perfectly valid.
You’ve always done horror stories which somehow say something about specifically adolescence.
I once did a Big Baby story about the confusion of Big Baby who’s looking at horror movies on television and at the same time he’s experiencing the actual real life horror of an alcoholic possesive husband who beats his wife. As a child he is trying to put that into terms that he can understand. Here are two extremes. On the one hand there is this kind of ridiculous, stupid plot about the kid watching this movie about these subterranean mole creatures that are carrying girls underground. On the other hand he is trying to come to terms with what he sees right across the street, where this horrible wife beater lives.
Cover for Blood Club featuring Big Baby
The thing with Black Hole, it can be read on a lot of different levels. There was a woman who came up to me at some signing who referred to it as a romance. It was like this very romantic story for her. It ís! Well, it’s kind of examining these kinds of relationships and the kind of discoveries that the characters make.
Black Hole certainly isn’t your average kind of romance story. The consequences of having sex are very ugly.
It’s not ugly per se but it’s examening for example, there’s the sequence where this guy is seduced by a girl with a tail. And he accidentally I don’t know how to say this nicely in an interview – comes prematurely. And then he goes upstairs to clean himself up and he sees these porn magazines in the bathroom. The reader can only guess what’s going through his brain while he tries to associate all these images together. The reader is not given a clear answer, but hopefully comes up with something by himself.
I guess what I am saying is I am not making a judgement about the characters; I am just presenting things to the reader to examine in order to come to his own conclusions. I don’t want it to be X Y = Z, it’s not that kind of equation. The characters are struggling for an understanding of themselves and of their environment but they don’t suddenly come to this full enlightenment, this full understanding of themselves. The story is about a certain sequence of events that comes to a culmination at the end.
Porn in the bathroom
So you don’t see Black Hole as a horror story yourself?
I don’t even analyse it in those terms. A horror story means slasher movies, it means Psycho. I mean it’s not a cowboy story I guess I am just not concerned with what it is. It’s a story, that’s what it is. I am not working specifically with a genre in mind. I obviously have interest in that kind of subject matter, but you know, there’s just a story I am trying to tell. That woman at the signing thought it was a romance story and if you regard it as a horror story than that’s legitimate as well. But I wasn’t specifically trying to make a horror story. I was going to do the story the best way I could. I could have told a similar story without any of the obvious horrific physical transformations. I could have just had adolescent kids struggling and running away from home and all these things. But I wanted to push it into even stronger, more extreme situations. That was the reason I chose to do the mutations and the transformations. Or maybe it was just an excuse to draw a naked girl with a tail, I don’t know.
Half naked girl with tail
The characters in Black Hole pay a very heavy price for everything they do. That comes across as very Christian.
You think so? That’s funny. I never really thought about that. That’s interesting. I mean, putting it in those particular terms. Yeah, there’s certainly a morality there but I never kind of thought of it as Christian.
You weren’t raised as a catholic or a protestant?
I was raised in an Episcopal church but I basically just went with my mom to church and that was it. I certainly internalised some things but it was not like, you know, being a catholic and having things beaten into you by nuns.
You weren’t made guilty about things?
No. I had catholic friends who had that horrible kind of guilt though. Maybe somehow that found it’s way into the story but not as a main intention.
Are you a moralist?
No, but when you’re younger there are these things, you’re examining your parents’ behaviour, your friends’ behaviour, and you’re making these kinds of judgments, because you’re young and you’re immature and you’re examining all these things very carefully and I think that comes across in the story. Everyone is struggling with their identity, with who they are and who their friends are. For instance, that guy in Black Hole that falls in love with that girl in biology class, she’s beautiful and he projects all his romantic ideals on her, which eventually he finds out are not true at all. He finds out she’s struggling and falling into despair. She’s another human being and he finds that out. He also finds himself kind of inexplicably sexually attracted to this kind of wild, kind of animalistic girl with a tail. He’s kind of embarassed but then he comes to terms with that, like Okay, this is a legitimate part of who I am’. So it’s not like a morality.
But sometimes the story seems like a warning. Everybody is paying a heavy price.
I understand what you are saying. There are these earlier stories that examine American culture. But that’s not what I am going for with Black Hole. I am really more concerned about examining the characters themselves. You know, what they’re going through and how they’re coming up at the other end of this trial that they’re going through.
And at the same time you are telling us about your own adolescence.
In a very abstract form. Like I said, in each character there’s some little part of me. I think in my older stories there’s a tendency to have these stereotype characters. I enjoyed examining these sterotypes, because there’s always a reason for stereotypes existing. So a person who’s bad, he’s really bad. For instance, the next door neighbor from the Big Baby story: he’s a drunk, he’s a wifebeater. Maybe we know a little more about Big Baby himself, but even with the characters, who are really good, or really bad, there’s something about them In Black Hole, even the guy who is like the most evil guy in the world, who shot these people, he’s going out to buy chicken for his friend. There’s some sympathy, he’s not purely evil. It’s not simple black and white. In the last issue we are examining a little bit more about him as well, so you’re finding out what the causes are, the reasons behind his horrible actions. Even the best characters are still making bad decisions, or they have something selfish or whatever.
Chicken for his friend…
Your stories also have a very existentialist quality. Everybody is on his own.
I guess it all comes back to my own brain (chuckles).
Are you Big Baby? Or is Big Baby you?
To a certain extent, yeah.
Were you lonely as a child?
Yes, in some cases, sure. I think as an artist anything that comes out is a manifestation of who you are, what motivates you to work.
Big Baby is such a sad character.
Yeah of course, I feel like an alien creature, yeah sure, exactly. Hahaha!
Does all the work that you did since Big Baby stem from this feeling of alienation?
All the cartoonists that I admire and who are my friends are people just struggling to express what it’s like to be alive at this time. It sounds pretentious, but it’s a fairly good explanation of it’s like a struggle to express what it’s like to be alive.
In Black Hole there are these girls talking about the new David Bowie album, Diamond Dogs, so it must be set in 1974 or something.
Exactly. It could have been set in another era, but for me the kind of reference that you are talking about, that’s something I know about. I mean I can speak with authority about that time period, because that’s when I was an adolescent, in the early seventies. So being able to talk about very specific cultural references, that was the reason I chose that period. I don’t know enough about youth culture today. I have daughters who are fourteen and seventeen, so they’re immersed in that culture now but, you know, it’s different.
Very specific cultural references
Do your daughters read your work? Do you let them?
Well, you know, the fact that I have been working on Black Hole for ten years, when I started out, they were pretty small. It was the first book I didn’t really feel comfortable letting them read. The sexually explicit scenes and stuff like that… I didn’t feel was appropriate for them to look at. Now they’re old enough to process that, but at the time I would flip over some pages, so it’s just part of being a parent, I think.
Are your daughters interested in your work? I mean for other reasons than the fact that you’re their father.
I think now they’re kind of reaching a point where there’s enough of my work around for them to be aware of it. It doesn’t really change how they feel about me, but they’re starting to be much more aware of what I do and that kind of thing.
I would be surprised if you lead an average American life.
Pretty much, though. I live in the city of Philadelphia, in a kind of funny little neighborhood, an area where a lot of artists live. It’s not totally typically American but you know, the fact that I am married and have two children
Do you have barbecue parties in your garden?
Hahaha! I have! Sure! There’s the vision of barbecue parties and then there’s our barbecue party. The thing is, some people I meet, I see this kind of look of disappointment on their faces, like this guy is just a normal person’. But I am not normal on the inside.
Charles Burns by himself
That sounds just like your work, which looks very smooth and attractive on the surface and when you start to read it
That’s like another theme that runs through my work: the idea of the facade, the surface, and then whatever is boiling up inside. The internal world.
When I started to read Black Hole, I immediately thought This is a story about aids’. Then I realised it is set in the seventies. I thought maybe you did that on purpose, to prevent us from thinking this was about aids.
I wanted to use the disease, I wanted to examine that. It’s impossible to have a story that would have a sexually transmitted disease and ignore the fact that there’s a world where aids exists. But the story doesn’t have anything to do specifically with aids at all. But again, I have to acknowledge that would be there. Just the idea of a disease that affects only teenagers, it’s kind of a ridiculous idea in the first place, adolescence as a disease.
But it does feel like a disease. Hair is growing out of strange places
Right, right. Absolutely. For me that just made sense.
Do you have a pessimistic view on life?
I don’t know. When you have children you make a decision you can’t be completely pessimistic. Obviously you’re making a kind of decision that, you know, if you’re interacting with other people, you want to have a family, that means you got some sort of hope, some interest in the future, so yeah But there are certainly elements that make themselves clear in my stories I don’t look at the world as a beautiful place all the time. I think in my stories there’s a few little moments, there’s one moment in Black Hole where a boy and a girl experience these intimate, happy moments and the girl says: Even if I have this one little tiny moment, it ll be good.’ And very very quickly thereafter they’re having sex, and there’s this kind of horrible premonition. So almost immediately that one little spark of hope is suddenly overshadowed by this dark cloud. But they do have, briefly, a good moment (chuckles). What can I say? That’s me!
One tiny little moment…
…followed by this horrible premonition
You are not the most productive comic strip author around. I suppose you do other work to bring bread on the table?
Absolutely. I look at comics as my personal work that I am totally in control of. I do illustration work to pay the bills. It’s almost like having an expensive hobby that I need to pay for by doing illustration work. Nah, I am being sarcastic. Sometimes it just feels that way.
Making comics just costs you money? You don’t make any doing them?
No, it doesn’t cost me money. But I mean I just work very slowly. Maybe if I just lived only by myself, with a much simpler lifestyle, I could support myself just with comics, but I have a family, so I need a real job. I think I have met a lot of people who are artists, maybe they teach or they do something to supplement their personal work. That’s also the way I work.
Your work became known in the eighties, when it appeared in the arty comics magazine Raw. Your work does have a commercial feel and yet it seems to be read mainly by a certain elite.
Well it’s really odd. I mean the projects that I’ve worked on range from the most underground’ sort of comic to be the most mainstream kind of thing you can imagine, like doing the cover of Time Magazine or The New Yorker. I’ve done ad campaigns for big companies like Levi’s and Altoids, very famous ad campaigns. Doing things like that, my work is seen by millions and millions and millions of people. It has appeared in every magazine that you can name. On the other hand, the Black Hole comic had a press run of maybe 15.000 issues. There is a very extreme difference between those things.
Ad for Altoids by Charles Burns
Now Black Hole is going to be compiled into a book by publisher Pantheon Books and finds it’s way into regular bookstores instead of just comic stores. Recently comic authors like Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes found a niche in the bookstores, which is good. In the past, when Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust Maus came out, there was a sudden interest in the graphic novel’, but there weren’t enough good graphic novels around. So publishers like Marvel Comics repackaged Iron Man comics into an Iron Man graphic novel and I went like, Who’s going to want to read that garbage?’ you know. That was the problem. Well, there were some good books that came out, but there just wasn’t enough. And it seems like nowadays there starts to be like the fulfillment of that earlier promise. There are actually interesting books that an adult can read and they’re successfull. Joe Sacco has done a number of books, Chris Ware did the Jimmy Corrigan book…
All the stories you did over the years seem like preparations for Black Hole.
I have always been interested in comics but I kind of had to really teach myself how to write comics. I started out by using a very, very solid, simple, traditional way of telling a story and now I think I’ve kind of built up to the kind of selfconfidence where I can do a more sophisticated no, that sounds really dumb – I mean a more complex way of telling a story. But I still have a kind of structure behind it that’s very solid and clearcut. It wasn’t just experimental or for the sake of doing something weird.
You seem to have a fascination for mass culture.
Again, that’s part of the environment that I was raised in. I guess I am fascinated in the sense that there are these promises that the commercial world gives you and then there’s reality. The things that you see on commercials on television and in magazines, I’ve always been interested in what’s behind them and who’s feeding you. People are feeding you the news, feeding you commercials that will make you want to buy a car. You know: If you buy this car, you’re sitting there with this sexy girl out in this oasis out in the desert and driving at full speed’, just examining all these things, I’m always curious about the promise of mass media. The mass media exist to sell you things you don’t need. Maybe that comes through as a dark interpretation of it, but I think that’s pretty fucked up.
About your drawing style. It seems rooted in comics from the fifties.
My dad liked comics, for whatever reason. He grew up on the normal newspaper strips like Terry and the Pirates and Flash Gordon. He wasn’t like a typical parent in that time period who looked upon comics as total garbage. He actually liked comics and he would go to the library and get collections of comics, so it was just someting that was around the house. He even had these paperback collections of the early Mad Magazines that I would look at. And I was looking at these things before I could even read. So it was somehow imprinted in my mind.
Your style also seems reminiscent of artists like Hergé.
Sure, there were maybe six Tintin books that were published in America in the fifties and sixties. My dad bought them for me before I could even read. So that was something I grew up on and loved. Certainly that found it’s way into my work as well. The kind of clarity and even the way that the stories unfold
Wild, kind of animalistic girl
You on your turn seem to influence other artists, painters. A couple of years ago a Dutch painter, Erik van Lieshout, was accused of plagiarising your work.
Someone sent me an article about that. It was odd. I don’t know.
The painter said his work was an hommage to your work.
Unless someone is taking my actual work and claim it as his own, I am not really concerned about it. If someone took, for example, some image of Black Hole and used it to sell Coca Cola or whatever I would have an issue with it. But this is such a small case, it doesn’t really concern me. There have been cases where people literally copied my work and used it in a commercial situation and that is not good. But then again, how do you spend your time? Do you spend it pursuing someone like that? It’s not that important to me, unless it’s something really big and commercial.
I read you did something for MTV?
I did something, years ago. It was a live action adaptation of my Dog Boy story. It wasn’t really very successful in my estimation. I have heard people say they like it but it’s not something that I found was very succesful. I wrote the screenplay which was used to a certain extent and by the time it was finally put up I didn’t recognise the story anymore. It was confusing for me to try to follow the story, even though I myself had written it. The original writing was very concise and very clear and the director just kind of went off with it, whatever.
I wouldn’t be surprised if people from Hollywood already approached you.
They have. Nothing clear has been worked out yet. They are interested in Black Hole, but I haven’t signed anything yet.
Will it happen?
I don’t know. We’ll see. My idea of the story has it’s I think if it would be handled properly it would make a great film.
Do you have any ideas about what a proper handling would entail?
Just a good director and I would have to have some sort of input. As long as they wouldn’t just destroy what I have been trying to write about. Not a teen slasher movie or anything. Usually when you sign over the rights they can do anything they want with it. I wouldn’t really want to be in that situation. I know I would have to relinquish control, but still…