Tonight at 7:30 Charles Burns is signing copies of the new paperback collection of Black Hole at the Borders in Tribeca. Burns came of age in Art Spiegelman's RAW during the 80s, and since then has drawn generally grotesque, finely-lined monster-people for posters, soda cans, album covers, toys, as well as a bunch of really good comics of his own devising. The 12 issues of Black Hole took him 11 years to finish. It's like his Finnegan's Wake, but centered around American teens in the early 70s trying to deal with a weird mutagenic sex disease and slightly easier to understand. We've been trying to wrap our head around it since the last issue came out three years ago, so we finally bit the bullet and called Burns up for some answers.
Vice: A couple years ago at MoCCA I asked you to tell me what Black Hole was about and I think you got annoyed.
Charles Burns: The question doesn’t irritate me, I just don’t have a good sound bite to respond with. Black Hole is a horror romance.
It seems like your earlier stuff is more inspired by other comics and pop culture and that Black Hole draws inspiration from personal experience.
That’s a fair generalization. I think that in a lot of my earlier work I was trying to achieve something that felt like classic comics. When I started Black Hole I really wanted to tell a different kind of story for myself. It’s more character-driven than plot-driven.
Will you tell me what it’s about?
I don’t have a pat answer for what the story’s about. It’s not a story about AIDS, it’s a comic about the characters interacting. I guess they’re all stand-ins for me on some level. I’m using some things in my stories that are really obvious and ridiculous like vaginal holes in trees—some things are obvious and some things are subtle. But I have no interest in coming up with literal answers for what the book’s about.
Gary Panter says that you cackle when you draw and that you try to use as much black as possible.
[cackles] I don’t know where Gary got that. I think he’s exaggerating. Here’s a story about Gary though: He was doing homemade lightshows at his studio in Brooklyn for a while. He’d set a room up in an elaborate way with a big sheet between him and the audience. Then he explained that we should wait until the light comes on and then the show would start and we should enter the room. We waited and waited, and because of the serious tone in which he told us to wait for the light to come on we didn’t enter, even after the music started. What ended up happening was Gary performed his entire light show for half an hour with no audience. Then he came out and thought we were fucking around with him when we told him that we hadn’t watched it. Then he did the entire performance again. My friend who was with me said, “I don’t know which I liked better, the first performance or the second performance.”
Where did you grow up?
I moved around a lot when I was young. We lived in Maryland, Colorado, and Missouri. In the early 60s there was a whole boys’ monster culture and my love of that comes out in my work. There was Ed “Big Daddy” Roth in the early sixties. I spent a lot of time searching out monster magazines, watching monster-related shows on television.
Was that what got you into drawing?
By the time I was in sixth grade we were settled in Seattle. When we were moving around the thing I always went back to was drawing. That was my way to entertain myself from early on. I could avoid getting my ass kicked by drawing monsters for kids.
A lot of people who do work as obsessively neat and clean and yours are also really withdrawn and shy. You seem really well-balanced and socially adept though.
Ha, maybe on the outside. Being an artist is a solitary occupation. Recently I was working on an animated movie and part of my reason for wanting to take the job was the new experience. I found that even though I directed it, storyboarded it, and wrote it, I was still better off working by myself so I can have complete control. If I’m going to screw up I’d rather that it be on me than having other people move my characters for me.
What’s the movie about?
It’s a feature movie for a French production company that I worked on off and on for the past few years. It’s done now. The title translates from French into “Fears of the Dark.” It was a collection of short pieces by different authors about being afraid of the dark. My piece is maybe 18 minutes long. Richard McGuire also did one. The rest are primarily by French authors and one who’s Italian. It premieres in France at the beginning of February and is also showing at Sundance.
Are you happy with it?
Within the constraints of the movie, it came out as best as I could hope for. There’s a certain lack of fun in making it. I wanted to keep fixing things and fixing things. But I was told that I could only fix three things when I wanted to fix twenty things.
Your drawings have a really careful, perfectionist quality to them that makes it clear that every line requires intense concentration.
There was a certain kind of line quality in comics that I was attracted to when I was growing up. You’d get a fine line that would taper back to a thicker line. There was something that was very rich about that. When I was younger I tried to recreate that sort of look with a normal pen until someone informed me that they were made with a brush. If you look at my older work you can see that things have been refined through the years.
How long does it take you to do complete a finished page of comics?
I’m currently working on a color comic so I’m faced with another set of skills I need to work out. There are some pages where I’m drawing every little grain of sand and every twig on the ground. Those can take a week or they can take a day. It depends.
What’s the deal with the TV show MTV made of your character Dogboy?
It’s a long story. I’ll try to figure out how to condense it. Dogboy appeared on Liquid Television which was a half-hour animation showcase. Beavis and Butthead debuted on the show playing frog baseball. There was an English director named Tony Halton who had worked primarily on television commercials and was aware of my work. He really liked the look of the interiors and characters. In my early comics I would draw parallel lines for the backgrounds and he would imitate those lines on the sets. I think that old show Max Headroom was also somewhere in the back of his mind. He put plastic hair on everybody. I think that he was interested in the look of the thing but he wasn’t as interested in telling a story. By the time I saw it on television I couldn’t tell what was going on and I had written it. I’ve tried to go back and watch a few of those episodes and I can’t do it.
Do you have a bunch of obnoxious obsessive fans?
Sometimes, but I work in isolation so it’s nice to see people who enjoy my books. Every so often there’ll be an odd encounter. In Europe there’s a tradition where if you’re signing your book and it’s comic-related, that you also do a big elaborate drawing next to your signature. I’m not a person who’s good at drawing in front of people. It’s like getting undressed in public. There was one occasion in Germany when I did what I thought was a nice pencil drawing in someone’s book. He looked at it and said, ”When I think of a Charles Burns drawing, I think of hard, black ink lines.” I said that I was sorry and he said, “Well, you can ink this.” I told him that I couldn’t because I didn’t have ink or a brush with me, so he wandered off. The next day when I was signing he waited in line for another hour and handed me a bottle of ink and a brush.
Did you do it?
I hate to say it, but yes I did. I didn’t tell him to fuck off.
I would imagine that your designs would be really popular for tattoos.
There are some. I was giving a talk in San Francisco and there was a guy standing around when I finished who said, ”I’ve got something to show you.” I said, ”Uh. OK, is it good or is it bad?” And he said, “Well it all depends.” What he’d done was get a full-colored backpiece of an illustration I’d done of William Burroughs. You’re hoping for some beautiful younger girl to be showing you her tattoos. This was not a guy who should have been taking his shirt off.
Do you have any tattoos yourself?
What does that mean?
I’ve got things that I carved into myself during my misspent youth. They aren’t very interesting, just a few little Xs.
Did you really like the band X?
I was into them back in the day, sure. I was in the Bay Area punk scene around the same time that Gary Panter was in Los Angeles. In ‘77 I went to the Mabuhay Gardens to see the Avengers, who were one of the local bands, and then Devo came on and blew me away. I think they only had one single out by that point, that they’d put out themselves. They put a sheet up and showed one of their early movies and then came out and played and it was like nothing I’d ever seen. There’s a photo in some book about the Bay-Area punk scene of the guitar player being thrown about in the crowd where you can see my head.
Awesome. You’re in the history books.
A friend of mine told me a story about something I did that I don't remember doing. He told me, “When I visited you in San Francisco you got up on stage and announced the band. You had a cassette deck around your neck and you just held the microphone up to the speaker.” One of the characters in my new comic wears a mask up on stage and a cassette deck around his neck that plays feedback and William Burroughs cut-up dialogue.
Are you sure that you can’t tell me what Black Hole is really about?
[spoken slowly] Black Hole is about the disease of adolescence. Some get over it and some don’t.