Every book Charles Burns publishes is an event, and this is particularly true of Sugar Skull, the conclusion of his unnamed trilogy of European album-sized graphic novels (along with X’d Out and The Hive), which taken together tells the story of one damaged art student’s journey into adulthood. To put things far too simply. Because the series trips back and forth through time, and interweaves its main story with a fantasy journey into a horrifying, Interzone-like land of biological horrors, many of whose characters and events seem to mirror, however inexactly, the more mundane story of Doug, and his girlfriends, enemies, and equally damaged parents, back in the “real world.”
Burns’s work over his long career has been incredibly varied, taking in everything from weekly comic strips to album covers to segments on MTV, television commercials, and animated films, but it has also been remarkably consistent in terms of content (relying heavily on the tropes of horror, romance, and crime comics and films), approach (revealing the emotional depths hidden beneath those tropes), and style (those immaculately inked black lines). It has served as a beacon and goad to many of the most ambitious cartoonists who followed him.
Burns is an unusually friendly and articulate figure in the comics world. Our scheduled twenty-minute telephone interview expanded into an hour without my noticing it and with him being too polite to complain. He spoke to me from his hotel room in Portland shortly after this year’s SPX in Bethesda, just as he was beginning his U.S. and European promotional tours for Sugar Skull.
Transcribed by RJ Casey and Daniel Germain
TIM HODLER: In a lot of different interviews I’ve seen, you have spoken about discovering comics through your father, who was a fan.
CHARLES BURNS: Yeah, he was. He was a fan of a lot of things: a lot of books, art. One of the things that he liked was classic comic strips that he grew up with in the newspaper. And I guess he read comic books as well, early on. It was one of those things that especially — and I was born in 1955 so I was after the big scare about comics — Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent was out there, and it was warning young parents about not letting comics rot their kids’ brains. And my parents were diligent about making sure that — I probably didn’t have access to anything kind of horrific — but they were diligent about making sure that they looked at all the stuff that I was reading. My dad managed to still find things that rotted my brain. For example, he had a collection of black-and-white reprints of early Harvey Kurtzman Mad comics — before it was a magazine, the comics. So there was a bunch of reprints that were out and they just happened to be sitting on my dad’s shelf in his office.
I had to entertain myself. My sister had gone off — my sister was three-and-a-half years older and she was off at school. My dad was in school and working. My mom wasn’t someone who took me out on play-dates, so I was kind of on my own and entertaining myself and pulling books off the shelf. I certainly looked at a lot of things that I guess were fairly unusual for someone of my generation, at least looking at things that early on. This was before I could even read.
In that Todd Hignite book, In the Studio, there are some pages from a scrapbook your dad made of different poses and figures he had cut out and collected from comics strips, and it seemed a lot more intense than you would expect from a casual fan of the comics.
He was a person that who was — I don’t know the best word — like a hobbyist. He loved a multitude of hobbies and he still does. He’s 89 and he’s making what he calls his last model railroad, which he’s filling his entire living room with. But he did all kinds of stuff. He did wood-carving, he did linoleum prints, he did watercolors, and one of the odd things he did was comics. It was not something that he spent a huge amount of time on, but enough time that I was aware of it. I’ve got one — I show it in my slide talk I guess. I found a sketchbook of his that he had copied a comic out of and I think just seeing something like that sitting on my dad’s desk made me aware that comics were made by human beings even though his lettering looked incredibly perfect and I couldn’t imagine someone doing that. I couldn’t imagine myself doing that, but I still had that sense that comics came from some place. That people made them and there was some kind of physical evidence of that.
Was he an artist or were those just things he did on the side?
I think he was someone who was very interested in the arts and one of the stories was that he almost went to Chicago Art Institute when he got out of the Navy, but he really was a scientist. He was a scientist at heart. I could tell from his personality that he’s got that mind. He was an oceanographer. He started out as a geologist then got his doctorate in oceanography and that’s what he did for a living. For about the entire time growing up, he would either get things from the library or buy books or collections. There was a certain period where publishers started putting out collections of classic comic strips and so those would find our way into the house. Like a collection of Dick Tracy or Flash Gordon or you name it. These days there’s just reprints of every comic strip that’s ever been made it seems like, but they were kind of few and far between early on.
He would have books that would have the history of comics, so you would see one panel or one strip by somebody and it was almost like looking at the toenail of a dinosaur or something like that. Some little piece of this big puzzle or huge body of work that was out there. So that was something that was certainly part of my upbringing. Comics weren’t frowned upon. [laughter]
Was your sister into it? Or your mother?
My mother was interested in art, and painting, and music, but not specifically comics. Occasionally she’d pick something up, but she wasn’t someone who read them or really had an interest in them. I remember hearing her occasionally, “Well, I’m not sure how you’re supposed to read them.” I think sometimes she’d pick something up and it looked like too much work maybe or it looked confusing or whatever that was. My sister had an interest in comics, but it wasn’t that kind of obsession that I certainly had from a really early age.
Did your parents ever tell you what they thought of the comics that you ended up making?
Some of them, yeah. I mean at a certain point I just didn’t want to hear anything about it and I still kind of don’t want to. My general answer is that I think that they both respected what I was doing, but weren’t necessarily happy or pleased with the subject matter necessarily. A little bit dark and like, “Where did that come from? How did we raise our child to turn out like this?” [laughter] I don’t know. That’s my general impression. They were always supportive in the sense of not telling me what to do, but allowing me to do what I felt like doing. That’s important. That was very important. Not facilitating it necessarily, but not stopping me from doing what I wanted to do.
They weren’t trying to get you to become a lawyer or something?
No, there wasn’t a lot of input there. It’s funny, I don’t know. They kind of allowed me to do what I wanted to do. Follow what I was interested in. I guess the only thing I showed any talent or had any real interest in was drawing and art and that was part of my identity and I kind of pursued that. For various reasons, I think part of it was, as I was saying, I spent plenty of time on my own, so I entertained myself that way. Drawing generally is not really a social experience. It certainly can be. Occasionally there’s situations where you can draw with other people, which I’ve done before and it’s fun, but generally speaking it’s kind of a solitary activity. I remember whining to my mom and she said, “Sit down and draw a picture. Entertain yourself.” [laughter] And that’s what I did.
Do you remember the first comic you made?
Do I remember the first comic I made? Oh, you were asking about my sister. Again, we got a lot of books from the library and a lot of books in our house. That was kind of a weekly trip to the library. There were stacks of things that came in. My dad would get a collection of New Yorker cartoons, for example. Things that were available in the library from that time period. I grew up looking at Saul Steinberg, for example. One thing that my sister and I would do, and maybe it was something that she instigated, I’m not sure, but we would sit down and do comics at a table. But they were generally looking at something like a New Yorker cartoon or an illustration in a book or something that was appealing to us and we would do kind of like stereo drawings. She was three-and-a-half years older than I was and she would do very neat and meticulously careful comics or drawings. And I would do my kind of goofier version of what she was doing, so kind of like looking at what she was doing and thinking about that. I remember that Crumb documentary where Robert was talking about his older brother Charles, who he says kind of browbeat him into doing comics. “You haven’t done your sixteen pages of Brombo the Panda Bear this week.” Or whatever the comic was. And my sister certainly wasn’t like that at all, but I do remember those were probably some pretty early comics.
After that the things I was doing on my own were, probably the early stuff would be influenced by Mad magazine or Mad comics. Probably kind of copying things out of that or doing my version of some parody or things like that. I remember doing parodies of superhero comics. Doing a parody of Thor, for example. [laughs]
So you were taking like a Will Elder-style approach to genre already?
Well, I mean I grew up on those Mad Harvey Kurtzman/Will Elder paperback books. I looked at those a lot, so I think my kind of humor or the kind of comics that I was emulating probably started from that. It wasn’t until later where I was discovering underground comics that I really had that sense of “oh, I can move off in this other direction and create something.”
I certainly did Robert Crumb rip-offs and Victor Moscoso rip-offs, but then I started doing things that maybe were kind of psychedelic or druggy looking, but they were my own work. And then I just got more and more involved in that side of it. I guess that would be during the time that you’re just trying to get some sense of yourself and that was one of my ways of doing it — sitting in my room for ten hours and making drawings.
It’s funny, you talk about how much time you have to spend by yourself as a cartoonist, and there’s definitely that stereotype of cartoonists being anti-social, and a lot of times when you see them at conventions they often look pretty unhappy. But I’ve had more than once person remark to me about how you always seem to be having a good time at those kinds of social events.
I was just at the Small Press Expo and that situation, yeah, I’m not sitting in my room. I’m out in public and people are being incredibly kind to me and telling me, “Yours was the first graphic novel I ever read and had such an impact on me.” And I’m thinking, “Wow!” It’s kind of an incredible thing to hear that and so yeah, it is certainly a lot of — it’s a different kind of situation. A big social situation and I get to see, I get to step out my studio, my room, and see people. It’s pleasant. It’s pleasant to meet people interested in meeting you.
What did you think of SPX? I didn’t go this year. I’ve been most past years. Have you been there before? Was it strange?
I’ve been there off and on. I went there pretty early on. My family moved around, but we lived for a while in Bethesda, and so part of my, I don’t know — initially I would go to SPX then kind of go and nostalgically wander around my old neighborhood and things like that. So that was also kind of going down there. But I thought it was great this time. However it was organized for me, I was — my friend Alvin Buenaventura who runs Pigeon Press, he’d just done a print of my work and helped set up a table, so a lot of that had to do with him helping out and it was great. I could just kind of concentrate on talking with people and signing books and doing talks and things like that. The one thing that was completely amazing was sitting up on stage with Lynda Barry, Ben Katchor, Tom Tomorrow, and sitting right next to me I’ve got Jules Feiffer. I mean that was mind-blowing for me. He was someone, I’m not sure if I’m going to get the name of the book, I think it was The Great Comic Heroes or something like that.
Oh yeah, yeah. I know what you’re talking about.
Do you know the name?
I think that is the name. I have it somewhere. Yeah, The Great Comic Book Heroes.
Yeah. So he wrote that and it was one of the first — I mean I’d kind of seen those books that were histories of comics and I would basically pick them up and enjoy them for the comics. I wasn’t sitting there reading the essays or reading anything that looked kind of boring, but his was the first book that I actually read the essays and it’s a pretty amazing — I think it really holds up well. It’s really well-written. It was one of the first early books that I bought with my own money and read the entire book and I was really inspired by. And not only that, but I certainly was aware of his Feiffer comic that came out weekly in Parade magazine in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. How’s that for a good name for a paper? And on top of that, him writing Carnal Knowledge, which was an incredibly funny, great movie. Just to see him and hear him being incredibly positive. Being his age. It was inspiring, I got to say, to hear this very lively person who just seemed very positive and was able to talk about the past, but also talk about the present and talk about creating something he’s never done before. Sitting down and making a big graphic novel and that was impressive. That was a kind of an impressive moment during my weekend.
Have you had a chance to read that book yet?
No I haven’t. There were a lot of things — I actually have a stack of things, but I haven’t had a chance to pick it up or read it yet. But I’m planning on it.
When you were starting out as a cartoonist, art comics or independent comics or whatever word you want to use for it—that world was a lot smaller obviously.
It wouldn’t be difficult to know the work of almost everyone doing it, or at least know of them.
Sure. I mean there was probably a few stray people out there, but you could pretty much know everybody who was getting published, anyway. I’m sure there were some people who were making some stapled zine somewhere that I hadn’t heard of, but I generally had a pretty good sense of what that community was.
And now, obviously, it’s very different. Do you still feel connected to comics the community, for lack of a better term?
My general sense is that probably when I’m looking around at people at the Small Press Expo, I would say, not everybody, but the age range there is from the 20s to early 30s. I mean it spills over a little bit more than that, but I think that’s a very specific community.
I’m not as directly involved with that necessarily, but I’m certainly keeping track of good work that is coming out and still in touch with a lot of cartoonists. I’m meeting new cartoonists all the time. I think there certainly was something that felt like a smaller community at some point. I was living in Philadelphia and going off to New York City where Raw magazine was being made, so I was hanging out and meeting Ben Katchor and Gary Panter and Kaz and Mark Beyer and those were people – there’d be a Raw party or something like that, so you’d get to see all those people and it wasn’t like some sense of solidarity, but it was still just people that you appreciated their work. There would also be a lot of people that would come in from Europe and visit in New York and I’d get to meet them as well. There was that kind of connection, but I mean some version of that is true today.
I have no plans on doing online comics, but I know that’s going to be a way that a lot of people meet each other or have a community that’s going to be different than what I grew up with. But on the other hand, yeah, I’m keeping my eyes open, my brain open.
Are there any people in particular — I mean if you don’t want to answer this, that’s fine, but are there any names in particular of books or artists that you’ve gotten into recently?
I don’t know. I met Simon Hanselmann who was there with a new book that Fantagraphics put out. Just a load of people. My problem that I struggle with every single time I do interviews is that my brain goes blank when it comes to names. My mother did that too and it used to drive me crazy. “You know the person who does those autobiographical comics, but they’re done in a really thin line and she’s doing this comic about . . . oh anyways.” I always tell myself I’m going to have a crib sheet so I don’t sound like an idiot, but I never quite manage to get the crib sheet worked out.
You were talking about how a lot of younger cartoonists are online. My wife teaches cartooning and year after year, when she shows her students your work, she says they are always completely flabbergasted by it. They have no idea how you do it.
You get on a computer and press the art button. I’m sorry, go ahead, I was being a smart-ass there. [laughter]
I don’t exactly have a question related to that — I mean, I can’t just ask you how you do it. But it’s interesting how things have changed so much. Just the processes of making art. I think for some of the people starting out now, I think the inking that you do is especially hard for them to grasp. The coloring techniques and watercolor now, everything’s just so different with computers.
Well, I mean there’s people who just use — that don’t make drawings. I mean they just use a computer and it works for them. Michael DeForge does every single line, as far as I know or have been told, everything on a computer so there’s no pieces of paper involved. I don’t know, it works for him.
For me, the kind of line quality and the kind of — just the idea of sitting at a table with a piece of paper is just something that I kind of have to do as part of how my brain functions. The few times I’ve tried to use a tablet to draw, I just can’t. It’s like one step too many. I can’t look at a screen and have some sense of what I’m drawing. So yeah, I need a piece of paper that gets kind of smeared up with lead pencil and everything else and just having that tactile quality of pulling ink across a piece of paper. Well, anyway. Whatever works for people. It’s the pliable product that counts.
I use a computer to scan my work and to color my work and that’s amazing. It’s a great tool. You have an amazing amount of control as compared to how many years ago where you had to scan things or photograph them in hopes an art director didn’t screw it up. You can really maintain a huge amount of control, which is great.
The color in these new books is, I think, really great. I mean, I’m colorblind—not totally colorblind, just a little bit—but I still get a lot out of it. The new one, Sugar Skull, I’ve only read in black and white because I have the advance copy, and I feel like I’m missing a lot.
Oh god. Yeah, you are. I can never figure out when people tell me colorblind. That just means if green looks red, then —
I have the most common one which is called red/green colorblind. I think I mostly see 85-90% of what everyone else sees, but a few colors gets combined where I see different colors as the same color.
Oh, I see. Okay. I never figured that out.
I’m sure I’m missing things all the time because of that, but I don’t know. Supposedly Howard Chaykin is colorblind.
I don’t know what made that pop into my mind. But Sugar Skull even opens with that color effect with the traffic lights.
Sure, sure. Yeah, exactly.
So, for a typical page or layout, how many drafts would you say you normally go through?
It really, really — there’s an incredible range with that. I mean, there’s sometimes it just goes straight through and it’s like, “Oh, got it.” That’s pretty rare though. It’s a whole process, where I’m … the process I use is that I’m working on a large up-sized piece of paper and I may have done a thumbnail or I may not have, but I’ve laid out a page and figured out where the lettering goes and figured out the layout and the structure of it. Then I lay down a big, huge piece of tracing paper and start in. What I generally do is start out with it being really loose and open so it’s just putting down graphic shapes almost. Trying to figure out a balance of everything and the figures. And then it just slowly gets refined with other layers of tracing paper, cutting out a figure and moving it around a little bit, taping it down. I use a lot of tape. But it actually gets all distilled down to something I’m satisfied with then I transfer it to a final sheet of paper by doing a final drawing then inking it. So you’ve got all these different stages, but it’s a weird, slow process. Nothing very direct about it at all.
That was another thing Hignite included in that In the Studio book — it has a bunch of different drafts you did of a picture of a ghoul, I don’t know what it actually is.
Sure, yeah. That’s it, I forgot. That’s actually a fairly good — that’s just a single image for a cover, but it would be similar for working a page. Breaking down a page and figuring it out. But that’s kind of the way I work.
What was amazing about it to me was how much it changed, and it’s not like it ever was a bad drawing, but in some ways the early version was just so different and so less interesting than what you ended up with. I know that’s the goal, but it still almost feels like you have to have faith in your own ability to eventually get it right – you don’t worry about too much at first.
That’s something really important, for me anyway. And that’s the way that I write as well. It’s not sitting down at a keyboard and writing a script and thinking, oh shit, what’s the next line? I sit with cheap notebooks or cheap sketchbooks and just fill them up with ideas and maybe pieces of dialogue and bits and pieces. I keep circulating through all those notes. Go back to those notes. So nothing feels cut in stone or permanent. It all feels like it’s open and I can move in any direction that I want.
It’s starting with a lot of information and slowly, slowly distilling it down to something that’s concrete. So maybe that says something about my personality that I’m very cautious and very careful about all that stuff, but I don’t have the kind of brain that can sit down and write beautiful dialogue and a beautiful story. There’s people who certainly can do that work really quickly and just do amazing work, but I don’t have that facility unfortunately. I wish I did, but I don’t.
It seems like you have to have confidence in your own ability to eventually make it work.
Sometimes it takes a long time. Sometimes I think I’ve been doing it for a long time. I should be able to draw this head at three-quarters view. It’s not that hard. And six drawings later I’m about ready to smash things up in my studio. That’s just the way I’ve ended up working. I used to work just like layout the panels, start putting some pencils in, or erase a little bit, and then ink it up. The way most people work, I guess. I don’t know how most people work, but that’s the way I do.
I think in terms of writing, it really makes — with these last three books, I don’t know what to call them, the Nitnit books or whatever. Because if you work that way in the writing as well, it definitely is so multi-layered. I think maybe if you have to go over it over and over and over again, maybe it helps you build those layers in.
Yeah, it definitely does. Again, I am working slowly. What’s surprising to me, and I’ve talked to other cartoonists about this, is that I’ll be struggling with something, like I’m at a certain impasse and I’m trying to solve whatever the problem is on the page and suddenly find this, here’s a perfect solution. I’ll say this, this, and this. Then I’ll look back at my notes from five months ago and I’ve written exactly the same words. I mean verbatim. [laughter] My god, maybe it’s just that my brain takes that long to process it or needs that time to muddle around in there. I’ve surprised myself finding ideas that I’ve already solved months earlier. It’s kind of crazy.
In other interviews, you’ve talked about how in the work you did before Black Hole—I think that’s the dividing line, but you can correct me if I’m wrong—you used to censor yourself in your work.
I didn’t realize I was, but I looking back I think that I was. I think I probably still am too, but in different ways. I did reach a point where I wanted to tell a different story and I wanted a story that was more personal and reflected my experiences or was better at reflecting my experiences. I realized that I wanted to push that and I wanted to struggle with the things that are kind of difficult to face up to.
There were times where I was like coming up with a drawing or coming up with an idea in my notebook and just thinking, I don’t know if I should put this out in the world. I don’t know if this is a good idea. There are some scenes in the recent books as well that are just, you know, I’m thinking I don’t know if I should show this. I try not to censor myself. I try to grapple with those ideas and think about them. Think them through and figure out why they have been circulating around my head for so long.
Was there something that happened that made you recognize that in yourself and decide to stop censoring yourself, holding yourself back?
I don’t know. I think I was moving in that direction anyway. Before Black Hole, I had been doing a serialized weekly comic strip and it was really kind of a weird way of doing a strip. I was doing what ended up being full-length stories, but just putting out two tiers at a time. It really didn’t function very well as a weekly comic. I’ve had people say, “Oh yeah. I read every one of them. I used to clip them, and read them, and put them together, and followed the stories around.” But I think the whole idea is that most people who read weekly papers pick them up casually and want to have some kind of self-contained piece.
Anyway, towards the end there during the Big Baby story it was starting to kind of veer off in a territory that felt a little more personal and I realized too that I was working for weekly newspapers and there weren’t real rules that were outlined to me, but there was some sense that anyone on the street can pick this up and you need to have something that’s not delving into something that’s too dark or too sexual or too violent or too horrific. And so I think it was the aftermath of that, kind of realizing that when I finished up those strips, I decided I wanted to do something else. Delve into something — tell a longer story. Tell something that was more about myself. More about the characters, I guess. That’s the best way to say it. More character-driven, how’s that?
You did an interview for The Comics Journal a really long time ago, back in 1992, which was I guess around the same time you’re talking about. I know it’s terrible to read back quotes to people years later, but you said — you talk about being uncomfortable when your work got too serious and said that when you found yourself taking yourself really seriously you would inject humor into the material.
That’s probably true, yeah. It’s, I — Thank God I don’t read my own interviews. [laughter.] It’s, but —
It seemed smart to me.
I think that probably I was being honest about that. I think that I was dealing with subject matter, I mean, I think on occasions I was dealing with subject matter that was serious, but then I would find a way of not having it come off as being all heavy, or I don’t know what the right word would be. So yeah, maybe there was some injection of humor there or something like that.
But I think I reached a point where, not that I wanted to be humorless, but on the other hand I didn’t feel like that was necessary. That I could just tell the story I needed to tell.
Right. Well there’s definitely humor in these most recent books and in Black Hole, but maybe irony is the word — well there’s irony too but, not the kind of irony — I don’t know what the right word is, but I think I know what you mean.
It was like whenever those little green creatures that are working in The Hive — whenever they show up, and where every single other word is “Fuck.” That seems humorous to me. “Have a nice fucking day!” [laughter] That’s definitely something that’s outright humorous, but as far as like the core of the story — I’m kind of getting at ideas that are not necessarily leavened by humor.
Yeah, it’s almost like you’re not pulling your punches.
I think that’s part of it, or I try not to.
I know the genesis of these last three books was partly based on your own experiences in art school.
And one of the characters, Nicky, talks in the first one about how she wants to start a band, but everyone wants to be in a band, so maybe she’ll do a magazine. And she seems more interested in the act of being an artist and creating art, than in any particular art form. Like, whatever works will be fine as long as she’s creating art.
Is that the kind of artist you were or was comics always what you wanted to be doing?
That particular character, that was a conversation with my girlfriend’s roommates. I just never heard — we knew a lot of bands and I just remember her saying like, “Huh, we could do a band, but everybody’s doing a band.” It was like, “Everyone’s doing that. I’m going to do something different.” So it really was from that. When I went to school, I studied fine arts. I didn’t go to comics school or learn graphics or anything like that. Anything useful.
But I really did have a chance to kind of explore a lot of different mediums. I did painting, and sculpture, and I did a lot of photography. That part comes out in the book a little bit — that aspect of being a photographer. I felt like I was able to kind of allow different things into my work. But also it did come down to me just liking the accessibility of comics and wanting to tell stories. I think early on I never really kind of settled down enough to tell real stories. There were little fragments of things, or a page of something, or it might be some kind of more visual narrative. But I hadn’t really sat down and worked through the whole storytelling part of it. Which is a hard thing. Something I had to teach myself.
Now, when you were thinking of these recent Nitnit stories, was there ever a point where you considered — obviously there’s at least two parts to it: There’s the “real” story, for lack of a better word, and then there’s the fantasy, I don’t know if it’s dreams or something else. Was there ever a point where you wanted to tell it either just as a realistic story or just as a fantasy? And what made you decide to do both?
I struggled with both those things. For me, it wasn’t like a compromise, but it was a way that I could enter the story is the best way I can say it. It wasn’t just a straight linear narrative. There were pieces bouncing off each other. Visual things and narrative things. That’s what felt right to me. Before I started working on these three books I did two versions, or I started in with notes and some drawings of what would be a much more straight narrative. With Black Hole, it bounces around but it’s still — and there are kind of elements that are a step away from that — but it’s still pretty straightforward I think.
For me just to get through the ideas I wanted to get through, or get them out there, I was thinking of all those layers and levels and that made sense for me to approach it that way.
Did you have any models in mind for that kind of hybrid? David Lynch has done that kind of thing a couple times. There’s Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. I’m sure there’s lots of things I’m not thinking of. Were you inspired by those or did you just kind of do it without thinking of —
Not necessarily inspired — there’s certainly people that I’ve looked at and enjoyed or read and enjoyed, but not as a distinct model. In a way I think I was just kind of stalled out and unable to move forward. I was kind of doing two little threads of ideas as kind of a Tintin-esque world — kind of a punky Tintin character that I was making notes on and drawing. And then doing this much more straight narrative. I just dove into it.
You’ve talked a little bit about this before so I don’t want to make you repeat yourself too much, but obviously there’s a lot of symbolism flowing through these books and I know you probably don’t want to get into exactly what all the different symbols mean.
But for yourself, do you consciously assign meanings to them, or is it more unconscious?
It’s allowing them to be what they need to be. Sometimes I’m analyzing them and sometimes I’m not. Sometimes it’s more kind of a visceral reaction, just something I respond to. There’s imagery, like you’re saying. One of the really early images is just seeing a pink blanket with cigarette burns in it. The kind of thing that you would notice and pass over if you were looking at it and not really thinking about it. But it’s certainly symbolic of Doug’s father — you see him sitting in his basement room covered up with a blanket and smoking cigarettes and watching the ashes drop off onto the blanket.
All those things kind of build up. I think that like maybe the first time you see that or you read that you’re thinking, “What’s this?” Or you don’t really respond to it necessarily or know what to make of it, but by the time you read the book, or hopefully re-read it a few times, those things start to resonate in a different sort of way, and start to build. That’s kind of what I’m after. Using imagery that way. The inner calm that keeps reappearing. Yeah, a lot of things like that.
You definitely need to re-read these to understand what’s going on. I don’t think I understood huge chunks of it until recently. I mean, this is obvious, but before what you find out in Sugar Skull — it made a lot of things that were previously obscure very clear.
I’ve read the whole thing three times now, and I think I still need to probably read it a few more.
But most of it, a lot of it, makes much more sense now. Were you at all worried putting it together about the readers being able to follow what you were doing?
I was to a certain extent, but again as you were saying before, I just kind of have to trust myself to tell the story that I want to tell and not have — I mean if I was worried about what the reaction of my audience is going to be then I don’t think that I’d do anything. [laughter]. Or maybe I would just do a good vampire story. I could do a good vampire story. I bet I could move some product with that.
At the risk of sounding pompous, I’m in a situation where I’m not on this planet forever and I just want to tell the stories that I want to tell. And luckily I’m in a situation where I’ve got a publisher that’s putting them out and it’s great. I think there’s been moments where people said, “Is that the book? God I just read that and I don’t know what that is.” Yeah, I felt a little bit like, “Oh, shit.” On the other hand, I knew that I was going to pull all those threads together — that was my plan anyway. And I think it all pulls together. It feels like a complete thing to me.
I personally found it very satisfying. But it’s interesting to me just because it’s in some ways it’s a self-imposed thing where by releasing it in three serialized parts you’re kind of creating an obstacle.
Sure. I mean the thing is I think ideally, considering the fact that they’re released every two years, each one would be a story that would feel probably a little more complete in itself, I guess. But that’s not how I did it. [laughter.]
It’s almost like what I was describing before: doing a weekly comic strip that’s serializing a long story that nobody’s gonna make sense of on a weekly basis. Maybe I was doing something like that as well, I don’t know. For me it works, and the idea that there’s three segments and there’s three particular portions of this character’s life — all those things make sense to me.
And the problem is now gone. From now on, all three books are available. It’s over and now it’s one thing if people want it to be one thing. It was a temporary problem at worst anyway.
There you go. I’ve had a temporary problem for four years and now it’s been solved. [laughter]
It’s not a problem, but you know what I mean.
Yeah I know exactly. It’s a funny thing. I have to remember that, that sounds good. I’ll explain that to everybody.
In some ways this is a very sad story, obviously. Is it difficult to be working on this kind of subject matter for quite a bit of time? Does that affect your day-to-day life?
I think so, I think it’s also just kind of the opposite of that. I think that my day-to-day life was really finding its way into the book as well. I’m not going to go into details, but there are certainly events that found their way into the story that had to do with what was going on in my life at that time. … I don’t feel comfortable talking about that, so … I won’t.
Okay, that’s fair. One other thing that seemed different about these stories, even from Black Hole, is that these, and this is reductive—I know that you’ve had adults in previous stories—but this felt like you were dealing with maturity and adulthood and responsibility more than in the past. You might disagree with that, I don’t know.
No, no. That’s my intention. There’s certainly a core of the story that is about that kind of responsibility and a sense of raising children and adulthood and all of those things. Yeah. It might not be the center of the story, but it’s certainly there.
The reason I bring it up is just because you’re kind of — when people think of you, they think of you as the teenage horror guy.
Did you feel like you were tired of that or just wanted to try something different?
My most successful book is Black Hole, so that’s a huge chunk of time devoted to making that and it’s certainly teens. I’m sure people are looking at this book and are like, “Wow you’re still —” My argument is like, “No, they’re not teenagers, they’re in their early twenties.” [laughs] No, it wasn’t reacting to that necessarily. I don’t know. The story that I’m thinking about now, I’m thinking like, “I don’t know, I think this character might be about eight years old so we’ll see how that goes.”
That’s another thing I don’t want to do is say, “Oh, I can’t do that again.” Or, “I can’t do this again.” I certainly have themes and ideas that re-present themselves and that I find myself slipping back into, but I’ll see how that goes. There was one time way way back when where I was describing a new story idea to my wife. And she said, “Charles, you can’t do another story about someone’s head getting severed and sewed on to another body. You can’t do that.” [laughter] And I’m like, “Ohh. Oh, you’re right.” [laughter] Well, you know what? I can, dammit! I can do that.
God knows, you may be seeing that again. Who knows? But no, I don’t want to be — I mean I’m self-conscious enough about everything, so I try not to be self-conscious about that part. If I’m stuck in that world then I’m stuck in that world and I can’t force myself to be mature or something.
Maybe you could take over and finish Chester Brown’s Underwater.
Oh my god. [Laughs.] That’s amazing. That’s funny. Good idea.
In your professional life now, are comics able to take up a lot of your time or is it still mostly devoted to illustration?
I don’t do that much illustration these days. Actually I do very little, and that’s a good thing. The one thing that Jules Feiffer was talking about is that there’s nothing that’s stationary. There’s nothing that just stays the same. He worked on his Feiffer cartoon for how many years? He had a long, long run on that, but he also kind of stepped out and had to start again and try different things. I’m in a situation right now where I’m able to spend a lot of time working on comics and things that are related to that. There has been a bunch of spin-off drawings and illustrations that have to do with this trilogy or the series of books. I’m going to be putting out kind of an art book or some book that’ll collect all those images.
I was gonna ask you if there’s been any talk about doing a book like The Art of Dan Clowes or The Art of Jaime Hernandez.
What I’m talking about specifically is a book specifically about just this series of stories. But in general yes, I’ve talked and made plans and worked on a book that would collect illustrations and miscellaneous other pieces that I’ve worked on over the years. That’s definitely being planned. I’ve started and stopped on it. At some point I thought I could sit down and edit everything myself, but I realized I just don’t have the skills or the impartial brain to put that together. I’m talking about that with different people and hopefully that will materialize someday.
More than a lot of artists, I think it makes sense for you for sure.
Yeah, I’ve got a huge amount of work. There’s some people that knew me only as an illustrator and then never realized I did comics and vice versa. And then I’ve had people who say, “Oh you did a Iggy Pop cover.” That’s the only thing they know. Or, “You did that Sub Pop Lubricated Goat 45. You’re that guy.” I’m like, “Uh-huh.” [Laughs.]
Every time I see your work I flashback to high school. Someone had that Iggy Pop cover on their locker.
Oh, that’s funny.
I think that was the first time I saw your work. It might not have been, but I still remember that every time.
Now I’m impressed. That’s good. That sounds fun. I like hearing that. That’s good. I was on someone’s locker!
That’s a good start, I like that.
I might have misunderstood you, but did you say you’re already working on another story or idea?
I’m working on it as far as — I recently realized I had a misstart. Meaning I got not real far into the story, but I had started it seriously and was printing out pages and then realized that it was not doing what I wanted it to do. I’m making notes and I’m working. I’m writing and building up ideas. That’s what I’m doing right now.
The first of five hundred drafts.
Yeah, they’re not even drafts. It’s just like an accumulation of ideas, I guess.
You have two daughters?
Yes, I do.
And they are now adults?
Yes, they are. I’ve got a twenty-four year old and a twenty-seven year old.
Do you think that being a father affected your art?
Well, that’s a good question. I’m not sure. I think it has to. Just in your general outlook of the world and your experiences. There’s definitely that. There’s also the idea like, I’m raising a family and I’ve got to do this illustration about computers that I don’t want to do, but I have to do it because I got to pay the bills and all that. When I was in the middle of working on Black Hole I would have people interviewing me say, “Oh, you’ve got daughters in high school. Are you using that as material for your book?” And my immediate reaction was, “No!” I couldn’t stand the idea that the daughter that I loved was influencing this kind of horrific, dark story. On the other hand, I think that raising children and going through their high school years and all that — just seeing that whole process, yeah I was aware of that and I’m sure that played a part in the way I tell stories or of the stories I tell. I mean it’s all experience, so it all finds its way into the work. In some cases much more directly than others.