GENRE AND STEREOTYPES
SULLIVAN: How do you work to structure the reader’s place in the story? Do you deliberately try not to create a character readers will identify with too much?
BURNS: Sometimes I get close to a more personal voice that someone could relate to directly. For example, in that Bliss Blister story there’s a period where the kid has a voice-over narrative, talking about his history as he runs away from home and meets his wife-to-be. He starts to be a little bit closer to a person you can relate to.
But I’m not comfortable with that too much. I’m good at creating ciphers, but I’m not great at characters, at real whole people. At least I haven’t been so far. I don’t know why I’m uncomfortable with that, but I’m better at doing two-dimensional characters that symbolize other things, rather than having a story revealed through a more personal episode, or a more naturalistic form of storytelling. That just comes down to what I am and who I am.
SULLIVAN: Do you see that as a limiting factor?
BURNS: Yeah, everybody’s got limitations of one form or another. I mean, I’ve considered it. It’s just not something that I think I’ve got a skill for. It doesn’t fascinate me enough to pursue it wholeheartedly. I’m fascinated by weird stuff. How’s that for an explanation?
I guess I objectify things when I’m writing. And I don’t think I have the skill or the interest to pursue another kind of writing. I don’t know. Maybe some day. Slice of life.
SULLIVAN: What do you think of what Tim Lucas is doing with “Throat Sprockets” in Taboo? There are some similarities in themes; he’s dealing with characters whose media influences are really structuring the way they perceive life.
BURNS: I’m not crazy about it, personally. It’s OK. It’s obsessive on a different level than I like to get obsessive. I’m more focused on superficial aspects, superficial things.
SULLIVAN: Do you think that might be partly because you’re an artist, looking at surfaces instead of going at things from a psychological bent?
BURNS: It’s possible. A lot of my stories originate in a visual episode, a visual thing. I build the key image, and then the story gets based on that.
SULLIVAN: When you’re planning a story, do images or ideas come fairly quickly, and when they do, do you think, “I have to push beyond that”?
BURNS: On some things I trust my natural impulse. I don’t want to intellectualize too much about them. Other ideas I’ll just build on until I find something I’m comfortable with. But there are stories that have developed out of waking up at three in the morning, not being able to sleep, lying in bed and composing a story, forcing myself to get up and write it all down. You have to let that be legitimate, and trust your subconscious without intellectualizing.
SULLIVAN: Do you free-associate to get beyond intellectualizing, or meditate or something?
BURNS: No, I’m just persistent about it. You keep digging into it. It’s as dumb as walking for an hour to focus on it.
SULLIVAN: Do you ever try to develop it not in your head, just by sketching or doodling?
BURNS: Not so much. I think I did early on. Some things come as images. And because they’re images they’re something you can’t describe in words. I’ll work on those and try to find a way of interpreting them, or talking about them within a story.
There’s a part of “Teen Plague,” where a teenage boy is telling his girlfriend about his nightmares. One portion of his nightmare is a room filling up with blood. There are things like that which are distinct nightmare images I had. You can sit there and think, “What does this particular nightmare have to do with the rest of the story?” I can link it up eventually, but the initial image was just a nightmare.
SULLIVAN: When you decide to incorporate an image like that into your story, do you figure out whether it fits with the story at a thematic level, or do you just work it in at an emotional level?
BURNS: It does have to function in the story. It’s not just a throwaway. I don’t ever think, “It looks cool and I’ll include it.” But I don’t necessarily arrive at that particular image or idea in an intellectual way.
SULLIVAN: We’ve talked about combining images from different media, from films or from other stories or even other comic stories. What do you think happens when you mix together elements of romance fiction and science fiction and domestic stereotypes and whatever else? When you play with those genres?
BURNS: I’ll try to give an example. In some really sleazy ’60s exploitation movies, you can get a better idea of what reality was like in the ’60s than you do with your glossed-over version of Peter Max and Life magazine explaining to you what hippies are. There are certain truths that exist in genre fiction, even though it’s full of stereotypes and two-dimensional characters. I like thinking about those.
SULLIVAN: In what way do you think they might be more true?
BURNS: They’re appealing at a much cruder level; they’re more unconscious. There’s a certain amount of unconsciousness that goes into genre fiction or genre movies. And out of that unconsciousness, I always see a certain kind of truth.
SULLIVAN: Is that because they’re naive about what they’re doing?
BURNS: Exactly. In a film, if you’ve got a fifth-rate version of John Wayne acting, some kind of naive truth comes out. He’s not skilled enough to pull off the Hollywood showmanship, and some kind of truth seeps out.
SULLIVAN: So the process by which John Wayne is created is revealed to some extent.
BURNS: You get to see the edges. So there’s some truth in the two-dimensional versions.
SULLIVAN: What happens in your work when you take these naive representations from genre fiction and put them in a sophisticated context?
BURNS: Well, I’m fascinated with role-playing. Like the woman in a movie who always runs and stumbles as the monster’s coming. I’m examining these stereotypes, these archetypes, and in a way they get revealed in the most clear-cut, naive way in some of those bad movies. Because there’s no pretension, there’s no sophistication. There’s just the most bare-boned version of those stereotypes.
SULLIVAN: Let’s take the example of the woman with the monster chasing her. When we see that in a horror film, we laugh or we groan — we’re conscious of the artifice there. When you put that into a story, and there’s a lot of irony, it’s a more sophisticated context. How does that change the way that we perceive that artifice?
BURNS: It just makes you re-examine it. Because I think there’s truth in some of those stereotypes. We believe those things. We believe them subconsciously. You can think of some recent movies where you can tell that the director or the screenwriter is trying to very consciously change those stereotypes, and everyone will applaud.
Like in Terminator 2, you’ve got the woman who is usually the victim, only now she’s big, she’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. That’s the big selling point. Everyone says, “Oh, yeah, she’s really cool. She can handle a shotgun the same way Arnold does.” So that’s applauded. Whoever was writing that story was very conscious of that. “This is the ’90s. She twisted her ankle last time as the bimbo who had Arnold coming after her from the future. This time she’s gotta have her shit together, and be muscular and hardcore and pissed off.”
SULLIVAN: Do you think they’re playing off a change in our perception of women? Or are they just playing off that fact that we’ve seen too many women trip and fall in movies?
BURNS: People will be pissed off if you show her tripping and falling. I know, because I watch the movie with my wife and she goes, “Awww, there she goes, she’s falling again.” No one wants to watch that. If you’re black, you don’t want to see the black servant or the helpful mammy. No one’s going to buy into that stuff any more. It’s got to be re-examined.
SULLIVAN: Do you consciously update stereotypes in your own work, so we’ll in a sense believe them again?
BURNS: Am I changing the imagery so that it’s more acceptable? No, I’m not successful in doing that. I’ve had people look at my work and find it sexist or offensive. They misinterpret what I’m doing. They’re saying, “You show women as frail and stupid and two-dimensional and blah blah blah.” I show men the same way. I don’t think women are weak. But I’m not trying to appease an audience. I think that the guys that are putting out Terminator 2 would like to put out a good action movie. And they’re appeasing a ’90s audience by having her as a bodybuilder, as a person who can hold her own. I’m not doing that.
SULLIVAN: But isn’t there a point where “appeasing the audience” is doing what’s right? People are right to think that women can be strong and independent.
BURNS: Yeah. But, for example, there was an era when we had a lot of black gangster movies, Superfly  and all that. There was an outcry of, “You’re stereotyping blacks, saying that blacks are criminals, blacks are this, blacks are that.” They were just action movies. Take it as that.
SULLIVAN: So are you saying that the meaning of the genre is outweighing any of these other elements?
BURNS: An action movie is going to appeal to an audience on a specific level. It’s feeding that need for, “Oooh! Aaah!” But now they’re saying, “This is the ’90s and we have to make our movies accordingly.” They don’t give a shit. Are you kidding? They still think it’s OK to make fun of Orientals, it’s still OK to make fun of Mexicans.
SULLIVAN: You use stereotypical images of women in your comics, but I’ve never seen you use a stereotype of a race. Would you draw a black character with big lips?
BURNS: No. I feel really uncomfortable doing that. I guess I feel I can take care of the white race. Because I’m white, I don’t feel comfortable taking on other stereotypes. In my most recent comic I have some black kids, just to be realistic. But it’s not my voice, I can’t talk about that very easily. If I was black, that’s what I would talk about. But I’m a middle-class white.
SULLIVAN: What’s the difference between using a racial stereotype and using a stereotype of women?
BURNS: That is difficult. I never have any voices that are realistic female voices. I’ve never done a story from a woman’s point of view. I don’t think.
SULLIVAN: “Marriage Made in Hell” is from a woman’s point of view.
BURNS: Yeah, but that’s so stereotyped. I’m taking off on that whole convention of romance comics, and those were all written by men. They’re taking on women’s voices, but … Yeah, I do feel uncomfortable doing it. But obviously, I’m not going to just do stories about men.
SULLIVAN: I guess I’m still looking for some sort of parallel between your refusal to do ethnic stereotypes and your willingness to do female stereotypes, given that that isn’t your voice either.
BURNS: Well, I … women are 50% of a story. I’ve got to make a concession there. I guess I’m talking about cultural differences more than sexual differences. Not that I can put myself in the place of a woman, but I feel comfortable talking about white women. I don’t feel comfortable writing stories about black women. I’ve been around white women; I’ve been around white men.
SULLIVAN: Do you feel uncomfortable trying to write with a woman’s voice?
BURNS: Yeah, I wouldn’t do that. The only time I’ve done it was in a very glib, sarcastic way, like in “Marriage Made in Hell.”
SULLIVAN: If you did do it seriously, that might make your work less offensive to people who are going to accuse you of sexism.
BURNS: I agree with you. Again, all I can say is that’s the only voice I’ve been dealt. I can’t exclude normal situations from the story. I’ve got to find a voice I can talk through. That’s the best I can do.
“BLISTER” AND CRITICISM
SULLIVAN: Let’s get back to ‘‘Bliss Blister” for a second. What was the inspiration for that story?
BURNS: One of the things was a newspaper article in a Philadelphia paper about this guy in south Jersey who took photographs of fires. He took photographs of a chicken coop burning, and when he got the pictures back he was convinced that he saw Jesus Christ in one of his photographs. This was a pretty good article.
Anyway, he was pretty screwy. Taking this photograph had changed his life: He quit drinking and he was having people come unto him. Religious believers were coming into the Ramada Inn or something down in south Jersey, and he was shining the picture of the slide on their chests and trying to heal them. It was really goofy. Not that my story has much to do with that, but that was one take-off point, thinking about weird religious stuff. Stigmata.
SULLIVAN: Were you thinking of the Shroud of Turin?
BURNS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. There’s all this goofy religious baggage in there somewhere. Not that I’m religious, but …
SULLIVAN: Then where does all this goofy religious baggage come from?
BURNS: I’ve had friends who were religious and it’s just my take on it.
SULLIVAN: It’s kind of harsh when you can’t tell the god from the devil.
BURNS: Yeah, what’s the difference? You tell me.
SULLIVAN: I thought the most brutal thing in the story was the idea that the father had branded his son …
BURNS: That’s the core of the story. When I was writing it, I was thinking, “I don’t know if I can do this.” ‘Cause the idea of child abuse is just so hard for me to take, and think about. That’s the reason I eventually included it. I don’t really trust adults, I guess.
SULLIVAN: What happens between being a kid and being an adult that makes adults untrustworthy?
BURNS: It’s the abuse of power, I guess, that I find frightening. Or not even so much the abuse but the negligence. It’s like letting something slide. As a parent, I’m facing that constantly.
SULLIVAN: How can you get around that?
BURNS: I don’t know that you can.
SULLIVAN: What is the difference between the Bliss Blister story and your previous work? Do you see a different dimension to it?
BURNS: It’s a little bit harder, I guess, and more direct. More hardcore. Unrelenting. There’s less sarcasm, less humor.
SULLIVAN: The guy in Florida who didn’t want to run that story went to “Marriage Made in Hell,” right?
BURNS: Yeah. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen. I sent him a bunch of strips up to the point where things start getting creepier.
SULLIVAN: So he hasn’t gotten to the panel of the man taking the wig off and having scars all over his body.
BURNS: That’s not included. It’s kind of nice to build up to this other story and see if he’ll run that one!
SULLIVAN: If he doesn’t like the ending of that one, what’s the Big Baby story that follows “Marriage Made in Hell” like?
BURNS: That’s even worse. I’m always hesitant to include things that would be looked upon as gratuitous or sensational. But in the Big Baby story I’m doing right now, there are some of those elements. But they’re not very gratuitous — I’m using them in a very specific way, an intentional way. They’re part of the story. They’re not just something that would be kind of fun to look at, or creepy, or sexy. They’re what the story’s about.
SULLIVAN: Can you talk a little bit about it? It hasn’t run in Los Angeles yet.
BURNS: No. It’s too hard to simplify things. When I try to do that, or to even explain a particular story, it loses something. I’d like to have the mystery.
For example, I remember going to see a lecture by an artist that I liked in California, when I was a student. It was William Wiley, a painter and sculptor. He showed a bunch of slides of stuff that looked very mysterious and dense and interesting to me. The way this guy talked about his work was like, “Yeah, I’m smokin’ pot, I just kinda came up with this shape, and I kinda put it there.” I don’t think that’s what he was really doing, but the way he was talking about it kind of ruined it for me, ruined the mystery. He should have just done his art. He shouldn’t have been talking about it.
SULLIVAN: Was it the fact that he was trying to explain it, or that he was being so casual about it?
BURNS: It was both. Maybe somebody in the audience was asking, “Well, what does that particular shape up there signify?” “It means nothing. It’s just this kinda weird shape I figured out.” I don’t believe that was the case. I think that was just the answer he came up with. He couldn’t talk about it.
Even when you ask me, “What does this mean, what does that mean?” — I’m not good at analyzing the elements of a story I’m working on. While I’m writing it, I’m turning that stuff over in my mind constantly, turning every element over. There’s nothing there that’s flabby — in my mind, anyway — everything is there for a reason. I’m not just being spaced out and creating something for fun. But to analyze it, that’s hard for me to do. It trivializes what I’m trying to get at.
SULLIVAN: Do you think it can’t be described without being reduced, and therefore being harmed?
BURNS: That’s a good way of saying it. The reason I’m doing comics, the reason I’m combining writing with imagery, is that it’s my voice, it’s the only way I can articulate something clearly for myself. It may not be clear for everybody else, but that’s the way I’m able to do it.
SULLIVAN: Do you think it’s possible for a critic to describe your work without reducing it, or taking away that inspirational element of it?
BURNS: It’s always going to be interpretation. It’s criticism. Every single person will go into a gallery or pick up a book and they’ll look at it or read it, and have their reaction to it through their personal experience or background. It’s always going to be different. I like the idea that it’s open-ended; it’s not clear-cut.
It’s interesting to hear criticism or interpretation of my work, like, “Charles Burns is saying this because he hates women.” I don’t agree, but it’s interesting for me to hear that.
SULLIVAN: I think criticism is really missing in comics. In any other sphere, there are a number of critical voices who discuss any particular work of art and disagree about it. Do you think that kind of discussion would help you as an artist?
BURNS: I don’t know. Ultimately … no. It can get you pissed off, and, sure, you’re going to react to it in one way or another. When I sit at a drawing table and evaluate what I’m doing, that’s where it happens. I know when I’m sliding; I know when I’m doing something that’s not there. I also know when something works. And if someone says it doesn’t work, then I don’t care.
SULLIVAN: If your work were being critiqued in art magazines — if there was a discussion going on about it — do you think that would shape what the public thought about what you do?
BURNS: It might to a certain extent. It would be a very small portion of the public. If you take art journals or the Comics Journal seriously, then why isn’t Chester Brown a millionaire now? He’s critically acclaimed by all kinds of people, but that means nothing. Maybe it verifies someone’s idea: “Oh, yeah, he is good. I thought he was good.” But it doesn’t turn someone’s head around.
I think you can have an appreciation on a gut-level basis: “I like this work. I’ve never seen anything like it before, but I like it.” I guess you could say the same for anything. How do you review the latest pop single? “I like it ‘cause it has a good beat. You can really dance to it.”
Someone may be intimidated into saying, “Well, I don’t like this, but I guess I should.” But if it comes down to day-to-day living, I either like something or I don’t. I don’t think I’ve ever been argued into liking something I didn’t like initially. I may be confused listening to some music for the first time, or maybe irritated, and eventually I understand what it’s about and enjoy it. But no one’s ever talked me into it.
SULLIVAN: I’m talking about a more general perception. Some people may not even know why Andy Warhol is famous, but everybody knows who he is. Whereas somebody could read a few of Chester Brown’s comics and have no idea why anybody thought he was good, because they have no idea what distinguishes one comic from another. Why is it different from Calvin and Hobbes, or from what you do?
BURNS: Yeah, that’s always hard. I remember being fascinated by kinds of artwork that I didn’t necessarily like, but there was something there that I didn’t understand. I just don’t do that anymore. I’ve gotta like it, I’ve got to look at it and have a reaction to it. I remember saying, “Well, the reason this is significant is because, if you relate it back to the writings of Baudelaire … ” But I just can’t buy that now.
ILLUSTRATION WORK VS. COMICS
SULLIVAN: Have you ever worked with editors who have tried to change your style or get you to alter things?
BURNS: The only one I can think of is a catalog I did for a French clothing designer. It had cloth swatches inside it, and it showed different kinds of clothing. I did maybe four or five double-page spreads, and on one particular drawing they drew smiles on the faces. I’ve had editors critique the concept of something before, but changing faces into smiles is really weird.
SULLIVAN: Is illustration a harder market than comics?
BURNS: Yeah. As far as comics go, it’s pretty easy for me. If I’m sending my comics work to a small publication, I’m getting $50 a page or something like that. And if they’re not going to take the work, I’m pretty sure I’ll find some other place that will take it. As far as illustration goes, that’s work I do for money, to make an income. There’s more at stake.
SULLIVAN: Do you see yourself as a comics artist who does illustrations on the side, or as an artist working in different media?
BURNS: I’ve always had trouble trying to label what I do. On the other hand, if someone said, “Money’s not an issue,” I would do comics. I don’t hate doing illustrations, but I prefer doing comics because they’re mine.
SULLIVAN: How much better does illustration work pay than comics?
BURNS: A lot. I did this thing for a design company in the Midwest, a promotional package for a big paper company. This guy called me up and described to me what the job was, and it didn’t sound like something I wanted to do. I said, “Well, to tell the truth, the only way I’d do this is if it paid a lot of money.” There was a pause on the other end, and the guy said, “It pays a lot of money.” And it ended up being OK.
SULLIVAN: What did it pay?
BURNS: Oh, let’s say, $10,000. For a poster image and maybe 10 small illustrations.
SULLIVAN: How much leeway do you have with regards to pay?
BURNS: It depends on the particular job. It’s just negotiated. I weigh what the job is, and see if it’s worth what they’re offering. If somebody offers me something that is very fun to do — for example, if Denis Kitchen says, “Oh, we’d like you to do some bubblegum cards, and here’s what we’re offering” — I’m not going to make any money on it, but I’ll do it. If it’s in the real world — an illustration for a national magazine, say — that’s where I would make my money. And that’s where I would be serious.
SULLIVAN: Are you frustrated by the lack of markets for your comics work?
BURNS: I worry about it a little bit. But I also accept it in a certain sense; what I’m doing is not going to appeal to thousands and thousands of people. Maybe it could, but that’s not something I’m fighting for at this point.
SULLIVAN: Would you be interested in getting someone to publish a regular comic by you?
BURNS: Yeah. Actually, I’m thinking about that right now. It’s all just speculation at this point.
SULLIVAN: If you did a regular book, would that mean the end of your strip?
BURNS: Possibly. Nothing is firmly figured out right now. Probably by the time this is published, everyone will know.
SULLIVAN: Do you ever do a story for yourself, knowing that you can sell it somewhere?
BURNS: Yeah. Recently I had something published in Buzz. I’d been working on that strip off and on for a while. And the same thing with the collaboration that Gary Panter and I did, “Pixie Meat.” I found a small publisher to do a limited version of that, and then we also had it included in Snake Eyes #1.
I’ve always loved Gary’s work, and he was visiting Philadelphia. I think I probably forced the issue: “OK, sit down.” I got a bunch of cheap paper out and we just sat down at a dining room table and drew. We would trade penciled pages back and forth and ink them. And Gary and I had always really liked the writing of Tom DeHaven — he did a great book, Freaks Amour. Actually, Gary did a two- or three-page adaptation of Freaks Amour that appeared in an underground anthology. So we did all the artwork, with the intention of adding a narrative underneath all the drawings. We passed it off to DeHaven and said, “Do something with this.” The Marvel style of writing, I guess.
SULLIVAN: You brought up Marvel; explain the Buzz story, “Naked Snack.”
BURNS: In the early ’80s, Marvel published something called The Marvel Comics Tryout Book, which was this oversized book of blueline pencil drawings. You could try out lettering, inking, penciling, whatever. In a funny way I was intrigued by the concept. My idea initially was to buy maybe 20 Marvel Tryout Books and give them to all my friends, and have them ink their versions of Spider-Man.
I never pursued it. At that time the book was pricey enough for me to go, “I can’t really afford to do this”; it was 13 bucks or something. Years later, after I came back from Italy and was wandering around New York, some street person had one for three bucks. They probably stole them. So I bought a copy and just doodled on it for a number of years, off and on. There was no real intention behind it; I wasn’t thinking about ever having it published.
When I was contacted by Mark Landman, the editor of Buzz, I knew that he worked with computers, and I knew that I couldn’t force anyone I knew to letter this story. So I asked him, if I sent him a script, if he’d letter it for me. And it worked out that way. I did a splash page and an end page, so it’s fairly cohesive. It’s as cohesive as I get.
SULLIVAN: And all the figures are your versions, drawn over …
BURNS: Some are very closely related. If you look at the original Tryout Book, some are just inked versions of Peter Parker or Aunt May or whoever. And with some I’ve done something entirely different.
SULLIVAN: Your story is about people selling meat of sentient animals on the black market. Sort of a cannibalism story. What was the original story about?
BURNS: Oh, I have no idea. Just a Spider-Man story … there’s nothing there.
SULLIVAN: I’ll go out in the alley and see if I can find anyone selling Marvel merchandise.
BURNS: “Hey buddy … wanna buy a Marvel Tryout Book?”
VALUABLE TRADE SECRETS
SULLIVAN: Let’s go back to the real world for awhile.
BURNS: Just for a few seconds.
SULLIVAN: What tools do you use?
BURNS: Real basic stuff. Normal paper and a brush. When you see something that looks like a ruled line, I’m using a mechanical pen, but everything else is done with a sable brush.
SULLIVAN: What widths do you use?
BURNS: I’m giving away trade secrets! It’s a number 2 brush.
SULLIVAN: Every single line in one of your drawings is so precise. There’s nothing random in your work. Why do you choose to work that way?
BURNS: I was always fascinated with that look in comics. It looks a little bit wet, and hair always looks like it’s been greased. I always liked those sharp lines. I remember starting out, using crowquill pens and trying to draw lines that way. Finally I figured out, “Oh, these guys use brushes to do that. Huh. I can do that.”
SULLIVAN: A lot of your work looks impossible in one sense or another. I think Lynda Barry said it best on the cover of Hard-Boiled Defective Stories where she said it looks so perfect, you wonder if human hands could work like that. Does it take you a long time to smooth everything out to that level?
BURNS: It starts out very, very gestural, in pencil, and it slowly gets worked out and structured until it’s the way I want it. Sometimes I work on a separate sheet of paper, like tracing paper, over the panels, and that gets cut up and moved around and taped around and flipped around.
SULLIVAN: Which takes longer, the pencils or the inks?
BURNS: It just depends on how lucky I am. I could draw a panel six times, 10 times, or I could draw it right the first time.
SULLIVAN: Would you call yourself a slow artist?
BURNS: Yeah, I’d call myself a slow thinker, a slow person. [Laughter.]
SULLIVAN: Does it take a long time for you to do a panel or a page, compared to other artists you know?
BURNS: Well, I guess I’m around a lot of slow cartoonists. I’m not around anyone who inks for Marvel — I don’t know if those guys are fast or not. Mark Beyer, Gary Panter, Art Spiegelman — they’re pretty painstaking. Once in a while we’ll all get together and say, “Is this hard for you?” “Yeah, it’s hard for me.” We all pat each other on the back and say, “Yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard and it’s slow.”
SULLIVAN: How long does it take you to do one of the installments of your strip?
BURNS: I generally write up a bunch at a time, and maybe I’ll go back and rewrite a little bit. The drawing will take about two days per installment. That’s when I’m working good. If I’m going slow it’ll take three days.
SULLIVAN: Can you ever crank it out on a deadline?
BURNS: I can crank it out … but if you look at a page, your hand has to make every single one of those lines. It takes x amount of time to do that. Think about someone like Drew Friedman: he’s got to do all those dots. He could do an abbreviated version, and I can do a drawing that’s simpler, but it takes a certain amount of time to physically do the work.
SULLIVAN: Do you like drawing backgrounds as much as the characters and the faces?
BURNS: It depends. Some things are really a pain in the ass to draw. I hate drawing things that have to have perspective. A car: now that’s hard. I’ll figure out ways of not having to draw a car if I don’t need to.
SULLIVAN: In your strip, at the start of the “Bliss Blister’’ series, a valet holds open the limousine door for Mr. Blister, and I thought, “That’s an odd-looking limousine door.”
BURNS: I’m sure it is. As long as it reads as a door, and the story can go on, fine. I don’t do the big research stuff in stories. It’s just not where my interest lies. But I admire seeing some French artist make a street scene look exactly like a 1940s downtown.
SULLIVAN: Does your drawing style come pretty naturally to you?
BURNS: No, it’s very labored. It’s not easy at all. I always want to hope that someone else has it easier than I do, but I don’t think anyone does.
SULLIVAN: Is your style changing?
BURNS: It’s getting a little less grotesque — people are not quite as weird as they used to be. Also, everything is getting plunged into darkness. Even five years ago, things were a bit brighter. The days are getting darker.
SULLIVAN: How about changes in the actual mechanics of comics? The way that panels are blocked out, or what moment you choose to embody in a particular panel, lapses of time, all that kind of thing. Do you feel that you’re advancing in that area?
BURNS: In the last few years I’ve made a deliberate choice to have a very simple panel structure and a simple way of telling a story. I’ve chosen a very simple grid to work on as far as how the page is broken down. I like to tell what I think is a very complex story within a very simple structure. Very recently, I’ve thought, “OK, I can do that, now it’s time to move on to something that’s more spaced-out.” We’ll see. I’m just speculating right now.
SULLIVAN: So you prefer generally that the structure of the panels and grid not interfere with people’s reading of what’s going on inside?
BURNS: Exactly. I know in the past I was fascinated by anything spilling out and breaking out of a page. But I also remember looking at what Harvey Kurtzman did, how he would structure a story; it’s very, very clear. The structure was so sophisticated that you weren’t aware of it as you were reading it, you were just aware of the effect of his story. If you’re looking at a filmmaker like Alfred Hitchcock, and you look at his movies several times, you’re very aware of what he’s doing as a director. But watching his films, they’re so fluid, even though they’re so simply structured.
SULLIVAN: Is your shading fairly natural? I mean, are you plotting out light sources, or are you doing it more for effect on the page?
BURNS: Both. Sometimes I worry, “Oh, this isn’t natural,” but so what? It looks good. And someone’s always sweating in my comics — nobody sweats like that. It’s done for a purpose.
SULLIVAN: Your artwork has an almost generic look of what people think comic book art would look like. Have you ever thought about why that appeals to you or what that style adds to your particular stories?
BURNS: There’s a kind of obsessiveness that I pursue in my art that’s reflected in the stories, but as far as why I’m attracted to that in the first place, I don’t know how I would explain that.
SULLIVAN: It’s almost as if you’re trying to deny your own presence in the work. When people see comics, a lot of them think that they’re stamped out in a factory somewhere, and your work looks like it was.
BURNS: When I was a kid I was really fascinated by that aspect of it. I knew what drawings looked like, and comics didn’t look like anyone could draw them. They just looked foreign and impossible to do. Looking at Wally Wood or Bill Elder or whoever, you’d say, “How is that done? That’s impossible, no one can draw like that.”
I can look at some of my earlier pieces, and the line is a little bit more fluid, showing my hand a bit more. And as I’ve gone on, I’ve been erasing any sign of my hand …
SULLIVAN: Untouched by human hands. [Laughter.] It adds a real strangeness to your work. Your stories wouldn’t be quite so horrifying or effective or odd if you drew like Steve Bissette.
BURNS: Right. Even early on I had this fantasy of having a long Superboy story, and in the last two or three pages, in the same style, having everything just unwind and unravel into something really hideous and awful. I’ve never been able to pull something like that off. I don’t have the focus to work on something really mundane that finally turns into something intense and hideous. But I’ve always liked that idea of taking something that’s mundane and eventually seeing the underbelly that’s very hard to look at.
SULLIVAN: This goes back to when you were talking about being a child and seeing an image and making up a whole story: that collision of the normal, bland things that happen in Superboy, and the weird imaginations that children have.
BURNS: Yeah, at whatever age you’d actually be able to sit through one of them, you’ve got an active imagination; the ink on the page, the saturation of color on the page, the quality of paper — it had a tremendous effect on me.
SULLIVAN: This is what you did with that Spider-Man story; taking the basic skeleton of some bland thing from children’s comics and projecting a bizarre universe onto it.
BURNS: Right, right. Well, I’ve had other ideas about Spider-Man. In one of my sketchbooks I have some of Peter Parker’s early girlfriends that were infected with some disease … We better change the subject quick, or Marvel’s gonna call me on the phone.
SULLIVAN: How do you distinguish what you do from camp?
BURNS: Camp is something that’s intentional. For example, I was in Finland, and this guy was saying, “Oh, you do the whole ’50s thing; that is so passé.” I don’t give a shit. I grew up in a particular era, and that’s what I’m dealing with. I’m not doing it for this whole vision of what camp is. Camp is like a commercial thing. It’s like the zillion bad illustration magazines that have a take-off on Superman comics with all the blown-up Ben-Day dots, like a bad version of Roy Lichtenstein or something. I mean it’s the ’90s and still every year you’re gonna see at least 10 people who think that’s a good idea. That’s camp. Banking on something recognizable and everyone kinda chuckles and nudges each other and knows what it is. I’m dealing with that subject matter because that stuff somehow got imprinted in my brain, and has some resonance; it’s important, as trivial as it may sound to other people. It affected me, the same way Mad affected Robert Crumb. I’m dipping into it in a very serious way — not a commercial way. I’m not doing it because there’s an audience out there that’s going to understand, and wink at each other when they see that this is humorous and stupid. Even though some of the things I’m looking at are very primitive and looked on as being stupid, I still really like them. They mean something to me.
SULLIVAN: Do you still look at those old sources, and do they still resonate for you? Or do you just see in them the echo of something that once had meaning for you?
BURNS: More the latter. It’s the memory of that kind of stuff. I really can’t read Batman comics anymore; it’s really rough going.
SULLIVAN: What do you think about what they do with these superheroes, where they try to make them very violent, very dark?
BURNS: It’s like someone grew up with that stuff and wants to play with it themselves.
SULLIVAN: Do you see that as different from what you do when you take an old image or an old icon and try to recontextualize it?
BURNS: I don’t actually think that’s what I’m doing. Everything I do, for better or worse — maybe some things are taken from whatever’s out there in popular culture — everything there is personal, in a sense. Why would someone want to do a different version of Batman?
SULLIVAN: I guess ‘cause Batman meant a lot to them when they were little.
BURNS: That’s what I mean. The thing I did with Spider-Man … that’s not like Spider-Man, that’s something that’s way off the edge. It has nothing to do with him whatsoever, as far as the character. I’d never want to do any comic character unless I could make them all have AIDS or something …
ROCK AND BALLET
SULLIVAN: How about the work that you did for Iggy Pop, that album cover for Brick By Brick? How did that come about?
BURNS: Like a lot of commercial work, it came out of nowhere. Someone’s seen a comic strip, or a particular illustration. I don’t know whether it was Iggy Pop, or the art directors, or who was involved directly, but I was contacted by Virgin Records, based in Los Angeles. They just said, “Hello, this is Virgin Records. We’re interested in having you do an album cover for us; could you send us your book?” Your “book,” in the illustration world code, is your portfolio of previous work. I was hesitant, because usually having someone ask for your book means that they don’t know your work and you’re better off not dealing with them. If someone knows my work and likes what I do and they call me and want me to do a job, then that’s one thing. But if someone wants you to send examples of your work, then you’re wasting your time. That’s basically what I told them. “That’s not something I feel comfortable doing.” And they said, “Well, this is an album cover for Iggy Pop.” I said, “Okay, I’ll send that out tomorrow.” [Laughter.] Because Iggy Pop was someone I grew up with, listening to The Stooges and all his stuff and digging who he was.
SULLIVAN: Did you get to meet him?
BURNS: Yeah. It was really funny … There was a very tight deadline, and I said, “Do you need to see something first?” And they said, “Basically, you show it to Iggy Pop, and if he likes it then we’ll probably like it.” So I ended up doing a finished black-and-white version of it and showing it to Iggy Pop in person, and he laughed at it in the way he was supposed to laugh.
SULLIVAN: Were you awed in the presence of The lg?
BURNS: No, he was a really nice guy, a real down-to-earth, pleasant person. I’ve seen him numerous times in concerts, on stage, and being throttled in an audience … This was on the lower East Side in New York, and at that particular time Allen Ginsberg was there photographing him; I guess Iggy had asked him to do a photograph of him that would be used on the sleeve or the back cover. It never happened, but I was there with Allen Ginsberg taking photographs, so it was pretty cool.
SULLIVAN: You’ve done some work for print advertising, right?
BURNS: No, it’s mainly been illustrations for magazines. I’ve never sold shoes or cereal or whatever.
SULLIVAN: Would you have a problem if someone called you and said, “Sell Pop-Tarts?”
BURNS: Not necessarily. Unless it was something I’m really opposed to. For example, I’ve had people call me about doing album covers, and I’ve turned them down because of the music, or the content, or the lyrics, or their image. There was a British band I didn’t want to get involved with because they had all this biker-Nazi paraphernalia.
SULLIVAN: Was it a skinhead band?
BURNS: No, it wasn’t skinhead; it was this fashion-biker stuff. There was this swastika-iron cross stuff on a real dumb fashion level. I didn’t want to be involved with that.
SULLIVAN: What was the band?
BURNS: Zodiac Mindwarp. The name was taken off of — this is good — one of Spain Rodriguez’s first psychedelic comics. Good comic, bad band.
SULLIVAN: How did the Time cover come about?
BURNS: The same way. Someone gave me a call. “We know you; you don’t know us.” The editor I talked to said someone else there knew my work and he had seen the thing I did for the New York Times Magazine. That’s a kind of entry level job. “Oh, New York Times Magazine.” You’re taken seriously because you do something like that. It’s crazy.
SULLIVAN: When you get something like this Time cover, how does that pay?
BURNS: It pays … You’re asking a lot of questions about what things pay! I’m doing a cover and three illustrations. The only thing I know the price for is the cover, which pays three grand. I’ve gotta buy shoes for my daughters; that’s what it comes down to. [Laughter.] Booties for the babies, that’s why I take on something like that. Otherwise, I’d turn my back.
SULLIVAN: How old are your kids?
BURNS: The youngest daughter has just turned two, and the oldest daughter is four and a half.
SULLIVAN: Do they ever see your work?
BURNS: Yeah, of course. We sit up and draw together and do stuff. They’re not freaked out by it, but eventually they’ll figure it out.
SULLIVAN: Do they think it’s neat that their daddy’s an artist?
BURNS: They don’t have any concept of that. They’re just figuring it out. There’s nothing for them to compare it with at this point. Maybe by the time they’re in junior high school they’ll be humiliated, but for now it’s, “That’s what adults do, they’re artists.”
SULLIVAN: Tell me how you got involved doing some work for this ballet.
BURNS: I got a letter from this place in Belgium; it was an American guy contacting me, the business manager for Mark Morris’ dance company, Barry Alterman. He said, “You don’t know us, but we know you. How would you like to come to Belgium and meet us?” So they sent me on a first-class flight over there, and the best hotel in town, and that kind of thing. They impressed me on that level. I didn’t have any idea what was going on. Mark Morris is a choreographer who had a contract with the Monnaie Opera House to be their national dance company for three years. Almost everybody in the company are Americans; it’s all English-speaking. Anyways, I saw a performance and talked about the idea that they had come up with, which would be a different version of The Nutcracker using the same music but looking at the original story by Hoffmann. It’s a much darker, creepier children’s story, a lot denser. There’s a story within a story that explains how the Nutcracker came to be. It sounded interesting enough to fly to Europe for a week or so, and things went from there.
SULLIVAN: When was this, roughly?
BURNS: The production actually took place in January of this year; I think they contacted me in December, 1990. Then meeting with them different times throughout the year, it slowly developed. Mark Morris was a fan of my work, and chose me to be involved because of that.
SULLIVAN: Were you on as writer, or …
BURNS: My official title was “concept designer.” What I did initially was find a translation of the original story and come up with a very rough scenario. I was pulled out of nowhere; I know nothing about dance whatsoever. I’d never gone to see a ballet or anything. I mean, at Christmas time the Nutcracker comes on, and my attitude was, “That thing! Change the channel, quick!” So, I had nothing really to do with the music or what is usually looked at as the normal production. I didn’t go look at other Nutcrackers, I didn’t do anything except look at the original story and design a very rough scenario. Eventually, my ideas got translated by whoever else was collaborating, which was mainly Mark Morris, who was choreographing the dances, the set designer Adrian Lobell, and a person called Martin Pakledinaz, who did all the costumes. It was one of the first real collaborative pieces I’ve ever done. So that was really fun to do.
SULLIVAN: What did you come up with?
BURNS: Oh, a couple of them got booted out …
SULLIVAN: Too weird, too undanceable?
BURNS: Not necessarily too weird. Just trying something out and it looking bad. I was thinking purely conceptually. I wasn’t thinking about what something looked like on the stage, about any practicalities like physical restrictions; I was just thinking about how to push that story. And the thing is, with a dance, you have to have people dance, right? They’re not telling a story, particularly, there are just dances. I didn’t have any of those considerations. They’d say, “Oh, you have to have the Snow Dance!” And I’d say, “Why do you have to have that dance?” And they’d say, “Well, you have to have that dance; it’s the Snowflake Dance. Come on, Charles.” Oh, OK, I get it now. [Laughter.] One thing they didn’t do was, I wanted to have a giant tank with a glowing, throbbing brain come down. [Laughter].
For example, you start hearing the overture of the music in the beginning, and you start out with a Christmas party at someone’s house. So I turned it into the kids being in one room watching television waiting for the guests to arrive, which is essentially what happens in the original; the three kids are sitting waiting for their parents to let them come in to the party. That’s an example. I have a huge, turning vortex; when things get weird, that starts turning.
SULLIVAN: What happened to the mice that are in the original story?
BURNS: They’re all there. They’re kind of scrawnier and creepier, I guess. There’s a mouse king that’s got two people in one costume, and it’s got six heads. That was in the original story.
SULLIVAN: Did you listen to the music while you were working on these and try to come up with something that would go along with it?
BURNS: That was something Mark Morris encouraged, because that’s what he does; he works very closely with the music. But it was nothing that I was capable of doing, to tell you the truth. I listened to the music, but it was nothing that I really had a knack for. I was just thinking about structure and story and visual ideas more.
SULLIVAN: So you could listen to the score by Tchaikovsky, but it wouldn’t necessarily spark off things in you the way it would in him?
BURNS: Exactly. Because when he’s choreographing something, he’s really translating that music into dance. He’s very influenced by the music; it’s not just an arbitrary part of it. In some cases it feels like a literal translation of the music. I didn’t have a feeling for the music, first of all. It wasn’t something I had a natural reaction to or an appreciation for. But the story I really had an appreciation for; it was very dense and interesting.
SULLIVAN: Morris has a reputation as a sort of enfant terrible of dance; what was it like to work with him?
BURNS: It was really fun. He’s very direct and has a very good sense of humor and that’s what I appreciate when working with someone. There’s not this kind of seriousness that drags you down. He’s totally professional, but there’s none of that self-importance.
SULLIVAN: Did you mainly discuss concepts with him or did you display them in some sort of written or graphic form?
BURNS: It went back and forth. It was brainstorming with ideas and notes. The whole production started out as nothing for me. They said, “Go to work and start thinking about things,” and I was saying, “What am I supposed to think about? Aren’t you going to tell me how to approach this?” “Oh, you’ll come up with something.” Everything started with me thinking about all this stuff. Not that I was the only person involved, but I had never worked that way. I didn’t have a specific direction, and I was also working in a medium that I didn’t know anything about. I kept telling them this, and it was always, “That’s fine, don’t worry about it. What’s the problem? Just go do it.” [Laughter]. “That’s the reason we picked you, because you don’t have any preconceived ideas of what this or that should be.” I was saying, “Well, maybe I should look at some tapes of other Nutcrackers.” “Oh, don’t do that! Don’t do that!” I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I was just out in the wilderness, trying to figure out what this whole story was about. Just for example, I was saying, “I’m not going to be able to put this in the period that it’s supposed to be. This is going to be set in the ’60s in America.” Mark was saying, “Yeah. Of course.”
SULLIVAN: Did your contribute ideas for the set designs and costumes?
BURNS: In every aspect. I physically drew all the sets that you see. In one case you have a huge head of a particular character that gets lowered down. Herr Drosselmeier; he’s like a godfather. As far as the costumes go, I didn’t do that many sketches. I did some very rough sketches for the mice, and a few other things. But basically the costume designer looked at my work, and if I said, “This person should look like a Barbie doll,” he would decide what that Barbie doll should look like.
SULLIVAN: Are there plans to mount the production in the States, or anywhere else?
BURNS: I know that it’s going to be in Brussels again in mid-December 1991, and PBS is going to be filming a two-hour show of the thing. I think the entire production is an hour and a half, and there’ll be a half-hour of documentary stuff. I don’t know what the details are. It’s called The Hard Nut; it’s the title of the story within the story in the Hoffmann version. I liked the idea of calling it The Hard Nut.
SULLIVAN: Did you get to see a production of it?
BURNS: I flew to Brussels in January and got to see it. It was great. What had happened was that I had worked for quite a long time on the concepts and ideas, and at a certain point I had done my work and that was it; everyone took over. The set designer who was translating all the things went over to Brussels and did an incredible amount of work. I had not heard any specifics about what the dances were going to be like or anything. So when I went over there, I got to see this thing for the first time, cold, which was really impressive. You’re seeing your drawings translated to something that’s like a two-story building, which is pretty amazing.
SULLIVAN: Do you remember the story within the story?
BURNS: It’s too hard.
SULLIVAN: I’ll just mention that the review you sent from Dance magazine says, “Drosselmeier tells a tale of an infant princess, disfigured by malignant mice, who can be restored to beauty and happiness only by eating the kernel of the unique nut. The nut is located after a long, arduous, worldwide search, during which the princess reaches the age of consent by a fellow who coincidentally shares godpoppa’s name. It is then opened by a suitor, Drosselmeier’s nephew, a young and handsome alter-ego, who can crack its resistant shell.’’
BURNS: It’s very dense. I don’t know if anyone sitting in the audience will know all of that, or if it’s going to be translated for them. On the other hand, it just opens up a different feeling to the story.
SULLIVAN: They had Mikhail Baryshnikov involved in this for a while?
BURNS: He was there when I was there. He had some knee injury two or three days before the production was supposed to start. The substitute took his place.
SULLIVAN: Did he ever get involved in it again?
BURNS: No. He’s still working with Mark Morris. Since they’ve been back in the United States, they’ve been involved with this thing called the White Oaks Project, which is another group of dancers and a series of dances choreographed by Mark Morris.
SULLIVAN: Did being involved with this production give you any appreciation of dance or ballet?
BURNS: Yeah. I had an appreciation for what I was looking at. You’re seeing the best and you’re seeing something that’s really impressive. It’s just opening a different art form up for you, in my case anyway, and I found it interesting.
SULLIVAN: What were the reviews like?
BURNS: For this production they were surprisingly positive. When I was doing it I was thinking, “Oh, shit! Everyone’s gonna freak out! They’re gonna look at it and think it’s really weird.” Mark Morris is notoriously badmouthed in Brussels because he was the bad-boy American who was doing weird stuff on stage like taking his clothes off. He was always getting bad reviews. One paper ran a headline that said, “Mark Morris Go Home!” There was a paper that had been giving him bad reviews that basically said, “This is great; go see it.” By and large it got positive reviews. From what I understand, it’s not something that’s typical of his work. It was a huge production, lots of sets, lots of costumes, very elaborate presentation.
SULLIVAN: The New York Times review is very positive. The oddest part has to be the end, where they say that two dissenters to the positive reviews were the French pop singer Plastic Bertrand and his wife. [Laughter.]
BURNS: I remember in 1976 or ’77, in San Francisco, he had some shitty little single.
SULLIVAN: “Ca Plane Por Moi.”
BURNS: Terrible stuff. And now it’s, “French pop singer had this to say.”
FINE ART AND COMICS PEERS
SULLIVAN: Would you like to do more painting or work in other media besides comics? Would you like to be shown in galleries more often?
BURNS: I get shown in galleries. It’s nothing that I’d pursue so much; if there happens to be a group show like Misfit Lit, the one that was up in Seattle fairly recently … I’ve been in a gallery show in New York City. I’ve got a person that shows my work here in Philadelphia. I have nothing against it, but it’s not a priority in my life. I’m interested in work for reproduction. I’ve done silkscreen prints, and right now I’m working on a lithograph. I like working in other media and not pigeonholing myself in just comics, but it’s not a major concern right now. If you’re asking me if I’d ever be interested in doing something like movies or video, then, yeah. It would just depend on whatever the piece is and who I would be working with. I’m not cutting myself off.
SULLIVAN: Do you feel that when you’re shown in a gallery you’re usually treated pretty much like a “fine” artist, as opposed to somebody who somehow wandered in from the comics world?
BURNS: I don’t know whether the public sees me that way, but as far as the gallery dealers and whoever I’m working with, yeah, I’m treated the same way.
SULLIVAN: So there’s not a stigma there as far as they’re concerned?
BURNS: With the people that I’m dealing with, there’s no stigma whatsoever, not that I’ve ever felt.
SULLIVAN: Do you think there’s a difference in the way that your career progresses, doing so much work for reproduction, as opposed to your being a strictly a fine artist?
BURNS: I made a very conscious decision at a certain point that I wanted to work for reproduction, just because it’s more accessible. And I’ve always liked books, the fact that you can sit down and look at something for a long time, that you can have repeated viewings; it’s intimate. Even though I’m appearing in a gallery, I’m showing comics originals. I don’t know if you’ve ever gone to a gallery and read a comic off the wall; I don’t want to ever do it. I enjoy looking at comic originals, looking at what those marks are. You know, you can see the white-out and the artist’s hand a little better than you can in reproduction. But I’m writing stories and doing artwork that a person can sit down and read at their leisure. They can pick it up and put it down whenever they want. That’s not something you do in a gallery.
SULLIVAN: Who do you consider your peers? Do you think of people in the comics field or people who are exhibiting in galleries?
BURNS: I would have to say other comic artists, because that’s who I associate with. What I’m doing daily is not what a painter is doing. There are similarities, but it’s not quite the same thing. The stuff that I have to deal with I associate with being a cartoonist.
SULLIVAN: What comics do you read?
BURNS: I don’t know, undergrounds? I’ve got big piles of undergrounds behind me. Let’s do it this way: you ask me and then I can talk about whoever it is.
SULLIVAN: How about Joe Coleman?
BURNS: I like some aspects of his work. I’m not interested so much in his obsession with murder and physical deformities and abuse. I like his artwork and I appreciate what he does. I think his paintings are incredible. I’ve seen some comics he’s done, but I look at him more as a painter than as a cartoonist. He’s good. I’m not crazy about all of his themes.
Here’s a way to describe it: I’ve had people say, “Charles, you’ll really like this. Here’s some photographs of deformed babies.” And I don’t want to look at that stuff. My feeling is that Joe Coleman probably digs photographs of deformed babies. I don’t.
I can deal with the idea of deformity, but I guess I’m horrified by it in reality. I can think of deformity as a metaphor, but I can’t deal with it as a reality so much. I’m not crazy about the idea of looking at a pile of severed heads or something. Or the floor of a concentration camp.
SULLIVAN: How about the Friedmans, Drew and Josh Alan?
BURNS: Yeah, I’ve looked at their work for years and I like it a lot. Good humor, good art.
SULLIVAN: The Hernandez brothers?
BURNS: I think that both of them are very talented. With anyone you bring up, there’s work that is very, very good and not so good. I can think of particular pieces both of them have done that are as top-notch as you can get, that are tremendously good. And then there are some stories that seem more mediocre to me. But as a whole I think they’re both good, interesting cartoonists. They’re changing, they’re exploring ideas, and that’s what’s most important.
SULLIVAN: I’ve heard people compare your art with Jaime Hernandez’s.
BURNS: Really? I always think of Archie when I think of his work. I’ve seen him do things like the guy who did Dennis the Menace or something like that. I think superficially maybe there’s a similarity as far as a very clear line, hard-edged, very designed, black-and-white. It’s possible.
SULLIVAN: How about Pete Bagge?
BURNS: Pete Bagge is great. Originally, I liked certain aspects of his work. I thought it was good, but I didn’t think it was great. But he’s a person who’s worked and really developed. He has a tremendous sense of humor, and he’s really developed that. There are so many people out there who’re just struggling against so many odds, not having enough acceptance to comfortably pursue what they want to pursue. I don’t know how they do it; I don’t know how I do it, but … Anyway, he’s really good. There’s a handful of people whose work I buy all the time, and he’s one of them.
SULLIVAN: Who else would you pick up?
BURNS: I pick up what the Hernandez brothers do, and what Chester Brown does. Again, anything that’s fairly interesting that still kind of falls within whatever you’d call the underground.
SULLIVAN: Dan Clowes?
BURNS: Yeah, I like Dan Clowes’ work a lot. His early stuff was OK, but he’s really turned the corner, and now he’s very, very good. He’s done a couple of pieces that really stood out.
SULLIVAN: You mentioned Chester Brown a couple of times. How does the transition that he made from doing surreal Ed the Happy Clown stories to doing these autobiographical stories sit with you?
BURNS: I like some pieces more than others, but I admire what he’s doing. I admire the fact that he’s not resting on his laurels, saying, “I got some response for this, and now I can rehash that for the rest of my life.” He did that Playboy piece; that was really good. The first two episodes were interesting but kind of slow. Then he got with it and really nailed it down. Ended up being a strong piece. I liked it.
SULLIVAN: Could you see yourself doing those kind of autobiographical stories?
BURNS: I’ve thought about it. I did some things a long time ago that are more like that. But it’s just not something that I’m interested in pursuing. I think you have to be really, really skillful to pull it off and not just have it be self-indulgent. I think that I might be too self-indulgent.
SULLIVAN: How about European artists?
BURNS: I like Loustal’s work, Joost Swarte, Ever Meulen … if you get further south, I like Jose Munoz; he’s tremendous. His work, along with Sampayo’s, the guy who writes for him, is great. My Italian friends, who I’ve mentioned before … I like Tardi. There’s an endless list of people that I like …
SULLIVAN: How about somebody who was very popular, like Liberatore? Do you appreciate that …
BURNS: He was around when I was in Italy; I met him. I would go back and forth … I don’t like the feeling of what it is. In some instances, I appreciate the intensity of his work and his ability to realize his ideas … I wouldn’t say that I love his work, or that it was great.
SULLIVAN: Was Marti a big influence on you?
BURNS: No, he wasn’t, but he was someone I really enjoyed. Obviously, he was very influenced by Chester Gould, and I’ve always loved Chester Gould. I love what he does; it’s real nice. Deep, dark stuff.
SULLIVAN: Who else do you look at?
BURNS: I look at anything that is even … it could be Barney Steele. Do you know who Barney Steele is? He’s a real bad underground cartoonist. I think that he did only three underground comics. Armageddon, I think it was called. Really bad comic; just goofy and pretty intense.
SULLIVAN: Are there things that you see on the newsstands where you say, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe they’re doing this,” or, “That’s just a rip-off … ”
BURNS: That’s part of the medium. It’s a kind of trashy, rip-off medium. I rip things off, sometimes unintentionally. I do it less than I used to, but I’ll look at something as a reference. I’ll look things up, and try for a mood I’m trying to get across. See how someone else did it. That’s done in any field of art, I think.
SULLIVAN: Do you try to mask it, or do you leave it there so that if people know the reference, they’ll catch it?
BURNS: It just seeps in sometimes. I think by the time I’m done interpreting it, there’s very little … Occasionally, for instance, if I’m doing an illustration that’s supposed to look like a cheap ’40s or ’50s romance comic, then I’ll look at a cheap ’40s or ’50s romance comic and get that kind of look down. I’ll use that as a reference.
SULLIVAN: There’s been some letter-writing back and forth in the Journal about Roy Lichtenstein. It seems to be a real sore point for some people who read comics that Lichtenstein is considered a genius and the people who do comics are complete unknowns.
BURNS: The person who was creating those images in the first place was doing it work-for-hire, and cranking something out. Some horror story, some war story, some romance story — at that time, the people putting that stuff out could care less. It was a job; you’d crank out your page, and that’s it. I think the stuff that Lichtenstein was blowing up for his pop art stuff was very bad generic romance and war stories. Taking that stuff out of context, blowing it up, making you look at it, and putting it onto a huge, painterly scale in some gallery: I love that and think that’s a great thing. Comparing that with whoever did the original … there are totally different intentions there.
SULLIVAN: Getting back to comic artists, what do you think of Harvey Pekar? Most people would say he’s doing the exact opposite of what you’re doing.
BURNS: As a whole, I like what he’s doing. I like his intentions and what he’s trying to do. I think he’s skilled and interesting. The downside of what he does is, he relies on a pool of artists that vary in their abilities. For example, the pieces he’s done with Robert Crumb seem really, really good, because Robert’s a good artist. It seems that recently he’s attracted better artists. So the skill of the artist really does help the stories. Some of the stories are very, very good, and skillfully written, and really hit home. And then some I could take or leave. In some instances, I think you have to wade through artwork that’s not that exciting to me. I think that’s intentional on his part, to a certain extent … I’ve heard him explain that he wants a certain kind of realism in his artwork; I understand that. But as a whole, I appreciate what he’s doing, and I think he’s achieved a niche for himself. An interesting niche.
SULLIVAN: Do you feel personally oppressed by the way the medium is so dominated by two companies, and by superheroes?
BURNS: I’ve never really felt too oppressed, because that’s something I can dismiss pretty easily. Only recently, in the last couple of years, I’ve started to be a little bit more aware of it. It really is taking its toll, even if you have a comics company that’s really scaled down and doesn’t have illusions of trying to be a huge company making millions of dollars. I always felt that if a company was putting out interesting work — if they didn’t get over their heads — there was a place for them in the market, if they’re not totally inept.
Recently it seems that, because of what’s going on in the commercial end of the comics field, that a lot of smaller companies are really having a hard time. Really struggling.
SULLIVAN: I guess Fantagraphics, and the story of how Eros came into being, bears that out.
BURNS: Right. I don’t like every single thing Fantagraphics puts out, but I like what they do as a comics company, what they’re trying to do. And they obviously should have a place in the market. It just seems that rough times were always there, but they’re very clearly there now. The marketing ploys at Marvel Comics are flooding the market with X-Men stuff.
In a way, I feel like I’m sounding gloomy about all this stuff. My feeling is that I don’t expect to make money at comics. I don’t expect to make good money at comics, anyway. It would be nice if things changed, and suddenly someone said to me, “We really like your work, and we’ll give you this perfect book format comic that comes out monthly, and you’ll be making a very reasonable living wage,” that’d be great. But I don’t think that’s going to be the reality. I think that the kind of work that I’m doing, or that people who I like are doing, at best is going to be marginal. You’re going to have to find other ways of making a living. It’s really unfortunate, but I think that’s the reality.
SULLIVAN: On the plus side, the market for people doing comics and doing illustrations seems to be larger than before, perhaps. I certainly see a lot of Richard Sala, Michael Dougan, and even Julie Doucet — people who are associated with comics — also doing illustrations for regional and national publications.
BURNS: I think that was always the idea: you had your straight job, and you had your comics job. For me to do the comics I want to do, I’ve always understood that I’m not going to be making big bucks. That’s just something I accept, despite what’s happening in the marketplace. Maybe at a certain point underground comics were selling thousands of copies per year because they were a fad, or they had hooked up with hippie fads. I look back at underground comics as a great, essential part of our culture. But I don’t know who was trying to make a living …
SULLIVAN: Do you think that independent comics today still have the same ability to influence people that the undergrounds did?
BURNS: They don’t seem to. If they did, then they would have that commercial impact too; they’d have to. If 4,000 people in the U.S. read a magazine, it can’t have any great effect on the population as a whole.
I remember when underground comics first came out, it was like everyone was starving for something. Everyone was starving for an identity, and starving for hippie comics — comics that they could appreciate and that expressed their voice. I thought there was going to be the same thing for punk — punk comics. I remember seeing Gary Panter for the first time and thinking, “Oh, yeah, this is punk comics!” But punk seemed so short-lived; it was not accepted, it didn’t have the effect that [in comical hippie voice] “hippie counterculture” did.
SULLIVAN: Maybe it’s a result of the fact that the mainstream in America can absorb any kind of popular culture change or ideological change faster than it used to … Punk was over almost as soon as it began.
BURNS: By the time you started reading about it, it was half-dead already. Beating a dead horse already.
LOOKING TOWARDS THE FUTURE
SULLIVAN: What would you like to be doing in your career?
BURNS: I take it day by day. If I was fantasizing about it, I would want to do comics and really nice books. Books that maybe would be for 2,000 people, whoever was interested in reading what I have to say. But that can’t happen. I’m not going to keep my head above water doing that.
SULLIVAN: How about your prospects of doing more books? You did Hard-Boiled Defective Stories, and, unlike comics, it has stayed in print. Did that do all right?
BURNS: It wasn’t a big commercial success, but it wasn’t a flop. I’m coming out with a book by Penguin in ’92. That’ll be a compilation of the weekly strips I’ve been doing.
SULLIVAN: Is it with Penguin because Raw is with Penguin?
BURNS: Yeah. At a certain point, I’d thought about different publishers. At this point, I want to try for a book that’ll have distribution in bookstores, as opposed to something that’ll just be in comic book stores.
SULLIVAN: Do you have any TV proposals in the offering? Has anyone come up with an idea for Big Baby’s Bogus Adventure?
BURNS: There are little bites here and there. I’m not waiting with glassy eyes, thinking that some incredible offer’s going to fall in my lap and that I’m going to be a big star. I’ve had people contact me.
SULLIVAN: Are they interested in doing adaptations of stuff you’ve done, or are they just thinking, “We want something with that Charles Burns touch; can you design a sitcom for us?”
BURNS: Not sitcoms … [Laughter.] It’s been both. People have sent me El Borbah scripts. “I really love El Borbah. I wrote this script; would you like to see it?”
SULLIVAN: What was an El Borbah script like?
BURNS: It was like nothing I would write, and I basically said, “Nope.” It was misinterpreting what the character is, and taking a few of the surface characteristics but missing anything that’s subtle or funny or ironic. It’s like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles … I was walking downstairs today and my daughter was drawing this ninja turtle on the wall. We have this big paper on the wall. “What’s that?” “It’s a Ninja Turtle, Dad. Get with it.” All the guys in her pre-school are into that stuff. And this is the result: she’s gotta “get with it.”
People look at concepts like that and think, “Well, that’s successful. OK … Flaming Carrot. Sure. That’ll do it, too.” They’re bewildered. “Why is that successful?” That movie Easy Rider  was an incredible success. All these big Hollywood types didn’t know why the hell it was such a success. They gave Dennis Hopper millions of dollars to go down to make some wretched movie. What’s it called …
SULLIVAN: The Last Movie?
BURNS: Yeah. It was a total disaster. They dumped a bunch of money. “We don’t know why it was a success, but make us some money, too. Go down there and do whatever you guys do.” They got what they deserved. I’ve written some scripts; I’ve tried some things. There was this thing in London … they were interested in doing a Dog Boy TV show, like a 10-minute thing each week. I was involved briefly. It was incredibly expensive to produce; they priced it all out, and they just couldn’t afford it. The actors and the sets and the costuming … everything was very expensive.
SULLIVAN: Is the giant success of The Simpsons inspirational at all?
BURNS: No. I don’t look at that and think, “My turn’s next.” I don’t know how much he’s pursued that … it’s something he happened to score. He has an ability to write good, funny stories; he deserves whatever he has. I don’t think that because that happened to him, it should happen to me.
SULLIVAN: You’ve been invited to Angouleme. What’s the difference between something like that and a comic convention in the United States?
BURNS: In the United States, I’ve only been to a few: one in New York, a couple in Philadelphia. Not as a guest, but with the intention of looking at old magazines or whatever. The difference is that here in the United States it tends to be created for comic sellers to have their stalls and sell their wares. And that’s partly true in the European conventions, but it tends to be on a larger scale. I know that in France it’s subsidized by the government to a certain extent. You’ve got more publishers there, there are more professionals … it just feels different. It’s not just selling back issues of X-Men. [Laughter.] It’s more like a convention for comics as a whole. Shows of artwork. Big, serious lectures.
SULLIVAN: Here’s something of a curve ball. In an interview with Speakeasy magazine in England, you said, “There are incidents that have happened to me that I couldn’t even write about because they’re too horrible, believe me.’’ What were you thinking of when you said that?
BURNS: To clarify that, you were asking me before if I would do autobiographical strips. In a sense, I’ve included things that are very autobiographical into my stories. They’re not apparent when you’re reading them, but there are things that are very autobiographical. Things have happened to me that are truly horrific, without going into detail …
SULLIVAN: Can you give us one example?
BURNS: Not really. Things that would be right out of a Hitchcock movie, though. I remember thinking that at the time. “This is kinda like a Hitchcock movie.” But I don’t feel comfortable talking about it. I guess what I’m saying is, I base stories on things that have happened to me. They may be far removed by the time they turn into a story, but the impulse behind the story is something from real life.
SULLIVAN: Is that cathartic at all, when you work it into a story?
BURNS: Cathartic, I don’t know. No, it’s something that you face up to. I mean, I don’t come out going, “Whew! I feel better!”