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Charles Burns is one of today’s most dramatically talented cartoonists. His comics can be funny and creepy, but they always feel trenchant, and textured, in part because he brilliantly inhabits genres like the romance, the horror story, and the detective story without simply rejecting their conventions or ironically reversing their concerns. This tension in his work seems to mirror his obsession with the relationship between external and internal states of being, surface and depth (which we recognize, say, in the theme of “teen plague” that he’s returned to throughout a decades-long career).
Burns gained a following in the avant-garde comics magazine RAW in the early ’80s, and he’s since published numerous book collections, including Big Baby in Curse of the Molemen (1986); Hard-Boiled Defective Stories (1988); Skin Deep: Tales of Doomed Romance (1992); Modern Horror Sketchbook (1994); Facetasm, with Gary Panter (1998); Big Baby (2000), and Close Your Eyes (2001). In addition to prolific illustration work for venues such as the New Yorker and this magazine, his range of projects over the years has included designing the sets for Mark Morris’s restaging of The Nutcracker (renamed The Hard Nut) and contributing to MTV’s Liquid Television, which created a live-action series based on his character Dog-Boy.
Burns may be most famous, however, for Black Hole, a twelve-issue comic-book series that made my life—and plenty of other people’s—that much more interesting from 1995 to 2004. Black Hole takes place in Seattle in the 1970s, focusing on a group of four teenagers who all get “the bug,” a fictional STD that deforms them in different ways. Rob grows a mouth—complete with teeth—on his neck; it speaks when he’s sleeping. Chris sheds her skin. Keith develops tadpole-shaped bumps on his torso; Eliza sprouts a tail. Black Hole’s precise black-and-white images are gorgeous and frightening at once; the rich narrative is dark without being despairing. Since the graphic-novel version appeared to acclaim in 2005, Burns has published a book of photography, One Eye, and completed a segment of an animated feature film called Peur(s) du Noir (Fear(s) of the Dark). His graphic novel in progress is, dizzyingly, about both punk and Tintin. I visited Burns, who lives in Philadelphia with his wife, daughters, and black cat, Iggy, at his studio in October. Not only is he a masterful draughtsman, but he makes an excellent cup of coffee.
THE BELIEVER: Can you describe your visual style? The way your pages look?
CHARLES BURNS: There was a certain line quality that I was always really attracted to—this very thick-to-thin line that is a result of using a brush. There was just some kind of solidity to it, or a kind of richness…. I don’t know, just a feeling to it that I really liked.
So I started out trying to emulate the look of that kind of line, and took it to an extreme, I guess. Because if you compare the work that I do with the work that inspired it—more traditional comic-book stuff—mine looks much tighter and much more precise in a certain way. Not more mechanical, but more extreme. It’s also something that I arrived at slowly. In my earlier work I relied on shade patterns and cross-hatching to create a gray middle ground, but I gradually stripped it down to pure black and white.
I try to achieve something that’s almost like a visceral effect. The quality of the lines and the density of the black take on a character of their own—it’s something that has an effect on your subconscious. Those lines make you feel a certain way. That kind of surface makes you feel a certain way. That’s the best way I can describe it. If you’re looking at the texture of the woods in Black Hole, that starts to be a real element of the story, part of the character of the story. Or when Keith is in the kitchen, and he’s looking into a cup that has cigarette butts floating in it… Hopefully I’ve drawn it in a way that you’ll feel his disgust, or it reflects a sense of his despair. I don’t have to write “I looked down into the cup and saw…” or “The room was all trashed and it made me feel crummy.” I don’t need to tell the story that way—that’s what the artwork achieves if it’s successful. Hopefully it makes you have some kind of gut reaction.
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