For over 30 years, Charles Burns has quietly carved out a reputation as one of the most talented and compelling cartoonists of his generation. For many fans of his work, the epic, 12-issue comic series Black Hole, published between 1995 and 2005 and published as a collection by Pantheon in 2005, served as the gateway drug to Burns' unique artistry and mind-bending vision.
In 2010, X'ed Out appeared, billed as the first installment of a trilogy. In that volume we met Doug, a young man whose performance-art alter ego, named Nitnit, is trapped in a trauma- and drug-induced alternate reality. We also met Sarah, the troubled young woman Doug falls in love with. The second book, The Hive, appeared in 2012. The last installment of the trilogy, Sugar Skull, is due out this September from Pantheon.
I had a chance to talk with Burns by phone one Saturday afternoon in July. He lives in my old hometown of Philadelphia, in an area of the city that he describes as having been "in transition" for a long time. His studio is in his home. In photos of him I'd found online he looks inscrutable and almost dour, but his voice on the phone is warm and engaging. I asked him about the new book, Sugar Skull, what it feels like to wrap up the trilogy, the long-rumored development of a movie adaptation of Black Hole and other things.
But before we get to that, let's catch up with the trilogy to date (obviously, some spoilers follow.)
When we last saw Doug in the final pages of The Hive, he was edging closer to revealing what had happened between him and his lover Sarah. Meanwhile, Nitnit, long trapped as a laborer in the surreal world of the Hive, had fled in search of the last two issues of the romance-comic series his beloved Suzy has begged him to find for her.
At the start of Sugar Skull we find Doug further along on the slow, sad process begun in The Hive. He's transforming from a sensitive and ambitious young man with hopes and dreams into a lost and ambivalent man with regrets. Now in his mid 20s, he's recently fallen off the wagon and carries the girth of a man nearly twice his age. Although he's living with a woman named Sally who clearly loves him, he's trapped, obsessively circling the central mysteries of his past in a purgatorial present: what happened to him? What happened to Sarah? And, what does the Hive represent?
Readers who have followed the trilogy since it started, and readers who are just discovering these books will find them immensely rewarding. Similar to the first two volumes of the trilogy, Sugar Skull has been published in a large, French "album"-style format, with a cloth-covered spine and beautifully illustrated end papers. The coloring is vivid and captivating, and Burns has written a deeply rewarding, albeit heart-wrenching conclusion.
One of the extraordinary accomplishments of the trilogy is that it operates on so many levels and layers. I asked Burns about the process by which he mapped out the different personas and temporal and symbolic layers in the trilogy.
"That has to do with the process of looking and rereading and mapping out, but not in any kind of rigid way. It's paying attention to the flow of the story and the characters and the situations. I know that there are going to be recurring motifs. There's going to be the intercom that keeps coming up. How those things manifest in the story, how they enlarge, is just part of the process. There's a lot of paying attention."
"It was actually very open-ended. The outlining really is more just kind of establishing a skeletal idea of what the structure is, who the characters are and incidents that are going to be taking place. But how those things are actually written and drawn, that changes as I'm working. And what's nice is that the story drifts in directions that I didn't really realize that it would. There's certainly a structure there and there's certainly imagery that is employed throughout the entire story. But the way I work is open-ended enough to allow it to kind of breathe and to allow new things to occur to me as I'm working."
"What I tend to do is write a huge amount – a huge amount of material that doesn't necessarily get used, but I'm just writing and it's allowing myself to go in any direction I feel like. When it comes down to actually filling the page and writing the pages, then it gets much more specific and focused. So that feels more like a linear process. I've established something. I'm moving forward and I have a fair idea of what that is."
I noted the frequent references to Patti Smith, and a whole, vibrant punk scene in the trilogy. I asked Burns if punk was a major inspiration.
"I was starting out with the idea that I was going to write something about a fairly specific point in my life which is going to art school and being involved with the whole world of punk music as it was kind of opening up. And that's where it kind of started and it really went in other directions from there. But my first impulse was to do a story about that. And it ended up not really being about punk music very much. It was a part of the setting, I guess. But it turned into another story."
Between Black Hole and the trilogy, readers will see that Burns' masterful hatchwork in stark black and white has given way to vivid color and solid blocks of black. The cleanness and perfection of line and curve could almost be dismissed as bloodless, almost commercial, if Burns' stories weren't so intensely emotional and strange. I asked Burns about the experience of transitioning to color.
"Well it was a challenge, and it was also really fun to be able to have this other element to work with. And I definitely try to use it as a storytelling device, a way of not just colorizing a black and white story, but of using the color as part of the storytelling.
"For example, the first time you see the pink blanket that's got cigarette burns in it, it's not necessarily explained but it keeps reoccurring. And each time that color reoccurs or that image reoccurs it starts to take on more meaning, different meaning. So I don't have to write, you know, 'My dad was down in his room underneath a pink blanket.' There is the pink blanket, and it's something your mind instantly recognizes or remembers.
"There's a scene early on where there's a darkroom lit with bright red with a safe light. That reoccurs as well. So you're comparing those images, those panels, those ideas, without having to have a real explanation. The color is the key to it."
I'm fascinated by the practical aspects to what he's said. How would a working artist, a cartoonist, go about learning and adopting a whole new technique? Does he ask other cartoonists for advice?
"I have in the past to a certain extent," says Burns. "I think, for myself, most of those things would probably be something purely technical. All the color and things like that that I do on a computer. And I had to learn that stuff. And luckily I had friends who were able to walk me through those steps early on.
"I had a friend who does all the production work on the books and he told me what I needed as far as like a scanner, what kind of computer and that sort of thing. And he was very helpful just to try and figure out a technique that would work for me. But as far as what you're asking, I think it would be probably mostly on a technical level, like how do I achieve this sort of effect.
"A lot of the things I've done, I've figured out on my own. And mostly I figured out my own way. I think everybody kind of experiments and tries different things and comes up with a look that's their own."
There's a very "noir" feeling to the trilogy, or specifically to the parts that deal with Doug and Sarah. As I read the books I was at times reminded of David Lynch's Blue Velvet in scenes that show Doug's slowly building awareness of Sarah's past life. I was also reminded of classic noir, complete with femme fatales and the constant threat of violence. But Burns suggests that although noir may be an influence, it's not so straightforward.
"I always struggle with this question," he says. "Now there was certainly a period that I read just about any, you can name whoever – Jim Thompson or James M. Cain or whoever – the people who are the more interesting writers from that era. I read all that stuff. I'm sure some of it seeped in, but it wasn't really consciously mimicking that necessarily. I mean it certainly could have come out of movies I've seen as well. But again, not really explicit like, 'Here's a writer that I really like and I think, you know, is a direct influence.' I know things have certainly filtered down, seeped into the work. But I couldn't point to a specific author that seems like a direct influence."
An interesting aspect of the trilogy is a gnawing realization of Doug's immaturity. His fecklessness stands in stark contract to Sarah's experience and sophistication, especially when it comes to the world of art that Doug finds so compelling. She personifies everything he strives to be.
"I think reading through it all you do see this kind of immaturity," Burns says, "or this naive sort of attitude of his attraction to her, but he's also kind of in awe of her I think too. She has this kind of mystery about her troubled past, as much as maybe he's looking at her as an artist or someone who really is much more focused and is a stronger personality than he is.
"For example, the scene where she's pulling out all these binders that are clippings of artists and artwork that she's interested in. I think in a sense that he's kind of in awe of that. And even the kind of artwork that she's doing, the photos she's doing and what she's kind of getting herself involved in. It's kind of out of his realm in a certain way and he flirts with that in his own, in his own work."
But regardless of Doug's admiration for Sarah, he doesn't necessarily treat her fairly. In fact, I can think of a few men in Burns' work who act monstrously toward women. I think of Larry, Sarah's psychopathic ex-boyfriend, and then I think back to other characters in other works, like Mr. Pinkster in Curse of the Molemen, and Dave, the dog-faced boy in Black Hole. What informs that stark vision of men, especially men perpetrating violence towards women?
"Yeah, that's a good question," says Burns. "I mean it's certainly, unfortunately, probably my general sense of the world. I guess I like women more than I like men," he laughs. "I don't know.
"I guess I struggle through those ideas of what those characters are and why they're out there. I think all the characters are pretty fallible. And I think, in the trilogy, you're focusing on Doug – that's the primary focus. Then you're definitely seeing that Sarah has got her shortcomings and she's struggling with a lot of things. It's less specific but you can see that she's not a perfect person either.
"On the other hand [in Black Hole] it certainly is focused on Dave and the consequences of his actions.
I think part of it too, the story had a lot to do with the fact that [Doug's] coming to an understanding of himself, in trying to tell himself that he's a pretty good guy, when in fact he's been kind of shitty. So that's part of that struggle. I think that's a part of, you know, a struggle of any person, any human being. So I think a lot of my characters have that in common."
Atmospheric, melancholic and vividly evocative, Black Hole, Burns' exploration of adolescent angst, sexuality and alienation garnered him a slew of Harvey Awards, an Ignatz Award and a Gaiman Award. The book has achieved canonical status among comics fans. This summer the book even enjoyed a brief but thematically significant cameo in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I asked Burns about the experience of having Hollywood come calling. How did the cameo come about?
"I had forgotten that I had that I had given my go-ahead for that," he laughs. "I get those kinds of requests. There's been a fair number of them over the years. And this was just one that came a few years ago. I think they contacted Fantagraphics and they passed it on to me.
"And it was just one of those things. I guess my own hesitation was there's an option out for the movie rights for Black Hole and there's like this contract that goes on for a hundred pages. And I wanted to make sure that there was no conflict there at all. So I checked with my movie agent and he assured me that there wasn't. It wasn't a problem.
"So then I basically just forgot about it. Part of it was growing up with Planet of the Apes and liking it when I saw it way back when. I saw it in the theatre in Yakima, Washington."
What news does he have about a rumor that I had found online, that David Fincher was preparing to direct the movie adaptation of Black Hole?
"I haven't heard anything really recently. I mean there are still, as of this year, there's still talks about getting up and running. But again, I'm not – I don't hear anything really – well I haven't heard anything very specific that, you know, that you haven't heard. So ah, yeah.
"It's been back and forth. I know David Fincher was officially attached to it, as they say, way back when. And then dropped off of it, and then I heard he was back in some capacity. But again I don't know. I don't know how Hollywood works. I have absolutely no idea what that even means."
He's been working on the trilogy since about 2008. I wonder what it feels like to finish working on a project that's engaged him for nearly six years? Is there a feeling of loss? And what comes next?
"No, the story is done. And then, you know I'm struggling through figuring out what I'm working on next.
"You do certainly kind of fall into a mode of writing and a style of breaking down the story in a particular way. And then you have to kind of pull back and start to reassess what I feel like working on, what I feel like writing.
"I mean the same thing happened when I was working on Black Hole. There was the first couple of attempts that I did to work on this story, the trilogy, I just ended up tossing them. There's kind of a hangover from the previous book, usually, and it takes a while to kind of wean yourself from the style or the feeling of the previous book. So I had about two or three attempts of starting this story that just didn't work at all.
"What happens too is there are certain themes and ideas that you get – I get very caught up in. And it's kind of hard to step away from those things. I find myself thinking about a new story and coming up with kind of an amazing idea and then realizing that's pretty much exactly what my last story was about.
"There's always the kind of need, for myself anyway, there's that need to just kind of jump into a project and be immersed in something. But unfortunately it usually takes a while to reassess things and to kind of dig in and find out what if anything you feel like talking about."