Graphic artist Charles Burns will never be accused of being the most prolific cartoonist, though his distinctive art style is hard to mistake or avoid, since his work can be seen everywhere from his early days doing covers for classic Sub Pop records and his shorter pieces for Art Spiegelman’s “RAW.” His most renowned and defining piece of work is the serialized graphic novel “Black Hole,” a creepy coming-of-age tale about mutations affecting sexually-active teenagers in Seattle, which has been optioned for a film, currently to be helmed by director David Fincher. Much of Burns’ work combines a dark realism with supernatural elements that would thrill any horror fan or those intrigued by fears of the unknown.
For his own first foray into filmmaking, Burns became one of the six artists commissioned to create and direct an animated short for Fear(s) of the Dark, a horror anthology film assembled by Etienne Robial to examine the nightmares that scare us all. Burns’ 18 minute short film is right up his alley, dealing with a man who collects insects but has trouble relating to women until he meets a beautiful woman who seems to like him. Their relationship takes a dark turn after they sleep together and she becomes… well, let’s just say “predatory.” Needless to say, it’s pretty amazing to see Burns’ distinctive vision brought to animated life, and it’s probably even more jarring than his comics tend to be.
ShockTillYouDrop.com had a rare chance to sit down with this inventive and eclectic creator to talk about his second venture into animation, his thoughts on “Black Hole” being brought to the big screen and his next comics project.
ShockTillYouDrop: Most of your cartoons are fairly disturbing, but they’re even moreso when realized and animated. How were you approached to do this? Did you already know Etienne before getting involved with this project?
Charles Burns: What happened was it was a French production company based in Paris and AngoulÃªme, which is south of that. Basically, it’s a couple that runs this production company, and they’ve done a couple of movies, but my friend Richard McGuire, who’s also in the film, had worked with them before and he may have suggested me to them because they were starting to discuss this idea of having a black and white movie that was a series of horror stories. He may have been the one that suggested me as another author. But it was like an email that came, and it came at an opportune time. I had finished “Black Hole,” and was interested in trying something new, kind of stepping outside of what was comfortable for me, and I certainly did — suddenly stepping outside the safety of my studio. It really started that way, and basically the guidelines were it’s in black and white, “Fear(s) of the Dark” was the title, and you would do maybe between a fifteen to twenty minute piece, and it sounded interesting. I proposed a story idea and went from there. What was most interesting is that they really wanted every author to be in control of every part, to write and direct and do the music and do the sound and everything, which was great.
Shock: Did you find animators or an animation house here to work with or did they have a place over there?
Burns: Everything was done in Paris. Everything was done over there. Logistically it was difficult in that I was not there when I was needed all the time and we had to figure out how to do all that stuff back and forth, but I was there off and on working in Paris. With each of the authors, they found different animation houses and different ways of doing animation, so it wasn’t like everybody working in the same place, which probably would’ve been easier. I think there were people whose sensibilities would work with different animators.
Shock: Being in the same place might also have caused influences between the different creators.
Burns: We were looking over each other’s shoulders a little bit, but I think that we’re also different enough in the way that we tell stories, and visually, and all of those things, that there was a difference between all of us.
Shock: Was the story an idea that you had around that you wanted to explore eventually or was it something you came up with after being given the guidelines?
Burns: My story was based on–and I don’t know why I didn’t immediately think of it–but my story was based on an early comic book story idea back in 1979. It was one of the first real kind of full-fledged stories (with a) beginning, middle, and end that I had completed. It wasn’t a comic that I pulled out and showed to the producers, but the ideas were based on an early story that I did. So yeah, basically just wrote a synopsis of it and went from there. It was nice to go back how many years later and think about those themes and those ideas, but have more of the skills I guess…
Shock: Was that story ever published or printed?
Burns: It was published, but I’m not going to tell you where. (laughs) Someone will do the detective work, but it’s not something I’m proud of. It’s not a big deal for me, but it’s not something that I want to dust off and show everybody.
Shock: Maybe they’ll include it in the DVD packaging.
Burns: No, no, I never showed the producers the entire time I worked on it. Even after I knew them for how many years, I just kind of kept it in a drawer.
Shock: Did you tell them it was based on something from before?
Burns: Yeah I’m pretty sure I did.
Shock: As far as working with the animators, you obviously have a very specific art style, in terms of creating the motion and what happens between the panels, how did you work with them? Did you end up storyboarding the entire thing or just draw it like a normal comic story?
Burns: It’s very, very different. A storyboard feels very, very similar to writing. I felt comfortable with that. What changes immediately is when you step into the next part of it which is doing the animatic and doing this very rough animation of the story. Suddenly, you’re timing things out, you’re doing the voices. When you’re reading a comic, there’s ways of telling a story, anyway the story changes significantly. Well, I shouldn’t say significantly, but the way of telling the story changes quite a bit just because my kind or preconceived ideas don’t work. There’s things that work great in comics and they don’t work in film. For example, there’s a point where he’s looking out his window and he’s seeing some girls walk by and he’s kind of reflecting on his trouble meeting girls and they’re these strange, beautiful creatures that he’s interested in, but doesn’t know how to approach. In comics, my initial way of telling a story is that you show some different examples of his trials and tribulations with women. With film you really have to set up a scene so it has some logic to it, and so what was happening was I had these three scenes of his trouble with girls, and it just felt really long and it didn’t feel necessary. You just needed like one scene that kind of showed him standing out in the street with his mouth open looking at some girls walk by and they’re like, “What’s your problem buddy?” Before I had two other scenes, but they just felt kind of like excess. In a comic book, you could have a panel with a narrative on top and “there was a time when I met Lana and this and this happened,” and you have one bit of dialogue, another bit of dialogue, next panel, “And then I met so and so,” and then it’s set up. It’s done.
Shock: Did you like having the new thing added to the process where you had to think differently about the storytelling?
Burns: It was interesting, yeah, it was very interesting to me. That was the very good thing about working in this collaborative process that you’re having something that’s injected into your ideas and work that’s coming from the outside which was good, so yea, just the whole process of telling this story that’s unfolding on the screen is much, much different than comics in which you’re solitary, you’re sitting there reading by yourself, the pace of how you read it is very different.
Shock: One thing I enjoy about your work is that you like juxtaposing real life and the strange and bizarre. In this case, it’s the insects with fear of relationships and dating. I’m curious whether that’s something you’ve always been interested in exploring and it just came out naturally in the course of your work?
Burns: There’s ideas that keep resurfacing and keep resurfacing, the kind of internal horror, the kind of internal world and then this kind of physical manifestation of it. In “Black Hole” that’s what the story is really about, the lives of these teenage characters going through adolescence and exploring their sexuality, and there’s this kind of physical manifestation of all this turmoil they’re going through. Yeah, and the same with this story too. I mean, in theory, I could do a more psychological story of this nerdy guy that meets this seemingly perfect girl, and having that relationship just decay and destroyed, but I like having the insects (laughs) and a little barbed appendage coming out of her arm.
Shock: You also like to play in different time periods or have people who seem to be out of time. Do you see this movie as a period piece?
Burns: Yeah, I mean it is, and the reason I do that is because that was the time when I went through adolescence, late sixties, early seventies, in the seventies. The seventies is when “Black Hole” takes place. It’s not because I’m trying to say something about the seventies, there’s a little bit of that in there, but it’s more of a matter that I could speak with authority about a particular time period. If I was going to write something about right now, I would have to figure out what text messaging is all about. That’s not something I have any interest in. It’s mainly because it’s something I could speak about with authority. You know, guys sitting around smoking dope in that time period. I know what that is. I know what that world is and I could talk about that. That being said, it’s interesting that it’s not just about the seventies. I think that I’ve talked to enough people who’ve read that book that are young or older too, and they’re relating to it just purely on the identity of the characters.
Shock: “Black Hole” is definitely timeless, but I was curious more about this piece.
Burns: Well the characters in this are not full characters so much. A lot of it had to do with that particular story. It’s more about this metamorphosis and all those ideas as opposed to just focusing on the characters themselves.
Shock: I was thinking that maybe it was more influenced by B-movies from the ’50s and ’60s, because all of them had the influences of the nuclear age, so I wondered if that played into the story.
Burns: I think it absolutely does, and I think that especially in my earlier work. Like I said, it’s based on an earlier story, which was certainly based on those movies that came out from that time period that did have a real effect on me. My take on it is not really just looking at is as kitsch, there’s certainly things that are very fun, but also I have a genuine affection and enjoyment of watching all of those movies.
Shock: This film could almost be seen as a bookend to MTV making a cartoon out of your early work “Dog Boy.” Having these two different experiences, do you feel you want to do more within the world of animation or is it too time-consuming?
Burns: Well certainly, the way that we figured out to do the animation, I assumed it would not be that time-consuming when in fact it was. I figured, “Okay, I’ll design the characters.” I designed all the characters, wrote everything out, and then it was done in 3-D animation. So they literally built the characters, built the sets, and everything else, but scene by scene, we had to go through and we had to render what everything looks like in each scene, the shading and that sort of thing, because my shading is not that natural light shading. It’s done dramatically and there’s not a real logic, there’s not a light bulb here that’s shining light on the side of his face. For dramatic effect, there’s things that you do in comics.
Shock: Also the lines had to change and you had to use different textures.
Burns: Yeah, and there’s things that work really well with the process that we chose, and there were things that were really stumbling blocks that were really difficult that we needed to kind of go back and redraw things because what happens is you have 3-D characters and when you’re doing comics, you have to be able to read the comics. You have to be able to understand what you’re looking at. If someone’s turning their head, there’s odd things that happen if you’re doing it realistically. You know, eyes disappear, and at certain angles, things look strange. We’d have to say things like, “Well, his eye disappeared because the light is hitting it at a certain angle. We have to draw the eye back in or else it’s going to look strange.” So I mean it was just not limitations, but part of the process.
Shock: Is it a process you enjoyed enough to want to delve further into?
Burns: Yeah, it was interesting for me. I guess, ultimately my interest lies in doing comics and having that total control of every aspect of it. No matter how much control you have as a director, you’re still relying on people to move your whole character around. I can stand up and act it out, but you’re still having someone else put the foot in front of the other foot and have them walk in a certain fashion. One thing I was aware of… I was working on a team of great animators, but you can see personalities within those different animators. It’s almost like if you had dancers and you can tell someone has a certain kind of finesse and a different way of moving their bodies that is interesting, better.
Shock: I was curious about the “Black Hole” movie that’s been in development for a long time. Is David Fincher definitely going to be directing the movie now?
Burns: He’s the one that’s attached to it at this point. So again, whatever that world is, I don’t know anything other than his name is attached to it.
Shock: How involved will you be in that movie considering that you are the original creator?
Burns: I made the decision when I signed the option that I didn’t try to negotiate and gain any control because ultimately I think it would’ve been a kind of frustrating process in that I just want to kind of move onto something else. I want to move onto another story.
Shock: Right, you’ve been working on “Black Hole” for over ten years.
Burns: Yeah, and I think that I could’ve tried to write the script, I could’ve tried to negotiate being involved more, so I think that there’s a possibility that I’d be involved, but I don’t know.
Shock: Do you think it’s possible to make a live action movie out of this?
Burns: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think the story lends itself very well to do in a live action movie. I think the story is good and that’s the most important part of any movie, so you’re hoping it gets put together in an interesting way. Initially, Alexandre Aja was the director that was attached to it, and he does great kind of seventies kind of horror, slasher movies which I think are perfectly fine, but I don’t know that it’s really appropriate for…
Shock: His “The Hills Have Eyes” had a very fifties, sixties kind of feel to it. I was just curious since I’ve talked to authors who want to adapt their own books and those who want nothing to do with an adaptation.
Burns: I feel perfectly happy that “Black Hole” is the book, and if the movie gets made I want it to be good, there’s no question about that. For me to try to maintain control I think is nearly impossible.
Shock: When you’re making a live action movie you have a lot more people involved, too.
Burns: Yeah, and even like I said, even in working on this animated project which is very small in comparison, and I’m working with producers who want me to be involved in every single step, everything. Even in that case, you can see the things that are out of your grasp, so I know that on a much larger scale it would be just be difficult. Like, “Why are they playing this Ozzy Osbourne song? It shouldn’t be that Ozzy Osbourne song.”
Shock: Have you had a chance to read the script that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary wrote for the “Black Hole” movie?
Burns: They wrote a script and it’s not going to be used, so there’s another person who’s writing the screenplay. Somebody already asked me this, and I can’t remember the name which is unfortunate. From what I understand, (David Fincher) wanted to move in a slightly different direction and basically picked another writer. That was his decision as far as I understand.
Shock: Have you started on your next comic project? You spent a lot of time doing “Black Hole” so are you going to do another project that takes that much time or go back to doing shorter stories?
Burns: The piece I’m working on right now is almost done. It’s a much shorter piece. I’m going to be doing a color piece, and it’s kind of in not in the style, but in the format of the French “Tintin” books, the Belgian “Tintin” books, so it’s kind of a hardbound book.
Shock: Have you started writing it?
Burns: Yes I have, and as far as I know right now, there’s going to be two books, two parts of the story that will come out in two volumes, and I’m just about done with the first.
Shock: Funny you should mention the “Tintin” books. I know you spent some time in Italy twenty five years ago, and I was curious whether European comics were an influence on your own comic work.
Burns: It’s always hard to say what that specific influence is, but I know for example, I was one of the rare American kids that grew up reading “Tintin” books. I was given those even before I could read, so they had a huge impact.
Shock: Were you reading those in French or in English?
Burns: They were in English. Golden Press put out six “Tintin” books in the late fifties, early sixties, so that had a really strong impact on me and it’s hard to say “Does it have to do with the characters in there, the story telling”? There’s probably a little bit of that, but yeah, they had a huge impact. This story that I’m working on now does sort of delve into that world of “Tintin” and Herge and a little bit of the look of that, and then it veers back into this kind of punk world, and it deals with William Burroughs.
Shock: Are you coloring this book yourself, too?
Shock: Wow, interesting. Have you ever done any color work in comics besides for covers?
Burns: Not for comics. This is the first time that I’d been doing colored comics. It’s very interesting in that it allows me this different dimension for storytelling. It’s not just like a colorized black and white comic, it’s using color as part of the storytelling, which for me is really fun.
Shock: Do you paint the colors?
Burns: No, this is just done on flat color on the computer.
Fear(s) of the Dark opens exclusively at the IFC Center in New York City on Wednesday, October 22 with plans to roll out to other cities in the coming weeks.