Holy shit, you guys. I got to interview Charles Burns!
Looking back at a lot of these old “Palmer’s Picks” is a bit of a mixed bag for me. I haven’t reread most of them in years, so there’s usually a lot of cringing when I stumble on some glaring mistake or a recommendation for a comic that in hindsight wasn’t worthy of a plug. But this column from Wizard #48 is one of the few that I can say really holds up. Everything clicked with this one—the interview went well, all of the other comics I wrote about were good, and I just basically didn’t do anything stupid.
Once I heard that Burns was launching his first regular comic series, I knew that I wanted to interview him for Wizard. The late Jamie Riehle, marketing director at Kitchen Sink Press, sent me xeroxes of the first issue to check out. Obviously it was a great read—I mean, it’s a Charles Burns comic after all—but even if that first issue was terrible I still would have wanted to set up an interview. Burns was a great subject, easy to talk to and very comfortable discussing his work.
One of the things to note from my original column is how Burns mentions that the comic book format allowed him to try some new things. His distinctive, precise linework was still there, but Black Hole was a departure from his previous work in quite a few ways. After spending a number of years producing two-tiered comics for his weekly “Big Baby” comic strip, like this:
Burns really took advantage of the freedom afforded by the full-size comic page and could experiment with inventive layouts, as evident in this iconic page from Black Hole #1:
Since Black Hole has gone on to become one of the most celebrated graphic novels of all time, it’s easy to forget that it began life as a regular comic. Burns definitely played up the comic book aspect of the early issues of the series. Even though Black Hole wasn’t exactly like a traditional pamphlet comic—each issue boasted a heavy cardstock cover and thick, glossy paper—Burns tried to make it feel like one. The first issue even had a two-page section apart from the main story where Burns printed some comics he drew while in high school and invited readers to send in letters. Instead of the usual comments about the comic story, Burns asked for fans to share “something about their dark, hidden high school horrors.” He printed a selection of them in Black Hole #3, but the rest of the series did not feature any other back-up material.
If you have any interest in the process behind Black Hole, I wholeheartedly recommend you get your hands on the brilliant Charles Burns’ Black Hole: The Fantagraphics Studio Edition. It prints Burns’ art at the size it was originally drawn. Even though there is shockingly little in the way of corrections—something that is the hallmark of similar books that reproduce art boards at full-size—this gigantic book is still a valuable resource and lets the reader appreciate all of the painstaking work that went into Burns’ magnum opus.
By Tom Palmer Jr.
If you remember going through all the painful and discomforting feelings of not fitting in that are associated with adolescence and high school, then you’ll have no trouble relating to Charles Burns’ Black Hole. In this new series by the acclaimed comics creator and illustrator, teenagers are subjected to a bizarre virus that manifests itself in horrific ways. Some teens are merely disfigured with bumps and rashes, while others find themselves transformed into horribly deformed monsters.
As Burns explains, the idea of a “teen plague” is an effective metaphor for the uncomfortable aspects of adolescence. “I’m taking this very volatile period in everybody’s life when you’re coming of age, when you’re not quite a kid and not quite an adult; you’re kind of in this limbo between the two. I’m just kind of thinking about that period of time, and throwing in a few more ideas on top of that, making it a little more physically or blatantly horrific. As if it wasn’t already.”
This disfiguring virus is something that Burns has touched on in previous stories, most notably “Contagious” (from Steve Bissette‘s Taboo) and “Teen Plague” (which saw print in Raw). With Black Hole, Burns hopes to nail down the horrific epidemic once and for all. “In the past, I’ve had certain stories or certain ideas that I find myself coming back to, and this is one I’ve touched on in different ways. I’ve done a couple of stories with it, but I never really felt fully satisfied as far as exploring the whole idea of this teen plague phenomenon. I still haven’t gotten it out of my system, but this series will probably take care of it. Hopefully, I’ll never have to do another story about it.”
Black Hole isn’t just about disgusting sores and blistering skin, though. Surprisingly, Burns also describes the story as a romance. “It’s kind of focusing on a number of characters, two characters in particular, but there are also other incidental characters that will be explored. I’m finding that I need to explore some characters I thought were fairly incidental and fairly minor, but the focus is really on the one male character and one female character. When it comes right down to it, it’s a horror-romance.”
Charles Burns is one of the few comic creators qualified to pull off such a bizarre combination of genres. His work has appeared since the early ’80s in comic magazines like Heavy Metal, Raw, Buzz and Taboo, as well as a weekly comic strip he drew for several years called “Big Baby.” Burns is known not only as a comic book creator, but as a respected commercial artist. His inimitable line work has been printed in a variety of magazines all over the world from Rolling Stone to Playboy, and has even appeared on the cover of Time. His art has also graced cans of OK Cola and such album covers as Iggy Pop’s Brick By Brick.
Despite these impressive credentials, Black Hole is the first ongoing comic series that Burns can call his own. “I’ve always loved comics and I’ve always tried to find different ways of making them and putting them out, but I’ve never really used the traditional comic book format as a venue for my work. I had a really long story in mind and it seemed like it would be appropriate to have it come out in serialized form, issue after issue, to complete a long complex story.”
Drawing Black Hole has provided Burns with some new challenges. “It’s kind of a liberating thing to work in a very self-contained magazine where I can really control the whole look of it. If you look at what I’ve done in the first issue, I’ve really been aware of page placement and how the comic book can be used as a whole to have fun with the pacing of the story by juxtaposing different pages and different panels. I’ve always worked with a very traditional three-tiered grid—which is really a good way to restrain yourself if you’re trying to learn how to write—but I think I’ve done that to the point where I feel like stepping out and spreading out.”
The open artwork and experimental storytelling in Black Hole definitely contrasts with the regimented layouts in Burns’ earlier work. The most pronounced difference is with his weekly “Big Baby” comic strip. While it did not provide the freedom of experimentation that his new series allows, drawing the strip was definitely a unique experience. “It had its pros and cons. One thing that I really liked was the idea of reaching a different audience. At the time I was doing it, I was in a bunch of different papers in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and a whole bunch of different cities. I liked the idea of having my work accessible to anyone who could pick up a free paper on the corner in the city.”
Burns found, however, that despite its positive aspects, the comic strip had some limitations. “I was doing a continuing story and it wasn’t really ideal for a weekly comic strip. The most successful weekly strips are just self-contained strips that come out each week, but I was trying to do a longer story and I was fitting the strips into that format. In a certain way, it was not the best outlet. I can’t really imagine keeping up with the strip each week, but I’ve been told that some people did.” To make things easier on readers, the stories that ran in the weekly strip were eventually collected in book form, including Blood Club (featuring “Big Baby”) and Skin Deep (with the infamous story of Dog Boy).
Black Hole promises to be the most rewarding and engrossing story of Charles Burns’ career. If the bold storytelling and painstakingly precise art of the first issue is any indication, this series is definitely something to watch out for. But don’t wait until it’s too late, because Burns says he has a definite ending for Black Hole. “It might take a long time to get there. It all seems like it’s expanding in different areas as I write, but it’s got a beginning, middle and end. It’s not going to just float on forever.”
Tom Palmer Jr. is very close to running away from everything to become a hermit and live in the woods.
FYI: The first issue of Black Hole was released in March, and the second is tentatively scheduled for October. Kitchen Sink Press publishes this black-and-white series along with a number of other items for fans of Charles Burns, including T-shirts, cards and art prints. Write to them at
320 Riverside Drive, Northampton, MA 01060 or call 1-800-365-7465.
Charles Burns’ Recommended Reading: When I asked Charles to rattle off some recent comics he liked, he gave a rather nonchalant response. “Five comics I want to plug? Oh boy. I’ll call you back or something. I’ll leave it on your answering machine, how’s that? I’ll think of something obscure, rather than the usual list of comics.” I thought I’d have to make up the list myself, but Charles came through in the end with a pretty impressive bunch of comics: Paul Auster’s City of Glass adapted by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli from Avon Books; Acme Novelty Library (especially the issues featuring Jimmy Corrigan) by Chris Ware from Fantagraphics; Drawn & Quarterly edited by Chris Oliveros from Drawn & Quarterly Publications; Self-Loathing Comics by Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb from Fantagraphics; and Adrian Tomine‘s Optic Nerve from Drawn & Quarterly Publications.
Tom’s Recommended Reading
You should be able to find all of these comics at any good comic store, but write to the publishers if you can’t. Also, be on the lookout for new issues of Taboo and Blab! (two top-notch anthologies from Kitchen Sink), and Comicslit Magazine, a new monthly anthology from NBM (
185 Madison Ave., Ste. 1504, New York, NY 10016).
Ragmop: You’re guaranteed to double over laughing at Rob Walton‘s dementedly inspired satire in Ragmop, his new self-published comic series. Nothing is held sacred, as Rob pokes fun at everything from republicans to superheroes. The pre-publication buzz around this comic is loud enough to blow your eardrums, so don’t be left out! Write to Planet Lucy Press at
264 Bloor St. West, PO Box 52536, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5F 3C5.
Buzz Buzz Comics Magazine: If you missed out on THB, Paul Pope‘s fantastic breakthrough series, then the least you can do is pick up Buzz Buzz. This magazine combines new comics (including a team-up between Pope and Jay Stephens of Atomic City Tales) with other material, including a three-way interview with Stephen Bissette, Jeff Smith and Pope himself. You’ll kick yourself (twice) if you miss this one! Write to Horse Press,
PO Box 3112, Columbus, OH 43210.