Interview: Charles Burns Pt. 1 [of 3]

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When it was finally collected by Pantheon in 2005, after a decade’s worth of serialization, Black Hole confirmed Charles Burns’s place as the master of indie horror comics. Where many of his fellow graduates of Art Spiegelman’s RAW had long sinced forsaken the teachings of the tattered EC books on which they were weaned, there was something in the youthful psychological terrors which Burns could not abandon—or perhaps more accurately, would not abandon him.

The persistent existentialist horrors of Burns’s work are, if anything, only compounded by the artist’s brush work, which has long since become one of the most familiar styles in all of contemporary sequential art, instantly recognizable, the moment it pops up in some anthology or on the frontcover of McSweeney’s The Believer–its stark, shadow-heavy black and white an ever-present homage to the subtle terror of the earliest of horror movies.

That Burns should attempt one day to make his own horror film should come as a surprise to no one. The artist happily signed on to direct a segment for Peur(s) du NoirFear(s) of the Dark. The Guillermo Del Toro-approved collection of dark animated shorts has been making its way around the festival circuit over the past year.  The film is subtly frightening in a manner that most contemporary horror films forgo, too often embracing the shock of overt gore—a method that never seems to translate sufficiently in the world of sequential art.

Burns’s segment is the clear centerpiece of the film, and thanks to the subtle form of computer animation employed, which retains his style in a manner which would like be lost on more traditional animation methods, from the moment a character appears on the screen, there’s no doubt who’s behind the piece.

Burns, who has been traveling a bit to promote the film took time during a recent New York appearance to talk to us about Fear(s) of the Dark.

It’s got to be exciting to finally sit down and see the film in all of its animated glory.

Well, it’s funny, I saw it when it came out in France, last winter. I was over there for the premier in Paris. It’s one of those things I was working on for a while, and it’s finally coming here, which is nice.

I watched it last night, and the second it came on, it was clear which short was yours. We seem to be at a point in animation where the director doesn’t have to compromise his or her visual style at all.

That was the reason I wanted to be involved was the production company and what they wanted to do, which was make sure that there was no point where I was edited or my ideas were edited, other than to say something like, “is this a good idea, to do another zoom shot here?” Other than that, there was nothing as far as the content that was ever compromised. That was great. I think that was the production company’s whole approach, to allow each artist and writer to have their own vision intact.

Was animation something you had been interested in for a while?

Not really. It was something I had done as a kid, stop-motion, claymation, and things like that. But it’s not really something that I’ve kept up with, as an adult. There were plenty times where people would ask me if I had seen certain films. I have two daughters who went through their period of watching all of the animated movies, so I’ve walked past that. It wasn’t really something that I had kept up with, but I was interested in it in the sense of wanting to try something that was new—stepping into this world that I didn’t really know about.

In its most elementary sense, sequential art can almost be seen as a storyboard for animation. It seems like a fairly logical step to make.

Well, it was funny—at this point, I feel secure about writing comics. I’ve been writing comics long enough. It’s not easy, but it’s a domain I understand and feel comfortable with. So, when I started out, I came up with a storyline and wrote that out and broke it down into storyboards. All of that felt comfortable and familiar. But the minute we moved onto the next step, I felt like I was in deep trouble, because there’s an absolutely different sense about how a story is told when it’s moving. This is a very different process, which I quickly found out. That’s what was interesting too, was that there was an understanding that myself and other artists involved hadn’t done animation before. We hadn’t directed before.

Is that true of all of the other artists [involved in the film]?

Not all of them. Richard McGuire, who did the last segment—the other Americant—had worked with the directors before, and he may have even done other animated segments before—I’m not positive. So he knew the whole process. And I’d imagine some of the other artists, as well, but I’m not positive.

So that piece was written specifically to be turned into an animated short?

Yeah. Well, it was based on this real early story that I had done, right when I had started to write comics. It’s an embarrassing comic in that the drawing and the writing is bad, but there’s still part of the content that I really wanted to go back and re-examine.

There’s something inherently creepy about insects and beds and the things that crawl on us, when we sleep.

Right. Some stories come from a very simple image like that—insects inside this bed, crawling. What is the feeling of that?

I’m sure you gotten this before, but there are some visual moments that I couldn’t help but to compare to Black Hole. There’s the moment with the cut in the wrist.

 Sure. There are a lot of themes that come back, again and again. I never know how to explain that part of it. I always leave that to the critics to explain.

Having come from an early story, would you say that, in some ways, it was something of an inspiration for Black Hole?

Not an inspiration, so much as again there are just these little imageries and ideas that I keep coming back to, again and again.

[Continued in Part Two]

–Brian Heater 

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6 Comments to “Interview: Charles Burns Pt. 1 [of 3]”

  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » November 12, 2008: Nothing ever ends
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  4. Interview: Charles Burns Pt. 2 [of 3] « The Daily Cross Hatch
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