Interview: Charles Burns Pt. 2 [of 3]

Categories:  Interviews


At its best, Peur(s) du noir is arguably one of the scariest films you’ll have the opportunity to see in theaters this year. The film, a collection of black and white animated shorts brought together by French producers Valérie Schermann and Christophe Jankovic, doesn’t embrace the ultra-violence and gore of the vast majority of movies than come through your local Cineplex. Rather, like the most compelling horror films, the animated segments confront the psychological, revolving, in some form or another, around the titular fear.

The film is a perfect vehicle for Charles Burns’s art. It’s quietly creepy, exploring themes or youth and fear of the body, all while retaining the artist’s iconic aesthetic in a manner that likely would have proven nearly impossible with more traditional animation, all of which no doubt owes a good deal to the fact that Burns played the role of both writer and director of his piece.

Burns’s segment, however, while successful, gives rise to some familiar questions about film adaptations of graphic novels, specifically the upcoming film version of the artist’s magnum opus, Black Hole. In this second part of our interview with the artist, we discuss the project for which Burns has largely opted to remain hands-off.

[Part One]

I don’t know how you can speak about it, at this point, but there is a Black Hole film in production.

It’s out there and I think it’s announced that David Fincher is the director. There’s a new script that’s being written, as we speak, or maybe it’s done now, but my last contact was talking to the script writer who was going to Seattle.

To run around the forests?

Yeah. “You’ll want to take a left on (whatever the street was), and you’ll want to take a right on…” I did a little bit of that. There are a few references in Black Hole that talk about specific places that do exist in Seattle. He was going to do his own detective work. In the end, I gave him a few clues.

Was it ever suggested that you play a larger role in the script writing?

Not really. I guess I could have insisted and said that I wanted to write a script. They would have been open to that, I suppose. On the other hand, I really wanted to move on and work on different projects. For myself, it would have been just looking back and struggling to get something of my own up there. Even working on the animated film, being offered as much complete control as possible, even then it’s always going to be a collaboration. It’s close to my heart, but someone else is animating, someone else is writing those musical notes.

So, in a way, it’s almost easier for you not to play as large a role?

Yeah. I made that decision. I just wanted to put blinders on, move ahead, and work on different things, instead of trying to involve myself that much.

It took you a decade to get Black Hole out into the world. Is that part of the reason you so badly wanted to move on?

Yeah, that’s part of it. That was part of my motivation for working on Fear(s) of the Dark, as well. I was working on a single piece of obsessive work for so long, that I wanted to get out of my little studio and work with other people. I wanted to do something that was different for me. I succeeded at that, which is nice.

Why does it end up being such a lengthy process? Do you go back and edit yourself a lot? Does it just take a long time to do every page?

All of those things. One of the reasons is that I work really slowly—I edit myself a lot. I also start and stop a lot, because I have other projects. I have paying projects, illustrations and such.

And Black Hole was coming out as single issues.

Yeah. It was an issue a year for while there, it seemed like. But yeah, it was always conceived as as a complete book. It was written that way. It was like inching forward.

I assume the Black Hole will be live-action?

Again, I don’t know. The option says it can be whatever they want, so yeah, it can be puppets, for all I know.

Assuming for argument’s sake that it’s real people—reading Black Hole, the visual style is so important—do you think that it will lose something?

I don’t know. There’s some talk about trying to do some sort of movie magic to replicate that, but that’s just conversation. I don’t know if that will be done—if anything will be done. It’s Hollywood, so…

You have one of the most instantly recognizable styles in the medium. I can pick up an issue of, say, The Believer, and instantly recognize one of your pieces. How important was it to develop a clear style?

Well, it was just something that I gradually built on. It was not something I did intentionally. It was more just a matter of a certain look that I admired and was trying to figure out, going back to high school and junior high. I looked at certain things and wondered how they made those lines. I finally figured out that they used brushes to make those lines. I started trying to use a brush and went from there.

Do you ever have the desire to try out something radically different?

A little. What I’m working on now is a new comic, which is in color. That brings up a lot of really interesting ways of telling a story. You don’t have to describe the fact that someone has a pink shirt on. There are just elements that you can use as storytelling devices. And I’m also trying something new in the sense that I’m interchanging a couple of different visual styles in the story.

Are you doing the coloring yourself?


Does the fact that you’ve done black and white so long stem from early printing issues, or—

Early on there were a few things that had to do with printing limitations. In the case Black Hole, I just knew that the story had to be in black and white. There was just no question, with the mood and feeling. I love black and white. It’s hard to explain the work I’m doing now, but it’s based in part on Herge’s Tin Tin, which is a book that I grew up with. Color is a very important part of what that book is. So I’ve got a little bit of that Belgian bright, flat colors.

Both Black Hole and the animated shorts are black and white—they’re also horror stories, in some sense. Is the new story a different direction?

It’s not Black Hole, and again, it’s going to be hard to describe. It’s a little bit Tin Tin and William Burroughs [laughs]. How’s that?

So, an adventure story, with centipedes.

With opiates and hallucinations. There’s also a big dose of punk in there, too.

A lot of Burrough’s sci-fi stuff is sort of horror-based.


Is that still a big influence on what you’re continuing to do?

I guess so. There certainly some very horrific imagery in there. I just drew this green fetus creature that’s floating in dirty water. That’s what I just finished. That’s on my drawing table. So, yeah, there’s strong imagery like that. Not the entire story is like that, though.

–Brian Heater

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No Comments to “Interview: Charles Burns Pt. 2 [of 3]”

  1. fredo | November 18th, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    black hole rules!

  2. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Nov. 19, 2008: Molden age
  3. The Forbidden Planet International Blog Log » Another week, another great review series at The Daily Crosshatch: Charles Burns.