Interview: Charles Burns Pt. 3 [of 3]

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charlesburnsfearsofdark

Common themes, of course, can be recognized across the backcatalog of any established artist. In some ways, however, such signposts feel all the more prominent in Charles Burns’ work. The artist has maintained a powerful sense of stylistic consistency across his output—both in terms of his approach to aesthetics and storytelling—that lesser artist find difficult to maintain over the course of a single story.

In this third and final part of our interview with Burns, we discuss the influences—both conscious and otherwise—on his singular artistic vision and how they influenced both his most famous book, Black Hole, and his more recent venture into the world of film, Peur(s) du Noir—a dark and haunting work that fits in perfectly alongside his better-known work.

[Part One][Part Two]

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Interview: Charles Burns Pt. 2 [of 3]

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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]

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Interview: Charles Burns Pt. 1 [of 3]

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charlesburnsspiral

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.

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Interview: Art Spiegelman Pt 5 [of 5]

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In much the same way that that old stock faux-intellectual question of “what is art” played a major role in earlier installments of our conversation with Art Spiegelman, much of this fifth and final part of our interview delves into the concept of unintentional fictionalization.

It’s a key concept, to be sure, given the artist’s role at the forefront of the autobiography of movement in independent comics, a role best personified by books like Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers, and to a degree, in certain selections from his newly revamped anthology of early work, Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!.

Spiegelman argues, I think accurately, there’s essentially no such thing as complete non-fiction, especially in the incredibly subjective world of autobiography, a concept he illustrates using a powerful example from Maus.

In this final part, we also discuss what made Spiegelman leave The New Yorker, the birth of Raw, why he isn’t an “artist’s artist,” and what role, if any, he played in that now infamous Obama cover.

[Part One][Part Two][Part Three][Part Four][Heeb Feature]
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Interview: Art Spiegelman Pt. 4 [of 5]

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The real impetus for the my discussion with Art Spiegelman was the upcoming release of Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!. First issued in 1977, the first incarnation of the book was an anthology of the artist’s pre-Maus (though, confusingly enough, the original edition carried the subtitle “From Maus to Now,” thanks to the inclusion of an earlier prototype of his Pulitzer-winning book). The new edition of the book is about 2/3 larger than its predecessor, thanks to a new graphic introduction and a backwards-looking afterword essay.

With that in mind, in seemed only right to delve as far back into the artist’s professional career as we could possibly go. In this fourth part of our interview with the artist, we open with a discussion of Spiegelman as a 12-year-old cartoonist, why he was never cut out for the dailies, and the birth of the autobiographical comic book.

[Part One][Part Two][Part Three][Heeb Magazine Feature]

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Interview: Art Spiegelman Pt. 3

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No one’s ever accused Art Spiegelman of oversaturating the marketplace. In fact, one of the major criticisms levied against the artist has been his relatively meager output. Of course it’s never wise to rush an artist, but, in spite of years spent working for the New Yorker, the cartooning world had good reason to wonder why it took the artist nearly a decade and a half to craft the followup of Maus’s second volume, the relatively skinny mediation on 9-11, In the Shadow of No Towers.

In 2008, however, it seems as though Spiegelman is making up for lost time. The year has already seen the release of his first Toon Book, Jack and the Box; his remastered anthology, Breakdowns; and the upcoming McSweeney’s sketchbook collection, Be a Nose.

In this third part of our interview, we discuss the process of writing his first children’s book, and how exactly Spiegelman spends all of his time.

[Part One][Part Two][Heeb Magazine feature]
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Interview: Art Spiegelman Pt. 2

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I struggled for a bit to choose a suitable title for my Art Spiegelman feature for Heeb. It had to be something that both sufficiently summed up the central theme of the piece, and really, Art Spiegelman’s career in general. Ultimately I happened upon—or possibly settled for—“Art 101,” (though, for the record, the print version of the piece ultimately just borrowed its title from that of Spiegelman’s most recent release, Breakdowns).

Toward the end of the first part of our interview, Spiegelman sums up what he considers the most important achievement in his long and storied career as succinctly as one could possibly hope, saying, “I think I was part of this swell taboo-busted gang of artists, but there was this one taboo that I needed to walk to the edge of and over. It made me move outside the terrain that was a wonderful realm of psychedelic wooliness. That was the taboo of a cartoonist calling himself an artist.”

Through the strips that would become Breakdowns, through RAW, through Maus, and through his subsequent output, the dissolution of that artificial wall separating the sequential artist from the world of high art has been one of the driving forces behind Spiegelman’s work.

In this second part, the artist takes a fittingly professorial approach toward defining art, going so far as asking me that dreaded Introduction to Art question, “what is art?” The question itself may be elementary, but as anyone who has been tasked with answering it can attest, the answer is anything but.

[Part One]

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Interview: Art Spiegelman Pt. 1

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A few months back I was asked to conduct an interview with Art Spiegelman for Heeb Magazine. Naturally, I jumped at the chance. Spiegelman had worked for some time as a visiting professor at my alma mater, UC Santa Cruz—despite this, however, and the fact that we both operate in occasionally overlapping circles in the relatively small New York comics scene, the opportunity had never really presented itself. In fact, interactions with the legendary artist have been non-existent, save for the occasional elbow brushing at some New York-area cartooning social event. For some time the artist has remained perched high atop a list of elusive interview subjects, just waiting for the moment to present itself.

Of course anyone with even a passing interest in the world of sequential art knows Spiegelman, at least by reputation. Every piece extolling the academic potential of the art form penned at some point in the past two decades has featured the artist with some prominence. And, despite the fact that he continues to grimace at the mere mention of the now ubiquitous phrase “graphic novel,” there remains some doubt that it ever would have achieved such widespread usage, were it not for the artist’s 1986 magnum opus.

The opportunity, as it happens, presented itself in the form of Breakdowns, the newly reissued collection of Spiegelman’s pre-Maus work. A more ideal moment with which to familiarize the populace with the artist’s canon beyond his most famous book would likely not present itself any time soon. This, coupled with the recent release of the artist’s first children’s book, Jack and the Box (released on Toon Books, the new children’s comics published house launched by Spiegelman’s wife and New Yorker art director, Francoise Mouly) and the upcoming McSweeney’s collection of Spiegelman’s sketchbooks seemed like something of a perfect storm for an artist notorious for a publishing schedule that is sporadic at best.

Any writer who has penned a piece of comics for a mainstream publication, however, knows the drill—never assume foreknowledge on the part of your audience—even with an artist so universally loved as Spiegelman. This, naturally, puts us at square one, in terms of questions—slightly problematic for Cross Hatch readers no doubt already well-versed in Spiegelman’s oeuvre.

Fortunately, however, I was assigned an hour with Spiegelman in his lower east side studio—ample time to broach topics aimed at both the unfamiliar and the indoctrinated. The hour, as it turns out, ran even longer, clocking in closer to two. Spiegelman spent the time chainsmoking and wandering back and forth between our table and his studio’s massive bookcases a half-dozen times, unshelving books from his backcatalog to illustrate various points about his work and his unwavering commitment to quality book design that has defined his work from those early days of Raw, up through the aesthetically creative packaging of Breakdowns.

What follows is not the Heeb article—that’s available online (albeit in its shortened print version—soon to be replaced by the original that runs three times that length). Rather it’s the first part of our unaltered conversation. It would have likely proven a touch alienating for a more mainstream publication, but I have no doubt seeing it in a rawer form will hold at least some appeal for Cross Hatch readers.

With that in mind, I present the first part of the Daily Cross Hatch interview with the legendary Art Spiegelman.

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