harles Burns is a man obsessed with mutation. It is the ultimate symptom of adolescence and suburban horror in Black Hole, his graphic novel of deep shadows and teenage confusion. The novel’s “Teen Plague” is a sexually transmitted virus, but manifests itself in different ways in each character, causing grotesque deformities that reveal something deeply personal on the inside.
Burns spent a decade on the 368-page book, releasing each chapter in comic book form along the way, completing a dramatic story arc as disturbing as it is genuinely moving. Its release last year confirmed him as a major force in the ongoing wave of gifted storytellers working in comics that includes Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, and the Hernandez Bros. But Burns has been publishing comics since the early-’80s, and a new collection of his early “El Borbah” stories about a mysterious masked wrestler/detective has just been released by Fantagraphics. He is also recognized for his portraits in The Believer magazine and his ongoing stream of commercial assignments: album covers, books, magazine illustrations, Altoids ads, etc.
He grew up in Washington State, but has lived in Philadelphia for the last 20 years, the same city that inspired David Lynch to create Eraserhead, another tale of outrageous mutation. But Burns has been in Paris for the last month collaborating with seven other artists on a black-&-white animated film, Peur(s) Du Noir (Afraid of the Dark), with a 15-minute section that he’s writing and directing himself. Which might be a good warm-up for the coming movie version of Black Hole, set to be made by Paramount … eventually. He knows the process could take a while, though maybe not as long as the book. “Let’s hope not,” he says. “It’s not a homemade product.”
What inspired your interest in mutation?
I grew up in the early ’60s, when there was a kind of fad of monsters. There were shows on TV like The Outer Limits, The Addams Family, and the very popular monster magazines. I was at the right age for all that stuff. I’m sure some of those images got internalized. A lot of times in my stories, the mutations – or the kind of transformations that characters take – are like an external manifestation of what’s going on inside their brains, or what’s inside their personal lives.
So it’s as symbolic as it is anything else.
Yeah. In Black Hole, there’s not one symptom of the Teen Plague. It’s very unique for each character. So, you have Chris – who is one of the main characters – who is literally slipping out of her skin like a snake. You know, when you are at that age you are trying to reinvent yourself, and you are trying to slip out of your life, and transform into something else.
I’ve read that you actually drew on real people from your adolescence for characters in Black Hole.
I probably drew more from myself than anyone. There are characters in there that I’m certainly basing on friends that I had. But I’m not really doing them justice – you know, their personalities or anything. They are more about myself – certainly situations that I found myself in. But I’ve had people ask me, “Where did you grow up? Did you grow up in Minneapolis? Because that’s exactly what we did! We went out to the woods and smoked dope!”
Is that why it’s set in the mid-’70s?
It’s set in the ’70s because it’s about adolescence, and that’s the time period that I would be able to talk about with some authority. I am drawing from a very specific time period in my life, and reflecting on that.
That time period is interesting to me, too, because it’s after the fall of ’60s idealism. There are the trappings of hippie culture still there. There’s the music and the drugs, but there’s this lack of idealism that kind of fueled the original intake of drugs and LSD, and the whole idea of sexual freedom.
In Black Hole, you really take the awkwardness and confusion of adolescence to real extremes, and yet it’s also realistic in a strange way.
I had done a couple of short pieces that dealt with this whole idea of a Teen Plague. And I like thinking about adolescence as this disease that you suffer through, and that it affects people in different ways. It was an idea that I had played around with, and I kept coming back to it. I really wanted to delve into the characters in a way that I hadn’t done in other stories, thinking of the characters in a much more personal way.
For me it was just a matter of wanting to explore that period of my life. I honestly felt like this alien creature at that time.
Did you imagine this from the beginning as it ended up in its final form?
It changed, but I certainly had it all laid out as far as like the structure goes. What made it interesting was having that structure, but then finding interesting solutions to telling the story. I had a huge amount of notes and continued to elaborate on those notes over the time I was working on it. I just found better ways of telling the story. But the structure was all there.
When you work on something over such a long period, how does the need for consistency affect your growth as an artist?
One thing that was good – and the reason it took 10 years – is that I could work very slowly. And as a paying job, comics aren’t going to do it. So I would be starting and stopping on the comics to do other illustrations – commercial work – to pay the bills and then go back to my comics. In a way, that was actually helpful to have those breaks between working on the comics because I’d have a chance to step back and examine it with fresh eyes. There was never pressure to crank something out. It really was just this personal work that slowly unfolded over a period of time.
One of the differences between prose and comics is that there is something concrete about comics. Once you create that page, it feels very solid. There certainly are comic writers that go back and edit their work extensively, but for me most of the editing was really worked out beforehand. It was really a lot of trial and error.
You seem to have a special working relationship with McSweeney’s and The Believer.
It’s very strange, not a typical magazine assignment. [The Believer] approached me to do all their covers. They were putting out a magazine that they very intentionally did not want to look like anything that existed on the news stand. It was a literary magazine. It’s also interesting for me just to go through the process of looking at all of this reference material, the photographs, and come up with a portrait. That in itself is kind of an enjoyable thing, an exercise to try to work through.
It seems that your particular generation of comics artists is the first to reach mainstream readers en masse. Unlike the earlier individual successes of Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, this seems more like a movement getting across.
This work takes a long, long time to create. There certainly was a kind of vacuum after Spiegelman came out with Maus. There was suddenly this opening of people’s eyes to the fact that you can do very significant, novel-length comics. But if you were interested in another book like Maus, what was there? There were a few books that came out. But they didn’t have that kind of feel that when you sit down and read a nice big solid novel. I think slowly there is now just enough really good, interesting material that has been coming out regularly.
The quality of the books coming out has opened people’s minds that it’s something that they can find in their bookstore and pick up – instead of waiting 10 years for something else to come out. In the last few years, there’s just been a consistent amount of really interesting work.