Q&A with Charles Burns

The graphic novel legend talks to Cult about his latest book The Hive, Black Hole movie rumours and the enduring appeal of Tintin.

Panel from Charles Burns’ The Hive.

You may know Charles Burns’ high-contrast, often die-cut imagistic style from a variety of places: he’s the in-house portraitist for The Believer, and he’s illustrated everything from punk rock album art to New Yorker covers to Coca-Cola ads. His decade-long anthologized black and white comic project Black Hole, about a community of teens afflicted by a sexually transmitted disease causing mutations, is a graphic novel cult classic. He’s the rare artist who, over a career spanning 30 years, has managed to work in the broadest possible range of creative fields, without ever sacrificing the dark weirdness that first won the loyalty of his underground fanbase — in the press, the word “creepy” still follows him like a shadow.

Self-portrait by Charles Burns.
His latest major project is a trilogy, which began with 2010’s X’ed Out and continues with the recently released second installment, The Hive. The series follows a young artist named Doug as he attempts to work through mysterious traumatic events from his past, while increasingly sliding into a parallel world, the hive, through a portal in his bedroom. There, he is just “Nitnit,” a menial drudge worker — a reversal of “Tintin,” star of the Hergé series whose aesthetic informs Doug’s subterranean fantasy world.

Burns’ slippery layered realities and patchy narrative are executed in numerous linear styles to evoke parallel imaginative plans; the bright, meticulously drafted book is one enthralling but sinister mindfuck.

The artist graciously took a few minutes to talk to Cult by phone from Philadelphia about what it all means.

Emily Raine: I have to ask first: in the third installment of this series, Sugar Skull, will some of the mysteries be solved? I feel like I had more questions at the end of The Hive than I did at the beginning.

Charles Burns: That’s probably good. But yes, I think all the major plot threads should be dealt with. I don’t think every question will be answered, but most of them I would say.

ER: So when you conceived the story, you had a strong sense of where it was going over its arc, rather than each installment kind of being its own piece.

CB: I did have a strong sense. I had my beginning, middle and end, and I knew the general plot, but it was open enough for me to add things, to let certain elements grow as I was working on it. That’s usually the part of working that’s enjoyable and motivates me.

ER: Hergé’s influence on The Hive’s aesthetic is clear, but Doug or Nitnit seems so passive in the story compared to Tintin.

CB: Well, the connections there with Hergé’s series of Tintin books is not anything to do with these characters, per se. They’re books that I grew up with and internalized when I was really young, but my story certainly isn’t like, “oh, here’s a dark anti-Tintin” or anything like that. It’s taking some kinds of pictorial elements and some of the internalized ideas from those books, but nothing specifically to do with those characters.

The characters are a reflection of myself. So maybe I’m just that passive person. But there’s not that direct link, that direct character link with Hergé stories. There’s no real adventure going on, necessarily. And there’s women in my stories; there are no women in Hergé stories. You don’t ever see the mom in my stories, but there’s a father; my character does have a family, he does have girlfriends.

ER: I read that you in some way see this series as being about your life in the punk movement in San Francisco in the ’70s, so I was kind of wondering how that works in The Hive. I mean, did you have a portal like that in your room, or…?

CB: Well, the characters reflect what I was going through in the late ’70s, ’77 to probably ’79. With the three books, it’s in the late ’70s and spills over into the early ’80s. But yeah, I was an art student, I did make a cardboard house and take photographs of my naked girlfriend wearing that. So there are certainly elements of the story that are based on reality. I did bad performance art.

Panel from The Hive.

ER: Comics themselves are almost a character in the story.

CB: Yeah, there’s a lot of layers there. I like the idea of playing with those kinds of elements. I grew up reading comics. Some that were good, like Hergé’s Tintin, and I had those before I could even read. They had a huge impact on me. And then I also read whatever was available, so pretty mainstream stuff that came out, products like superhero stuff when I was a little older, and then reading underground comics by the time I was in high school.

When I was starting to be interested in sex and drugs, there were comics that were out there that started to reflect some of those same interests. But I bought stacks of romance comics for my girlfriend around that time period, and she would look at the fashion tips, these ’60s fashion tips. They were good. I actually genuinely like those comics, some of the romance comics. There’s something about them, a look at American life. There’s something about the idea of middle-aged men writing these stories for 10-year-old girls that’s intriguing too.

ER: How do you respond to the word “creepy” being applied to your work?

CB: You know, I can’t help how people respond, or what words they write to describe it. I understand why that is, I understand why those sorts of words are used. It’s not my intention to be creepy per se, or that’s not the reason I’m writing stories. I think they end up being whatever they are. Maybe I’m just a creepy guy, I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m drawn specifically to those kinds of stories, or why my personality is the way it is, but it’s there, and I’m intrigued by these things. And then also, as I said, it’s a reflection on things that I went through, some pretty dark things at that time in my life.

ER: Well, clearly people are responding to it.

CB: I think that what people are responding to is maybe an aesthetic. It’s not just seen as some kind of exploitive storytelling, or something that’s done for titillation, or done just to spook you or scare you. It’s something else.

ER: Finally, whatever happened to the Black Hole movie? There were rumours for years, and then…

CB: Well, you know, it’s Hollywood, and that world is completely out of my control. As it is right now, I periodically hear some update, and the powers that be are moving forward as we speak. I don’t know. Who knows? It’s Hollywood. Maybe something will get made. ■

Charles Burns is participating in a panel discussion with Chris Ware and Adrien Tomine to celebrate the Drawn & Quarterly Store’s five-year anniversary on Sunday, Nov. 11, Ukrainian Federation (5213 Hutchison), 7 p.m., $5

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