INTERVIEW BY DARCY SULLIVAN
THE COMICS JOURNAL #148 - FEBRUARY 1992
juncture of fiction and memory, of cheap thrills and
horror, lies the dark world of Charles Burns' art. His
stories, appearing in alternative comics such as RAW
since the early 1980s, take comic book cliches -
wiseacre kids, sinister scientists and tough-as-nails
detectives - and rearrange them into disturbing yet
funny patterns. Beneath this interplay of familiar
iconography lurks the real traumas of childhood, traumas
of loss and alienation.
Similarly, Burns' ice-cold artwork polishes a
"conventional" comics look to the nth degree,
underlining the artificiality of what we take for
normal. At times, Burns' work suggests that our worst
fears about mainstream comics are true: that they are
stamped out by machines programmed by someone who is
slowly going insane.
Recently, Burns has branched out, becoming one of
independent comics' most notable writer/artists. He
helped design a ballet based on The Nutcracker, did a
cover for Time and produced a nightmarish cover for
Iggy Pop's album Brick By Brick. He has also steered
his unusual weekly comic strip into new markets,
exposing hordes of unsuspecting readers to the joys of
demented deities, inadvertent sex-change operations
and dead kids who won't stay dead.
Charles Burns lives in Philadelphia with his wife,
painter Susan Moore, and their two young daughters.
It's a cliche, but Burns does seem jovial and
down-to-earth, not at all the lost soul his stories
might suggest. At the same time, he shies away from
deconstructing his art; as he makes clear, he would
prefer that readers delve beneath his work's seductive
- DARCY SULLIVAN
EDITED BY DARCY SULLIVAN, FRANK YOUNG AND SCOTT
DARCY SULLIVAN: You were born in
Wasn't your Dad a serviceman?
CHARLES BURNS: He was an oceanographer, working for
the government. I can't describe much about his job.
SULLIVAN: Did you move around much?
BURNS: Yeah... I spent a majority of time growing up
in Seattle. Before that, I lived in Boulder, Colorado,
Maryland and Missouri.
SULLIVAN: How old were you when you settled in
BURNS: Fifth grade, I guess. Somewhere around 1965.
SULLIVAN: What kind of place was Seattle to grow up
in? BURNS: Well, I was lucky enough to have kind of a
nice neighborhood with woods around. I wasn't living
downtown - suburbs isn't the right word, but it was
the nice part of town.
SULLIVAN: Did your Mom work, too?
BURNS: No, she didn't.
SULLIVAN: Did you have brothers and sisters?
BURNS: I have one older sister, three years older than
SULLIVAN: When did you get interested in comics?
BURNS: As far back as I can remember. Before I could
read; I just liked picking up stuff. My father also
had an interest in them, and would bring back books
from the library, anthologies of Pogo and Li'l Abner,
that kind of stuff. I would look at them and somehow
they struck a chord. He had the paperback anthologies
of the early Kurtzman MAD, so that had an effect on
me. Also, very early on, I had very early American
editions of Herge's Tintin. They must have been fairly
obscure, because I don't hear too many people talking
SULLIVAN: Were your parents pretty encouraging of your
reading that type of thing; did they mind at all?
BURNS: They weren't encouraging, but they weren't
discouraging. I would be able to look at stuff that I
wanted to, for the most part, and not have it thought
of as trash that should be thrown out. I mean, I had
friends who, if a comic book was in the house, it got
thrown out. The backlash from the '50s was still
present. And I remember my father kind of checking out
what I was bringing home. But there wasn't really much
that you could buy that was deviant.
SULLIVAN: Were there any kinds of comics they frowned
BURNS: Later on, in the early '60s, I picked up the
old monster magazines. They didn't frown on them, but
they were like, "Ecch, maybe you have too many of
these:" It wasn't any big deal. If they were
concerned, they didn't make it that clear to me. I
could pretty much get what I wanted to.
SULLIVAN: What type of stuff were you buying?
BURNS: By the time I started buying stuff myself, it
was just the normal fare. MAD magazine and superhero
stuff like Batman and whatever was out there. I would
look for anything that looked cool. And at the time,
there wasn't that much.
SULLIVAN: Did you read Creepy and Eerie?
BURNS: Yeah, later I read that stuff, too. I think I
had one issue of Creepy or something like that torn
up, but that was the extent of it. "I don't want you
reading this garbage!"
SULLIVAN: How about the schlocky reprint books that
were often quite gory? Like Weird?
BURNS: I had friends who bought those, but I was kind
of repelled by those. Now I find some occasionally and
I can enjoy them for whatever they are, but back then
I thought my friends didn't have any taste. You know,
"This isn't the good stuff."
SULLIVAN: Did you have an appreciation of artists at
BURNS: Oh, yeah; absolutely. There was a look, a style
of artwork that I liked. The things that affected me
the most were the reprints in MAD. They really blew me
away - looking at Bill Elder's stuff and how
everything was thrown in deep shadow, how it was put
together. There was, for me, this very creepy
atmosphere. You look at it now and it's lighthearted
and funny, but back then it seemed kind of creepy. I
always liked the atmosphere of it. In a way, you get
affected more by the atmosphere of [Elder's] strips
than by the way he drew a face or anything like that.
SULLIVAN: Were there superhero artists that you
BURNS: I wasn't so aware of that. I always liked the
kind of bad Bob Kane Batman - the shading and the
shadowy characters. I always liked the cartoony stuff
rather than the more serious, more realistic look.
SULLIVAN: How about artists in the newspaper strips?
BURNS: I don't remember being affected that much. I
really liked Chester Gould's Dick Tracy. That was one