[As Told To JONATHAN VALANIA]
1. Though born and bred in the high rainy land of the Pacific Northwest, Charles Burns has resided in Philadelphia — Northern Liberties, to be exact — for the past 21 years. “Well, the view out my studio window has changed a bit,” he says, when asked how the ‘hood has evolved over the years. “It used to be homeless guys pushing shopping carts, now it’s mothers pushing strollers.”
2. Mr. Burns is probably the most important graphic novelist of his time. He we would never agree to this, so don’t bring it up if you see him.
3. The monster-fying sex plague afflicting the horndog stoner teens — half-remembered, half-made-up stand-ins for the friends and exploits of his gloriously misspent youth circa mid-70s Seattle — that people the dark core of Black Hole is not really a metaphor for AIDS. But you would be forgiven for thinking so. “I suppose you can’t write a story about a sexually-transmitted disease without somebody asking you that, but really I just put that in to add to the sense of alienation and the desperation of these circumstances. If it’s a metaphor for anything it’s my tormented adolescence.”
4. Mr. Burns thinks women with tails are sexy. And he will make you think so, too. One of the characters in Black Hole is a beautiful and mysterious artist with more than just the usual junk in the trunk. “I think there is something alluring about it,” he says. “From time to time I do get women coming up to me and telling me how they had a tail when they were born.” Fascinating, captain.
5. Mr. Burns is married to Susan Moore, a painter and fine arts professor at Tyler School of Art. She does not have a tail. Together they have two daughters, aged 18 and 21. “Um, yeah, I guess they are grown-ups,” he says when asked for confirmation. “I am still trying to get used to that idea. It just kinda happened.”
6. Mr. Burns has TERRIBLE handwriting — “Even when I try really hard,” he says with mild exasperation — which is odd for one so adept at drawing clean and exacting lines with pen and ink. But as such, it falls to his wife to do all the lettering in his comics. “I had been sweating over a page for hours, trying to get the lettering to look good, and my wife looked at it and said ‘that looks REALLY terrible’, and I said something to the effect of ‘if you think you can do better…’ and she’s been doing it ever since.”
7. It takes a LONG time to make Black Hole. Serialized through the 90s in 32-page comic book installments once or twice a year, Black Hole has since been published in complete book form (just out in paperback!). It took Mr. Burns the better part of a year to finish each 32-page installment. “But that wasn’t working on it all day, every day,” he clarifies. “You see, the comics aren’t really my day job. My day job is being an illustrator.” He is referring to the mesmerizingly weird, yet high-profile illustration work he does for the likes of Time, Coca Cola, The New Yorker, Altoids, The New York Times and The Believer. An admitted insomniac with a fairly tireless work ethic, Mr. Burns often begins his work day at three in the morning.
8. Mr. Burns is very stingy selective with his seal of approval. He is too nice to mention all the bands he declined to draw album covers for, but Iggy Pop is not one of them. “Virgin didn’t have to ask me twice,” says Mr. Burns, an avowed Stooges fan, when asked how he wound up drawing the cover to Iggy’s Brick By Brick. “So basically they were like ‘Do a cover, show it to Iggy and if he likes it we’re done.’ So they give me the address and I go up to New York. Iggy was very nice and normal and it just so happened that Allen Ginsberg was visiting when I showed up. So we all sat around and looked at the cover. Iggy just laughed. I took that as a yes.”
9. He recently finished work on an animated feature-length film called Peur(s) Du Noir (Fears Of The Dark). Mr. Burns is one of six artists (and one of only two Americans) invited by a French production company to write, direct, and shoot a segment of the highly expressionistic film. Peur Du Nour will premier at Sundance later this month. Up until a couple days ago, Mr. Burns was slated to attend the premier but the whole thing turned into a great big time suck, and he’s already well into the follow-up to Black Hole. Besides, not his scene, baby.
10. In closing, Mr. Burns has never killed anyone, has never voted Republican, and does not believe in God. He does recycle, is well-liked by animals and small children, and he went to college with Matt Groening. He is curiously cagey about whether or not the character of Charles Montgomery Burns is in fact named after him. “You’d have to ask Matt,” says Mr. Burns. “But I will say this, one time I was at some public event [with Groening] and somebody in the audience asked that very question. Matt said, ‘You have to ask my lawyer.'”
CHARLES BURNS BOOK SINGINGS:
Friday, January 11 – New York, NY
Barnes & Noble – TriBeCa
270 Greenwich St.
Tuesday, January 15 – Boston, MA
279 Harvard St.
Brookline, MA 02446