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Features / Illustration

Inside The Sugar Skull: Charles Burns on punk rock, art school and why he won’t draw his mid-life crisis

First published in Printed Pages Spring 2015

Words by

James Cartwright

The trouble with asking probing questions of commercial illustrators is that they leave few clues to their inner life within client work. If you review the past decade of illustrator Charles Burns’ portraits for McSweeney’s literary journal The Believer you’ll find out little about his passions and motivations, formative experiences or emotional hang-ups. You’ll just get a sense that he’s really good at drawing. But pick up any one of his numerous graphic novels or serialised strips and the workings of his brain spill out to be pored over and dissected, serving up all the ammunition needed for an hour-long interview.

Charles is a cult figure in the world of comics illustration. His meticulous working process and ultra-polished imagery have served as inspiration for a swathe of kids keen to try their hand at making pictures for a living – myself included. He’s often aped but never bettered, particularly when it comes to his storytelling; the dark, psychedelic complexities of which seem to resonate with a much broader cross-section of society than you might think. His masterwork Black Hole – an explicit coming-of-age story focussed on a gang of mutant teens in the woods – is now taught internationally on undergraduate English Literature courses, and recently featured prominently in Hollywood blockbuster Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (the protagonist’s son reads it to a giant orangutan and they become pals). But mainstream acceptance has only made his storylines darker and more bizarre.

As I reach the climax of his latest work of fiction, Sugar Skull, I’m preoccupied with an interview I’ve read in which he mentions there are autobiographical elements in the book. What part of this is autobiographical I wonder? Not the jilted girlfriend – he doesn’t seem the type; not the crippling chemical dependency – nobody with that heavy a drug habit could keep their shit together long enough to write a whole comic; and it sure as hell can’t be the egg-laying humanoid women or the foul-mouthed lizard men – I don’t think I have to explain why that’s not possible. Based on the content of these books it’s easy to picture the author as some kind of depraved madman, churning out works of high-school horror from his North American lair. But in truth he’s quiet and affable, happy to chat at length about his life and work with a level of introspection that shows he’s long been comfortable in his own skin.

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Black Hole

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Black Hole

As we talk it transpires that Sugar Skull is autobiographical in the loosest sense; the final instalment of a trilogy intended as a literal exploration of his involvement with the 1970s punk scene that developed into something altogether darker and more surreal. “My initial idea was to do a story that dealt with a specific time in my life,” he says. “I lived in California and was involved in the whole punk scene as it emerged in San Francisco in around ’77 or ’78 – and I was an art student. But then it turned into something not so much about punk and not so much about art school, just about these characters.”

X’ed Out, The Hive and Sugar Skull all focus on Doug, a photography major who’s struggling to navigate his life at art school, a relationship with a new girlfriend and an incessant bout of fever dreams in which those obnoxious lizard men play a pivotal role. Sounds simple enough, but Charles also folds complex paternal relationships, violent sexual histories and addiction into the mix, complicating things further by having the characters leap forward and backward in time and from the real world to the imaginary in a matter of panels. It’s heavy going stuff, but extremely rewarding reading.

“There were people at a recent book signing that were waiting for all three books to come out so they could read them together, or weren’t aware that there were previous books in the series. There’s no real guide or explanation in any of the books; at the end of X’ed Out and The Hive it just says ‘Next:,’ and at the end of Sugar Skull it just says ‘The End’. If you’re stepping into it in the middle it might be kinda difficult.”

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Sugar Skull

He’s not wrong. Accidentally picking up The Hive without prior knowledge of the trilogy is a bewildering experience, and one that Charles is keen to exploit. At one point he teases the reader by mirroring their confusion in his characters; a few pages in, one of them complains of being lost in a series of romance comics, unable to find the missing editions to give clarity to the story. “I think that’s just the way my brain works,” says Charles. “Occasionally when I’m trying to tell a story to someone I’ll see this very lost look in their eyes as I’m kind of circling around and slowly making my point. I know what the point is but I think my brain puts together images and words that build up and become more cohesive and clear as I progress.”

Charles grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s in a conservative period of American history. People were morally judgemental, Elvis was controversial, and as far as parents at the time were concerned, comics were going to rot the brains of the nation’s kids. “That was the case in that time period,” says Charles. “I mean, if you wanted to show an illiterate or stupid person in a movie you’d show them reading a comic. Enough said.” Thankfully Charles grew up in a slightly more liberal household, at least where the comics were concerned.

“Between 14 and 15 I was starting to be seduced by underground comics and Robert Crumb’s work, and some of that I’d have to tuck under my coat and smuggle into the house because I didn’t want it to be found.”

By the time Charles made his way to art college in California he’d consumed all manner of comics, alternative and mainstream, and was ready to try his hand at making his own art. “I jumped around between a bunch of schools and I tried a lot. In high-school I knew that drawing was the one thing that I could do – my sense of identity was of being an artist – but I had zero idea about what that would mean or how that would translate and work in the real world. That’s where my brain was at. I had some vague idea that I’d spend four years in college and then when I got out I’d be an artist and make a living. But you slowly figure out that things don’t work that way.”

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Sugar Skull

They didn’t lead to gainful employment immediately, but those years in California gave Charles enough creative stimulation to get his comics career off the ground. After graduation he submitted strips to punk zines and free advertising papers across the US, toting his portfolio around and looking for commercial work. At the same time Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly were launching RAW in New York, gearing up for a revolution in underground comics. Charles saw an open call for submissions to their first issue, set up an interview with Art and was a regular contributor from the inaugural issue onwards. RAW was the first publisher of Charles’ Dog Boy strips – a tale about a young guy with the behavioural tendencies of a dog (ass-sniffing included) – and also served up serialised strips from Art’s Pulitzer prize-winning MAUS. Its effect on the comics landscape was profound and launched the careers of many of the artists it published, including Charles.

But critical success doesn’t make for interesting comics, and Charles still returns to his college days and adolescence for inspiration, providing him with the material for arguably his greatest works of comic fiction. “That was a point in my life when I was figuring out what I wanted to do as an artist. I was doing music, performance art and all kinds of stuff. When you’re seeing Doug get up in front of audiences in X’ed Out, that’s not me exactly – I didn’t have a mask – but I did get up in front of audiences with a tape deck around my neck. It’s based on reality, and that’s something that I used to do.”

I ask how much more of the story is factually accurate, but Charles is reticent. I’ve read elsewhere that he had some horrific experiences in his formative years from which he draws a lot of inspiration, but he’s never discussed them explicitly, and this interview, sadly, will not be the exception. It’s safe to say though, this period of time gave birth to the sinister side of Charles’ work.

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Robert Crumb

“It’s all very personal in the sense that it all comes from me. The stories I’m doing are reflecting what I think about, and unfortunately a lot of those things are not all that positive. When I was in school I grew up with all the psychedelic and the hippie stuff. But then in California it was like the wave had crashed on the shore, and although some of the peace and love and good vibes were still intact, it just seemed really lacking. There was something really refreshing about having a different voice that could acknowledge some of the darker things in the world – maybe acknowledging reality a little bit is what it was; the idea that you weren’t going to be a famous rock star, you were just going to play some music and hang out with your friends. Trying to be honest is the best way to describe it I guess.”

If honesty is what he’s aiming for then Charles is a brave man. His graphic novels to date focus on a range of subjects tied together by a few key themes; a fear of sex, physical and mental transformation, depression, addiction and wrestling with the subconscious – he’s a psychiatrist’s wet dream. Putting those thoughts down on paper would be challenging for anyone, but publishing them for hundreds of thousands to read requires a steady nerve. He’s not always felt comfortable doing that though. Charles admits that earlier in his career he held back some of his darker thoughts. “I don’t look back at my work and disregard earlier things I’ve done, and there are hints of things bubbling up to the surface in some of my older stories, but there was a shift when I became more interested in developing my characters.

“I guess even though I never felt like I was censoring myself, there was an awareness that there were subjects I was uncomfortable writing about or drawing. I’m still uncomfortable about them but I’m pushing myself to put them out there anyway. There are scenes in the recent book where I’m thinking, ‘God, I don’t know if this needs to exist in the world,’ but I guess I’m gonna put it out there anyway. It’s how I navigate the world, or how I navigate my life. It’s how I give myself some sort of self worth.”

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The Hive Poster

Charles turns 60 in September and I wonder if he’s planning to take his foot off the gas. The past decade has been huge for him with the release of Black Hole in 2005 and then the X’ed Out trilogy following in quick succession – all of which received critical acclaim. He’s no longer chasing after commercial jobs, instead focussing all of his energies on making new comics. But does a man of his age really want to spend the rest of his days reflecting on his youth? Perhaps he simply revels in that sense of nostalgia, I suggest. “I don’t know if you’ve read my books,” he jokes, “but I would not say that it’s nostalgia. There’s a level of intensity to what you’re doing and what you’re experiencing at that age. The last ten years of my life have been pretty consistent; I’ve done a range of things but in terms of what I do I’m telling myself there won’t be any more drastic changes. But [when you’re young] you’re stepping off a diving board into something you don’t know, that you don’t understand. So I guess I find myself always looking back in that direction.

“I mean these days I sit in a room for 16 hours a day drawing, so I’m not going to write about that and my mid-life crisis am I? Perhaps I should. I guess I should.” Either way he’s already getting stuck in to a new set of stories.

“As I’m speaking right now I think I’ve got something but, I dunno. I mean the one thing that’s always a little annoying is that I’ve been doing this long enough and I always wonder why it’s so difficult. I should know how to do this by now. But it feels like every time I’m starting a new project I have to figure it out again – which is positive but frustrating. It’s positive in the sense that I’m not just dropping into things that feel comfortable and safe but it’s frustrating in that you’ve got to struggle through that period.

“All of it’s a struggle! All of it’s a struggle and none of it’s fun. One thing that I always ask other cartoonists that I admire is; is it easier for you? And the answer is no. Are you having fun? No. Having fun? No way!”