by Giaco Furino
"Black Ink, White Paper" Lecture at the ICA
Charles Burns, cartoonist, writer and illustrator of such graphic novel works as Big Baby, El Borbah, Skin Deep and Black Hole, presented “Black Ink, White Paper” on UPenn’s campus. The event, in conjunction with the ICA, was a lecture in which he “discusses his own work and that of R. Crumb.” (from www.icaphila.com). Though little mention was made to the work of the (in)famous R. Crumb (who’s retrospective “R. Crumb’s Underground” is on display at the Institute until December 7th), I found Burns’ lecture on his influences, practices and projects compelling and wildly informative.
Charles Burns’ iconic style and use of thick, ominous shadow consistently casts itself over the graphic novel genre. If you’ve seen his work once, you’ll never miss it again. His characters often look nervous, edgy, biting lips or staring apprehensively. His scenery looks winter-tired, worn down, and lived in. Charles Burns has, over the past decade (and more), been carving his name into the subconscious of American comic book art, and his magnum opus, Black Hole, took the genre by storm.
If you’ve grown up a generation X’er, Y’er, or are a (terribly named) Millennial, you’ve probably seen the work of Charles Burns. Maybe you’ve seen his work in the comic world where, along with his feature titles, he’s contributed to Art Spiegelman’s (Maus) comic magazine RAW. Or perhaps you’ve seen his work on television, where his comic Dogboy was adapted for MTV’s Liquid Television and where he’s just finished contribution to the film Fear(s) of the Dark. If none of that sounds familiar to you, then there’s still a good chance his work has seeped into your subconscious via pop culture, like his cover art for Iggy Pop’s Brick by Brick, or his work on Coca Cola’s failed soda line OK Soda (remember that?). Such is the work of Charles Burns, dark and brooding while remaining honest and charming, and seemingly everywhere at once.
The lecture took place in Meyerson Hall on UPENN campus, and the high occupancy lecture hall quickly filled with a mix of comic fans, curious students, and outside appreciators. Burns came with PowerPoint in tow and used it fabulously, projecting big, bright, vivid pictures onto the screen. The lecture focused, primarily, on his influences and the process he went through to get to where he is today.
One of the aspects that I found most insightful as a fan and follower of his work was his explanation of what inspires him visually. The laundry list of sources that have influenced his work were so direct that I was guessing how they affected his illustrations before he even commented. Steve Ditko-era Spider-man illustrations reflected the way he drew humans, especially women. Collections of his father’s collages of women in comics, arranged by the percentage of their face shown on the panel, helped in painting the picture.
Perhaps most intriguing was the way in which a Tintin comic’s inclusion of a voice bubble coming from a circular telecom confused him as a child. Before he could read, this circle on a wall speaking to Tintin was simply a disembodied mouth. Black Hole dealt, in some detail, with a character with a second mouth on the middle of his neck. These connections, brought forth by Burns, illustrate the myriad of ways an artist finds his inspiration. Which was, as a side effect, rather inspiring.
Finally, Burns led the group through his recent and upcoming projects. The audience was treated to production stills from his contribution to Fear(s), including pre-3D rendering, post 3D-rendering, flattening and shadowing. I’ve yet to see Fear(s) of the Dark, but the thought of an all black and white, mainly 2D animated horror film now seems too great a treat to pass up. We also saw slides from his newest work, a currently untitled full color comic (he’s calling it Nitnit because of its likeness to the Belgian boy hero), which sheds his shadow-heavy aesthetic for heavy, lush color.
Before the end of the lecture he opened the floor to questions. He confirmed that David Fincher (Fight Club) is in talks to direct a film adaptation of Black Hole and commented on making the transition from black and white to color in his comics. Throughout the lecture we learned what influences him, what makes him tick, what keeps him interested. All in all, this was an incredibly in-depth look at the underlying influences to Charles Burns’ body of work, and his friendly and communicable manner delivered the information with conversational ease.
[Giaco Furino is a poet and writer living and working in Philadelphia. His poetry has appeared in Main Channel Voices, The Mid Atlantic Poetry Review, and various litmags from The University of the Arts, his alma mater.]