June 12th, 2011
Chris Burnham. Interviewed. By us. Screaming. Nuff said.
- But enough about you, Chris. Were you familiar with our site already, or did you google your name?
- How is that, the googling?
- A year or so ago, no-one had heard of you (think this was roughly when Officer Downe/Amory Wars started) can you fill us in a bit on the extended background to yr stratospheric rise?
- You must be aware of the standard fan criticism by now – Quitely gets it too – the thing about how they don’t like the way you draw faces. Does it get to you that so many fans have such a completely narrow view of what comic art should and could be (i.e. Alex Ross)?
- Further to that, you seem to be a guy who speaks his mind – do you ever worry you’ll struggle with the level of diplomacy expected from a creator in your position? Can you even answer that…..?
- You’ve been described in one or two places as being a very ‘post-Quitely’ artist. Is that a label you accept, do you think FQ has wrung a significant change to the way comics are drawn?
- There’s an, errr, *illustrative* quality to your style – do you think it’s important for comic art to experiment and branch out in different directions?
- So who – and what – are your biggest influences?
- How do you see the current bat-tonality? What do you add to it? You certainly don’t seem to be from the grrrty camp – too much love for those psychedelic scenes….
- How much are you adding? Was Elly in the script? The giant penny? The moebius-y guy in issue four? I only ask because you seem like an artist, like Fairbairn (get over here and let us interview you, Fairbairn!), who really wants to bring something to the party. Engaged.
- Time for you to ruin my fan-wank time. Are those really storage tubes for bat costumes in the Wayne Tower lobby?
- Have you actually, you know, met that Grant Morrison bloke yet? We all know he’s a bit rubbish with the artists, but you’re a guy we think he should keep sweet….
- What other comics do you read, you don’t seem like a standard superhero fanboy?
- Obviously, as a relatively new starlet in the comics firmament you must have some unfulfilled ambitions yet – what are they?
Heh. I think I got a Google Alert about it, though I may have been directed here by Cameron Stewart. Either way, I’d been to the site before for your MorrisoNotations. I seriously love this Grant Morrison stuff. The other night I was the second or third person in the world to read Batman Incorporated #7. Pretty awesome to still be able to geek out over something that you’ve been slaving over.
My girlfriend set me up with some Google Alerts so I’m no longer distracted by googling myself every half hour when a new issue comes out. Sadly, Twitter has filled that void. That shit is as bad as Bejeweled Blitz. If you told me that all this addictive distraction stuff was an evil Chinese conspiracy to destroy the productivity of the Weak-Willed West I would totally believe you. Internet’s been pretty nice to me, actually. Not nearly as much “poor man’s Quitely” as I was expecting.
Man, for a stratospheric rise this shit took a long time! I’m 33! I should be raising the dead by now! ;D
Let’s see… a quick blow-by-blow of my career to this point…
In 2002 I moved to Chicago to be the graphic designer for an up & coming theatre company, The House Theatre of Chicago. For six or seven years I designed all their posters, postcards, trading cards, print ads, t-shirts, web sites etc. To promote an upcoming play about a pulpy superhero named Valentine, we put out a 12-page ashcan comic book. In lieu of payment, The House gave me 500 copies to do with as I pleased, and at the Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Chicago shows of 2003 I handed them out to every professional I could find. Every comic gig I’ve ever gotten traces back to this ashcan. I’ve never ever ever gotten a gig from sample pages. That shit is a waste of fucking time, kids. Just go out and make your thing.
Valentine: The Safe Cracker’s Tale
… I just tried typing out a description of every gig and it was taking forever. I write less and less and in the last year or two have utterly lost that ability. Hell, in college I used to write 25 page papers in one night.
I have no idea how I was ever able to do that. Let’s do kind of a cause & effect chart, instead. This would work better as a graphic, but I think this gets the basic idea across. Comicwise, my career’s taken a fairly linear path, and there’s only been a couple forks in the road. The only gigs I’ve gotten that didn’t come directly out of doing something specific were Days Missing, where I’d been buddies with the editor and Amory Wars, which my agent got me. Speaking of Amory, that was a huge game-changer for me. I’d never had to draw a page a day before. It’s an absolute shit ton of work, but without the belief and knowledge that I could do it I’d never have been able to handle Batman.
The Amory Wars vol. 3 #2
Kolchak: Tales of the Night Stalker #3
Valentine -> Comiculture Magazine: Suffer the Salt
Valentine -> Elephantmen #s 9, 16, 23-25 -> Nixon’s Pals -> Fear Agent #21 -> X-Men: Divided We Stand -> X-Men: Manifest Destiny -> Marvel Mystery 70th Anniversary Special
… Cumulative -> Days Missing #2
… Cumulative -> Amory Wars
… Nixon’s Pals -> Officer Downe -> Batman & Robin #16 -> Batman Inc
Days Missing #2
Also, while one thing leads to another, I hope it’s clear that each of these projects stands on its own merits and shouldn’t just be seen as a stepping stone.
Non comics-wise, I’ve had a bunch of weird jobs. Comics didn’t really pay the bills on a regular basis until just a few years ago, so I had to take whatever non-soul crushing work I could find. I was an assistant animator on cereal commercials, a graphic designer, an animator for the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks Jumbotron races, a beer bottle concept artist, a theatrical designer… all sorts of things. Looking back, it probably would have been easier to just be a waiter. Next life!
Aw, it’s alright. I can relate. As a kid I used to hate Jack Kirby because he wasn’t realistic enough. A few years ago I hated George Perez because his panel borders didn’t line up perfectly. I’m sure right now I’ve got an irrational distaste for something I’ll love in 10 years. If they don’t like my scribbles, there’s a million other books out there for them to enjoy. Hopefully I’ll still be around if and when they warm up to me.
Wait a minute… did you just trick me into comparing myself to Jack Kirby and George Perez? Man, fuck you guys! ;D
Ha! Boy, have you ever got MY number! I certainly have a big mouth and it’s gotten me in a fair share of trouble. Nothing major, but I’ve created my fair share of uncomfortable moments for myself. You know the expression “If you’re in a hole, stop digging”? Whoever coined that phrase was a goddamn moron. If you’re stuck in a hole and the only tool you’ve got is a shovel the ONLY way to get out is to KEEP digging!
That said, I’m trying to be better about it. I noticed a precipitous drop in Twitter followers when I went on a tear about the Big Bang Theory being Amos & Andy for geeks. And while losing Twitter followers certainly isn’t the end of the world, there’s probably a good chance that they won’t be buying my comics anymore, either. I love Phil Spector’s music so much that he could have killed every woman in California and I’d still listen to his music, but if I would have heard about his crimes first, I don’t think I’d ever have listened to a single song. Hell, I think people that didn’t like Speed Racer shouldn’t be allowed to procreate, much less have their comics purchased, and I’m sure there are people that feel the same way about whatever opinion I’m shouting at any given time.
And while I don’t want to feel like my opinions are being held hostage, I’m just not sure there’s anything to be gained for talking trash, no matter how much I love doing it. I dunno. Mom was probably right with the old “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I’ve definitely come across a couple guys trashing my Batman art, and I’ve gotta admit it stings. The golden rule applies. If I don’t like some asshole saying I suck, I probably shouldn’t say anyone else sucks. (except for that asshole. Fair game on that fucking prick)
BUT, since I’m literally thinking about comics and how to make them all day long, sometimes I’ll read something so egregiously WRONG that I feel a deep compulsion to yell about it… the truth MUST be told! Maybe these letterers don’t know how shitty they are at perspective! Maybe these artists don’t realize that photo backgrounds look like shit! Maybe these editors don’t realize that filling up the first page of a superhero comic with horribly designed rambling text summaries should earn them atomic wedgies so powerful their children won’t be able to shit right. Heh.
I’m on a couple of pro-only message boards where the guys can blow off steam about whichever popular piece of shit is pissing us off at any given time. Pretty therapeutic. The negative comments go into the private message boards, positive ones go on Twitter.
Well there’s no doubt that Quitely is a big influence on my art. As far as “post-Quitely” goes, I don’t think I’m there yet. If people’s first thought when they look at my art is “Huh. Looks kinda like Frank Quitely” then I haven’t fully absorbed it and made it my own.
I see a lot more page-width panels in comics these days, but that’s probably as much due to Warren Ellis as it is to Quitely and Cassaday. There’s a couple other guys out there using similar styles to me, my Ten Ton Studio-mates Aaron Kuder and Nick Pitarra come to mind, and that Raphael Grampa guy is a great Quitely / Paul Pope mashup at the moment. Huh… I wonder if he keeps drawing the same way if we’ll just stop referring to the Quitely thing and let him stand on his own merits. Is the artist the one that has to assimilate or is it the reader? Huh. I dunno.
Did that make ANY sense?
Hmm… I’m not sure I agree, or maybe I don’t quite understand what you mean by “illustrative.” To me, illustrations are meant to stand on their own, whereas each of my panels are designed with the surrounding panels in mind. But, to answer the second part, yes it’s important for artists (or me, at least) to keep experimenting, if only to stay engaged. Most of my favorite panels were ones where I was trying something new. One thing that comes to mind with my own art is that for the last few issues I’ve been actively choosing simpler perspectives… not to save time but for ease of reading. I love drawings with crazy perspective, but for the average panel it’s not necessary and can actually be distracting. I’m currently doing a lot more 1 and 2 point perspective and trying to keep the horizon line at the eye-height of the person in the panel that I most want the reader to identify with.
Batman Inc #4
On issue 4 of Inc, however, I was enamored with these “super tangents” where I would draw these angled panels and have the perspective of the rooms IN the panels be in allignment with the panels themselves. Along with that I was doing a lot of shared vanishing points, where the secondary vanishing points of one panel would be the primary vanishing point in another… not sure if it was adding anything to the reading experience, but it definitely kept me engaged as an artist. There’s only so many ways to draw an over-the-shoulder shot of someone looking at a computer screen, so I like to try and come up with different ideas to keep myself fresh.
At the moment, the Quitely thing is still in the forefront. Just the other night I drew a great face that I was really proud of for a second before I realized it was totally a Quitely face. Goddamnit. (sidebar – I watched Zombieland the other night, and from certain angles Woody Harrelson looks exactly like Quitely’s Superman). When I drew the first Elephantmen story I was doing a Moebius / Ladronn sort of thing with some Caniff thrown in. Quitely’s clearly got a strong Moebius influence to his art, so when I started looking more at Quitely it got sucked in pretty quickly. Artistic capillary action or something.
The Black Hat & Golem from Popgun vol. 3
As you’ll see in Batman Inc #7, Tetsuo Hara (the Fist of the North Star guy) is starting to have a bigger influence on my art these days, and I see Doug Mahnke and Art Adams shining through once in a while. On a deeper level there’s a lot of Jack Kirby, Walt Simonson & Erik Larsen in there.
There’s a solid bedrock of John Buscema via How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. A fair amount of Jim Starlin. And to be honest there’s a lot of McFarlane, Liefeld, Sam Kieth and the rest of the Image gang in there. A few years ago I was reading McFarlane’s Spider-Man #6, and I realized that every cloaked figure I’ve drawn for the past 20 years was based on his Hobgoblin. Weird.
There’s a million other artists I’m forgetting to mention. I love MC Escher’s creativity. Frank Lloyd Wright, Piet Mondrian & Mignola strongly influenced how I used to do my panel compositions, but they’re not as appropriate for the way Morrison’s scripts read.
X-Men: Manifest Destiny #1
Sam Raimi and Stanley Kubrick for composition. Lucio Fulci, Tom Savini, and Lloyd Kaufman for gore.
I like the way Katsuhiro Otomo will zoom in to a little action to make the surrounding actions more impressive. BIG BIGGER little BIGGEST works really well.
I dunno. There’s a million. Every time I watch or read something I’ll spot something I want to emulate or avoid. Hopefully I’ll keep finding new stuff to like rather than stewing in the same influences for the rest of my career.
Are you now the main artist on Batman Inc or sort of swapping arcs/intermittent fills for one another with Paquette?
Time and Spaghetti Monster-willing, I’ll be drawing all of Batman:Leviathan (or whatever Batman Inc season 2 ends up being called)
Chris Sims writes a lot about how Batman works really well across so many styles and genres. He’s as awesome big & campy as he is dark & mysterious, and Grant is showing that they’re all side of the same character.
Accordingly, I try and shift my art to an appropriate degree to match whatever’s going on in the scene. If it’s lovey-dovey, I’ll try and be a little more delicate. If someone’s head is getting ripped off I’ll go a little grittier. I don’t have the ability or inclination to do what JH Williams does and completely change his style on a page-by-page basis, but consciously or unconsciously my style adapts to the problem at hand.
My favorite way to work is Marvel style, where the writer gives me a plot with rough page breakdowns (ie 3 pages of this conversation, 2 pages of this fight), I draw the thing how I see fit, and the writer goes in and scripts based on that. Nixon’s Pals and Marvel Mystery (and to a lesser degree, Officer Downe) were done like that, so I’m pretty comfortable with adding things in. Although Grant leaves much of the dialog unwritten, he’s fairly specific in his panel descriptions. Most of the little things are Grant’s. He’s not Alan Moore or anything, but when he’s describing a new character or setting he’ll give a couple paragraphs of description.
Marvel Mystery Comics 70th Anniversary Special #1
Lessee… some examples of stuff I added…
In B & R 16, the only major thing I added was making the dominos be 8-1-8-1-8-1-8-1… HAHAHAHA.
The Moebius guy in issue 4 was Grant’s idea. If you look real close, you’ll see that he actually has the Ourobouros symbol on his chest. Is he just a figment of the drug trip or could there be something more to this…?
As far as the Wayne building goes, Grant just asked for a slick, corporate lobby with a bunch of sculptures & plants, but then went on to describe one of the paintings from the Lichtenstein-esque exhibit from the beginning of Batman & Son. (sidebar: FUCK Roy Lichtenstein) That idea made me think of the Wayne building lobby as being the Brucecave, complete with props from his various corporate adventures. The Batcave is made of stone, the Brucecave is made of glass… it’s even got a crystal stalactites! Just as Grant’s Batman run has been combining various interpretations of Batman into a whole, he’s also more seamlessly combining Bruce Wayne and Batman into one person with a really weird wardrobe closet. Bruce is as powerful and imposing a figure as Batman. Hell, if you flip to the scene in the Batbunker, even with his cowl off, Bruce is still Batmannier than Dick is.
The giant quarter was my idea. Elly was Grant’s. It’s amazing how with just three little one-page appearances he has created an entire character arc for her in the reader’s minds. Amazing. Related to that, I love how he introduces and resolves an entire conspiracy against Commissioner Gordon in one page in that junkyard scene. Amazing. I added the little panel of Gordon looking down at the Bat-badge, less to give him a little character moment then to zoom in on Gordon to give the Bat-team a chance to disappear off-panel.
What else… Damian spitting out the coffee in issue 7 was me. Grant wanted Alfred to have SOME presence in the scene but didn’t think he should have any lines. So I made him exit the room via the ladder having just delivered some coffee to the boys. I liked the scene earlier in the run where Dick likes the sandwich and Damian doesn’t, so I recreated it here. Grant asked for any old message board – I went in and made it look just like the CBR boards for fun.
Regarding the message board avatars, Grant asked for the closeup of the lady’s tummy, the other icons were mine. In almost every comic I’ve drawn over the past 2 or 3 years I’ll include these goofy little Russian Nesting Gleeps on someone’s mantel or bookshelf. I couldn’t find a place for them in this issue so I just straight up drew Gloop and Gleep (from the Herculoids) here.
Heh. On the Nightrunner running on the car page, no one seems to have noticed the totally stereotypical Frenchman with the striped shirt, moustache and beret I put in the red car.
Oh! To toot my own horn a little here, on panel 5 of the Black Bat page, Grant’s script just had the cloud of heroin being dumped out of the helicopter. To give the reader a chance of understanding what that cloud was without reading the dialogue, I went in and drew a gazillion bricks of heroin in panels 3 and 4.
Although I typically don’t find Grant’s comics as confusing as a lot of readers do, I’m really trying to go above and beyond in order to make them as easy to follow as I can. One thing I did in this issue as much as possible was put scene and time transitions on separate tiers to help the reader immediately realize that even though we’re still on the same page, we’re now in a different time or location. This obviously necessitated me doing a lot of Quitely-esque page-wide panels, whereas I typically prefer to do a lot of weird panel stacking.
The big double page spread was Grant’s idea. I spent an entire day thumbnailing this thing in a gazillion different ways. It was all pretty specifically spelled out by Grant. I think the only thing I added was moving the Batman Japan bit from panel 7 to panel 6 and adding shoji doors and tatami mats to the background to try & sell the Japanity of it.
So…. long story short, it’s mostly Grant.
If they were bat-costumes they’d have little bat ears/horns. They’re supposed to be suits of armor like Wayne has in Batman (1989). But they can be whatever you want, I guess.
I exchange emails with his wife Kristan, and he talks to me in the scripts, but that’s about it.
Well, I actually love me some superhero stuff. I’m as continuity-obsessed as anyone, and I’m diving through the back issue bins with the rest of the punters every Wednesday and at every convention (did I use “punters” properly?) I guess my proportion of superhero books has decreased in the last couple of years, but every couple of months I’ll get re-obsessed with a character or storyline and be right back in it.
I’m sure I’m leaving some things out, but in no particular order I read… all the Hellboy & BPRD books, Hickman’s FF and SHIELD, Brubaker & Philips’ Criminal & Incognito, Casanova, Scalped, the Bat-books & Green Lantern books, and a lot of Image books: Savage Dragon, Chew, Orc Stain, Invincible, Walking Dead, Super Dinosaur, etc.
Back issue and collection-wise, I’m pretty obsessed with ’80s 2000AD. Dreddy, Strontium Dog, Rogue Trooper, Sam Slade, Nemesis, ABC, Slaine… I really dig most of it. And I’ve recently re-ignited my manga love. 20th Century Boys is fucking outstanding. Getter Robo, Fist of the North Star, Violence Jack, Riki-Oh, & Outlanders are some of the other stuff I’ve been reading or rereading lately.
Writing and drawing my own weird thing, I guess. If you read my last couple of 24-hour comics you’ll get a pretty good idea of the sort of nonsense I’d like to do if left to my own devices.
2010′s Snake Punch – http://www.tentonstudios.com/webcomics/snakepunch/
2007′s I Have 24 Hours to Live http://www.tentonstudios.com/webcomics/burnham24/
This year, Ryan Browne, (creator of God Hates Astronauts – http://www.godhatesastronauts.com ) and I are planning on teaming up to do two 24-hour comics in parallel. What the hell does THAT mean?
We don’t know either! Stay tuned!
Cheers, Chris, it’s been a treat.
To read our Batmannotations click here . If you’ve never read ‘em before go see what all the fuss is about.