Charles Burns is famous for his superb graphic novel Black Hole, which follows a group of teenagers affected by a sexually transmitted disease that causes weird physical mutations. With Fear(s) of the Dark he makes his first foray into film. A collection of black and white animated short films by six illustrators, the film explores deep-rooted anxieties, from attacks by savage beasts to possession and haunting to darkness itself. Done in his characteristic high contrast style, Burns’s contribution tells the disturbing story of a shy young man with an interest in insects whose first relationship with a girl turns into a nightmare. Virginie Sélavy met him in Edinburgh, where the film received its UK premiere.
Virginie Sélavy: How did you get involved with the project?
Charles Burns: I was contacted by a French production company, Prima Linea. It was an ideal situation for me. I had the opportunity to work with a group of people and to have control over every aspect of the story. It also came at a point when I had finished working on Black Hole. After this long story, I really wanted to do something that was a collaborative piece, work with other people, get out of my tiny little studio.
VS: How did the collaborative process work?
CB: They wanted the artist to be totally in charge of the film, but by the nature of the medium someone has to animate it, so you can’t control everything. With comics I control every single aspect of it, even down to the paper stock that it’s printed on. So I did find out that there is a reason why I do comics, I really do like having that complete control. But I was perfectly happy with the results and it was a great experience.
VS: Your piece is done in the high contrast black and white that is characteristic of your comics. How essential to your work is that style?
CB: I like working in colour, I’m working on a colour comic right now. But 99.9% of my comics have been in black and white. My style of drawing has this kind of very rich brush line from the 40s and 50s and the American comics that I liked and tried to imitate when I was younger. The look of my film pretty much emulates the look of my comics. The producers searched for the perfect match for each artist’s style. For me the studio did 3D animation and they had this very strange process that would render these 3D characters in a kind of shading like my drawings.
VS: Just as in Black Hole, your film explores a certain anxiety and ambivalence about sex.
CB: It’s an incredibly strong part of a person’s life. Black Hole examines adolescents, people coming to terms with their sexual identity and moving from childhood to adulthood, and the turmoil that takes place. Fear(s) of the Dark is based on a very early comic that I did and that I don’t want to show anybody now, because it wasn’t very successful. However, there were ideas in it that I wanted to go back to. A lot of the themes that I come back to again and again concern identity and sometimes stereotypes. Black Hole was much more about the characters than about the plot. In Fear(s) of the Dark, the characters are much more generalised and two-dimensional. You’ve got the typical wimpy, shy guy and the vivacious sexy blonde. But I like playing with those ideas, the fact that her role gets reversed, she’s turned into this aggressive, masculine character who basically impregnates this guy.
VS: The reversal of roles in both Fear(s) of the Dark and Black Hole seems to be represented visually by the deep wound that appears on the male characters.
CB: Sometimes the symbolism is very heavy-handed but it’s fun for me to push those things in there. So of course there’s all kinds of wounds, vaginal orifices, all those things.
VS: But it also reveals the weirdness of sex, and the fact that sexual identities are maybe not as clear-cut as people would like to think.
CB: Exactly. It’s like, this girl has a tail, why am I attracted to this girl with a tail, what is that? (laughs) And Keith in Black Hole doesn’t know how to process that idea. Obviously I could have told a similar story without that physical deformity or this disease. But for me the disease makes it even stronger, pushes it to this very extreme situation.
VS: You use these external elements to bring that out. In Black Hole, it’s the disease, in Fear(s) of the Dark it’s the insect. Why the insect?
CB: I don’t know. (laughs) I’m trying to think, why the insect? I don’t have an answer for you.
VS: I thought that the insect was very striking because there was a certain humanoid element about it. Was that a conscious thing?
CB: Oh yeah, of course. You have someone that is recognisable in the movement, and the scale even. To be honest… Now I’m talking about this… That’s the question, how much do I want to reveal? (laughs) The story is based on the fact that when I was a little kid I slept on a bed that had creaking little sounds inside and I imagined that it was insects. And you think about that bed that actually does have something inside… There you go. (laughs) Right? What are you afraid of? It’s something that’s inside your bed, that’s moving around.
VS: And then it’s inside your body…
CB: Yeah, then you wake up and there’s a wound on your arm, and there’s something in there… (laughs)
VS: The cowboy bed is another interesting detail in the film.
CB: It’s very childish, it’s a symbol of childhood and she’s teasing him because he took this bed with him. There’s also the idea that the story starts out with this very isolated kid. You never see his mother, but you hear her horrible voice downstairs; and you can tell that he’s scared of her to a degree and he’s hiding things from her, he’s hiding this insect from her. And then this thing is transferred into his bed and carried on to his life.
VS: The other thing that’s interesting is this amateur lab that he has as a child. You seem to suggest this almost casual cruelty of the scientist with the insects in jars or pinned to the wall.
CB: It’s also the idea that he’s looking at other people, and other women especially as almost, not specimens, but the species that he doesn’t understand. He’s in this window looking down and you see the women almost insect-sized walking around; and lo and behold there’s this woman who actually likes him and treats him like a normal human being, and then things go wrong…
Interview by Virginie Sélavy
Read this interview and much more in our autumn print issue. The theme is cruel games, from sadistic power play in Funny Games to fascist games in German hit The Wave and Stanley Kubrick’s career-long fascination with game-playing. Don’t miss our fantastic London Film Festival comic strip, which surely is worth the price of the issue alone!