Thursday, February 9, 2012

Clearly and Dynamically: An Interview With Chris Burnham

Clearly and Dynamically: An Interview With Chris Burnham

When I first really took note of Chris Burnham's artwork, I wanted him to have thumbnailed the hell out of his layouts and arrangements for every panel, each page. It could be an innate genius for mise en scene and balance, but I didn't want it to be. There may be some beauty in it being effortless or accident, but I was immediately struck with this strong, probably irrational desire for it to be work.

After recognizing that it wasn't up to me how he worked, I settled into simply enjoying and analyzing his comics. I think I have a better sense of the space between lines since first encountering Chris Burnham's artwork. I know that, directly tethered to my enjoyment of his work, I have a renewed appreciation of “filmic” techniques in comics storytelling. Burnham paces scenes in a very storyboard fashion, but he seems considerably more aware of the shape of a page, what the panel arrangements themselves communicate to his audience.

And, in Batman Inc, Burnham drew the most recognizable reservation that I've seen in a comic in I don't know how long. Maybe, ever. It was a shitty-looking rez, in many ways, but well. It was shitty in the right ways, as opposed to, for example, the much-loved-by-others Jason Aaron and R. M. GuĂ©ra series, Scalped, or the wonderfully written (by Kurt Busiek) but full of disappointingly kitted Indians Strange Tales. Often, “attention to detail” in terms of comics means lots of shading, crosshatching, and drawing in every rivet and brick, but representing a place, or a kind of place, so that it can feel recognizable and right to those unfamilar and quite close, that's a different and substantial kind of attending.

Travis Hedge Coke: “How responsible do you feel about the contents of comics you work on? Responsible to your audience, to comics history, or to yourself.”

Chris Burnham: “I definitely feel a responsibility to make the absolute best comic I'm capable of. I'm still a huge comic fan and it pisses me off to no end when creators fuck up an otherwise good comic with distracting mistakes. I want to make comics that are good enough to withstand criticism by the nitpickiest asshole alive... me! (Whether I succeed is another story, but if your reach doesn't exceed your grasp, you're not trying hard enough, asshole!)”

Hedge Coke: “Have you ever been part of something in a comic that you couldn't have imagined would get anyone's dander up, only to be cautioned by someone above you at the publisher or find it enraged folks after publication?”

Burnham: “This certainly seems like something that would happen a lot to me, but the only examples I can think of are Elephantmen #16 and the Marvel Mystery 70th Anniversary Special. In Elephantmen, Rich wanted a sex scene that was somewhere between the classic Steranko Nick Fury and Contessa scene (the one with the gun in holster) and a scene from Howard Chaykin's American Flagg. I took it WAY too far. I did 9 or 12 panel page that, while not explicitly showing penetration (or even nipples), was basically soft porn. I remember lovingly drawing what I thought was a subtle rim job. Haha! What a moron. When the scene saw print, Rich took the 6 tamest panels and edited them together. It worked a lot better that way.

“On Marvel Mystery, I had the Angel bashing someone's face against the wall, and he was completely covered in blood & broken teeth. After it was colored, Tom Brevoort thought it went too far and had me redraw the face without all the blood, and Nathan Fairbairn recolored it... but for whatever reason the production guys never got the memo and the gory version is what saw print. Hahaha!”

Hedge Coke: “Have you ever seen someone's contribution to a comic you worked on and been, if not offended, concerned about some content of their contribution?”

Burnham: “Err... I wouldn't say offended in the sense that they were making racist rape jokes or anything, but I've certainly been involved in a few comics where I thought the other guys dropped the ball creatively. (And I'm sure there are guys who thought I did the same.)”

Hedge Coke: “What elements of a comic do you try to focus your attention on most?”

Burnham: “I'm most concerned with telling the story clearly and dynamically. I work really hard at making sure the characters are distinct from one another and their actions are clear, setting the right angle, picking the right composition, leaving enough room for word balloons... all that stuff is primary. Noodly details and perspective tricks etc, while fun to do and look at, are secondary to the storytelling. (This is, of course, in an ideal world... many times I'll get distracted by trying to nail some weird perspective or setting at the expense of putting the people in the right place. Oops!)”

Hedge Coke: “How much do you draft and tweak before the publishable versions of most of your comics work? Do you feel you get better if you revisit a page or a story several times or is first shot best?”

Burnham: “I spend a varying amount of time doing Photoshop tweaks on each page. Ideally I'd get it right on the page, but I don't see a problem with going in and monkeying with things to make them a little better. Once in a while (like, every few months) I'll redraw a panel from scratch after I've taken it to pencils or inks. Most of the time I catch those problems early with obsessive thumbnails. On particularly tricky pages I'll do multiple sets of thumbnails that tell the story in different ways and then pick the best option between them. The hard part is when I like parts of one page and parts of another, but their panel compositions are mutually exclusive. It can be like picking which one of your children gets eaten by wolves. Sorry, Billy! ;D”

Chris Burnham will being doing twelve issues of Batman Inc with Grant Morrison in the near future. If his progress so far is anything to go by, and his work ethic, he will continue to be an increasingly exceptional artist and comics-maker.

No comments:

Site Meter