Behind the Cowl: Chris Burnham
Born in Connecticut and raised in Pittsburgh, the Chicago-based illustrator Chris Burnham has gained notoriety and increased attention in the past several months for his exclusive contract signed with DC Comics in April 2011 as well as his recent work on Grant Morrison's Batman Incorporated series. Yet, any investigation of his catalog will reveal an intriguing and amazingly diverse portfolio of non-spandex, independent work that is equally praiseworthy. In between drawing demos, panels, signing appearances, and general San Diego Comic-Con debauchery, I had the pleasure of talking with Chris about his career and background, and witnessing first-hand his drawing process on a sketch of Chief Man of Bats.
Tell me a little bit about your background. Was art something you pursued as a child and teenager, a passion born out of an influential art teacher or supportive parent?
It's always been there. I can't remember a time before I was obsessed with the Hulk and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, and Super Friends and all that stuff, so I was always doing it and I was always the kid in class who was good at drawing (laughs). It was always cartoons that I loved drawing, and then my aunt Barbie gave me How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way when I was six, and I was like, "Oh, these were comics first? I didn't even know comics were a thing!"
Yep, that's how I got into comics too (laughs).
Yeah, and the drawings stay still in a comic, so you can look at them more closely (laughs). Since then, it's all I've ever wanted to do.
When you were young and in school, was art something you were pretty passionate about then? Were your teachers encouraging? Because oftentimes, comics are seen as a bastard art form and not taken seriously.
Actually, nobody looked down on it and they were all pretty encouraging. They gave me projects to work on, but maybe I wish they could have pushed me harder. Maybe I could have been drawing Batman at age 29 instead of age 33 (laughs).
When you were reading comics as a kid, when did the artist stand out for you? When did you begin to recognize this cover or interior was done by, for example, John Buscema? Who were those individuals for you and when did it occur?
For years, I would just get comics one issue at a time and I probably had 20 or 30 single issues all of different titles. But I got Avengers #274, which was part of the Masters of Evil taking over the Avengers' mansion saga, one of the best Avengers stories ever, and I lucked out because this was like the second chapter. It's the one where Hercules dies and I was learning about Greek mythology in school, so I was shocked…and John Buscema drew it, too! I thought "It's the How to Draw Comics guy," and from that point, that was it.
So, from that point, did you draw just superheroes or make your own comics?
I just drew individual pictures and I rarely drew backgrounds as a kid, and I remember my parents and my uncle would [ask], "Why don't you ever finish these?" And I'd say, "What do you mean? It's finished! It's Spider-Man." My uncle would continue and ask, "Well, is he swinging over a building?" "Building? What the hell are you talking about?" (laughs). So it took a long time for me to start doing backgrounds, and now I'm the background guy, which is pretty funny.
That is pretty funny. Did you ever create any comics for yourself?
Yeah, I did this series…jeez, I don't even know how to describe it. I did these comics my freshman year of high school about the kids in school, kind of a South Park sort of thing along with these ridiculous sci-fi McGuffin elements pasted on top as an excuse for more jokes. This is 4 or 5 years before South Park so it was more Bloom County and this weird comic Plasma Baby that I was pulling from. So I did that through high school and it was all [badly] drawn on notebook paper. I would try and draw “real comics,” two or three page stories, and I bought that blue line comic pro paper at the comic store, and it was so hard to draw comics. When you're just starting, getting five good drawings on one piece of paper is impossible. It's still hard now, but when you're thirteen, it's impossible and it's really discouraging. You get halfway and it looks great and then you run out of steam and it starts looking like s--t and you're like "Aw, f--- it!" (Laughs)
In learning how a page was composed or panels were put together, did you decide to go to college for art training or did you pursue it on your own without an educational track?
I don't know if I decided on my own (laughs). I went to George Washington University, which is a real college, theoretically. I don't know if I learned much (laughs), but it's a college. I always just figured comics were something I could eventually figure out on my own. When I got to be somewhere between junior and senior year, I was interning at a video production place and the guys across the hall were Steve Connelly and Marty Baumann, and they ran comiccon.com and made their own comic books. I was like, "Wow, you can really do this." I had been to conventions before and met pro comic artists, but it always seemed unattainable. But, if those guys across the hall are doing it, hell, I can do it too! So that summer I started working on my own thing and I used it as a class project for my senior year of college. After that, I graduated college and I have this degree and I'm not going to use it (laughs), so let's figure out how to make money in comics. It took ten years, but here I am!
(Laughs). What was your degree in?
I majored in electronic media, like radio and TV production, with a triple minor in marketing, finance, and fine arts (laughs). I did take a fair amount of life drawing though. GW doesn't recognize a triple minor, though, and they would only give me one business school minor even though I completed all the requirements for both business and finance.
When you did a fine arts minor, were you also doing sculpture, painting, and other forms of art production?
No, I think the requirement for the minor was basically “take six classes.” I took a year of painting, and it didn’t quite do it for me. But then I took two years of life drawing and really liked that, and a semester of web design, which was very helpful in learning how to do something in Flash. I'm sure they must have taught us other stuff, but having a bare bones training in Flash got me to use Macs and learn fonts, and I literally didn't know anything at that point. Learning how Photoshop and Flash worked was crucial…before I knew what I was doing I would scan stuff into Flash and not understand why I couldn't edit images…because that's not what it's supposed to do (laughs). It's a really steep learning curve on that stuff.
Definitely. In learning the rhythms and beats of stories and arrangement of panels to tell a visual story, how did that process come about for you? I imagine that's one of the hardest elements to learn how to transform a script into a visual narrative.
Good question! I don't know (laughs). I would just try to tell the story. I'm very critical and I read stuff over and over, and ask why is that awesome or why is that horrible, or trying to figure out why that transition works so well or why it looks so weird. It's like, when you’re doing a fight scene, you can't have someone punching a guy twice in a row with his right hand, and people do it all the time, and it looks horrible, like a jump cut, train-going-off-the-tracks type of awful. Figuring out what sucks and not doing that (laughs) was a lot of my process—specifically, figuring out elements that don't work even in comics that are otherwise great. I love me some Jim Starlin, but he'll occasionally do these effects that just don't quite work for me. He'll do these three-panel zooms: full figure, medium shot, and close-up, but it wasn't constantly zooming into one point, so the camera was up high and then be in the middle and then back up again. Well, I thought, “That's wrong, so there's got to be a way to do that right” (laughs), and there's a million other examples like that. As I'm drawing a comic, I'm always reading it to make sure it's working. I guess that's the key, you can't just can't be drawing it; you have to be constantly reading it to make sure it works as a story.
I would imagine too that you also have to juggle multiple camera angles or points of view between what you envision on the page versus what a perceived audience may see as you're the director, so grasping how the characters interact within a panel or on a page would also be a hurdle.
It's tricky. I learned a lot of it in this great introduction to filmmaking class, a real “break you” kind of class, with Dr. Joan Thiel. Kind of hard to understand, though…she was operating on a whole different level. I'm big on rules, and she had all sorts of fundamental rules that got drilled into my head. So don't break the 180 degrees rule, which I seldom ever do. The rule basically says that if you've got two guys in a scene, the guy who starts out on the left side should always be on the left, and the guy who starts on the right should stay on the right. It’s very helpful to maintain visual continuity…you can get away with breaking it if you're just doing something simple like two distinctive people talking in a room, but if you've got similar looking characters who you're just introducing, it's really helpful to keep them separated. And if you're doing something like a chase scene, or a tightly choreographed fight scene, don't break the 180 rule. Otherwise, how are you going to know who is in front and who is behind? Breaking this rule is moronic.
I'm big into rules and she'd always say "get inside the action," get some z axis in there. You've got the x axis that goes side to side, the y axis is up and down, and the z is coming at you or going away. Sometimes it's fun to have a horizontal shot as long as you know that you're intentionally doing something maybe not as intense as it could be. Like a nice remote cooling off moment. Bring that z axis in, though, and it's awesome.
One rule I can't stop thinking about, one of the best storytelling stories I've ever heard, is this: Dr. Thiel had seen a production of Othello , and during the scene where Iago hides the handkerchief, which is the plot detail that sets up the whole rest of the play and is the reason why Othello murders his wife, she was distracted by something else, the show was directed poorly, and she didn't see the handkerchief get hidden. Now, she'd seen the play before so she knew what was missing, but can you imagine someone seeing that show for the first time and you miss the handkerchief bit? (Laughs) You might think Othello's wife was cheating on him! (Laughs) So her motto was "If I didn't see the handkerchief, there's no handkerchief." So, if you don't understand the story I'm telling, that's my fault…you know, for the most part (laughs). If you're a reasonably intelligent person and you still didn’t get it, it's because I wasn't clear enough.
Visually speaking, if you can't tell what's going on instantaneously, if you have to study the panel to figure out who was talking, that's the worst. So many comics, it's like, "Wait, who is that guy?" It's the bare bones! You can't tell who's who and it's infuriating! And so many otherwise great artists do this, too, like Colin Wilson. I'll bust his balls, too! He's amazing. Great artist. Anyhow, he did this Battler Briton comic with Garth Ennis like four or five years ago…it's a war story, so everyone is in a uniform. They throw you into the middle of it and they're all white guys in uniform with the same military haircuts and it's like, “Who is the star of the book? Which guy is Battler Briton?” It's never established because he looks almost identical to his chief rival and even some tertiary characters. So Colin gets it wrong and then the colorist can't tell the difference, so he colors it wrong and the letterer doesn't notice either and the word balloons are pointed at any damn guy and the editor doesn't notice and it's an absolute disaster.
When you setup a page, then, do you have control of the size and dimension and layouts to make the story flow better if you run into problems within the script?
Yeah, I've basically got control of the panels. If the script tells me page-width panel on this, if that's how the writer sees it, then yeah, I'll do it if it makes sense. If I don't agree with it, I won't do it. For the most part, I break it down however I see fit. It's pretty clear in the scripts what's the appropriate arrangement for any given panel…if somebody is falling off a building, it's inherently vertical, so I have this big vertical panel that pushes everything else into a certain alignment that I have to puzzle out. That's the cool puzzle of it. It's frustrating and awesome because all the time you think, "This is bulls--t, it can't be done!" (Laughs).
(Laughs). Well it sounds like you're building a puzzle without the pieces since you have to basically supply them.
Exactly! That sense of cracking that impossible puzzle is a great, artistic, geometric accomplishment, but it's a tough one to crack (laughs). A lot of times I've got my generic layout I'll go with. I don’t use it very often, but for a six-panel page, my default is big, small, small, big, big, small. It's simple to read but has an inherent zigzag motion to it that I like more than a standard six-grid page. Whenever I get a six-panel page, my instinct is to see if it's going to work that way, and I'll start asking myself if the first panel wants to be big or small, is there something vertical that's going to cause a problem, etc.? I start with that template and then [play] with it to fit the story.
So what then was the step for you from knowing about comics to wanting to make them professionally? Did you go to conventions and do portfolio reviews, did you self-publish?
I guess I did a couple of conventions during college and the year after graduation when I was living in Pittsburgh. I definitely remember bringing my stuff to the Pittsburgh Comic Con. I had my X-Men and my Thor samples, and this comic I was writing and drawing called Jimbo the Flying Clodhopper, “The World's First Political Violent Strip,” so I'd show that stuff around and take advice from artists to try and make myself better. But even with a marketing minor, I was horrible at self-marketing and promotion. I never went on internet message boards and posted my stuff to get my name out there. It took me a long time to start doing that, like after I'd already been published. For a couple of years, I was just doing samples and sending them off, and showing them at conventions. Mark Wheatley knew my name but what is he going to do for me other than say, "Keep at it, kid" (laughs). The thing that really got me work—and every gig I've ever gotten traces back to it—was this: I was in Chicago doing posters and postcards and theatrical design for a theater company called the House Theater of Chicago, and we were going to do a superhero play called Valentine Victorious, a pulpy superhero fighting Nazi robots sort of thing (laughs). We put out a comic book to get some advance buzz (not a well-thought-out marketing scheme). My buddy Nathan Allen wrote a 14-page story and I drew it in my very best David Lloyd knockoff style, and we made a little ashcan and actually got enough advertising in the back to pay for the printing! We printed up a 1,000 copies and in lieu of payment, I got about half of the print run to give away. So that year I did Pittsburgh Comic Con and gave it out there, and a couple guys told me, "You need to go to San Diego." I hadn't even heard of San Diego at that point (laughs). At the Pittsburgh show, I'd given the ashcan to Pat Olliffe, who is good buddies with Dave Ulanski, an editor at Moonstone, and I got an email from him asking if I'd do a story for us. The first work I did for them was a killer frog monster story called "Croaked" for Moonstone Monsters: Sea Creatures, written by Ben Raab, which is cool; he’s a TV guy now. I'd finished that story before San Diego, but I don't think it had come out yet.
Yeah, I'd seen that and your work with William Messner Loebs too for Moonstone, correct?
Yep, that's the second thing I did. It was Moonstone Monsters: Witches, and for both of those books, they were their tryouts, so while I didn't get paid, I got published and even got reviewed on the Fourth Rail! They brought me back for Kolchak, a 14-page Bigfoot story. I paid one month's rent with 12 pages of Kolchak. Awesome!
What was it like for you to work on your first professional scripts then in terms of learning something about how comics were produced or how stories were told that you could not learn on your own?
Huh, I don't know. It honestly seems like more of the same except I didn't have to write it this time, I just had to draw what this guy says. I think I actually learned more about lettering because I lettered it myself. The editor said it looked great, but Raab said, "I've got some balls to bust." Technically, if the editor says it's fine, it's fine, but if the creative guy has notes for you, you should take them. That was my first professional gig. It informed my storytelling sensibility in terms of where to leave room for balloons or why this or that balloon arrangement looks like s--t (laughs). I certainly remember the after being way better than the before.
How did you make the jump then from those into I Have 24 Hours to Live, Nixon's Pals with Joe Casey. Was it San Diego?
I'd given the ashcan out to a lot of people at San Diego, including Steve Buccellato and Rich Starkings. That was really the thing that broke me in, randomly finding those guys. Steve liked it, so I did a pirate story for his Comiculture Anthology called Suffer the Salt—a pretty good title, right? (laughs)—that I wrote and drew and lettered. Anthologies are rough. It took like nine months to come out and the orders were so low that Diamond didn't carry the book, and you had to order it from the site. And I was like, "Oh, I thought this was going to make my career" (laughs). "Damn, Mark Chiarello is in it, I thought this was my in!" (Laughs) But the actual "in" was that I'd given it to Rich Starkings and I knew that he liked it. We'd emailed a few times and stayed on good terms, so when I heard that Elephantmen was coming out and they were doing backups by various artists, I emailed him to ask if I could be one of them, and he said yeah! And he's good buddies with Joe Casey. So after the story was done, he showed Joe my stuff, Joe got in touch with me and that became Nixon's Pals, and boom!
The scene there that stands out for me is the one where Nixon sees the doorway with the Kirby-esque feel to it. In the few scripts I've seen by Casey, there seems to be a true collaborative effect, a natural bond with the artist that is seldom.
We worked Marvel style on that…and pretty loosely. He would say, "Do three pages of this" and briefly describe what happens, and I would just go for it. He'd give me good rough guidelines and then I'd figure out how to tell the thing. As for that Kirby door effect, I remember in the script that it called for it to happen on page 3, and I thought it made for a really good page flip reveal—even pages are always on the left. So, on page 3, I have Nixon see something off panel and he calls his boss, and then you flip the page and BAM!, it's the crazy Kirby teleporter. That was the first instance where I realized that I get to do my own thing with this big famous writer and he's cool with me changing s--t around because I'm spending a lot more time with it than he is (laughs).
You always seem to maintain a presence in both the mainstream world, most recently with Batman & Robin or Batman Inc., but also with the more personal, independent projects such as Officer Downe. What do those creator owned projects mean to you personally and professionally?
I definitely like being able to do it the way I want to do it. When it's the independent stuff, even though you still have to get it done, the deadlines are normally a little looser, so you've got the freedom to say "This isn't working" and scrap the page to start over. When you've got a deadline looming, you can't do that (laughs). Having the freedom to take as long as you want is nice. But doing it the way I want and not having to please anyone is the real appeal. Just being able to go as far as you want and not worry about constraints you think might be put on you. I mean I've drawn some pretty gross stuff in Batman and gotten away with it, but…
There's only so far you can push it with Batman or any company toy.
Yep, and for Officer Downe, I drew a baby impaled on a crutch (laughs) and a ninja peeing on a burning man. Joe was just like, "Make this as horrible as you can."
What types of scripts appeal to you and your process to make the collaboration more than just, "Here's your script—draw, pencil monkey."
I greatly prefer Marvel style because I get to envision the scene the way I see it and then go for it. When I get a strict script, sometimes I'll disagree with what I'm being told to be draw…it's really tough for me to draw something that I think is inherently wrong. I normally do claim the freedom where I add a panel, delete a panel, or even move a panel from one page to another, but I've also got that side of me that wants to follow the rules. The internal tension of wanting to do what you're told vs. wanting to do it right can be really frustrating. So, when you're working Marvel style, there's still a struggle, but it's more a struggle of how to make it as great and awesome as you can. You don't have to worry about specific and weird constraints from the writer that you may not understand. Like maybe the way he sees it in his head works great, but translating that vision into the script and then back into my brain, it can be awkward if I can't see how it will work on the page.
You start to see more artists making the move into being cowriters or even solo writers, particularly with the upcoming DC relaunch. Is that something you'd want to pursue?
Yeah, I think so.
Would it be something within the mainstream superhero genre or something more creator-owned?
Probably creator-owned. I've been saying I want to do this forever and it never quite happens because I'm pretty picky and critical with my own stuff. It's tough to get it in a shape where I think it's good enough to present. It's a tough thing to know about myself. It's tough for me to get this done (laughs). But yeah, I'd like to do that eventually, whether it’s for DC or my own thing. I almost…I blew it pretty bad (laughs). I almost wrote for Marvel years before I drew for them. Axel Alonso liked my Fear Agent story a lot and I almost wrote a Wolverine annual, but Gregg Hurwitz got to write it because an artist had blown a deadline and pushed his Hellstorm book off schedule. So Marvel was like, "Here, Gregg, take this Wolverine thing we were going to give to some kid." Axel was really cool about it and told me to pitch him something else. Like, anything else. Told me to pitch him a Marvel Knights or Marvel Max on any characters I wanted. And the thought of doing anything, I just couldn't handle it. I choked pretty seriously on it.
Do you read your own published work?
Looking back over it, is there one that stands out to you because it represented something special, an awareness of the medium, an evolution in your style?
I love Nixon's Pals. I think it's awesome. And though there's a couple of parts where I think Joe and I didn’t quite click together, and those two pages kind of piss me off, the rest of it is awesome. Especially since we did it Marvel style and there wasn't a script, the words are still fresh to me. It's pretty cool to have art you're familiar with alongside words that I've only read five times or whatever.
Would you consider yourself a pretty disciplined artist in the sense that you get a script, digest it, and let inspiration take hold, or do you schedule yourself to complete X-number of pages per day? What's your workflow?
It starts out really loosey-goosey and gets stricter as I go and the deadline looms (laughs).
Panic sets in (laughs).
Yeah, I'm definitely way better if I keep a calendar and I write what I need to do and can see it staring at me every day. But for starting it, I read the script through two or three times to make sure I understand it. I print it out and I'll start scribbling tiny thumbnails on them and write notes to myself of how I think this is going to work: “Don't forget to establish the backpack here” types of stuff. When that's done, I do thumbnails 4-up on an 8.5x11 piece of paper. I scan that in, blow it up and print it out. Sometimes I print it out 11x17, sometimes if I've still got some stuff to figure out, I'll print it out at 8.5x11 and tighten it up a bit, and then scan that back in and print it out 11x17. That's worked pretty well for me. If I'm doing a cover, I may add a few steps to make sure I can get it as perfect as I can.
I think of the cover for Batman & Robin #26 coming up and to me, it looks daunting because of the angles, dimensions, and perspectives involved in designing that image. Can you tell me about your cover process there?
-- Nathan Wilson
David Hine gave me a lot of direction with it. I'd been told the concept of the story and I said, "I don't know what to do with this" (laughs). But he had a vision of what he wanted to do with it. He wanted the Magritte—the apple guy, but with a Clockwork Orange instead of an apple—and he wanted Batman, Robin, and the Nightrunner breaking down in various Dali or Escher-esque sort of ways. And, since it's set in Paris, I'll do the Louvre…having the different elements to play with is an interesting, artistic Tetris puzzle.
I'm curious to see how the pieces fit together in print.
Thanks. I spent a long time on it. David sent me a lot of reference images for it, which is very helpful. If left to my own devices, I'll spend a lot of time trying to find the perfect image, like for a tire—is that tire tire-y enough? (Laughs). I knew who Dali is, but he sent me the exact Dali pictures he was going for. I used photo-reference for the Louvre and totally traced that image of the Eiffel Tower (laughs). I crammed the Arc de Triomphe in there and realized that I could have the Nightrunner wrapping around it.
That's fascinating. Since you spend so much time with your art, do you still read comics?
Oh, yeah, I read them a lot.
Do you still enjoy them or do you dissect them as you go?
That's a great question (laughs). A good comic I can get into and kind of forget, especially if I’m reading it again. The first time I read it, it gets dissected. If some of it's good and some of it's not so good, it's rough. I do wish I could switch that off (laughs) and just read them (laughs).
The cry of "I just want to enjoy comics again!"
How do you continue to push or challenge yourself then? Are there benchmarks you set or technical aspects you feel need improvement? Is it when you take on a new project?
Yeah, I think it's more professional jealousy (laughs). I'm on a message board—Ten Ton Studios—with Khoi Pham, Aaron Kuder, Reily Brown, Nick Patarra, and others—and seeing the art those guys are doing, is like "How are they doing that? I've got to level up!" Seeing the art in black and white, it’s a lot easier to tell what's going on in the art, so realizing, "Oh, if I just thicken up the outlines of my figures, it's going to pop them forward" is really helpful.
Since you have that camaraderie and community of artists to talk with, can you point to either a peer or mentor who gave you the best criticism or validation that you took to heart about your work?
Well, people have been freaking out about Batman Inc. #7 and I can't remember if it was my old editor Ian Brill or Joe Keating…for some reason, they both occupy the same spot in my brain even though they're totally different people (laughs). But they said, "You're doing such a great job with establishing these characters and telling them apart and making all the settings feel lived in," and I was like, "Thank God! That's what I'm going for." Because when I'm doing it, it's hard to tell whether I'm doing a good job because it's just lines on a page, but for somebody that hasn't seen it, it's making and creating a world in their brain. It's great to hear that what I'm actively trying to do is actually, actively working (laughs).