Chris Burnham was being “cagey” about his and writer Grant Morrison’s “Nameless” horror, but he was excited to name the terrors that keep him up at night.
The good-humored artist, a surprise guest at last week’s Image Expo in San Francisco, had used that word on stage in not discussing what the upcoming comic book miniseries is about (though Morrison has revealed a few details), and in a backstage interview he apologetically kept mum on the subject.
But Burnham, 36, who recently moved to L.A. from Chicago to be nearer to opportunities in film, video games and other media, was forthcoming about how his and “Batman Incorporated” collaborator Morrison’s creative dynamic works, the freedom of drawing a creator-owned book, and which comics, movies and books haunt him at home and freak him out in L.A. traffic jams.
And, after having told the crowd that in research for the series he’d been finding things on the Internet that were polluting his brain, he enthusiastically detailed the particular pollutants. Trypophobes and dog lovers, beware.
Hero Complex: How do you think your work on this book will look different from your work on “Batman Incorporated”? Any challenges you’ve set for yourself?
Chris Burnham: It’s certainly not a superhero book, and I’m not finishing a seven-year story and having to constantly reference not only that seven-year Batman story but also the 75 years of Batman history that came before that. So this is a lot less reverential and referential. This is striking off into a new thing, so I think hopefully the art will look a lot weirder.
I won’t be as constrained by trying to make something look like a colorful, pretty superhero book, so I have a lot more freedom to really make it look weird. As for specific challenges, the story is always evolving. Grant writes issue to issue, so I’m not exactly sure what’s going to happen in Issue 3 other than the broad outline I’ve been given. I’m always changing my style to try to fit the story at hand, so I really don’t know what’s going to happen to it, but I’m sure it’s going to be crazy.
HC: That striking teaser image – I know you don’t want to get into who’s in the suits – but if you could talk about coming at that from a design perspective.
CB: I think the challenge was to make it kind of striking and iconic without it looking precisely generic. So it’s definitely kind of “Right Stuff”-y, but not specifically. Hopefully, you know – does it look like a creepy “Right Stuff” with tribal totems drawn on it? Does it look like tribal “Tron”? Hopefully, does it look ominous and sci-fi but somehow magical? Hopefully. [Laughs] Hopefully it does.
HC: What sorts of things are you finding on the Internet that are poisoning your brain?
CB: I’ll spend a lot of time on Rotten.com or the dark subthreads of Reddit, just following just horrible reference. Like, “Hey, what does that look like?” [sound of disgust]
There was a big hit on the Internet for eight hours or so … it’s the fear of small holes, and apparently I have it. It is just about the worst thing. There’s this, I guess it’s a meme at this point of taking [lotus seed pods] … even just the actual seeds of this thing look creepy, but then they Photoshop that onto people’s faces and arms. And so they’re just riddled with holes with these creepy little things poking out. Some of the GIFs … it’s like rawr-rawr-rawr with these horrible little maggoty objects poking out of these holes. I’m talking about it, and I’m giving myself goosebumps. That’s horrible stuff.
I recently learned about mango worms, this horrible parasite that dogs can get. It looks like they’re popping pimples on these dogs, but they’re actually squirting out these maggots. There’s these videos of people just squeezing out hundreds of these … and the dogs turn around and eat these things. It’s horrific, but it’s kind of amazing.
What a … up place the world is. What sort of awful, awful dimension do we live in if these creatures live by eating the flesh of these living animals? Awful.
HC: You said this is Morrison’s first straight-up horror comic. Was a horror comic something you’d had your eye on doing?
CB: Yeah, I think horror in comics is very rarely done well. Most of my favorite ones are actually Japanese, like Junji Ito’s comics I find to be amazing: “Uzumaki” is awesome, “Gyo” is pretty cool. His “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” is the single scariest thing I’ve ever read. It’s 20 pages long, and I literally had to put it down halfway through and walk around the house so that I would have the strength to read the rest of it – which is probably overselling it a little bit. [Laughs] Maybe for you it’s just a pretty creepy comic, but for me it’s just about as scary as it can get. I can even freak myself out at night. When I’m going to bed, there’s a couple of things I can think about where I can’t even close my eyes after – like, think about something else, la, la la, got to sing a song – and that’s one of them.
I like horror movies a lot, I’ve read a lot of horror books, and I just thought it’d be a fun challenge to do a straight-up horror comic. I find a lot of Grant’s stuff – the horrific things the bad guys do to the good guys – some of the concepts he plays with I find so unsettling, but it’s always a spice he’s throwing into a sci-fi or a superhero story. I was like, “We should do a horror comic. Let’s put your horrible ideas to good use.” I hope it doesn’t have a happy ending. [Laughs] I hope the end is that we’re all doomed.
HC: Could you pick one horror film and one book that stuck with you, and say what about them has lingered?
CB: The movie that’s probably bothered me the most is “The Return of the Living Dead,” which is pretty funny, but I saw it as a kid, and there’s a line – in that movie, the zombies can talk – that’s the movie where zombies eating brains comes from … they ask this zombie who they’ve captured, “Why do you eat brains?” and she says “The pain of being dead, I can feel myself rot.” And she eats brains to make the pain go away. Jesus Christ. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard. The reason they can talk to her is because she’s calmed down because she’s just eaten the brains of one of the main characters, and 10 minutes later she’s freaking out, screaming for brains again. Eating some poor schlub’s brain has only killed the pain for 15 minutes. They’re like brain addicts or something. Ugh. Just an awful idea – really, really bothersome. [Laughs]
As for books, I love the Lovecraft stuff, though I’ve recently reread some of it, and I guess I didn’t really notice how awful and racist a lot of it is. [Laughs] I can appreciate it for what it is, but it kind of makes me uncomfortable….
There’s certain things in Stephen King books I always think about. Every time I’m in a traffic jam, I think about the traffic jam in “The Stand” – “Oh, man, what if this is it? [Laughs] I can’t go anywhere. I’m stuck in the car, bumper to bumper. If I wanted to get off, there’s nowhere … I am literally trapped.” That freaks me out – feeling constrained and that sort of doomed feeling.
If you can get that across in horror, I think that’s really what it’s all about. That sense of impending doom, the realization of it.
My dad told me a story. I’ve asked him about it since, and he has no idea what I’m talking about. So I may have dreamt this whole thing up. But he was telling me he’d read a book about some tribe of cannibals, and they would act friendly and talk to these people and bring them into their camp, and they would live for the moment when their prey would realize that they were prey, and they had some ominous word for that moment of realization, when that guy notices, “Oh … these guys aren’t my friends. They’re going to kill me and eat me.” That just really – that idea just really bothered me of being one guy alone in a pack of 20 people and slowly realizing, “Oh my God, these aren’t my friends. They’re going to get me, and there’s nothing I can do.” That is awful. [Laughs]
HC: You’ve collaborated with Morrison for a while now. What about that collaboration in particular continues to appeal to you?
CB: I think why we make good comics together is that he – if you believe in the right-brain/left-brain sort of thing – seems to be a really out-there, weirdo right-brain guy, and I’m very literal-minded and I believe in strict storytelling rules. I never break the 180 rule in my storytelling. I have a very literal perspective. I’ve got all sorts of instructions that I live by to tell a coherent story. And a lot of people’s problems with Grant Morrison comics is that they can get a little too confusing for them. I think that my very literal, very disciplined storytelling style can help to sell his crazy flights of fancy and make it a little more coherent – and I don’t really agree with most of the people who say it’s too confusing to follow, but I guess I can see where they’re coming from. I think it helps get the story over if it’s very clear exactly what’s happening. And then the stuff that’s happening is weird enough where you can still have that sense of unease.
There’s two kinds of “what the …?” you can have. You can have that “what the …?” where you lean in and you’re like, “wow, what’s going on here?” And there’s also that “oh, what the …?” where you lean back and throw your hands up and you don’t want to hear anymore because it’s broken your sense of reality – “This is garbage, I’m over it.” We’re definitely going for the lean-in “what the …?”
RECENT AND RELATED: