Glenn Head Looks Back on Starving Artist Desperation in Chicago

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Like fellow indie cartoonists Peter Bagge and Bob Fingerman, Glenn Head hails from New York’s School of Visual Arts and a flowing, sometimes loopy style to accent works grounded in austere reality. Up to now, Head’s output has only been showcased in shorter anthology work like Weirdo and Bad News. Head ventures into his first long-form work with Chicago, out next month from Fantagraphics. The graphic novel provides an entertaining autobiographical ride featuring a protagonist distinguished from his creator by a single letter (Glen rather than Glenn). Why now? Head is an old-school dude, down to his avoidance of computers and his 1970s underground-influenced style, but he doesn’t hate email, and he answered the following questions with brio.


Paste: So, even though the book is called Chicago, a lot of it doesn’t necessarily take place there. Is the Chicago section just the most important part of the book? Does Chicago symbolize something?
Glenn Head: Chicago is where it all happens. Everything else in the book, if not my character’s entire life—that’s where it’s headed. He’s a dreamer, a fantasist really, about the world around him. The world he knows, the suburbs of New Jersey, because they’re safe, he hates it there. And because he hates it, his expectation is that any place else must be better. Chicago disabuses him of this notion. It’s the place where his hopes, dreams, fantasies—they don’t die exactly, because he does meet his heroes, he does have an adventure—come face to face with reality. The impact of that is, on a psychic level, nearly devastating to Glen.

Chicago is the very center of the book. The rest of the book is either leading up to that journey or dealing with the result of its impact. There are cities—New York is one too—where the mere mention of the name contains a harshness. Chicago has that. Just the sound of the word evokes something dark, smokey, rough, and urban. That’s where my character’s heading … he gets his face rubbed in it!

A visual chronology of Glenn Head

Paste: How long did it take you to write and draw this book?
Head: Start to finish I’d say it may have taken six years, but that’s kind of overlapping into other things. And the idea for this book was percolating for years. I had always wanted to draw this story because it offered a lot of dramatic possibilities I felt. The fact that Glen, my character has no idea what he’s getting into, and is just up against it, trying to survive hunger, the cold and being on the street…. I loved the fact that he gets his first paying gig, from Playboy no less, but has to draw it in a McDonald’s because he’s homeless. I was also trying to work in the disillusionment that occurs when he meets his hero, R. Crumb. What was he expecting? That everything was some nice cozy Underground utopia? Well yes, basically! The people Glen meets in Chicago—R. Crumb, Muhammad Ali—these are characters in Glen’s adventure, his journey through a strange land. They aren’t the focus of the story. He is, as is his reaction to it.

Paste: You’ve mostly done shorter works before. What was different about working on this project rather than those? How much back and forth did you do with your editor?
Head: Well the first difference was time! I knew I’d have to carve out a lot of time to face this project, to do it justice. It wasn’t going to be easy. The obvious difference, besides length—the book is 160 plus pages—is the attempt at human feeling in this book. Most of my other work, it’s somewhat cartoony, fast-moving, pretty snappy narratives … a lot of Chicago attempts to go inside my own character’s experiences, show some of that interior landscape. There were aspects of the pacing where it slows down to show moments of self-reflection before things take off again.

Working this way and with this kind of scope … even geographically, so that I went back to places the story took place in—Chicago and Cleveland—to do photo-research, and the fact that it mostly took place in 1977 … I had to get the ‘look’ right. Or as right as I could. It really was the closest thing I’ve experienced to what I imagine filmmaking to be. Challenging but very rewarding, too.

There was no back and forth with any editor at all, I had none! The main help I got with Chicago was from my good friend and fellow artist Tim Lane. He just constantly pushed me to get this book going, after I told him about the project. He really helped me get it going because I’m kind of a slow starter. Actually, he was also a big help in my making the switch from comic book to graphic novel because he helped me to see how a character could be opened up more, to have a more fully-human dimension. I moved a little further away from the Dick Tracy approach where the character is just really basic—with one dimensional motives like greed, hate, lust and fear guiding him. This all got me thinking more about social realism—where my character fits in the world in terms of race, class, wealth and individuality. And I tried to show what was going on underneath.

Chicago Interior by Glenn Head

Paste: Your style is pretty reflective of the 1970s, when the book mostly takes place. Is that intentional or just a result of your influences/formative era?
Head: Both. I liked the fact that my style, which is heavily influenced by 1970s Underground comics, shows the world through that stylistic lens. It was like the people who, in a way, birthed this style, this movement, this worldview. I got to meet them when I was at my absolute lowest. I met Robert Crumb for dinner and, as I show in my book, this was not some moment of “Wow! Aren’t comix awesome?” but more like “this world’s a shithole, kid, all just hippie nonsense … What are you wasting your time with it for? A lost cause, that’s what it is….” This is how I interpreted it, anyway. See my character, naively or not was looking for authenticity and saw the dichotomy between Playboy magazine and “the Underground” as the difference between integrity and selling out. My character was experiencing first hand that integrity is for naught when you need a meal! And I enjoyed drawing this kind of squalid horror in a style reminiscent of that time that relates to the artists who inspired it.

Paste: Can you talk about your actual working process? How much do computers enter into it?
Head: My working process often starts with taking photos of the place in question—whatever that environment is where the story takes place. Then usually a lot of sketchbook work about that place and its people. Getting the tone right is very important.

The writing is a very time-consuming process for me. I’m sure I wrote at least 10 drafts of Chicago, just winnowing it down or expanding where necessary, finding what I thought were the essentials of the story, just getting it to flow as smoothly as possible. I really try to get a strip to read like a film. I want the book to do the work of taking you through it, fluidly. And generally all of the text in my work ends up in the dialogue balloons, though sometimes a caption will be used to comment or add briefly to what’s going on. I love prose and it’s used to great effect in graphic novels I’ve read. It just usually ends up being chopped out of my work, I don’t find it helps—in the captions, I mean. I spend a great deal of time on the pencils, leaving as little as possible to chance when I ink. Drawing is really hard work for me. I’m sort of walking the line between the realistic and the primitive. But what it all boils down to is just drawing the best I can. I try not to think about style.

I’m really old school—all my stuff is hand drawn. I don’t use computers at all, except to tweak a few things like, you know, lettering flubs on the scanned version. Otherwise if I need to re-draw something, I’ll just do an old fashioned cut and paste job. I know, that’s so last century!

Paste: You begin with that quote from George Orwell: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something distasteful.” Do you think that was your intention in writing the rest of the book? Or did you find the quote later and just thought it fit?
Head: I think I found that quote early on when I was just looking for inspiration before writing Chicago. It may even have been from Down and Out in Paris and London, I don’t remember. But I liked it because I relate it very strongly to my own feelings about autobiography. And a lot of the best autobiography I’ve seen in comics contains this: a feeling that “you’re not supposed to be showing this! This is unacceptable! We don’t talk about this!” I grew up in a household where I felt that things were kind of reined-in, buttoned-down, not a harsh environment—mild in certain ways, repressive in others. That kept the world in all its fully deranged glory from being exposed. So naturally I gravitated to Underground comics. And naturally if I’m told—or believe I’m told—these things can’t be shown … well I’ll have to show ‘em! There’s that juvenile aspect to cartooning: “Who sez I can’t draw this?! Watch me, motherfucker!”

Chicago Interior by Glenn Head

But this thing of exposing what’s distasteful about yourself, your life, your experiences, what hit you hard, really devastated you and doing it without flinching, that’s what interests me in the memoir comic. And the people who really inspire me in comics—Crumb, Justin Green, Phoebe Gloeckner—they do that.

Paste: Now that you’ve waded into doing long-form stand-alone graphic novels, do you think you’ll go back to the form?
Head: Now that I’ve done it and I feel like I can do it, I’m very excited by the challenge of working in long form doing comics! It presents completely different challenges and it really works opposite to my earlier experience in comics. When I studied comics in art school, the mantra was constantly “Simplify!” And it’s a very important lesson for a cartoonist to learn, because your work is bound to be damaged in the translation, from original to print. Anything you put in, cross-hatching, stippling, detailed whatever—it can turn to sludge in the end. So you learn how to leave things out that will clog up what’s essential. You do that with story, too—get to the gist of it, compress it, all of that. The graphic novel asks for something else: expansion. You’re still compressing a lot of things, maybe … but the big deals of the story—the heart of it, what really matters, you can stretch it out, try to dig deep to really show something.

Of course a lot of this kind of thing has its pitfalls in the graphic novel—because it’s allowed to be open-ended, and therefore pretentious, but hey every approach has its strengths and weaknesses.

Chicago Interior by Glenn Head

Paste: Is Madison, New Jersey, that bad? Or was that just how you saw it at the time?
Head: Well, I hated it! Growing up there it was kind of a football-greaser-jock-town, the type you’d read about where some high-school girl gets gang raped in somebody’s basement. You had to watch where you walked. I did anyway. At the same time it presented kind of a smiley-face view of the world: nice homes, trees, lawns, all of that shit. But right underneath the surface there seemed to be this hostility. I guess that’s how I see the suburbs generally and New Jersey in particular. Pretending to be something it’s not. It’s not a greaser-jock football town anymore, Madison, and it’s a bit more manicured, a lot pricier too. Kind of a suburb of New York. I still hate it.

Paste: Would you have done things differently in your life if you could have?
Head: Wouldn’t everyone? I figure everyone who says otherwise is either lying or Keith Richards! I haven’t been as prolific I’d like to have been…why is this my first major work? On that note, back to the drawing board.