I first learned of the underground comix scene back as a young’un in the early 1990s. While I was still getting my feet wet reading Archie Comics’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stories, my older brother and his friend were pouring through the works of creators like R. Crumb and Peter Bagge, keeping the stories far from my prying eyes. When I finally did get to sample my first tastes of underground comix, I was exposed to the work of Glenn Head.
Mr. Head’s work as an editor and creator has earned him well-deserved Harvey and Eisner-award nominations and it’s easy to see why. His time contributing to Weirdo Magazine and Bad News was at times funny, entertaining, and enlightening—but always worked to make the reader experience something. And, thanks in large part to Glenn Head, as I grew in my understanding of what comics and comix could be.
This September, Fantagraphics will release Chicago, Mr. Head’s first long-form autobiographical graphic novel, telling his early days in art school to his harrowing experiences struggling and homeless in the Chicago of the 1970s. Mr. Head was kind enough to speak with me about Chicago, the search for identity, and how he felt he had to tell this story.
FreakSugar: First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed. This is a real treat for me and for FreakSugar.
Glenn Head: Sure. I’m happy to do it.
FS: While we’ve seen hints of your life in some of your other works, would you say that Chicago is the most autobiographical work you’ve done?
GH: Chicago is definitely the most autobiographical work I’ve done. There’s more of me in it than any other comic I’ve done. My hopes, fears, anxieties…. It also depicts me in a very vulnerable state. Homeless, starving, dirty, and on the street…. But also in ways that were emotionally disturbed … and disturbing to draw.
FS: What motivated you to put your story out there in such a bald, unflinching way?
GH: I wanted to tell the story as truthfully as I possibly could, to show things as they happened, or as I really remembered them happening. I wanted that immediacy and to convey that weight of lived experience. If some scenes in the book are upsetting or disturbing for the reader, well, they probably should be. I was trying to capture what it feels like for an emotionally unstable 19-year-old to face the world in a way he never has had to before.
FS: Honesty can sometimes produce the best art, but honesty of the self in art is a trade-off. Wonderful art is created, but often at the price of leaving one’s soul to bear. Was it difficult laying so much of your life out for readers, even if it was in the name of telling an honest, complete story?
GH: Yes, I can honestly say the process of drawing Chicago was both painfully difficult (I’ve never made myself so vulnerable before in a comic) and genuinely thrilling. Chicago is a story that I’d wanted to draw for many years now, so to accomplish that feels great. And it was truly liberating to draw certain scenes in there that were really over-the-top, traumatic experiences…. And yet, I don’t know … to look at some of them is to re-live the trauma! On another level it’s just strange to draw a deeply personal story and put it out there…. You hold onto it pretty tightly, for years, but after drawing it out it’s no longer yours. You’re free of it. I hope!
FS: One of the things that resonated most with me while reading Chicago—and I think many readers will connect with this as well—is the dynamic between you and your dad. I remember having some of the same conversations with my father about my major in college and whether or not I was making the right choice. I realized at the time and in retrospect that he was merely concerned about my future well-being, but those were some difficult conversations at the time. Looking back, was there a turning point where you feel like you were more receptive to his advice?
GH: No, in fact I’d say I was never receptive to his advice! I’m the kind of person who mostly has to do things his own way and make his own mistakes in life. I rarely listened to him. We were often at odds with each other, and I was young, immature, a little crazy … he was safe, kind, a little boring. There was no common ground for us. We never had a close relationship at any time, my father and I. The drawing of Chicago allowed for something, though: to draw him as the basically warm, decent, caring man that he was. That was kind of a gift, because in life we couldn’t connect.
FS: How long did Chicago take to create?
GH: Chicago took six years to create although I’d done some preliminary writing for it much earlier. It was quite a process, learning as I went, because I’d never done anything this long, or this ambitious. My work is very detailed, which I believe helps with the atmosphere and some of the places I was drawing: Chicago, Cleveland, New Jersey, Brooklyn. And I did a lot of photo research too which adds to the time requirement. The feeling of authenticity is very important to me. Especially in a work like Chicago.
FS: Did you have a specific audience in mind while writing Chicago? For me, it connected to a place that many of us have struggled with at a certain age in our lives—judging what we’re told is Truth with a capital T, how the world works, our place in it. But, at times, Chicago feels like it was also for yourself or even for your daughter, in a way.
GH: A specific audience? No not really, I was really just trying to tell this story in a way that I felt I would find engaging if I were reading it.
And I felt that I really did have to tell this story. For me to draw comics of this kind there has to be kind of a life-or-death struggle involved, a great deal at stake for me to take it on. My character was struggling with Truth, trying to find his own version of it. That’s the underlying motor of the book. Looking for it, trying to see something beyond his own safe surroundings … the price paid for that search.
You know, there are a lot of risks and rewards to being an artist … it’s something that you can’t know if you’re just reading comix and dreaming about doing them as a teenager. Chicago is a coming of age story about dealing with that. There’s a spectacular beauty and excitement about comix, but also a counter-balancing struggle that goes with it. In my case it meant flirting with some of the most dangerous parts of what it might be to go “underground”.
FS: What is your drawing process like and how has it evolved over the years? I know you’re a fan of R. Crumb, who plays a role in Chicago, and some of the early work you highlight shows some of that influence, but you’ve clearly created a style that is distinctly and unmistakably your own.
GH: My drawing process … these days is just about trying to capture things as I see them. I try not to think about style. I try to avoid it. This was not always the case for me…. I’ve sometimes gone in for a real cartoony approach—I love that stuff too—but at this point I’m doing my own skewed version of realism!
When I was on the streets in Chicago, my only lifeline was at Playboy magazine … I’d go there, hang out with the art director, Skip Williamson, try not to be too much of a pest, wait for work … it soon hit me that what I’d previously thought of as a peace ‘n’ love comix commune was a pretty difficult place to be. I mean I was on the streets, starving at the time—but the artists themselves … they were barely scraping by.
Crumb was a huge influence on me, as I imagine would be the case for anyone growing up reading underground comix in the 1970s. Meeting him the way I did, for dinner over at Skip’s house was a real eye-opener, too. This was 1977, and things were at a very low ebb for comix. The economy was bad, head shops had shut … to say you wanted to draw ‘underground comix’ at that time was like wanting to be a hippy. Why would you want to? That was Crumb’s feeling—“Why would you want a piece of this? It’s finished—kaput!”
My drawing style has evolved a lot over the years, I like to think … but there are still echoes of the original underground cartoonists in my work—like Crumb. I’m okay with that…. And I feel that it’s appropriate for a comix memoir that is, in some ways about comix, that it would have that. I loved the gritty street level, down and dirty intensity of 1960s comix. I always felt those artists were living what they were drawing. Chicago is definitely about having lived it, and facing the experience.
FS: I appreciated the fact that you showed that while your time in Chicago was clearly a life-changing event, the various experiences within that period took time to change your way of thinking and outlook on the world. Was that something you wanted to highlight in Chicago?
GH: Yes. I was trying to show that the experiences in Chicago were life changing but that events like that, they hit you on a deeper level than you can consciously absorb in the moment. They take years before you can process them. At one point my character, after having been through some devastating moments (including a near-miss suicide attempt), stretches out on his bed, lights a cigarette, and wonders what it’s like to get laid…. This is the beginning of that process for him. He doesn’t know what he wants or what life offers, but he figures, well hey … maybe stick around—see what it’s like to live.
FS: You’ve been working in independent and underground comics for years. What’s the biggest difference you’ve seen in the subgenre during that time?
GH: The biggest differences in comix that I’ve seen are all related to the graphic novel. The once-disposable laff-getter is gone for good. It’s a seismic shift: disposable meant cheap and funny. Expansive (which comics are now) means important and dramatic. They last. They’re meant to be on your bookshelf, spine facing out. And they do last. These are ‘texts’ now. The graphic novels that scored ten or fifteen years ago are still regarded as great work. And the work really matters.
What’s lost in all this? The vulgarity. The funny, jivey, trouble-making, juvenile delinquent bomb-throwing aspect has been rehabbed. Comics may now be great art and accepted as such—but it’s hard for me to see them as dangerous.
Except, of course, with the Charlie Hebdo thing. And that’s just for the people drawing them!
FS: You had mentors along the way during your early years in comics, but I’m sure you had to feel around and do some trial and error on that path, as seen in Chicago. Is there any advice you’d give artists and writers who are looking to work in underground and independent comics today, or just the comics field in general?
GH: Well, everybody has to find one’s own way, obviously, and so I am only speaking for what helped me personally. The School of Visual Arts was really good for me because I had a great teacher in Art Spiegelman. He really took the medium of comics apart and put it back together for me. And he was a good, tough critic. The other thing was finding people there, other artists who were in the same boat, just learning. I believe art-friendships are very important for development. So I think it’s necessary to find people who can give good feedback, and help out. That’s editing. We all need it.
I don’t believe good work ever happens in isolation. Historically, look at the greats: Kurtzman and Elder were individually brilliant, but what a loss if they never got together! And for better or worse, Crumb’s work would never have been what it was if he hadn’t worked at American Greetings. Accidents happen, lucky and otherwise, but that’s what art’s about.
FS: Again, thank you so much for being giving of your time. Sincere congratulations and good luck in September!
GH: It was my pleasure to do it! This comix thing … it’s a can of worms, isn’t it!