“While Chicago might be Glenn Head’s own personal story of adversity and learning the rules of life, he connects with readers by, at times, appealing to the universality of each one of our struggles to find our place in the world.”
Bald honesty in art can be a difficult thing to pull off, even more so in autobiographies and memoirs. While we would all like to believe that we present the details of our past in an objective, unflinching manner, the truth of the matter is that our recollections of our past experiences are inevitably colored by our passions and prejudices, as well as our desire to see ourselves in the most positive light possible. After all, we would like to believe that we are the heroes of our own stories, shining knights whose feet never touch clay. It is the rare artist who can draw from his past and create a work that portrays himself as neither hero nor villain, but as human, trying just like the rest of us to do what he sees is best for his life.
Which is why Chicago, Eisner and Harvey Award nominated artist Glenn Head’s first long-form autobiography about his early days as a struggling, aspiring artist in 1970s Chicago, is such a breath of fresh air and a revelation. As Mr. Head told us in a recent interview with FreakSugar, “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.” As we follow a younger Glenn Head as he tries to feel his way through a world he only thinks he fully understands, Head the writer stares that past in the face and doesn’t flinch, detailing his often tumultuous journey of how he learned about life and his place in it.
That journey begins in art school, shortly after leaving his sheltered, suburban upbringing for a life of art that his father seems alternately skeptical and disdainful of, even though he does support Head in his own way, with tuition and checking in on his son to make sure he’s doing well. However, Head becomes disenchanted with what he perceives as the rigorous strictures and imposing rules of formal art education, deciding instead to abandon his studies to journey to Chicago, where he hopes to draw for Playboy magazine. However, once Head arrives in the Windy City, he soon realizes that the world outside what he knows as familiar can be cruel and unkind. Only through perseverance, luck, and the occasional kindness of strangers does he find himself no longer living on the streets, with a hint of a chance of a maybe of the kind of life he’s looking for twinkling in the horizon.
What makes Chicago and Head stick the landing is Head’s refusal to do anything but to view the world straight-on, with eyes wide open and an adamant denial of sugarcoating reality. That patina of realism washes over Chicago from beginning to end. That realism is especially telling in how we see Head travel from points A to B to C. He shows how perhaps he idealized the world of art he wanted to join and be immersed in, wanting to become a part of the milieu that his heroes such as R. Crumb and other artists of the Underground Comix scene. However, once in art school, he’s exposed to a world that looks little like the suburbia of his youth, with crime permeating the walls outside of higher learning.
Head expertly uses that revelation to show how he both became aware of his own mortality and had a desire to embrace it. While, on the surface, we might see Head striking out for Chicago with no money and no place to stay as a foolhardy endeavor of a young man who isn’t as worldly as might should be for such an adventure, Head also balances that skepticism with showing his motivations for making such seemingly brazen strokes. Again, highlighting Head’s newfound awareness of his own finite nature, I saw his boldness as admirable, if ill-planned. The older we get, the less likely we are to do those things that we truly wish to do, as the weight of responsibilities and the detritus of life build to a sometimes-uncomfortable load to bear. Head seems to understand both of these points of view and never makes a moral judgment, saying one is the better than the other. Instead, he presents his life as he remembers it happening, leaving readers to take what lessons that they will from his story.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how the gritty nature of the art didn’t contribute to that story. While Head’s style has clearly been influenced by the Underground Comix he read as a young man, his line work has evolved into a signature all Head’s own. Every pencil stroke has a purpose, and the economy of his illustrations create the world of the 1970s that feels very much lived-in. However, it’s Head’s facial expressions that really sell the tale. Even without thought balloons or dialogue, Head makes sure the reader knows exactly what the characters are thinking at any given moment. It’s a marriage of storytelling and art that is sometimes woefully lacking in some modern day comics and it’s lovely to see an artist who understands how much both sides of the equation matter.
While Chicago might be Glenn Head’s own personal story of adversity and learning the rules of life, he connects with readers by, at times, appealing to the universality of each one of our struggles to find our place in the world. His uncompromising truth in storytelling is admirable, informative, and inspiring. He lets us know that it’s more than okay to be human.