CHICAGO — A Comix Memoir — On Sale Now
Glenn Head’s Chicago Is a Titillating, Brutal Comics Memoir
by Abraham Riesman
VULTURE (vulture.com, nymag.com) September 2015
There’s always something pornographic about a good memoir. Even if there’s no actual sex in the tale, we’re still drawn to the forbidden thrill of seeing behind closed doors and witnessing parts of the human experience we’re not supposed to discuss in polite society. We crave the sweet release of seeing someone else be as shitty and stupid as we fear we might be. In his breathtaking new semiautobiographical graphic novel, Chicago, Glenn Head is the best kind of emotional-smut peddler, offering a mouthwatering medley of humiliations, obsessions, jealousies, and poor decisions.
The basic structure of the story is as familiar as its execution is surprising: A New Jersey teenager named Glen (note the single n, a warning against interpreting the story as strictly nonfictional) leaves his one-horse New Jersey town in the late 1970s, drops out of art school to pursue his dreams of being a cartoonist, struggles with poverty and failure on the streets of Chicago, and reconciles with his estranged family. It even concludes with the protagonist unexpectedly reuniting with a long-lost love.
But while these tropes should be wearisome and worrisome for readers of autobiographical novels, Chicago transcends them and offers something bracingly fresh. The key here is the utter lack of sympathy Head offers to his lead character. Although Glen isn’t an evil or malicious man, he is exceptionally narcissistic and wholly unable to make reasonable decisions. This is not a wistful bildungsroman about an artsy young man who’s too clever for the mundane world around him. This is a story about a fool, born into a kind and privileged family, who selfishly squanders nearly every opportunity that comes his way. (To make matters worse, Head draws Glen with a persistent smirk.)
Indeed, there’s an element of George Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate in some of Glen’s more astoundingly misguided moments — they offer the reader a chance for arousingly pure disdain. For example: In an early scene, the incorrigibly lazy Glen decides to skip all of his art-school classes for no reason, instead smoking endless cigarettes in his squalid dorm (pity his underfed cat and put-upon roommate). During this period of indulgent sloth, he has the audacity to tell someone from his life-drawing class, “You know, I’m thinking lately that life experience is more important than life drawing,” to which the schoolmate replies, “You hardly even go to class!” Glen’s only response is a self-satisfied “Yeh” and a rant about not wanting to be a “slave to some master.” He fucks off to Chicago soon afterward without informing his loving parents. Oh, and I won’t even get into the part where Glen has sexual fantasies about the Holocaust, or the time he runs into Muhammad Ali and racially taunts him, just for shock value. The artist may be a young man, but there’s nothing noble about his portrait.
The story is almost an inverse Book of Job: Fate keeps handing Glen second chances, and he keeps tossing them away out of misplaced pride and poor judgment. But here’s where the book’s status as (partial) memoir becomes crucial. If this were a tale about some wholly fictional character, the novel would be sadistic and shallow. But Head is talking about himself. Viewed through that lens, the book becomes brutally introspective, instead of sadistically condescending. This kind of unflinching self-observation is gripping, admirable, and indelible. By the time we see a grown-up Glen ruminating on his past (while still being something of a sleazy asshole), we’re intimately attached to him, even if the primary lesson he’s taught us is to never do anything he does.
And the artwork is wonderful. Though Glen spends much of his life idolizing underground-comix god R. Crumb (and Crumb, himself, makes a memorable cameo during the Chicago exile), Chicago’s visuals bear little relation to Crumb’s epoch-defining pointillism. Head’s artwork is filled with smooth lines and thick waves of ink, creating blocky and compelling images in the vein of Frans Masereel’s mid-century woodcuts. But it does retain Crumb’s love of overstuffed imagery, with hand-drawn signage and labels causing chaos in often-massive panels. Every scene is just a few extra lines away from becoming surreal, and it’s hard to take your eyes off a style that stands on the threshold of nightmarish-ness.
In fact, the whole novel is about thresholds: between self-discovery and selfishness, between independence and ignorance, between exploration and overindulgence. It’s about as fun as despising someone can get.
“Chicago, A Comix Memoir,” by Glenn Head is a true rarity: a modern graphic novel that could hold its own with many titles from the heyday of the Underground. With unsparing honesty and sometimes disturbing imagery, Head charts a trajectory spanning three decades. The work is cut from whole cloth, in that his intense visual style owes zilch to the abundant style books and polemics that inform much contemporary work. His writing is obviously informed by authentic experience, so it has a consistent verve. That live current throbs through the whole panorama: it’s a coming of age story; a dangerous psychic battle; a love story; a scary urban survival saga; a career overview and a reflection on fatherhood. At least, I know it’s about those things. The elusive author/artist voice outside of all this varied experience is the true subject. It’s well worth hearing!” Justin Green
“Chicago is a starkly forthcoming autobiography in which the author does not come off as a particularly likeable character, but this is part of what makes the story so compelling. After years of plugging away at the comics medium, Glenn has at last found his voice, found the way to tell his own truth, and has produced a very fine graphic novel, strange, unique, deeply personal, a very rewarding comic book reading experience, I found.” R. Crumb
“Glenn Head’s work embodies the old school, Zap-era comic style that has all but almost completely disappeared in the new era of wacom tablets, tumblr and tedious navel gazing autobio comics. Glenn’s story is crazy and delightful, and his work masterfully done. His combination of old school comics and adult retrospective is a rare and impressive thing, and makes for an incredibly satisfying read.” Julia Wertz
“A valuable memoir from a cartoonist who navigated the era between the undergrounds and Alternative comics. Unflinching.” John Porcellino
“There was a time in this country when art was dangerous, when music was varied and independent, when people were still people and not quite the plastic lock step frightened little consumers they’ve been incubated to be. Starting band was as easy as learning three chords. Going on tour was as easy as climbing in a van. Hosting a show as easy as opening your garage door. There was such a diversity of underground scenes, niche genres of music, an underground voice of fanzines, and libraries of independent comics. It was easy to get lost in the riptide of fervor and emotion and ideas. People fighting against social systems, governments mating with corporations, or neo-racism. There were hundreds of outlets, venues, college radio stations, indy bookstores, record labels, distributors, and an entire culture of hands to help raise the barn. They raised each other up in the name of honesty, accountability, anarchy, social justice, chaos, and shunned the toxic lust for money. Oh, how long ago that seems. Glenn Head takes you right back to that time and place. His work is cut from the fabric of his being with a rusty straight razor, he knows that you can’t be open and exposed without a little blood. His honesty is nearly unappreciated in a culture built on lies and social Darwinism, but is as vital and necessary to remind us of the freedoms we lost in the past two decades as anything penned by Orwell. His work is a wail of freedom; not the bumper sticker shrink wrapped kind that always falls out of the mouth of millionaire politicians, but the freedom that comes only when you have sacrificed everything.” Johnny ‘Thief’ Di Donna