Glenn Head on Underground Comics

Glenn Head on Underground Comics
by Edward Carey November 2008

When Glenn Head started out in underground comics, back in the seventies, he found himself on the streets of Southside Chicago trying to make ends meet. Under these dire circumstances, he met many of the paragons of underground comics, including RobertCrumb. Head told Comics Culture of his inauspicious beginnings, of meeting Crumb on the streets of Chicago, and how he would eventually come to be editor of “HotwireComics” in a candid interview at his studio in Brooklyn.After being exposed to Crumb’s work while still in high school, as well as that of other underground comics which he had found “totally mind-blowing,”he bounced in and out of art school in the late seventies, at a time when underground comics artists were looking for work. Many of the head shops in which underground comics were distributed were forcefully closed down due to laws against selling drug paraphernalia and the direct market for comics had yet to come about.“I was at the Cleveland Institute of Art, which was probably a big mistake. It was a very stuffy kind of place and I wasn’t really ready to settle down and take art school seriously anyway.

So, I dropped out and hitchhiked to Chicago in the fall of ‘77, knowing no one and with no money and it was kind of a harrowing experience. I ended up panhandling and living on the South Side of Chicago. It was very surreal; I met various people, including MuhammedAli, on the street, on Michigan Avenue,” said Head. He managed to get some work at Playboy Magazine through the art director at the time,Skip Williamson, and met Crumb shortly thereafter. He said, it was a surreal experience meeting heroes like Crumb, Jay Lynch, Marty Powell “and other cult figures of the era”while living on the street. Crumb came across much like he did in the biographical film[by director Terry Zwigoff] on his life [“Crumb”].

“He appeared a lot like he did in the movie [“Crumb”], because in the movie he doesn’t appear like he does in his comics. He’s such a gifted cartoonist that he makes himself look pretty appealing, even at his worst in his comics. It’s a thing of becoming a sympathetic narrator, which you’re gonna have to do if you’re doing underground comics. In person, when I met him, he was kind of unpleasant. He wasn’t a nice guy. was the kind of guy that when he shakes your hand, he reaches down to you a little bitand it was kind of funny,” said Head. Underground comics were on the wane by the late seventies, due to the closing of headshops and a glut of material, putting many of the artists in dire circumstances, whichHead said that Crumb was bitter about. Growing up in a middle-class background inBrooklyn, this was enough to “put the fear in me” and Head moved back to New York,eventually enrolling at the School of Visual Arts, where he met Art Spiegelman, who was teaching there.

He also met many of his contemporaries while there whom he would later work with, like Kaz, Mark Newgarden and Drew Friedman, and many other artists of the time. This was around the time that Spiegelman was putting RAW Magazine together with his wife Francoise Mouly.Spiegelman is currently touring to promote the re-release of Breakdowns, with a new introduction and afterword by the artist, entitled “Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@?*!” He also advises Mouly on her new line of hardcover comics for young readers,TOON Books.At the time though, the only way to publish underground comics was self-publishing,which is what Spiegelman did with the help of SVA, according to Head.“By this point, the world of [underground] comics essentially didn’t exist in terms of any publishing houses.

Fantagraphics wasn’t even on the map yet, but they soon would be.The only way to do comics and get them out there was through self-publishing and that’s what Spiegelman was doing with, it was like grant money, from SVA. So, he would haveone of the artists, I guess Jerry Moriarty, design a back cover for the magazine and thenthey’d get money and they’d be able to publish it. That’s pretty much how I learned about how to do comics and that was also how I learned about editing, which I didn’t really have any interest in, but we were always in this group dynamic working on ananthology,” said Head.One of the early anthologies Head and his fellow artists put out was one called Bad News, ananthology lost to time, which “kinda disappeared” but had a lot of great work in it. Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik were editors, but it was also“kinda group edited in a way.”“When you have a bunch of guys like that together,that are in art school, and they’re all trying to topeach other in terms of doing better work and knife the other guy for doing bad work . . . so there was alot of heavy critiquing in other words. That’s sort of how it came together,” said Head.

Though a couple of the artists had already graduated SVA, like Drew Friedman, Bad News
had grown out of a Spiegelman art class, an independent study course that theywould come by and work on. There were three issues altogether.After some time away from comics, Head self-published Avenue D
originally in the eighties as a “grungy black-and-white comic” through distributors like Last Gasp and instores. Fantagraphics later published the color version, which had a few different comics in it. At the time, the only artists published by Fantagraphics, according to Head, were the Hernandez Bros. and maybe a couple of books by Drew Friedman and Kaz. He had to work a part-time job, as well as at a film studio, to make ends meet.In the late eighties, Head said that the anthology was “the only way to go.” The graphic novel boom had yet to make its mark and comics weren’t widely distributed in bookstores. Every artist wanted to get published in one of the two biggest anthologies,published out of New York and San Francisco respectively.Head finally got a strip published in Weirdo.“I’d been sending them my work for quite awhile.It’s kind of funny, because it was accepted that it was kind of a competitive thing to get into which I had never made it into, but it was also equally competitive to get into Crumb’s.

People around here kind of pissed on that comic, because it was kind of grungier, but in fact, in its own way was really good. Both of those anthologies were really groundbreaking, because a lot of peoplewho hadn’t been seen came up through there. That’s what they were about,” said Head.Head talked about his affection for the anthology format, but had some doubts about its future and said that they’re no longer needed to break in new artists.“The anthology has been around for quite awhile. If you have followed the history of the comic book format . . . there were EC Comics, the horror comics, and in a way that may have been one of the earlier anthologies, because they were really these books that had a mash-up of different cartoon styles that one editor would be dealing with and that was kind of the beginning of it, and from there, it went onto [Harvey] Kurtzman’s, which also had a lot of different styles hitting up against each other. And from there, you had underground comics, which did this with.

But it’s not needed at this point as a format, because you have the Web, and everybody as soon as there in any way publishable and maybe even before, they’re on the Web and they’re bouncing around all over the place,” said Head.Anthologies collect artists with different and distinctive styles, sometimes with differenttones, but a graphic novel is usually the work of a singular artist or writer/artist team witha singular vision.“Where I was getting at when I mentioned the Web and all these people that come upthrough there, there’s a huge amount of people doing this stuff now, almost more thancan be sifted through. The craziness that I like about a really good anthology book, theanarchy of it, is something that at this time in comics, is something that people aren’treally looking for. People have finally accepted comics as this medium; it’s mainstream in that comics are accepted as an art form just as much as film is, which is good on the one hand, but my impression is that the mainstream is looking at comics in a way that they want it explained to them and so they want the history explained to them.

So, there have been a lot of books lately, like “The Ten Cent Plague,” that’s all about how comics were banned and how they came back anyway and how the graphic novel is big now. It’s almost the way Jazz was looked at in the 50s. It was explained back to Americans byEuropeans and critics who could get them to understand it. I think, in a lot of ways, people are scared by the craziness of comics, and people like the graphic novel right now, because it’s not that scary. It’s actually taking a medium that’s capable of insane craziness and making it very sane . . . I mean, from some of the best cartoonists that exhibited this kind of crazy exuberance, like Kurtzman and Will Elder, you’ve got something that’s on the other side of the spectrum, which is really kind of very straight and very easily digested over the course of several hundred pages. So, it’s non-threatening, it’s soothing, and that’s what I think is going on with the graphic novel in alot of ways. It’s soothing to the sensibilities, its not jarring,” said Head.

When Head talked of his influences, he mentioned MAD Comics as being very influential to him and many underground artists. Spiegelman also talks about his love for MAD in the new “Breakdowns” volume.“I was really influenced by a lot of the underground stuff. That stuff really grabbed me in a way that nothing else did. I think that stuff grabbed me in a way that certain MAD comics had grabbed me just previously to underground comics, because MAD comics, which were different from MAD magazine, there were certain strips I had seen right before undergrounds. They were these strips that [Harvey] Kurtzman and Will Elder andWally Wood did; there was this one called ‘Starchy,’ which was a satire of ‘Archie’ and the other was one called ‘Super-Duper Man,’ that Wallace Wood illustrated. And, in as plash panel of that one, you’ve got this superhero belting this guy, just bullying him sadistically and the crowd is cheering, and it captured the kind of sadism that’s inherent in that kind of comic, as well as in crowds generally, when something awful is happening. It was really unflinching, in the way that it caught it that, and likewise, there was the strip ‘Starchy’ that . . . it captured not your typical American teenager, but your typical American high school with all this horrible violence going on and all this twisted

stuff, which was often part and parcel to New York high schools, which is where the strip took place. Right after that, underground comics came out, and the reason I mention the min connection with these two strips is that there was this toxicity about those two strips,that was something that the undergrounds really ran with. They were really trying to shove in your face that, the world is not pretty, the world is pretty ugly, and it comes at you pretty hard. These guys were really trying to hit you with that, in a way that was in some instances almost toxic,” said Head.He also liked artists like Rory Hayes, who he called “a primitive,” and Jim Osbourne, “who did some really twisted stuff.”Head said of these artists, “These guys were definitely trying to subvert and sometimes it didn’t always work, because it could just be taboo-busting. And the problem with that, is that it can be shock for its own sake, as opposed to a really great comic or a really good story.”Another artist who greatly influenced his work was Kim Deitch, whose work is the subject of a current exhibit atThe Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art.

He will also appear at the museum on October 30 and November 13.“I think the reason for [Deitch’s] lasting appeal, one reason he’s still a big name and a force to be reckoned with, was because he was such a terrific storyteller. Any of his comics really hold together as nuts-and-bolts comic strips; they’re really good narratives, and his style was weird as hell, too. What I really like about all that stuff . . . I really think of all those guys as being master stylists. Like a lot of them really couldn’t draw that well, and a lot of that stuff convinced me, in a way that Chester Gould, who did “Dick Tracy” convinced me, that a lot of what it’s about is coming up with a strong, individual voice, much more than it is about being able to draw really well. People who can are also great, but it’s not like the prerequisite in comics,” said Head.As for contemporaries who have impacted his style, he mentions Kaz, who he edited a couple of anthologies with, including Snake Eyes.

“He was actually an influence in a sense that, he was really into LSD and he was trying to get me to take it, but I wouldn’t do it. [Kaz] was always pushing the thing of . . . you’re looking at comics like this is an autobiographical strip and this is a fantasy strip, and this is another kind of strip, and not to think of it in terms of different genres, but to smoosh it all together and see what you get. I think that had an influence on me. His stuff definitely had an expanded-consciousness aspect to it that I really admired,” said Head.

He also mentioned Charles Burns, Mark Byer and Mark Newgarden as being “really great” from around that time [the eighties], because he considers it to be “one of the last piques of underground comics, if you can call what was going on then underground comics.”“If you look at Charles Burns’ work, and try to find somebody who did what he did, only better; you know, taking it to the next level, taking it further, rather than just extending ita little bit . . . I don’t think anybody has topped him in terms of being an amazing visualstylist. I think comics have gotten kind of stagnant in that regard,” said Head.Again returning to graphic novels, he talks about some of the drawbacks.“That’s another aspect to the graphic novel, which is, that in a lot of cases . . . even with the best ones, like Persepolis, it’s kind of about getting the art out of the way, so that you can read it as a novel, where you’re not paying attention to visuals. I think that runs alittle contrary to the history of comics, like comics at their best . . . like “Little Nemo inSlumberland,” from that all the way to Crumb and through various other artists, the artitself is mind-blowing. It’s almost like poster art, that you would hang on the wall andlook at, and it would be almost as good as a piece of art that you would hang up and justlook at the visuals, as it ever would be to read. The thing with the graphic novel seems togo beyond that; it’s not about that kind of thing, you’re not supposed to get lost in thevisuals, because if you do, it might get in the way of this . . . book,” said Head.Head likens the rise of graphic novels in comics to popular music and the trends that haveaffected that industry.“In some ways, I think it’s a marketing thing.

If somebody had something they could do as a strip, they could maybe do it as a strip in twenty pages or fifty pages . . . if the publishers, the powers that be, can make a deal with them to turn it into a 200 or 300 page graphic novel, and push it, that’s what they’ll do. That’s not even a simple thing todo; people have to work within what’s hot. If pop songs go this way or that way, the popartist has to work within that, but I don’t think it necessarily makes for better art; itdoesn’t make for better comics, it just makes for more quantity.There’s something in there that seems like a fear of comics; it’s like a fear of accepting comics as what they are. The analogy I think of, is when rock opera becamethis big thing, because this rock’n’roll record by Little Richard wasn’t art, but it could beart if it was a rock opera. If you need a new moniker for something to make it acceptableto the public, for them to be able to accept it as higher art . . . like when Europeans makeobscure movies that Americans don’t get, they then put them on a higher level than anAmerican movie; there’s something not sensible there, and it represents a certain kind of snobbery and a certain kind of fear about accepting the medium for what it is,” said Head.Comics are easier to produce now and even most self-published comics have color and better cover designs, but as Head said, they’re not necessarily better.