Man Cave Daily Essay by Glenn Head: Glenn Head Excavating the Underground
Glenn Head: Excavating the Underground
Hey, Glenn Head, editor of Harvey Award-nominated anthologies Hot Wire and Snake Eyes, are you working on anything cool right now? You are? Is it an illustrated memoir called Chicago? It is? Can we get it right now from Fantagraphics? We can? Man, we’re on a hot streak.
Chicago “looks at the legacy of Crumb and Spiegleman and explores the relationship between artist and mentor–and the artist and his/her community in general.”
Read Head’s essay on how he fell in love with comics and found work in them, and then click on to read a preview of Chicago.
As a young boy growing up in the suburbs I was probably ripe for some kind of radicalization. Drawn to the irreverence of Mad Magazine and psychedelic art, I was somewhat isolated by age 10, often just hiding out in my room drawing.
My very first taste of Underground comics came to me in 1971. I walked into a head shop in Springfield, Illinois, called Penny Lane. It was a place where I used to buy black light posters when visiting my grandmother. Something was different this time. There was an entire wall of the store covered with Underground comic books. There may have been over a hundred on display. Zap, of course, but many, many more (e.g., The Freak Brothers, Hytone, Young Lust, Motor City, Bijou, Insect Fear). It was a cacophony of styles, really blaring. Incredible.
I always refer back to this moment because it was revelatory. A different world existed in each of those books. Raw sexuality, violence, insanity, absurdity at its most extreme—it was all there, right on the covers—and I was hooked. There was no way for me to know that digging around in that world and working in it would take me to some strange places. But it did. And within just a few short years. These years marked a time of intense study. A time away from the world I knew, apart from suburban New Jersey. And away to Cleveland to study art when I was 19. I short circuited there, dropped out, took off and headed for Chicago. Just to see what would happen.
Chicago was just about the worst place to go if you have no money or contacts. I had neither. Right away I was homeless…. Broke, hungry and panhandling. I got a harsher look at life on the streets than I’d ever seen reading underground comics. I had some cock-eyed notion that, while in Chicago, I’d do some work for Playboy.
Playboy had its own peripheral connection to underground cartooning. Though the artists mostly hated the airbrushed sexuality that Playboy espoused, they were still courted by Hefner to contribute to it. This I believe led to Skip Williamson working as an art director there. Never as big a name in the underground as Crumb, he was still a well-respected cartoonist in Chicago, and one of the editors of Bijou Comics (an underground title).
Skip saved my life when I got to Chicago. I was a street person, homeless, dirty, in need of a meal…. He was fine with me hanging out in the Playboy art department. He really didn’t have to. I was a loose cannon. I’d say anything but he never threw me out. And because his job as art director meant assigning illustration work to different artists, I eventually got one, too! My first hired art gig was for Playboy…. It paid well: $250.00, which was a huge sum at the time.
Skip also put other jobs my way at that time which really saved me, kept me off the streets, away from the sex predators who had been drooling over me. And when my other options ran out, Skip had me over to his place, let me sleep on the couch. I house-sat for him too when he went away for Thanksgiving. I stayed there, feeding the cats, watering the plants.
Shortly after that, and before Skip got back, my father came out from New Jersey to pick me up. I haven’t seen Skip since. But I’m still grateful to this day for his generosity. He could have turned me away, and had nothing to do with me. Instead he kept his doors open, both at work and in his home. He didn’t have to do any of that. But most likely it saved my young life.
I got a call from Skip one day—I was now off the streets and in a dive motel—he said Robert was in town and would be over for dinner. I was invited.
Crumb immediately cut a very striking figure. Tall and very skinny, with a huge Adam’s apple, dressed in his old-time suit, he struck me as “asocial,” someone not interested in any social niceties. His handshake—his hand on top of mine—said: “Don’t get too close, man!” And yet, beyond this he was in no way unfriendly. It didn’t really strike me at all that he was a superstar with an attitude, just that he needed distance—even from people he knew. He was at a remove.
Robert never did anything to one-up anyone and, of course, why would he need to? He was the man. What was interesting was to see how favored he was as a guest…. This dinner with Crumb was a kind of high school experience; I was sitting at the ultimate, the coolest, the crème de la Crumb of Underground comix cafeteria tables.
A lot of marijuana was passed around. Crumb declined. A lot of beer got drunk. Skip liked his beer. At one point Jay Lynch, a contemporary of Crumb and Skip (and part of the Chicago scene), started grilling Crumb; “Hey, Robert, what is it with these big-assed, big-legged women you draw? Why? What’s the obsession?” It was playful banter and everyone was laughing, Crumb included, but he still got up, walked out of the room, muttering “Who knows? You should ask a psychiatrist why … don’t ask me … maybe they could tell you, beats me ….” It was the first time I’d seen this part of Crumb, the flap-off routine: “I can’t tell you, I ain’t gonna try—give me some space, Jack!” Obviously he let no one get too close, as honest as he was.
Crumb was also pretty down on the comix scene in that moment. Publishers were dropping like flies, the hippy thing was over. Comix weren’t cool. They were nearly as dead as E.C. comics were right after the code hit in 1955. What had been exciting was now mostly enervated, dried up, dying on the vine. Here was Crumb, one of the greatest cartoonists of the 20th century, looking at the embers of what he had started. Grim, as Robert would say.
Whatever’s going on here, we know we’re not cool enough to be part of it.
Crumb looked at my work later. He really liked what he saw, and he was fascinated by all the detail: “You’re gonna go blind drawing like this.” “But I learned that inking technique from you,” I replied. All the people there were very intrigued to see my work because, this being 1977, they were curious as to what the next generation of cartoonists coming up might bring. I was the first they’d seen.
Crumb’s generosity was actually visible at this moment, too. He offered to get the work I showed him, the guts of a 25-page book published! He offered to show me how to do the hand-color separation work for a cover (the front cover I had done was in colored marker!) I didn’t really get that this was a pretty big deal. I just said, “Yeah … okay.” Crumb, Skip Williamson, and Jay Lynch were talking it over. When Crumb suggested taking the book to Kitchen Sink, Skip replied “Yeah sure, they’ll do whatever Crumb tells ’em to!” Again, very high school.
In fact, I was in a bit of a daze from all of it. It was somewhat overshadowed by the poverty situation that surrounded me. I was now off the streets living in a cheap hotel, and being homeless again terrified me so I was preoccupied by that. I shook hands with Crumb before leaving, got the same over-the-hand handshake and walked out into the cold November night. I knew something special had happened. I wasn’t even sure why, but it all stayed with me.
The whole experience of being on the streets and starving really had a devastating effect on my young psyche. What I really needed was a firmer hand to guide me….
I first met Art in 1978 or so…. I was given his number from somebody after being in Chicago, probably Skip Williamson, and was told to look him up. I met him and his wife in Soho at their loft, which was sparsely furnished, nearly raw space. There wasn’t much to the meeting that was memorable. One thing though: he looked at my work and said, “It’s interesting, but I think if I had you as a student I’d try to get you to simplify your work.” That was the prelude.
By 1981 or so I’d bummed in and out of three art schools and now I was back at the School of Visual Arts. I was ready, or just about. I came into his comics class mid-season to see him berating the students: “I want to talk to the people whose assignments are on this wall about leaving the school, because your money, or your parents’ money, could be better spent elsewhere.” I couldn’t believe it. As an art student I’d never heard anything delivered with such force. I’d been considered a bit of an art prodigy growing up so I was ill prepared for my first crit with Art Spiegelman. Never until that point had I had my work eviscerated. And much of the critique was about one thing: simplifying. Maybe two things: simplifying and using black.
Thinking back on my behavior up until meeting Art it may have been necessary that all my mouthing off, my craziness, my acting out (and dropping out of school) happened before ever really knowing him. Because this time, when he savaged my work, I didn’t just walk away. It was known to anyone who really paid attention that he was a great instructor. I wanted to learn. And I did. I began the slow, life-long process of learning to draw. I also learned about autobiography and that my best work would be in that vein. He pushed it on me and it was the best thing that could have happened.
So on a regular basis (weekly) I brought in new work to face the music. There’s no denying he could be brutal. I’m sure he considered it necessary for any real progress. No one was exempt. Not students. Not professionals who worked for him. And not himself. He also played people off against each other, and if there was an easy way to get things done that hurt no one, or one that caused a little suffering, it made no difference to him.
Yet at the same time he could be the most giving, compassionate teacher if he saw you were really working. He’d come in saying, “You know that comic book from the ’40s I mentioned? And how it relates to your work? Well, here it is….” And then he’d make sure you understood what he was trying to get across.
People who are truly passionate can scare others. I was sitting in on a class of his I’d already taken, and after one of his lectures denouncing commercialism in comics, some new kid, not knowing better said, “Well, uh … I don’t see what’s so bad about commercialism in comics….” Art went ballistic, like, “That’s the stupidest fucking thing I ever heard!!” Then he went on to tear this guy apart, as well as the commercialism in art he loathed. He was really screaming. I knew him and I knew what to expect of him by this point, but it was still a bit shocking.
The next week half of the students had dropped his class, and he noticed. I think he dialed it down a little bit after that. He was dependent on the school for advertising money for his avant-garde comic magazine RAW.
Being a good instructor also meant being a good editor, and in learning to face the music we all learned what it was we liked (and didn’t) in comics. Also, not just drawing comics, but making them. Finding printers. Selling ad space to help pay for the publishing. Dealing (agh!) with distributors. It was truly a grass roots education.
One of the great gifts in all this was also to learn about collaboration, and that little great work is done in a vacuum. For all the talk there is about creative freedom and being an auteur, everyone who wants to improve their work must (nearly always) embrace feedback if they want to improve.
Some of the better feedback I got during these early years came from another 1960s cartoonist, then doing some of his best work, Kim Deitch. He saw my work, was very impressed, and did everything he could to give me a helping hand in the comix game, talking up my work to publishers and editors. He also wrote me some great, encouraging letters, covering everything from storytelling to booze. Kim had sworn off drinking and he could sense that I was a drinker myself. His concern for my welfare was instrumental in my getting sober; I saw by his example that one of the most important aspects of cartooning is physical fitness. A person really does have to have great stamina to meet deadlines, produce work, and do the best writing and drawing he can.
Cartooning is ultimately very demanding, even punishing as an art form. It requires literally everything a cartoonist can give it. That being the case, many artists in the 1960s did the most ambitious work the medium had seen up to that point. They demanded complete editorial control and copyright ownership of their material. For the first time the artist’s work was truly the artist’s, in every possible way.
Paradoxically one of the occasional weaknesses of the underground comics could relate to that freedom. Due to their rebellious nature and a refusal to be reined in, the artists sometimes drew and redrew what they were personally obsessed by…. The work was capable of insight into the human condition, but could also be hateful, brutally violent in its take on life. The artists, when confronted with this, would argue that they were simply reflecting the world around them. That may be, but there was also a reactionary bent to some of this … sort of like, “You saying I can’t draw this? Just watch me!”
If their excesses could border on the sophomoric, it seems doubtful that the pornographic taboo-busting and aggression of the Zap artists will be the Underground’s greatest legacy. Rather it seems that their willingness to go deep and embrace the autobiographical, no matter how crazy, terrifying or embarrassing it might be will really count as their ultimate breakthrough.
The best of the U.G. cartoonists were like miners, doing very dangerous work, digging into their own psyches, risking everything to find out what was there, even if it killed them. Much of this work goes beyond entertainment, and is only funny because we are shocked by truth, shocked by real experience and don’t know of another response to it. So we laugh. It is the artist’s willingness to gaze into the abyss of human existence and all that that entails: love, hate, terror, death, family relationships … that has proved the great worth of the medium, and led to its breakthroughs. This work takes us to a place we may have been but aren’t sure we want to revisit. Ourselves.