The Comics Reporter—Tom Spurgeon Interviews Glenn Head

CR Sunday Interview: Glenn Head

by Tom Spurgeon

Glenn Head is one of the strongest artists I relate to later-period underground comix, an artist who has thrived on the styles and approaches common to underground publications even as the most famous publication of that era’s heyday for the most part stopped existing before he began to ply his trade. I remember seeing his work for the first time in Weirdo and Bad News and then as a reliable contributor to a variety of anthologies over the last quarter century, such as the great Snake Eyes, which he co-edited. He has style to burn, and his comics are always a highlight wherever they appear.

In Chicago, Head moves in a totally different direction with a long-form comic that’s strongly and thoroughly autobiographically informed. It’s the story of his young life as an artist. Again, the art is a joy and the voice appealing, but Head gets at some ideas and states of mind that aren’t the common fodder of issue- or event-oriented memoir writing. I was most impressed with how he wrote about the growing realization you have as a young man that life is mostly arbitrary and the result of an accumulation of decisions from those you can’t remember to the most recent. I was happy to sit down with Head and talk over this new work and some of his past gigs. My thanks to David Hyde for arranging it. — Tom Spurgeon

TOM SPURGEON: Glenn, I know it’s a question you’re going to be asked over and over, but it’s fairly astonishing to get a long autobiographical work out of you given the bulk of your career in kind of out there short pieces. Can you break down how you ended up doing this project at this time? At what point — maybe even while doing it — did you realize you were committed?

GLENN HEAD: Chicago is a story I’d always wanted to tell, I think, going back to when I first began doing some autobiographical comics in my twenties. It percolated for a long time. I also considered the material in Chicago to be very rich, but also frightening because it puts me in a very vulnerable position… hungry, homeless, starving. Being totally alone and on the streets… as well as depicting some moments of emotional disturbance. These aren’t easy things to face, but I knew I wanted to. And I wanted to do something completely serious about my life, my history, not something I could, you know… joke around with.

Getting Chicago started was really hard, I work slowly — and because I was having trouble with a beginning for it, I jumped into the middle to draw the Chicago chapter first. That really got the ball rolling on the whole thing… There’s nothing I love more than drawing urban squalor, that’s really a treat for me, drawing garbage, broken windows, cracked sidewalks… the desperation that’s right on the surface. Once I got going with that, I had the momentum going to do the book — things were up and running. Of course then I had to go back and write the first chapters of the book, too!

Another part of getting it all going was my friend and fellow artist Tim Lane… I told him about the whole project, and he wouldn’t stop bugging me if I wasn’t gonna do it! Tim was also an inspiration for me because his own work is kind of “social realism” comics, and it has a dramatic aspect that brought me back to some of my own earlier work… sort of a reconnection. So yeah the idea of emotional content being a factor in storytelling, I thought about that more. And he’d call me up, say “what’s going on with Chicago?” He even called up Fantagraphics for me — I couldn’t believe that! So I was like “Okay, I’ll do it!”

SPURGEON: There’s a vignette element to what you’re doing, so it does break down into smaller units, but how did you take more generally to making a longer piece, finding elements and ideas that you could develop along the way. Were there things just in terms of the length of the work that you found particularly and maybe even practically challenging?

HEAD: Well on a practical level it was just really challenging just because I work slowly. I think I just accepted that though, because I can’t work any differently — this is the only way I can draw. And I think those details are worth it… they help to convey the tone of what these different locations are like. I did photo-research too. I flew out to Chicago and Cleveland to photograph the different places the story takes place in. That always helps me.

In working on the book I was very consciously attempting to work with certain themes: innocence vs. experience, the search for authenticity, the need for individual beliefs, issues of class, race, wealth, poverty, sex, and the high price paid for outsider status. Death sets the book in motion. My character is laughing, sprawled out in a graveyard, laughing — he laughs at everything — it sets the tone: “What am I gonna do with all this before I die?”

SPURGEON: One thing I think that’s really interesting about how your work as a cartoonist is presented is that we sometimes classify underground comix (R. Crumb, Shelton, Wilson) and alt comix (Hernandezes, Clowes, Ware) as these completely separate generations when in actuality they overlapped and there’s a whole group of you that were too late to be in Arcade — as gets pointed out in Chicago — but certainly contributed to Weirdo and other publications of that type and style. Who do you see as your direct peers? Who are cartoonists that you feel a kinship with, particularly those your age?

HEAD: I really feel a kinship with Phoebe Gloeckner… There’s a kind of devastated psychic landscape I see in her work that I feel a connection to and a sympathy for… Her book Diary of a Teenage Girl made me think, well, maybe doing this is possible. If you can just have the guts to draw it! Also she used Crumb in her book as a character, something I did, too… I thought that might be a no-no. And it’s not like I did that flattering a portrait of him. Fortunately for me he wasn’t pissed off about it!

You know meeting Crumb as I depicted it in Chicago … was kind of an eye-opener… I was 19, and really wet behind the ears, but it was still obvious to see that Crumb was “the man.” It was also like seeing that comics wasn’t this free-wheeling, good-time romance of laughs and camaraderie that I had expected. The book shows me for the naive creature I was, getting my face rubbed in it.

That said, I don’t really read comics that much anymore… A lot of what really inspired me as I worked on Chicago was film. You know these 1970s crime noir films, especially Martin Scorcese’s… there’s such a grit in those movies from when New York was “Fun-city.” In fact, it’s weird to say, but I can really relate my character’s behavior to Taxi Driver and Mean Streets… that kind of alienation, I guess. That kind of crazy.

SPURGEON: You published in two of the great series, period, of the 1980s, Weirdo and Bad News. Weirdo is probably at the low ebb of its influence before being reconsidered, while Bad News has always been a much loved but obscure publication for a lot of people, and not heard of at all by others. How do you look at each experience now, what comes to mind? Why don’t we remember Bad News as much as we should given the talent involved? Was it the timing?

HEAD: Weirdo always had this kind of “doggie’s dinner” aspect to it that I liked, but a lot of people were saying “what a piece of shit!” [Spurgeon laughs] Weirdo was a great anthology because the aesthetic wasn’t that work had to be perfectly realized but fundamentally its own. Plus it had a homemade vibe to it that I have to love — not that it was ever unprofessional — that felt loose enough for the book itself to grow and change. I think it will be reconsidered — it should — the fact that it had three different editors with three distinct sensibilities… it allowed for a lot of great voices to be heard. Unlike any other anthology of that era, it was organic.

Bad News came about as an art school project at S.V.A., same as RAW Magazine. Like RAW, it was self-published… we went about selling ad space to help finance it. S.V.A. may have kicked in a few bucks, too, but I’m not sure. By the second issue it had really gotten good, had a lot of top-notch work in it, it really wasn’t student-y at all… Then whatever happened happened between Art Spiegelman and Mark Newgarden. Some row. That sort of ended it as a going concern, although years later a third issue came out of lesser quality. The point is though, it was you know, strangled in its infancy so it didn’t develop. That’s that. Life in the big city. Too bad though.

What it led to for me was editing the same crowd plus a few others in Snake Eyes, a book that Kaz and I put out. This kind of shows you, I guess, that if the energy and talent are there, they’ll rise up. They have to.

SPURGEON: Phoebe Gloeckner points out that you have one of the all time great styles. And it’s true, I think most people familiar with your work can see a panel from across a room and recognize it as one of yours. Can you talk a bit about how you’ve developed a style over the years, because the work you show as older work in the new book seems of a type with what you do now, but definitely a more rudimentary version of what you do now.

HEAD: I grew up reading underground comics, and I think they really had an impact, because that work was really all style… It was kind of the opposite of E.C. Comics, where everyone was a solid draftsman but not always that powerfully idiosyncratic. By comparison the underground work was totally individual, almost abstract in its look. I think I immediately absorbed that as a kid looking at it.

What changed for me was going to S.V.A. There I had Art Spiegelman push Dick Tracy on me. That was a constant, and it really made its way into my drawing to the point where the blacks come into my work instinctively. I’m always thinking in terms of clarity. And graphic effect.

But at the same time I’m kind of an A.D.D. case. I really need to draw the details… it’s just how my eyes focus on things — very intently.

I think I draw kind of weirdly. There is this primitive side to my work, but I sure don’t play it up. And in terms of style, I actually try to avoid having a style! The way I draw, I’m really just trying to capture reality. And I love that aspect of autobiography in comics. The question to always come back to: “Is this what it looked like to me when it happened? Is this what it felt like?” These are my main concerns with the drawing.

SPURGEON: Did you have trouble adjusting your style to the demands of a story like this one?

HEAD: Well realism — there’s less wiggle-room for goofy drawing, so in that respect it’s a little more demanding than the more cartoony, surrealist stuff, but… I got used to it. Photo research helps if I’m stuck.

It’s actually the psychological adjustment of doing this kind of story that was the hardest, exposing that vulnerability I felt at the age of 19, or for that matter now. That’s hard.

SPURGEON: Why Glen and not Glenn? It’s being presented as memoir, so I wondered after that potential degree of separation?

HEAD: I’m constantly aware of autobiographical comics as a form of performance art. This may be true in the prose memoir, too, but with comix even if you’re attempting to show a wide emotional range… everything there is within very tight characterizations, x-number of facial expressions. You’re trying to show one emotional state in a panel, not several. Comics is by definition a very controlled medium. The artist is always saying “All that stuff happening between the panels? Not important — here’s what is!” Giving you his worldview. His own very limited narrow worldview. Glen is lacking in the dimensionality of Glenn. He moves through the panels in a fractionalized world compared to the one I know. His experiences are only the ones I’m allowing him to have, or the viewer to see. The point is this is not the whole story. It’s just the version I’m giving you. By definition it’s shortened. Just as Glenn is shortened to Glen.

SPURGEON: Can you talk to me about the process of writing the book? Was it scripted, did you do a sketched version? Was there any research or even just personal inventory involved? Did you consult anyone else for a different perspective on shared events?

HEAD: No I didn’t consult anybody about shared events. I talked to the real-life Sarah character. Got her permission to use her story. There was a lot of photo research as I mentioned before…

I guess I’d say it was heavily scripted. I do a lot of written drafts with rudimentary breakdowns, just enough that I can understand them visually. Often they’re just barely sketches. But I do a lot of them before I’ve boiled it down to where I want it, so that it flows. What I try for is a completely fluid narrative that the viewer cannot be confused by.

I try not to do tight page breakdown beforehand though. It makes doing the final page too boring. I need the option of being able to change the page layouts around if I should need to. Let’s face it, this stuff is really just heavy labor. It’s the counterweight, perhaps to the fact that comics are one of the most fun mediums ever when they’re done well… I almost can’t imagine an art form tougher than comics. Because it’s on you buddy! It’s all on you.

SPURGEON: Artists returning to bad habits or bad periods in their lives always yields interesting results. In Chicago, it seems like you’re very measured about how you depict Glen’s drug use, or the more self-destructive qualities, and some of the stuff where he’s not really engaged with what’s going on around him. At the same time, you don’t spare on the tails. Did you intend at all for any of this to be prescriptive for a reader, a cautionary tale in any way?

HEAD: Well my own drug use wasn’t much of a thing then, during the period this book takes place, and I’m glad of it. See, my character was, if anything, edging into “madness”, maybe out of conscious intent — but his being crazy wasn’t chemically induced. Being from a wealthy middle-class background, he’s looking for something like “reality”… or at least a different one than he knows. Drugs aren’t really part of Glen’s story. Escape from the world he knows is.

I wasn’t looking for this to be a cautionary tale in any way because I don’t believe in them. It would be presumptuous for me to think I could tell anyone how to be. I’m really just trying to tell my story… but I also want to reveal the price paid for going your own way. I always wanted to tell this particular story, because as a young person I was just completely unaware of the world and what I was in for by doing all this. I would never tell anyone not to do this, to leave everything, drop out and see what happens in a strange town. Maybe you’ll get stuffed in a trunk and thrown in a river. Or not. Your choice.

SPURGEON: One thing I think you capture really well is the idea of how arbitrary and made-up life can seem when you strike out to do something that doesn’t have a structure or ways to improve your lot just by doing stead work. I’m not sure people know how odd it was years ago, even in the post-hippie world, to fashion a life where a lot of the structure of a steady job or marriage right out of high school wasn’t available to you. Was it important to you to convey Glen’s feelings of driftlessness and occasional flights of concern about what he was doing? Are these feelings you’ve had a times, making comics, the overall point of it?

HEAD: Well one thing I was attempting to capture was just how arbitrary and open-ended life becomes when you become rootless. With no home, or fixed address, no idea how you’re going to get through, you just get shuffled around with life around you. It robs you of a lot of whatever your normal identity is, but it also kind of reduces you to the essence of yourself, which is this organic creature that has to be fed, clothed, bathed, kept warm, given rest, and some occupation just to feel alive. A lot of the Chicago chapter is like that. Maybe today I’ll panhandle enough to eat, or I’ll starve to death… on the other hand maybe I’ll meet Muhammad Ali — anything could happen! Or nothing… I don’t know if I’d say that’s the point of the book or if it even has one point. But one thing it shows is that there really is just one point when you’re hungry: food!

SPURGEON: I love your ease as a cartoonist with how your pages flow, particularly your use of almost diorama-style scenes or establishing shots, and suddenly blowing up a panel for effect. What do you hope to accomplish there, with one of the Chicago scenes, or Ali? Is it just slowing us down to look at this larger than life thing? Is it about the power of a certain dramatic moment? What kind of moments do you choose to dominate a page like that?

HEAD: One of the things that’s most important to me is tone. In some ways it’s even more important to me than story, especially in autobiography. Tone, when it’s successful, means authenticity. It means that world I’m drawing, that space, that environment… you believe in it. You know it’s real and you know I’ve been there. When I blow things up, do a large-scale drawing it’s usually done so as to make it a purely visual experience… to see things as my character does. Often it’ll be a scene that’s intended to be seen as overwhelming as I experienced it. Certain moments in Chicago, for example. With a larger panel, too, I can allow myself to go wild… I don’t have to worry about the details clogging up… Comics is such a utilitarian art form. So much is about control, about not letting go, so as to serve the story or the idea you attempt to put across. So it’s good to be able to slow things down on occasion and just do it for the art.

SPURGEON: I really like the character of Glen’s father, the parameters of his support and what drives him to talk at some times and what might keep him quiet. It seems like there’s a great deal of sympathy for that character, the kind that sometimes ends up being blamed for all of life’s woes. Were you happy with the way that character came across?

HEAD: Yeah I’ve been really very happy with how that character came across… this was a case of making something right in art that wasn’t in life. We never really got along well, I think I saw the world as this crazy, multifarious place and he saw things kind of simply… or seemed to. I wasn’t capable of that. Mostly we talked past each other.

Drawing him was hard because he was kind of quiet, restrained, low-keyed… and he talked in platitudes. But his warmth and kindness somehow came through here. I’m glad of this because I have no interest in settling scores or getting even. Not here. Even though, as I say, we weren’t very close. Just two very different people.

SPURGEON: There are two scenes right in the heart of the latter stages that I thought were interesting just for the control you showed it letting them play out fully: the vignette with the loaded gun and the whole Sarah sequences. Can you talk about why you took your time with both scenes? Was it simply a matter of letting each scene speak for itself?

HEAD: I thought it was important to really focus on those scenes because they bring up two of the book’s main themes: Sex and Death. The scene with my father’s handgun, me being naked in the attic and blasting away — that was intended as a kind of “dance of death” and I think it has an erotic component to it. The way my character holds the gun, loads it, and looks at it before shooting… when he’s done everything he has, really symbolically shot up his own family and then shoots out the light, it’s meant to be kind of an annihilating orgasm. And death isn’t far off — he puts the gun to his head, too… spins the chamber.

What follows is him sprawled out in bed, somewhat post-coitally, thinking “I wonder what it’s like to get laid?”

So this kind of symbolic “getting laid” is counter-weighted by actually getting laid and therefore needed to be equally as intense… The woman Sarah, who Glen pines for, who he loved and wanted to lose his innocence to, finds him. Quite simply I wanted to show the weight of importance that these two episodes of sex and death have in his life.

SPURGEON: Sarah plays a key role for your character, but was giving her agency important to you? l would imagine there might have been some compulsion to focus solely on how her life intersected with your own as opposed to being respectful to her story, too. Did you see any potential hazards in portraying that character in your book?

HEAD: I guess the main hazard was depicting her in a way she might not like, or even having full access to her story in the first place… I couldn’t have used it if she wanted final say on how I wrote her character. I couldn’t work that way. Fortunately she let me do what I wanted. But I tried to be very respectful of her story. You know, some of what Chicago tries to touch on is how in many ways, we don’t really have agency, even when we think we do. Sarah’s life has been pre-programmed for her — her parents are Holocaust survivors… a lot of damage was inflicted on her at a young age — likewise, the character of Glen sprawled out laughing in the graveyard… he’s headed for some dark places in life. He just doesn’t know it yet.

You know, when you’re 18, 19, the choices you make, they may not be your own, or they may be crazy… and the price for those choices is often higher than you realize.

SPURGEON: I don’t want to give it away, but can you talk about using a common setting for the first and last chapters of the book. How did that develop? Did you find the ending or was that known from the first?

HEAD: No, I found that ending very late in the game, which I think was fortunate… I hadn’t planned it out at all, but then I wasn’t really planning on my daughter being in the book either — it just happened.

The “common setting” you refer to is a graveyard. Chicago begins with my character alone, laughing at death, smoking a cigarette… both wide-eyed and cynical about the world. He’s 19, hasn’t lived yet, but he sees the endgame.

Without going any further or giving away the ending, what we’re looking at here is death and rebirth. Glen, at 19, sees life and death only through his own limited experience. He’s innocent. When he goes in again, he brings innocence with him, too. Only this time it isn’t his. And he isn’t alone.

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