This past weekend I had the opportunity to speak with comic book author and artist Glenn Head at the Comic Arts Brooklyn festival in Williamsburg. Sitting down with Head, we spoke at length about his newest work, CHICAGO, and about his time as a struggling, homeless artist living in Chicago. From translating personal experience to the page to his artistic inspirations in capturing the detail needed for his first graphic novel, Glenn filled me in on his creative process as well as teased his next work. An Eisner and Harvey-nominated cartoonist, Head is a master of the comics medium.  I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.

Glen sitting in a graveyard at the beginning of Chicago

Matthew Murphy: I know you refer to CHICAGO as a memoir, and I’ve read in previous interviews that it’s about 90-95% true to your life, so looking back on it, do you want it to be read more as you confronting what you dealt with at that period, or do you want it to be a calling card for starving artists that this may not be such an attractive lifestyle?

Glenn Head: Well, I guess what I was really trying to do was tell my story in as truthful a way as possible. I mean, one thing that I’ve mentioned is that I spell my own name differently in the book (Glen) than I do in real life (Glenn) and that’s to, sort of, indicate that everything in the book that happened, happened as I perceived it and happened in a way that I consider to be basically true. But, it’s still my own personal take and, therefore, this isn’t an objective reality, necessarily, that’s being depicted here. What I’m really going for is a kind of emotional truth as I experienced it in the story, so I’m really trying to put the story out there and get people to understand it. I’m not recommending that anyone live like that, I’m not saying that anyone shouldn’t, it’s just the story that I experienced as I experienced it. As for how the starving artist thing goes, I wasn’t really romanticizing anything at the time that I did it, I just did it because I was a little too crazy to know any better so I just took off and did it, kind of. Not really understanding what might happen, but [wanting] to see what happens and so, I did it.

MM: I thought that was interesting because another thing I noticed was that Sex and Death were the two big themes of CHICAGO, but I believe another theme was Desire. Especially with the comix lifestyle, your character wanting to live that, and the character of Sarah, as well. She lived this life in Florida and had these adventures and your character, you, wanted to live that life as well. One of the scenes, the shooting in Cleveland, was this big turning point for your character, and I felt like that was when the craziness started to really come in, after being faced with such a mortal thing.

GH: Yeah, it’s interesting you point that out, nobody else has, but that was really a turning point because, as you say, right after that you see my character sitting in his dorm room thinking “I’ll be dead one day”. And it’s kind of a shuttering moment for him when he realizes that, no matter what he does, it’s all going to be gone one day. He’s already half crazy at this point, and that helps push him over the edge. That helps to make him think, “All of this stuff, all of this shit that I’m dealing with in art school, and all of the rules that they’re telling me, I’m eventually going to have to break them anyway.” And he says to a friend, right after this incident in the cafeteria, where he’s like “you study some master, learning his way and instead, why not, just throw it all out, everything, and start over?” And his friend says to him, sort of making fun of him, “sounds nihilistic, go for it” and he, Glen, does.

Yeah, I really do think that this was some turning point for this suburban kid who had not really seen the world up close and personal in a way that was really dirty up until that moment. And when he does see that, he knows that he can’t really live how he has been in this rarified, clean world. You see, the world of art school, where he was, where I was, was a little like where I grew up in New Jersey. There was the suburbs, the nice area, the clean area and then there’s reality which may be somewhere like Newark or Camden, some places like that. Likewise, when my character is at the Cleveland Institute of Art, the college is very manicured and clean, whereas, the outside of the campus is a ghetto. This pushes my character’s buttons and makes him desire to see more than the suburbs or what he’s growing up through now. And he sort of short circuits from this, I mean, I was not trying to make this character completely rational. I wanted his actions to seem believable because it’s kind of like he’s smart enough and more of a wise-ass enough to feel like he can’t follow the rules; the rules are for suckers, but he’s also not smart enough to realize some of these rules he may need to follow. There’s a scene earlier where my character’s father says you may need to learn the rules first before you can break them and Glen’s like “really?” and off he goes.

Glenn Head speaking with his father in Chicago

MM: Going off of that, in one of the final scenes, your character’s family goes off on the Winnebago trip, and your character is in the attic and shoots everything from the portrait of your Grandma to family photos and finally, attempts to shoot himself. Your character finally destroys that fantasy, New Jersey lifestyle because it’s no longer a believable reality, and you can no longer live in a world where this is your future after the experiences in Cleveland and Chicago. I feel like that was a major maturing point for that character because he was embracing the next stage of his life. And while CHICAGO ends with the scene with adult Sarah and your daughter, I felt like the story had already ended when he killed the demons that had been haunting him throughout the entire book.

GH: Yeah, that’s one way to take it. Basically, I look at that scene as an intense form of psychic destruction that any artist may need. I’ve thought about this lately, and it does strike me that there is this aspect of underground comix and cartoonists, once I looked into it, that there’s a real schism between an artist and his family. This is just a basic thing, but looking at a lot of artists whose works I’ve really admired, I find this to be the case. And I do kind of believe that’s what underground comix are about because, essentially, they are anti-authoritarian. You can date this all the way back to something like Bugs Bunny or some of Harvey Kurtzman’s work in MAD! but they’re very anti-authoritarian. And, my character needs that to break free from his environment, to get away from everything he’s been raised by. So, he needs to shoot the shit out of the attic because that’s the repository family unconscious, you know? And our families, the stuff that’s not thrown out but is stored is kept, not unlike what we do with everything in our unconscious mind, it’s left somewhere back there. It’s left there for safekeeping. My character realizes he has to get up there and destroy the family collective unconsciousness of what’s accepted, of what that family is. Rather than kill his own family, he does wipe out everything that’s in that attic and sort of threateningly, destroys his own family lineage on a psychic level by accidentally shooting his Grandmother in the face. It was the one thing he tried to avoid and yet, the one thing that may be necessary for an artist is to destroy his family lineage, to create something new. At least, in my own crazy mind or in my character’s crazy mind, that is one way that I could read it.

MM: I found that interesting when taking a look back at the beginning of the book with your character sitting in a graveyard and laughing about death. At the end of the memoir, your character is again sitting in a graveyard, but with his daughter, and is relishing that moment. He had created his own lineage; Glen has someone to be with in the graveyard and finally found someone to be comfortable spending time with; he wasn’t alone anymore.

GH: Exactly. And that’s the uplift in the book, which may need it; that after all of this destruction that’s happened and all of this, basically, nihilistic state that exists for my character throughout the book- it’s sort of a culmination point in the attic with all of that force, but life goes on from there. And it’s interesting, I think, you’ve seen this character go through so much, you know, he’s gone through a break with his family, a break from his schooling, and a complete break from society where he ends up on the street. Ultimately again, a complete break from his family and his own family history and from that rises from the ashes something new. At that point where everything is destroyed and you realize, even though this guy has been through so much, you know, there’s an ironic moment at the end of that chapter where he’s thinking after lighting a cigarette, “I wonder what it’s like to get laid.” He really hasn’t been around the block in every kind of way, he just kind of feels like he has, and that knowledge that he hasn’t experienced everything is what keeps him going. Because he wonders, “what would it be like to get laid?” And he eventually finds out.

LISTEN: Do you like comic memoirs? In our podcast with Gene Luen Yang, he talks with ComicsVerse about AMERICAN BORN CHINESE!

MM: On that note, it’s cool how in the future aspect, you get to see how Sarah lived her life. He wanted to be like her, to live her life and have that experience, and in the end, she lived through a harder experience than your character. And this is fascinating because when the two characters finally reunite as adults, Glen felt like nothing he did was as crazy as what happened to her. Their interaction, while not awkward, seemed uncomfortable for your character because of how different her reality ended up from his.

GH: Yes and in a way, that might have been too much for him because, when they part after, at long last, they finally consummate this thing, he just shrugs. It’s kind of detached and kind of indicating what you picked up on, that what she went through, the life that she had lived was much more off the charts than my character. And I think that’s possibly because my character, because I had my art to reach to and continue with as opposed to falling straight through. You know, there’s the indication that Sarah, what she’s been through with her parents being Holocaust survivors and her promiscuity, having sold her body before the story even starts at age 17, had been through too much. And that’s something that my character dealt with throughout the novel, the idea of how far is too much, how far is enough, and when I can reel myself back in. And you never see when he does, but you do find out when she does. You learn that she is in recovery or, at least, she’s kicked intravenous drugs, which turns out to be speed, and he is now sober, but you don’t know, though it’s indicated, that she’s been through more. And when she’s at his apartment, she can’t sleep in the same bed as him because of these nightmares, and her body is racked, having been a speed addict. So yeah, she’s been through a lot more than him.

MM: Now that we’ve talked about the end of the book, I know you worked six years on CHICAGO, but when can we see your next work? Will it be a sequel where we see the next stage of your career through the character of Glen?

GH: Well, I’m considering. I mean I’m also interested in doing something that starts immediately after the scene where I light up a cigarette and say, “I wonder what it’s like to get laid.” At that point, things really went off the rails and really went crazy, and I’d kind of like to use that as material. My one issue with that, though I may well do it, is that madness and insanity is kind of hard to make coherent in comics form. One thing that I work very hard on with my stuff is that it be really readable, that it be able to be read like a comic book. If there’s a difference between a comic book and a graphic novel, I’m not sure, but I know my stuff flows very quickly, and you can get right through it because the narrative is as strong as I can make it and easy to read. It’s kind of hard to do that in trying to depict insanity. In fact, there’s a scene in CHICAGO in the Cleveland chapter where my character decides, like I said, to break everything down. You then see him 18 days later, and the reader doesn’t see the process of him going crazy. So, the process of that is something that I would be interested in pursuing.

Right now, actually, what I’ve written since I’ve finished this is a book about my early teenage years growing up called CHARTWELL MANOR, which is about a boarding school I went to when I was 13. That’s quite a story as well, it’s about 200 pages and in the same way as CHICAGO, where a lot of things happened, but the book itself is really about the aftermath of what happens and what leads up to what’s happening, this book will deal with that as well- about the repercussions of child abuse and bad parenting and stuff like that. So that’s what the next book will be about. I’d really like to get it done sooner rather than later. This one took me six years to do, and I’d like to get this one done in four if I could. It’s a little longer, too, and I don’t work really quick; my work is very detailed and takes some time to do.

MM: That’s another aspect of the book that I enjoyed, the attention to detail in your work and especially in CHICAGO. My favorite was the depiction you gave of R. Crumb when you met him in Chicago; it seemed so accurate. Even in the scene where you and Aaron are evicted from the apartment, the entire neighborhood is depicted in such perfect detail. How does your creative process work to get to that point? How long does it take you to achieve that level of detail on the page?

The Mcdonalds in Chicago

GH: I’m not sure because I tend to pencil a lot of stuff before I ink it, and then I go on a crazed inking fest where I’m crazily doing that, but it’s hard for me to say. Actually, I think the penciling takes me longer, but to answer part of the question, I did fly out to Cleveland and Chicago to snap a lot of photos of this stuff, so I had plenty of research material to work from. That really helped me. CHICAGO is like the first book that I’ve done, it’s really what I’d call cartoon realism. It’s as realistically as I can draw, I’m not doing any embezzling with it or craziness, I’m really trying to draw things as I see them but I draw kind of weird anyway so it’s going to look kind of weird, that’s just how I draw.

MM: Another thing I did notice happened when I read CHICAGO on my phone. When you broke out into the industry with zines and anthologies, everything was on paper. What do you think about the transition from print comics to digital?

GH: I really don’t know, man, I mean I’m old school, I’m 57, I grew up reading underground comix from seeing them in head shops. I don’t know what it’s like, I mean, I should ask you, you’ve read this stuff that way and I can’t imagine reading comics like that. I didn’t really know if people were doing that or not, I still kind of think that comics really need to be seen in book form because they seem like art objects. So, that’s kind of how I see them, you know?

READ: Check out our review for BOWERY BOYS, a quite different story about growing up in America!

MM: That’s how I see it, I prefer to my books in trade paperback, yet a lot of people are going digital. It doesn’t feel the same way for me, the narrative is different. For example, reading CHICAGO on my phone didn’t read panel to panel, left to right it just read downward. I want to get the chance to take a look at the book and see what the difference is between reading it on my phone versus as a book.

GH: Yeah, man, I mean the thing I’ve heard, from what I hear about people reading from Kindle, is that you don’t retain as much from reading it digitally. I kind of believe that because from what little I’ve read from a Kindle it hasn’t registered as much. I just think the process of holding a book and turning the pages, you know, looking back and holding this organic object in your hand just makes it different.

MM: You’re working to understand the art.

GH: Yeah, I think so, you see that it was drawn more, you see it as an object, whereas things digitally, they’re sort of happening in cyberspace or whatever, if that makes sense.

MM: Reading over your prior interviews last night, I noticed that you said you don’t read comics anymore. What’s your preferred medium of choice for entertainment?

GH: I really love looking at photography these days. That’s one of my favorite things, I think because photography really influenced the book. I was looking at a lot of photos, faces I find interesting and buildings I find interesting. I was taking a lot of photos of these things and I think I was more drawn to that just because I’m not filtering in any way other people’s work into my own.

I mean, I really love movies. I think I was more influenced in this book by movies by Martin Scorsese than any comics that I’ve read. There’s aspects of the character of Johnny Boy in Mean Street, I really identify with that character. There’s this character from another movie called Five Easy Pieces, where this wayward son runs off and then comes back home. I could really connect to that. It’s got a lot of my story in it but I really prefer film because I love the way it flows. You can’t get that way in book form or painting or a comic. It’s what I aspire to, I really want my scripts to read like a film. Not in the way where you try to imitate film techniques and camera angles and shit but just so it flows cleanly from panel to panel and the story just moves you. I really like that.

MM: I like that as well, and it brings up another question I had. When you are the artist as well as the writer, do you write an entire script out before you start doing the art for the book?

GH: I tend to, yeah, what happened here, because this is my first graphic novel, I actually had trouble with the beginning. What I did was, I knew the CHICAGO story, and I had written a lot of it and knew how it should work. Some of it I did actually end up redrawing it, but most of it I kept, and then I had to loop all the way back around to the beginning with the character of Sarah. I could do that because at that point, she had come into my life. The point is, the writing of it was happening organically because the beginning, as I had first written it, wasn’t happening, but once I knew that Sarah could be a character and that she would end up at the later part of the book still being a character, it would make sense to have her. It wouldn’t make any sense to have her at the beginning if something didn’t happen, but it did so I could do that. So in that case, I had to move around and jump around a lot to write it. What I’m writing now though, it’s all going to be completely written and plotted out before I do any of the drawing. I like to have as much of the writing done as possible, because I believe the best comics are always the ones that are well-written with a good script.

Glenn making his way into Chicago

MM: I know you’ve done prior work as well as editing, Hotwire Comics being an example, are you working with any editing in the future as well?

GH: Probably not, I wouldn’t say definitely not ever again to editing because I do like it. I like working with other artists, though I do kind of feel like as a genre or whatever you want to call it to get it out there, it doesn’t seem like a lot of people want it. I think that’s unfortunate because I believe that a lot of the great anthologies, you know were like MAD!, ZAP, Raw, and Weirdo, and it’s great getting that kind of sandwich with a whole lot of stuff to chew through, but I don’t know that people want it. I still like it, but for the time being, I don’t think so. Unless someone came along and asked me to be involved in it, maybe, but that’s not a great idea because the project I’m about to start is going to take up all of my time.

MM: Alright, well, it was great talking with you Glenn- I learned a lot, and I can’t wait for the next book.

GH: Thanks, it was great talking to you.

Show ComicsVerse some Love! Leave a Reply!