Inside Chartwell Manor: a Chat with Glenn Head

On page 182 of Glenn Head’s Chartwell Manor an incidental character (who may or may not be a cartoon representation of this interviewer, c.1985) states: “The best comics by Glen Head are gunna be comics… about Glen Head!” While I have no recollection of ever issuing such a pronouncement I must agree with the cartoon, it is a discerning statement of fact.

Chartwell Manor is a dark gut-punch of a comic book memoir in an age when such things are now nearly as commonplace as comic books about typical teenagers and talking ducks were when I was growing up. One thing that sets this case apart however, is this veteran cartoonist’s sordid, squalid, true-life experience in telling sordid, squalid, true-life stories about his sordid, squalid, true life. Glenn Head was the ink-brush Charles Bukowski of our little NYC comics scene back in the day.

When Glenn and I first met as students at the School of Visual Arts around 1982 the pieces were already in place. From the get-go he seemed bent on chronicling his legitimately nerve-jangling existence on Avenue D in real time, and later in pre-hipster Williamsburg (living above a topless go-go bar) in comics that harkened back to the sex, drugs and paranoia of the underground press –– and then kicked it up a few notches, just for the hell of it. It should be noted that in neither form nor content was this the most welcoming of routes for a novice cartoonist to undertake in the early1980s. In that era of Raw, Love and Rockets and Heavy Metal there was a widely held, but generally unspoken view that it was high time to put the excesses of the underground era in the rear-view mirror. But the Glenn Head of those years was driven by demons. In Chartwell Manor those demons are confronted head on.

With Chicago in 2015, Glenn found a perfect vehicle for his strongest suits in the long form comic book memoir. Given the elbowroom, the cartoonist dove deep and delivered the goods in a nuanced and introspective manner, while not surrendering one droplet of his trademark triple-layer flying spittle. Justin Green, the founding father of the form himself gave Chicago the nod of approval. Robert Crumb announced, “Glenn has at last found his voice” (and has recently hailed Chartwell Manor as “a masterpiece.”) It’s hard to disagree.

In this newest work we finally get an insight into how the reckless, self-absorbed, danger-magnet “Glen” of Chicago (aka the “Glenn” of Avenue D and Belinda’s Topless Go-Go Lounge) was formed. It’s an even darker, more sobering tale and like the comics about Glenn Head of old, Chartwell Manor seems to positively revel in its disturbing graphic testimony.

The narrative unwinds as a sort of a spiral staircase progression of the effects of sustained institutional assault, one psyche unhinging and re-grouping down through the years. Stippled drunken plasma fields with large noses and similar metaphoric flash seem completely appropriate in this context, as does the cartoonist’s ever-crackling, pulpish dialogue (“Then I spoke to the New Jersey State Prosecutor. Got the dirt.”). When all is said and done Chartwell Manor may indeed prove to be the textbook example of how the best comics by Glenn Head are, inevitably, going to be comics about Glenn Head.

Mark Newgarden: Let’s begin at the beginning. What was Chartwell Manor and and how does it figure into the Glenn Head story?

Glenn Head: Chartwell Manor was a boarding school located in Mendham, NJ, that I attended beginning in 1971 and that was run by a pedophile. I did two years at the place, 7th and 8th grades.

I was thrown into it. Childhood things hadn’t gone well up to that point, so ending up in a place like this was really waking up in a Gothic hell pit.

It’s also really the Glenn Head story because it puts a person (me) who’s already a little confused by life in a place where he has to contend with criminal, sexual and social deviance before he even knows what that stuff is. Early adolescence is often a scary ride for a lot of kids. It was for me, too, but at Chartwell Manor, it was on steroids.

You’ve been making autobiographical comics for longer than anybody I know, but there was never a clue of any of this background in previous works. When did you realize that this was a story that was going to need to be a book?

In fact I think I was considering it when I was at the place! I was a very sensitive kid, and I immediately was hit by the feeling of being in a haunted castle when I first arrived. The atmosphere was incredible; dark, rainy, foreboding. I felt like I’d stepped into some distant historical past, this “British Discipline” type thing. To a 13-year-old kid who’d just been in public school, it was an alien world. And being a dreamy kid, I could easily see the place populated by werewolves, vampires, monsters of all kinds. It took a little time before the British headmaster revealed himself as the monster there!

Getting back to your original question, I think I saw Chartwell Manor as “material” right from the start. How could I not? I mean, everything that went on there was just so over the top!

But it took a while before I attempted to deal with it as a book. I alluded to the school and the experience in different strips, and even wrote a 32-page comic (which I shelved). Eventually, however, I saw it was going to need a bigger canvas, and something that might cover a lot of my life, not simply the time at school. And it was only in recent years that I took a leap into the graphic novel format, which really allows things to be opened up.

You name names in this book, yet like Chicago, Glenn is “Glen”. Did you go into this memoir with a set of ground rules? If so how did you formulate them?

The ground rules I have are the same ones I stumbled into back at SVA in the early 1980s. The assignment was to do a 3-page journal for comics class, the rule being that everything you drew had to have taken places over those 3 days. My strip was “Avenue B Anxiety”, and I immediately broke that rule. I took all the most insane, scary stuff I’d seen happen for months and put it all into the 3-day time frame. I have no problem at all with doing that. As long as I’m not lying, making shit up, it’s my job to take these events from life, shape them, re-shape them--turn it all into a yarn.

Here’s the other thing: I’m not interested in documentary. Facts, information--my eyes glaze over at these words. Documentary is better served by film, and even that’s manipulative, because it was edited.

See, what I love about autobiography in comics is that it doesn’t look like life. Often when it’s good it looks like the artist had his finger in the socket, and an electrical surge took over. In which case you feel that artist’s experience. That, for me, is the acid test. Do I feel what they felt? Did that current move through me? Am I emotionally convinced? That’s what matters. To me.

Much of the material in this book is painfully introspective. How did you approach it? Was there ultimately anything you felt like you needed to just leave out?

I approached this material with the desire to be as truthful as possible about it, what it felt like to be there, what it was like for the other kids, what all of our experiences were. I definitely was not gonna sugarcoat anything.

One thing I was aiming for was the feeling of inevitability, that, of course, any kid who experiences the kind of things I did in that school is going to end up where we did later. In some strange places.

There is one thing I left out: a sexually explicit page in the fourth chapter. I replaced it because I felt it was too abrasive, rubbing the viewers face in raw sex. I don’t actually think it was gratuitous, but in this one case I could get across what I wanted without being pornographic. So I cut that.

In terms of my own aesthetic, I’m at least as inspired by movies as by comics. And all the really great ones (mostly from the 1970s) are rated R. These movies went as far as they needed to. They could be brutally expressive, sexually and otherwise, without quite going there, but they had impact.

I’m trying to tell my story as uncompromisingly as possible, but I’m not trying to offend anyone. Not on purpose!

What were some of the surprises or revelations you encountered in researching and producing Chartwell Manor?

One thing that surprised me was that, as a project, something that you get up and face every day, it really wasn’t that difficult for me to draw it, probably because it’s very important to me that this story be told. Drawing autobio comics, especially about events that hit me hard, it’s almost as if I go into a fugue state. And if I’m doing it right I just have to get out of the way and let the work happen. I mean, I have to really be there and focused, but I accept the process.

I was surprised by this, though--I was contacted by a lot of former Chartwell students while I was drawing this book. An interesting coincidence. Of course our past follows us, but it was weird that it happened then.

Most of the action in the book takes place in the wake of your time at Chartwell, conveying the ripple effect of what went on there. Is that effect still felt? Did making this book exorcise anything?

My feeling is that the ripple effects of the boarding school experience will always follow me. I don’t know if those effects are less strong because of drawing this book. Maybe. In certain respects, drawing Lynch was actually enjoyable! He was such a character--bombastic, energetic, lying constantly, manipulating everyone he could.

Yes, drawing some of it was as close to an exorcism as I think I’ve been! Where Lynch is in our dorm telling us about Satan worship or the page towards the end of the book--Lynch in Hell. Drawing that was incredible. Unlike any experience I’ve had drawing comics.

Chartwell Manor serves as sort of a prequel to Chicago and the material interconnects in many ways. What did you learn from making Chicago and how did you approach this longer, more challenging and perhaps even more intensely personal book?

The first thing you learn when drawing really personal comics is: have I gone too far? There’s a scene in Chicago where I’m standing naked in the attic of my parents house with a handgun pointed at my head. Now when you draw something like that, you can’t know what the response will be. And that’s one thing I love about drawing autobiography: the leap of faith.

It’s a different approach to comics than the other one, you know--being a crowd-pleaser, an entertainer. It’s much riskier. I enjoy that risk. But you gotta take what comes up.

And you know, you’re still trying to reach people, entertain them, etc. Hey, maybe if everyone told me Chicago sucked, I wouldn’t have gone on to do Chartwell Manor. But I don’t know; they didn’t.

This a long-winded way of saying, “Well, it didn’t kill me to draw that; maybe it won’t kill me to draw this!” So you do.

Underground comics were always important for you. Of the cartoonists I came up with in the 1980s & 1990s I think you were probably the one most deeply immersed in that culture. Can you talk a little bit about their significance to you – and to this story?

I grew up in what I considered a very straight, suburban world, and those comics were just totally revolutionary. Some of it, really just that simple: underground comics seemed like a very pure form of rebellion. And because there was no money in it, that attracted me, too, because in theory you had to be in it for real. Plus I grew up around affluence, which struck me as a way to buy a facade, a nice white picket fence to keep the world out.

That revolutionary spirit in underground comics, an antagonistic, “I’ll draw whatever the fuck I want!” which is, in my opinion, just a logical extension of the cartoonist’s mindset, which I find inherently antagonistic. It’s supposed to be! Comics that aren’t taking the gloves off make no sense to me.

Admittedly, this could be a bit childish, and the thing of “You say I can’t draw this? Just watch me!” kinda juvenile. But, like, rock ‘n’ roll, I like it.

As underground comics relate to Chartwell Manor? Well, just as I awakened to a lot of things prematurely at Chartwell (sex, especially), I was also awakened by what struck me as a demonic world of comix. I wasn't really ready to see some that shit! Not that it’s on the same level as being at that boarding school, but still. I like the total bug-out factor, I’m gonna look twice at anything that’s risky, dangerous, even if I’m not gonna do it--and I just might!

In recent years I’ve seen you directly framed as an “underground cartoonist” – or at least some sort of an heir to the tradition. What do you make of that?

I’ve got no one to blame but myself for that! On my Instagram page, it says, “Glenn Head is an underground cartoonist living in Brooklyn.” Hey.

When we were at SVA in the early ‘80s, there was a big knock on underground “hippie comics.” No one wanted anything to do with them. The punk attitude was like “fuck them! Who needs that shit! It’s all about attitude.” And the New York “avant-garde” (Spiegelman) was trying to get as much distance as possible from them. The schtick was dated. A dinosaur.

The way I would define “underground” comix is: psychic excavation. Being willing to go deeply into uncomfortable subject matter, which is by definition personal. It needn’t include aberrant behavior, like sex or drugs, but everything is permitted.

Look, what’s really important, or should be, for any cartoonist, is: “What’s between the panels?” You can take that any way you want, but what that means to me is: what did I see happening in that comic that didn’t quite find expression? The fact is, that’s what underground comics always did. They went there, they took the risk of seeing what was there that hadn’t been shown before. The ones that I liked.

How long did the book take to create? How did you divide up the workflow? Was there ever a time where you needed to take a break from the material?

The book took 5 years. Everything broken down, written in advance. 95% of each chapter was nailed down before the final pencils. It was very tight. If a change was required, it was usually that something needed to be expanded, rather than cut. That’s what I love about the graphic novel: if you’ve written a one-page scene that could go further if it was 3 pages--you can take 3 pages.

I have a very systematic approach. Everything planned out, carefully. Hey, I even lettered the entire book, all 236 pages, before doing any other inkwork. Never done that before.

I never needed to take a break. I was working on it full-time. The process of comics is very satisfying to me.

Is this your last memoir? Are there still Glenn Head comics left to draw?

This is not my last memoir! In fact, as soon as I finished Chartwell Manor, I began the next one. I’m about 80 pages in (pencilled), and it’s nearly all scripted.

It’s a completely different book. It concerns my friendship with a Brit I knew in the early 1980s. He was my best friend, sort of a dodgy character. He worked in construction and he died doing it. I say dodgy--the book is really an examination of a lot of things: friendship, family, madness, comics, art-making, and where it all can take you. It will definitely be my most personal work.

The way I am, I feel a compulsion to do comics about things that have affected me profoundly. I have to! I don’t know why other cartoonists don’t, but that’s just me.