“Write what you know” is an old adage that some authors live by in order to make their stories personal and relevant. But as Eisner and Harvey-nominated cartoonist Glenn Head learned in writing his comic memoir Chicago, detailing difficult life experiences can sometimes be more challenging than you expect.
In Chicago, Head’s graphic memoir, he nakedly airs out his struggles as a teen living on the street, his insecurities, and his transition into adulthood. It’s a blunt take on growing up and finding one’s identity. In advance of the book’s release on Sept. 3, EW spoke to Head about the experience of transferring his memories into a story that has been six years in the making. Additionally, we’re excited to reveal exclusive preview pages from the book that detail a scene from one of Head’s most prominent memories.
EW: Reading through this book, I was struck with how visually intricate it was. What was it like to take your thoughts and experiences and transfer them into this book in a way that you knew would resonate with readers?
GLENN HEAD: It was a time-consuming process. I really had to break things down in terms of what my thoughts and feelings were. Chicago is a very revealing and personal story about a 19-year-old leaving the only world he knows behind. A safe middle-class suburban world—Madison, New Jersey. Already a little “unbalanced,” my character Glen winds up in a state of some emotional disturbance, and he takes off, drops out, and ends up in Chicago where he becomes homeless, hungry, on the streets, and on the run from sex predators. He faces a world he didn’t know existed. What was it like? Scary on the one hand, because it’s so personally revealing! But exciting on the other hand. There’s a genuine catharsis that happens when working with material that is, in many ways, traumatic.
This book was a long time in the making. How do you feel knowing that it’s finally going to be out in the world?
Relieved, basically! To work on a project of this size and scope, you can wonder if it ever will end. But it was a story that I really wanted to tell, and one that affected me very personally, so I’m glad it’s out there. Of course, it’s also a little scary. The book shows me in a very vulnerable state, basically a street person, being forced to survive that way. It’s difficult, because in a way my humanity is exposed, for good or bad. There’s also a funny thing about doing a deeply personal story like Chicago. As an artist I took something very personal, an experience that disturbed me, took me out of myself and away from being in control, and made it into a comic! That comic (or comix memoir) means the experience is no longer mine. I don’t own it. It’s the world’s to do with as it wants. So it’s also liberating to be free of it.
Did you ever struggle with how candid to be in telling certain parts of your story?
I actually think the struggle here was in making up my mind to do this story in the first place. Once that decision was made, I knew I’d have to be totally open about my past, and my emotions—I had to be—they’re the core of the story. Not that it got easy once I made that choice, but that I accepted it as necessary. When it comes to “true-life” or human interest narratives, I’m not interested in the day-to-day, the “slice-of-life.” What I want is a pound of flesh! want to know what really happened, what really affects a person—profoundly. So I was drawn to telling this story because it shows a character at a point where he’s not in control, where he easily could end up in a very bad place, and he’s forced to contend with it. And he’s forced to contend with the aftermath.
Some of these things were painful, but also, exciting to draw. Late in the book, I show myself naked, alone in my family’s huge suburban house. I go into my father’s closet, remove his handgun and take it to the attic. I begin firing. This was a way of breaking free of my own family, my own history, of the collective unconsciousness stored in my family’s home-life. The scene was necessary to draw to complete my character’s journey. But as I say, it was both difficult and thrilling to relive it on paper!
What do you want readers to come away with after reading Chicago?
First of all, I want them to be entertained! Chicago is a deeply personal story but it’s also, I think, a really good ride. In its way, Chicago is a fast moving story, not ponderous at all. What I really want readers to come away with is an appreciation of the costs and rewards of an artist’s life. The artist’s need to break free of the world he knows that he’s been told is real, is the “way life is.” My story is about the artist finding his own way, battling his own demons, and even willing to immerse himself in insanity to get here.
As a coming of age story for this artist, it’s also about meeting his heroes, coming to terms with something he’d never faced before, which is that people are pretty much the same everywhere. In this case that means meeting Robert Crumb and other artists for dinner where he finds, basically, that the world is one big high-school cafeteria wherever you go. This is the beginning of an awakening or growing-up and understanding that there are no Shangri-Las, no perfect worlds, that like everything else I learn being on the street in Chicago, life is a struggle.
Chicago will be released in comic stores Sept. 3