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Glenn Head talks his hugely personal graphic memoir 'Chartwell Manor'

Comic Books

Glenn Head talks his hugely personal graphic memoir ‘Chartwell Manor’

‘Self-censorship is a bad thing when it waters down the truthfulness of a given work.’

Within his extensive career as indie/underground artist, Glenn Head has never shied away from sharing facets of his own life. Chicago, for instance, follows a “19-year-old virgin who drops out of everything and into the unknown,” with Head “fending off predators and fighting depression” in 1970s Chicago. (Head has also released a collection of “autobiographical shorts” over the years.)

But for his latest project, Chartwell Manor, Head opens up even further. The graphic memoir follows Head’s two-year stay at the titular New Jersey boarding school “run by a serial sexual and physical abuser of young boys.” Exploring how his time at Chartwell bore his later-life issues with sex addiction and substance abuse, Head discovers how art can “reshape the past” on his way to possibly finding a “sliver of forgiveness.”

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Before the book hits shelves (it’s out now via Fantagraphics), we had the chance to touch base with Head, where we discussed the core of the book’s story, how he gets so personal with his work, the important context of releasing the project right now, and much, much more.

AIPT: What made now the right time to tell this totally personal, utterly revealing story? Have you tried in year’s past or in some kind of other iteration?

Glenn HeadGlenn Head: I’ve tried at various times to delve into this material. I tried drawing it once as a 32 page comic, I just wasn’t ready for it, emotionally or otherwise. And I was going to need a much bigger canvas. 236 pages, as it turned out!

Chartwell Manor is a very ambitious book. I’m not aiming for “expression” or “catharsis” exactly. Not really. I’m just trying to do my best work. So yeah, it’s a story that needs to be told, but its also an engaging one that grips you and won’t let up.

What makes now the right time for it? “Chartwell Manor” is always happening. By that I mean there are always situations (usually patriarchal) where children are controlled and abused. The Catholic Church, of course. But there’s a tendency for this in any institutional setting that manages to operate through secrecy.

AIPT: What was the process like in deciding what to show in the book/story and what maybe to hold back for whatever personal reasons? Or is “self-censorship” a bad thing?

GH: The process was simply to tell the story as truthfully as possible and not to worry about it. I don’t have any problem doing that when I’m in the middle of it. Later if I think I’ve gone “too far” I might change it. Maybe. But if someone’s offended I really don’t care. That can happen. As long as I’m not being gratuitous. Everything I put in I put in for a reason. “Self-censorship” is a bad thing when it waters down the truthfulness of a given work.

AIPT: It’s clear you made a concerted effort to be as honest about yourself as possible, with almost zero emphasis on you being some “likable” protagonist. Why was it so important to be as direct, and is that openness hard to achieve from a personal standpoint?

GH: For me, if I’m reading a personal story and I get a whiff of self-regard it just kills the piece. It’s posturing. On the other hand, if you’re drawing yourself, that ain’t you, it’s your alter ego on paper. So it’s always a performance. Fine. But there are more truthful ones than others. I’m trying to cut through the bullshit.

Yes, openness is hard, it took me years to get to where I was able to face this material, all of it — including my adult life — head on. But it would be impossible, and a waste of time to attempt this project if I wasn’t ready for it. Once I started drawing it though, it seemed to happen very naturally. And I was compelled to do it.

AIPT: People talk about the therapeutic power of art. Do you feel particularly “better” having made this book, or is this just much part of a larger process?

GH: I feel better in so far as no one was able to f--k me up or keep me from turning this experience into a work of art. You know, there are a million voices in your head; your parents, your friends, other artists even, saying squeamishly, “Uhhhh, Glenn, ahh…are you sure it’s a good idea to draw this book??” So yeah, in that way, I feel terrific about it, because nobody managed to stop me.

Therapeutic? It works like this: You do your time in the therapist’s office, that’s where you come to grips with trauma, abuse, etc. Then, when you’ve done that, been through the “process” of dealing with it, you do the work. You draw the graphic novel. That’s my story, anyway.

But the book isn’t the therapy. The therapy allowed me to get to where I could actually draw the book!

Glenn Head talks his hugely personal graphic memoir 'Chartwell Manor'

Courtesy of Fantagraphics.

AIPT: You make it clear in the intro that you’re OK if people find this book too uncomfortable to read. But do you think there’s something important or telling about marching through a piece of medium despite one’s comfort level?

GH: There may be people who find some of this book difficult. Or not. I don’t know. I know I’m not in the business of sugarcoating anything for the reader. But here’s what I am offering: an exciting narrative that just won’t quit, combined with great comic book art that takes you on a journey. I’m showing you what the real world is like and how my childhood effected me. And that life even gets better sometimes. There’s no bitterness here.

AIPT: I couldn’t help but feel like this was structured and framed like a really great horror comic. Are there any specific books that influenced the creation process at all?

GH: Wow…really good question. Well, I love the cheap trashy excitement of a good horror comic (E.C. Comics’ SuspenStories]. I used to love the horror work of “Ghastly Graham” Ingels, and Johnny Craig in those 1950s comic books. So I’m glad you picked up on that. I just love the thrills and excitement of a good comic book. It’s one thing I aspire to.

I was also really inspired by Phoebe Gloeckner, whose Diary of a Teenage Girl was one of the most powerful comix memoirs I’ve read. The Patrick Melrose novels, by Edward St. Aubyn, all about childhood abuse. Incredible, moving stuff.

AIPT: Could you have worked with anyone else on this book? Or would that have been too awkward/uncomfortable/etc.

GH: Well, basically with independent comics as I think of them, it’s one artists’ vision. It’s not that I’m against outside input though. In fact my wife has been incredibly helpful when it comes to the narrative aspects. She let’s me know when I’m headed in the wrong direction, and she’s very smart, which helps. I’m very lucky to have that. A graphic novel is by definition, vast. It’s a lot to take on. There are lot of variables, so yeah, a good editor is invaluable. A lot can go wrong.

And then you know, there’s Fantagraphics, who published it. They had a lot of input on the design aspects, cover etc. They really got involved. And they were terrific to work with.

Hey I’m always willing to listen. If there’s one thing I learned in art school, it’s that only a fool refuses all criticism!

AIPT: I think with children in cages at the Southern border, and continuously bad laws against trans rights and women’s sexual health, a lot of the core sentiments of this book and era still ring true. Do you feel like we’ve made progress as a society to move beyond these places, or is this book still a relevant reminder of this brutal history?

GH: Sadly it’s all too relevant. It still happens in schools, the church, it’s still with us, obviously. Here’s the thing: when really terrible things happen, it’s just hard for people to grasp it, to accept it, because it means it could happen to them. So they blame the victim. It’s just fear.

The progress we have made is in terms of consciousness. Now, everyone knows that just “letting things happen” is potentially disastrous for kids! There’s a greater awareness than ever on the part of chidden and parents that predatory behavior exists. On the other hand maybe sometimes people are too afraid of it, like there’s a lurking pervert behind every mailbox or something!

AIPT: You take a lot of steps to not make this about trauma — the word is only mentioned once in your foreword. Why was it so important to not frame it that way? Do you fear being seen as a victim or trying to harp on people’s basic emotions/empathy?

Glenn Head talks his hugely personal graphic memoir 'Chartwell Manor'

Courtesy of Fantagraphics.

GH: No, I have no worries at all about being seen as a victim. I draw myself being victimized. I’m not afraid of that word. But I’m not crazy about “therapy-speak”, the kind of languaging and buzzwords that soften the effect of human experience (like say, one’s “inner child”). Experience is not meant to softened. It’s meant to be lived and perceived. As it is.

As far as people’s emotions and empathy go, no worries there either, as long as people react honestly to the work. And never be bored by it. I consider that the height of bad manners, being boring. Especially in autobiographical comix.

AIPT: This book’s earned a lot of great praise early on. How does that make you feel, and does it matter more or less given the personal nature of the book?

GH: Well, the fact that Robert Crumb called it a masterpiece is definitely a high point in my life! How could it not be? Listen you draw comics, you want something back for it. Everyone wants their work to be liked.

Having said that, the different ends of the spectrum for me are being a personal storyteller versus a crowdpleaser. I’ve tried my hand at both. As a crowdpleaser, you’re going for the big boffo, million-selling reaction . . . to score. That’s the endgame.

Personal storytelling, you’re still using those tools of entertainment, but it’s for a deeper purpose, going for the truth as you know it. It’s riskier because it’s more personal. It’s not going for the big payoff punchline. But hey, you can fall flat on your face either way.

AIPT: What are the lessons or ideas or just insights you think or hope readers might take away from this book? Why should someone read Chartwell Manor?

GH: Well, first off, it’s never my job as an artist to give anyone a lesson. I’m an illustrator/storyteller. I’m letting you in on my worldview, my childhood, my sexuality, and mistakes that I’ve made along the way. My life and a lot of it. Can people learn from that? Perhaps. But as I say, I’m a cartoonist, so it’s my job to tell an exciting, moving, entertaining story, about real life and its consequences. And because it’s a story that I absolutely had to tell. And I take the comics memoir very seriously as an art form.

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