Guest Review by Paul Buhle
Of all the restless ruminations occupying the mind and the tools of the alternative comics artist, none has so strayed so far from the funny-pages mainstream as the memoir. If commerial artists showed themselves at all, it might have been a fleeting glance at a generic father and son in a landscape (famous Frank O, King Sunday page drawings) or a banalization of social relations (Dennis the Menace, Family Circle and about a million others), Justin Green’s “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary,” with the artist’s own mental breakdowns on view, opened up a dramatically different way forward. As taken most famously by Art Spiegelman in Maus, but also by Alison Bechdel in the slightly fictionalized Fun Home, by Lynda Barry in her recollections of severely troubled childhood, Aline Kominsky’s bodily self-contempt, Joe Sacco’s personal travels thorugh war zones, or by Marjane Sartrapi’s Persepolis, to name only some of the best known—these are rightly among the most celebrated comics of recent decades.
To this list, add another: Chartwell Manor. As in the other memoir-comics, the artist recalls and recoils simultaneously. The story is told because the story must be told, a burden presumably lifted when it is completed and, at last, in print. We see on the cover that Robert Crumb has called it a masterpiece. Crumb himself, as is well known, suffered the beatings and humiation of his father, the military lifer. Drawing was an escape in search of survival (with a lot of help from Harvey Pekar, as it turned out). Head’s story is also a survivor’s story, typically American in some crucial ways: no war zones, no desperate poverty but deeply screwed up social relations and self-destructive habits.
Head is the kid in the 1960s with real artistic talent but no aptitude for school otherwise. His parents struggle, his mother with great sympathy for his plight, then decide to send him to a prep school/boarding school in his native New Jersey. There, to be brief, the schoolmaster turns out to be a pedophile as well as a self-righteous religiious hypocrite.The trauma suffered here connects with Hedd’s life in all the predictable ways including self-hatred, heavy drinking, strictly transactional womanizing, and decades of depression. The comaraderie of his fellow students at Chartwell didn’t help much at all and neither does his return to public school. It’s an unhappy and sometimes violent story, with a degree of bitterness in particular toward his father, the businessman, who considers manhood to be the art of taking blows without complaint, or (later on) without joining the alleged character weakness of joining AA.
He wants badly to explain to us, in a Foreword, that human behavior but epsecially sexual behavior and its consequences interests (better day, “obsesses”) him as an artist, and that he found himself attracted to the world of underground comics beause they gloriously exposed “what society insisted remain hidden.” His experiences, eating away at him for a large portion of his life, are a wound reopened.
Veteran readers of Head may properly regard this as the summa of his decades of creative work and of the tortured life of a rebellious artist in the post-1970 era when threats to the system seemed minor compared to self-harming impulses of the young and not-so-young.
They could also regard this as the summa of what can be called Punk Comics. Head described it perfecting in a YouTube interview with Noah van Sciver, but to summarize a bit: the dozen comic projects in Greater New York of the 1980s-90s, pulled together conceptually, so to speak, in Crumb’s own Weirdo magazine, published in distant California. Historians of comic art usually place Weirdo against RAW, because the first had no editorial policy whatsoever on skill, and the second was a high-concept Euro-American creation successful, as Ben Katchor has said, by proposing a new art form as a relative of French literature.
RAW set a new standard for comic art, while Weirdo is remembered mainly by specialists and Crumb devotees. But to put it that way obscures the path through DIY culture taken by a field of artists discovering themselves and their skills by plunging in, almost indifferent to the consequences. The excellent and revealing Book of Weirdo lays this out beautifully and should be basic reading in the history of the field.
But not to confine Head to the undertalented. Not at all. Born in 1958, raised in Brooklyn, Head became a student of Art Spiegelman at the School for Visual Arts in the early 1980s. Shifting with the times from Underground Comix to Alternative Comics, he published his own H in 1988, later expanded into a Fantagraphics book, contributed to a variety of anthologies and found a home-away-from-home amongst the crew at Robert Crumb’s and Aline Kominsky’s Weirdo magazine. His solo Chicago (2015) is a grim saga of a would-be comic artist facing a variety of despairing moods and self-destructive tendencies unavoided.
Chartwell Manor could rightly be called the details of predation, consequences and much-delayed redemption. The reader learns from page to page and panel to panel that if details have been invented to make the story work, the protagonist really is Head himself, and that the predatory, pedophile schoolmaster is as real as the bad vibes and drugs. Ever so slowly, as his own art pulls him out,
The art is very much Glenn Head art, straightforward but imaginative at the edges, figures exaggerated larger or thinner than in life, and particularly horrific characters, grotesquely semi-human. His use of the brush is decisive, as he explained in an interview on Noah van Sciver’s YouTube channel. Does he successfully capture himself, or the self of the comic? Perhaps this is a question better asked of the larger framework of the Punk comic genre. Self-abuse wears thin pretty fast, especially without a comic element, and at times, the pages seem to drag. But Head, the hard-working artist, has overcome Head, the punk. He has captured some version of himself convincingly.