Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Chicago by Glenn Head

So Glenn Head was a wild young thing: he was too cool and too underground-comics to actually go to his classes or study or work at the Cleveland Institute of Art when he enrolled there in 1977 at the age of nineteen. He wanted to live life, man! He wanted to be a real cartoonist, like the mighty R. Crumb! He had no time for life drawing or professors or getting a job or any of that bullshit.

(Why, yes! He did grow up quite rich and privileged, in New Jersey to a Wall Street father who paid his full tuition at CIA. He'd never worked a day in his life, and saw no reason why he ever should. How did you guess?)

And so Glenn -- well, in this book he's Glen, with one "N," but it's otherwise autobiographical -- leaves squaresville and heads to the big time! He doesn't even bother to tell the school he's dropping out, just hops a bus to Chicago, to live real life and to, he thinks, immediately get a great job drawing comics for Playboy, because everything always works out for a guy like Glen, right?

Well, of course not. But it does work out better than we might expect: he meets someone the first day who lets him crash for the duration of his stay, and Playboy art director Skip Williamson indulges Glen, including actually inviting him to a dinner party with Crumb. Glen doesn't get a job or any kind of real stability, but he also doesn't become an addict, break any laws, or really hit bottom -- he panhandles for money and doesn't have enough food to eat some of the time, but that's as bad as it gets. (He steals from the refrigerator at the apartment where he's crashing! He's that guy in the office who takes other people's lunches, basically, but he doesn't get caught.)

A much older Glenn Head tells this story in Chicago, and he clearly has affection for the young man he once was, so much that he might not see what an obnoxious asshole young Glen actually was. The only real bright spot is that he's entirely an inward-facing asshole; he's so lazy and unmotivated that he doesn't do anything to anyone else. Sure, his family is worried about him, but that's about it -- young Glen is such a fuck-up that he can only damage things through neglect, not through actual action.

You might guess that I did not have much sympathy for young Glen. Old Glenn does not show him learning anything from his experience; his family saves him and brings him back safe to New Jersey after a short tourist-trip through the scenic gutters of Chicago. The book then jumps ahead in time more than twenty years, to 2010, when a now older and successful (though he says that success is entirely due to inherited family money from that Wall Street father) Glen again meets with Sarah, the coulda-been love of his life from high school because she showed up early in the book and then disappeared.

Reader, he fucks her. Which is nice from a closure point of view, though the book isn't about his relationship with Sarah. (That would have been a different book.) And she leaves immediately afterward, anyway. So what's the point of the coda in 2010? Damned if I know. To me, it looks like Old Glenn couldn't figure out how to end the story of young self-indulgent asshole Glen, who I think still had a few years of young self-indulgent assholery ahead of him. (Head eventually graduated from New York's School of the Visual Arts in 1986, nearly a decade later.)

Old Glenn is energetic in his art and dialogue, and does his damnedest to make young Glen likable and engaging. This is a well-told story of a young asshole, slightly hampered by not being entirely clear about what its actual story is. If it's the story of Glen and Sarah, it needs to start earlier, include more of Sarah, and it could use more of an ending. If it's the story of how young Glen got serious about art and comics, Chicago doesn't show him doing that in Chicago, and definitely not back in NJ. If it's just a nostalgic wallow in his gutter days, it would be better if there were some actual gutters to wallow in.

So, as I see it, Chicago has two big problems. First, young Glen is a jerk who doesn't really do anything, just whines and complains and refuses to work. And second, the book isn't clear on what its central story is: it begins before young Glen's time in  Chicago and extends twenty-plus years later, and doesn't make a clear case that the few weeks in Chicago changed young Glen in any way.

 It looks great, and readers who mind young-asshole protagonists less than I do will probably enjoy it a lot more -- young Glen is engaging and amusing.

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