Cartoonists Interviewing Cartoonists: Glenn Head & Aaron Lange
Two accomplished cartoonists talk shop, pop culture, and fleeing the Cleve in our latest installment of The Fourth Wall.
Glenn Head is one of the most talented, acclaimed indie cartoonists alive. He’s the recipient of Harvey and Eisner nominations, and his most recent work, Chicago, has won praise everywhere from Crumb to superhero comic sites. Aaron Lange is no less talented than Head, having spent the past several years winning praise for his work on his book Trim – think South Park in its honesty and disregard for social boundaries in pursuit of a joke, only Trimis mean and grimy and real and technically proficient in a way that makes Trey and Matt look like 8-year-olds who just learned the f-word from their big brother last week.
So of course when we had the chance to listen in on the two of them talking about their craft, we jumped at it. What follows is an email interview the two conducted with each other, edited only for inconsequential punctuation.
Glenn Head: A few months ago I had the great honor of being a guest at CAB (Comic Arts Brooklyn), one of the very best comix festivals extant (says me!). I was there to do a signing and speak on a panel about my new comix memoir CHICAGO, my book about being broke, crazy, and on the streets in 1977. It’s about getting your dreams crushed, and carrying on anyway.
That weekend I also had the pleasure of meeting up with fellow cartoonist Aaron Lange. We hung out at nearby Kellogg’s Diner in Williamsburg before heading over to CAB. I found Aaron to be a lot like his comics: irreverent, acerbic, a little dark, hyper-kinetic, and not remotely stand-offish, in fact a very friendly guy all around. There was a lot to talk about, from comics we both knew and loved to shared tastes in rock music, film, and trash cultural, generally. I figured it might be good if we continued our talk via the interview format, and then foisted the whole thing on the Comics Journal…. And we did!
Reading Aaron’s work brought me back to another time: when comics could be crazy, nasty, satirical, and obscenely funny. He’s got range too, he nails the sleazy world of pin-ups and sexploitation, but he’s equally adept at autobiographical narratives, and cultural critiques (sometimes in the middle of a hard-core porno strip!). His work made me laugh out loud on several occasions. I can’t recommend it more highly.
Aaron is published by The Comix Company. Check out his titles: Romp, there’ve been five issues so far and TRIM, three issues…. Do it now!
Okay I’ll try and get some of the basics out of the way first. When did you first draw a comic?
Aaron Lange: As a little kid I guess. Though I didn’t really start drawing comics in earnest until the end of college. I was always drawing but the idea of doing a comic always intimidated me. Even as a little kid I remember thinking, “How do they know where to put all the stuff in the Bat Cave? Do they give the artist a map of it?” Stuff like that baffled me. It really made me freeze and feel like I couldn’t do it myself.
GH: What was the first comic you ever saw that really grabbed you?
AL: I remember seeing this Spider-Man comic (I think that villain The Rhino was on the cover) before I could even read. Maybe I was 5 years old. I know we were still living in Cleveland and hadn’t moved to the suburbs yet, so I was really young. Anyways, this damn comic grabbed my attention hard. It made me nervous. It was just too exciting. It somehow seemed forbidden and exotic. It wasn’t Mickey Mouse shit, y’know?
GH: Have you always wanted to draw comics? I know you were involved in the punk ‘zine scene for a while. Did you play in a band? Were you musical?
AL: I think I always just assumed I’d do comics so as a kid I never even bothered to fantasize about it. It was such a foregone conclusion. To even think about it would have been too dull. The writing was on the wall. As far as music, no. I was a punk but never played guitar or anything like that. Because of my clothes people always assumed I was in a band though. It always seemed like some cashier at a gas station was asking me, “Hey, are you in a band?”.
GH: Did you study art? Go to art school?
AL: Yup. I graduated from the Columbus College of Art and Design. A waste of time and money. Kids, if you’re reading this, please listen to me—do NOT go to art school.
GH: Are there artists whose work you looked at and thought “I’ve gotta do this?”
AL: As a kid? I remember being really impressed by Brian Bolland. I also loved Neal Adams. Mind you, this is the early ‘90s so that whole Image thing was huge. I never really went in for that kinda stuff. Everybody was reading Spawn and I’m looking through back issue boxes for Neal Adams Green Arrow comics!
GH: Here’s a real comix nerd question: Is your ink work mostly brush or pen? It’s very confident, your ink line … has a snap to it, that makes me think pen, but there’s line-work that could be brush. Well shit, being a cartoonist myself I gotta ask such stuff!
AL: There was a period for maybe two years or so in my mid-20s that I inked with a brush. I never really got the hang of it. When it worked it was great. But it was so easy to fuck up. I got fed up with it and went back to pen. But I found my pen work had improved. Using the brush made me more aware of line weight and shit like that. I kinda draw brush strokes with the pen, which is sort of ridiculous. It’s like a simulacra of brushwork.
GH: Do you keep a sketch book?
AL: Not until recently. I was never a sketchbook guy. I don’t know why. But back in April I took a stab at getting sober and bought a sketchbook so I’d have an outlet for my nervous white-knuckle energy. I went back to the bottle pretty fast, but the sketchbook habit stuck. I’m really glad I picked it up.
GH: People reading your work may be caught up in some of the sordid subject matter and miss the fact that you are a very good draftsman. The cover of TRIM #2 for instance shows a decent grasp of foreshortening on the woman playing bongos. Your figure drawing is very solid. Is drawing hard work for you, or do your consider yourself a natural draftsman?
AL: It was certainly hard when I was a kid. The drawings never came out the way I wanted them to. I’d go into rages and tear them up. I’d want to stab the fucking pencil in my own eye.
GH: Are there artists you consider your major influences?
AL: I’m more influenced by a general garbage aesthetic sense. Romance comics, pornography, B-movies, glass Burger King cups, whatever. But I love Neal Adams, Jim Sterenko, Alex Toth, Dave Stevens, Crumb, Dan Clowes. Wally Wood is just out of this world. I could go on and on. Weird Polish movie posters, Man Ray photos, pinball machines, polyester hippy flower prints, Nazi uniforms, car accident photos, you name it. I’m influenced by the queasy smoke-stained margins of the mid- to late 20th century.
GH: I find it interesting that nearly all the women in your comics seem to be idealized … like out of advertising or from a glamour magazine. In other cases they seem to be like characters from a Love Comic or a Roy Lichtenstein painting. I find this aspect intriguing, the distance it sets up. What are your thoughts on your drawing of women?
AL: Guilty as charged. I like drawing pretty women. It’s as simple as that. However, I do think I keep them fairly grounded in reality. I don’t go for that big-fake-tit stripper look (unless it serves the joke or story). There’s a certain type of girl I draw. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s a type. I’ll leave it to somebody else to delineate.
GH: Do you see yourself as a satirist? Your work is of course very funny, you have a terrific way with the gag, whether in shorter or longer pieces … But some of your comics work as cultural critiques, like “Where have all the cool Faggots gone?” Is that a direction we may see more of in your work? Cultural Critique?
AL: Yes, I do consider myself a satirist—the most despised and misunderstood type of humorist! Even the “cultural critiques” have elements of satire. I like it when the reader is uncertain as to whether I’m kidding or being serious. Sometimes I’m not even sure myself.
GH: There’s a detachment in your autobiographical work. You let the events speak for themselves. But in a story like Dog and Kitty you show yourself with some real drug-dealing, gun wielding psychos. Were you really as calm in those situations (like when they pulled guns on you) as you present yourself?
AL: I don’t know if calm is the right word. That wasn’t the first or last time I’ve had a gun in my face. But often in those situations I was so drunk as to not be phased or concerned. I certainly wasn’t trying to portray myself as some Charles Bronson hard-ass or anything. Just a drunk idiot copping dope, y’know?
GH: You present yourself in some of your autobiographical stories as a kind of a seeker. You’re curious about things, from Scientology in Clear Autumn Day to just how deranged drug dealers can be in Dog and Kitty. And then there’s Bummer Vacation. It really seems like you’re trying to find some connection to your lost youth, to reconnect with something of value in your past. Or am I mistaken here? Will we see more of this?
AL: Hell, I don’t know. I did a lot of acid when I was younger. I tried DMT a few years ago. And I had that failed attempt at sensory deprivation which I also wrote about. Does that make me a “seeker”? How that may connect to my “lost youth” I have no idea!
GH: I’d love to see a really ambitious work (graphic novel, maybe?) from you in the memoir form. When we spoke in person you said you felt that delving into that stuff was “too painful.” I know from experience that it is, but as the cliché goes, it’s cathartic. And can lead to great, powerful work. I’d love to see something like this by you. Where we really find out what Aaron thinks … what’s going on in his head … his doubts, his fears, his anxieties…. You’ve really lived, and because you can write so well I’d be curious as to what you’d turn up if you presented yourself as more than an active participant in your autobiography, but someone with a great deal of “interiority”.
AL: I do intend to continue writing autobiographical work, but have no plans of yet to take this material into a longer form. I suppose eventually the shorter pieces will add up into some sort of whole, forming a greater disjointed narrative.
GH: When we met you mentioned working on a graphic novel. Care to clue us in as to what it’s about?
AL: We’ll see what happens with it. I might serialize it in TRIM. Its called Hippy Stewardess. It’s something of an innocent cast abroad story. It takes place in an alternate 1980s in which the Vietnam War hasn’t ended. Its going to be really weird.
GH: In causal conversation at CAB I recall you saying off-handedly, “We’re all posers, man!” I found this interesting, coming from someone who really puts a lot out there, is pretty self-revealing in his work. Maybe there was little or no meaning in the comment, but what it got me thinking about is the nature of autobiography … and how we create a character for comics, a sort of self that’s also a ‘not-self’, because it’s a cartoon creation…. And we pose that character as us.
How do you feel about presenting yourself in your work? Like me, you show yourself in some compromising positions in your autobio, in my case it’s being targeted by sex-predators as a teenager. You show yourself shooting up. Is it hard for you to present this side of yourself? You don’t go into your personal feelings about your drug use in your comics. Do you just want the actions to speak for themselves?
AL: Autobio is weird. You take a guy like Bukowski. He begins Post Office with “This is presented as a work of fiction…” yet myself and everybody else will forever conflate Bukowski with his Henry Chinaski alter ego. And then you have Kerouac going with an absurd handle like Sal Paradise. When I have the answers on how to best approach autobio I’ll let you know. As far as me depicting drugs and other unsavory elements I am neither interested in condemning or glorifying these behaviors. The reader can draw their own conclusions.
GH: You seem to have no shortage of ideas for various kinds of comics…. Do you have any long-range plans for your work?
AL: Right now I just want to finish up TRIM #4. After that, I may or may not serialize Hippy Stewardess in following issues. I just don’t know. I’ve said too much already! I am subject to whim and caprice and may completely change my mind.
GH: What do you think of comics as they are now? The graphic novel, whatever anyone makes of its various permutations is hardly a humorous proposition. Not much laughs there! It’s all drama, all the time! Do you see yourself as sort of alone in the world doing funny work?
AL: Current mainstream comics are hideous aesthetically and intellectually and have offered very little since the mid 1980s. “Alt”, indie”, or “art” comics, whatever bullshit you want to call them, on the other hand are mostly poorly illustrated faggot poetry made by latte sipping naifs. There are exceptions of course. But I dislike most of what I see and feel very much separate from it. On a positive note, of my generation, I think Noah Van Sciver is just killing it. And I take pleasure in a guy like John Porcellino and how he just keeps going like a machine. Robin Bougie, in a very niche way, provides some fascinating stuff in Cinema Sewer. Jay Bee and Liz Valasco are doing some interesting work. Dexter Cockburn, who publishes my stuff under his imprint The Comix Company, provides a home for some work that is just so against the current trends it might be cast adrift in absolute obscurity otherwise. And that old warhorse Mineshaft refuses to quit. They function as a kind of frontier post weathering the cultural storms. A fine magazine that makes equal room for names like Crumb and punks like me. Mineshaft should get more credit. Somebody should write them a big motherfucking check. They were the first real outfit to publish me. I’ll be loyal to them till the fucking end and sing their praises to anyone who will or won’t listen.
GH: One thing I like about your work is I don’t recognize your influences (Mitch O’Connell, maybe?)…. Not that cartoonists don’t work through and out of the artists who inspire their work. What inspires you? Movies? Do you read comics much? Obviously you have your literary influences, you show them in your work.
AL: I do like Mitch O’Connell. Also, I’ve been reading more comics lately. Right now I’m reading a collection of Wonder Woman from her “mod” years. Those are great. I also have been enjoying old romance comics. If you hand me a Spider-Man comic I’ll skip past the fight scenes and go straight to the soap stuff. Fuck Doctor Octopus. I wanna know if Petey’s date with MJ went groovy! As far as literature goes, I read a lot of weirdo shit on the margins of science fiction—J.G. Ballard is my favorite writer.
GH: I like when that letter writer (TRIM #2) called you “a racist/sexist piece of shit!” While I consider your work very smart and knowing in what it does, other people may see it differently. Besides that letter have you taken much heat for some of your work, by women, gays, blacks? Again, I can see your comics—even Incest & Peppermints—as Cultural Critiques. Not every one would. Has your work ever been seized? No obscenity busts, yet? Be good if that happened maybe—get you some press!
AL: According to my publisher half of my sales are to women, which is cool. Gays have a sense of humor, so no complaints from them yet. And let’s be honest, there isn’t exactly a lot of black people in the indie comix world so I’ve yet to ruffle any feathers in that camp. What little complaints I do get are from young white college shit-fucks who claim to be liberal but if given the power would be the worst censors in human history. I do carry the business card for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in my wallet. I just might have to make that jail phone call one day.
GH: Hesh and Jay Jazz … they seem like time warp characters out of a 1950s–‘60s sitcom—My Three Sons, maybe—transported to an alternate updated porn world. Are you just satirizing the idea of virginity vs. studdliness?
AL: Ha! I used to watch My Three Sons as a kid. Dennis Eichhorn wrote an unpublished review of Romp in which he posited that Hesh and Jay Jazz represent warring sides of my own ego. An interesting theory.
GH: What’s your favorite movie? Your five or ten favorites?
AL: A Clockwork Orange was a big deal to me in my teen years. Other favorites, off the cuff, would be River’s Edge, Blue Velvet, Videodrome, A Bucket of Blood, Blade Runner, shit like that. The other night I watched an old movie where Dennis Hopper falls in love with a carnival mermaid. It was kind of dull but also hypnotic. I like finding odd forgotten stuff like that.
GH: Favorite T.V. show?
AL: The X-Files started when I was in 7th grade and it cast quite the spell on me. It’s wildly uneven but I still enjoy and watch the better episodes. My wife and I are big Star Trek fans and re-watch those a lot. Lately we’ve been watching The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis which is just incredible. It’s so fucking hip and fast paced. You forget it was network television in 1959. It just smokes any bullshit comedy on network TV these days. But if any TV show had a huge influence on my sensibilities it would be the Canadian sketch comedy show Kids In The Hall. I watched it constantly in high school. As Canadians they had this weird middle class kind of midwestern suburban outlook that I related too. They filmed a lot on location so there were always things like grassy front yards in the shots. The kind of mise-en-scene you’d never get from some faggot New York show. I liked how the Kids In The Hall could explore incredibly mundane things while infusing them with a sense of dread or surrealism. The dad characters were always off to some ill-defined job and a ham dinner was on the table.
GH: What’s the worst thing about drawing comics?
AL: Buildings, cars, and trees.
GH: What’s the best?
GH: Do you do much commercial art work?
AL: Here and there. I don’t go looking for it but I’ll take it when it comes. I just got kicked off a big account from a major beer company. I don’t give a shit. The kill fee alone was double what I normally get paid for finished work. The jokes on them. I’m laughing to the bank.
GH: Do your parents see your work?
AL: I don’t show it to them but they know how to use Google. We don’t really talk about it. But they’re supportive. I’m sure they’ll read this interview.
GH: Who’s your favorite cartoonist?
AL: This is predictable. It’s a tie between Crumb and Clowes. After that, Wally Wood.
GH: How has drug use affected your work?
AL: I have no idea. LSD certainly affects the way you see the world. I used to smoke grass a bit but lost interest. I don’t care for it at all. Some people say it makes them very creative. Good for them. It just freezes me up. Not my bag. I used to do a bit of coke but that never had any artistic applications either. Heroin is fucking amazing. You should try it.
GH: Can you draw when you’re fucked up?
AL: Most of TRIM #3 was drawn and written while at least buzzed. I’d have to get at least one drink in me just to steady my hand enough to draw. When I felt myself getting sloppy I’d put the pen down, call it a day, and hit the bottle in earnest. But I’m sober as judge lately and getting lots of work done. For what that’s worth.
GH. Is this too many questions?
AL: Yes! Now it’s your turn to get grilled! In your book Chicago you detail your experiences of being broke and on the street. Did this experience affect the way you view and treat the homeless? Are you more likely to stuff a dollar in the proverbial coffee cup?[gallery:11]
GH: Yeah I think I always was though. You know it’s just really obvious when you see somebody who needs those two or three bucks a lot more than you do. When you see that look of desperation you wanna do something. Being an ex-drinker I can usually smell a boozehound though…. I try and talk them into buying a sandwich with the cash I hand over. You do what you can.
AL: You’re clearly an urban guy. This comes through in your depictions of the city of Chicago. You’ve been a New Yorker for most of your life. But the city has changed so much. What are your thoughts on the ruthless corporatization and gentrification? And do you ever think about relocating? Perhaps a new city? Maybe even a quaint little place in the country?!
GH: I don’t think I could live anywhere but New York. Not always because I love it so much but because I hate everywhere else! I grew up in New Jersey. The schlock, the Disneyland lifestyle of suburban homes, front lawns, all a’ that shit, I really loathe it! Plus it’s trying for nice, and New Jersey’s essentially not nice.
It’s just a suburb of New York, with all the hostility that entails. New York’s mean, it always has been, but that meanness brings about a kind of ruthless honesty sometimes. It’s the reason why no one ever completely hates Donald Trump. And there’s no place else a guy like that could hail from but New York City.
As far as gentrification goes, yeah it’s definitely robbed the city of some of its soul. That’s a fact. If you can afford a nice neighborhood and you’re raising a kid, it’s good because there are less worries about crime. Personally I think it’s ridiculous to be nostalgic about anything in New York…. Besides it’s not like everybody used to think, “Wow, I love how cool New York City is right now because it’s so fucking dangerous!” I love watching that shit in movies though, 1970s crime movies.
AL: As a native Clevelander I have to ask; What did you think of the town during your time as an art student there? Were you hanging out on the Coventry scene at all? Have you been back since?
GH: Cleveland? I’ve been back only once since I dropped out of the Cleveland Institute and that was to snap photos of places I’d been when I was an art student, like the school itself. Also the Cleveland ghetto. I spent a lot more time there than I did going to art class at the C.I.A! I don’t know why—it just really fascinated me. And I think I was daring myself. It was a different world to what I knew and it was obviously dangerous.
What did I think of Cleveland? It reminded me a little of my own upbringing…. The clean suburban parts were really the C.I.A. campus itself … the ghetto surrounding it were like the brutal reality of life, I guess. They had to be kept separate. I feel like I was raised with some of that denial, growing up in New Jersey.
AL: I liked the character of Sarah in Chicago. I guess I also have a weakness for troubled fucked-up bitches. Has the real life Sarah seen the book? If so, what did she think? Additionally, what do you find difficult about portraying people whom you’ve been deeply intimate with?
GH: Oh yeah “Sarah” saw the book! There was no way I could have used her story, drawn her and then kept it all from her. It wouldn’t be right! So she knew about it all along, as soon as I decided I wanted to mix her life up with mine in the book. She didn’t have a problem with how I portrayed her, and she liked the book itself. I figure some of this stuff would be kind of painful for her to see … maybe. I don’t know. Because the thing of it is, I drew her with feelings of love for her. I sure wasn’t trying to make her look bad, but to capture that feeling of craziness and confusion you have when you’re a teenager, acting out, thinking you’re having the time of your life when really you’re headed right over a cliff.
The difficult thing about portraying people I’ve been intimate with is I guess, the risk of looking foolish, ridiculous, a laughing stock. In a way drawing memoir comics is the other end of the spectrum from trying to do “funny” comics, where you’re going for the laugh…. With autobiographical work you have to look pretty deeply at your own experiences, ask yourself “Why does this make me uncomfortable?”… Then the question of “Is this a good story? Can I make it into one?” comes in. You’re still in the “entertainment” biz, but it’s different—you’re also in the truth biz. You’re trying to take the lid off and have a look at what’s inside. And you have to have the guts to show it. Or don’t do memoir.
AL: You like to kick around strip clubs. I imagine it’s more than just the pussy that draws you there. What is it about that milieu that attracts you? Does it inspire you creatively? And have you ever found yourself in a friendship or relationship with any of the girls in the employ?
GH: Strip clubs? I’m kinda mixed about ’em…. I remember hearing it said that nobody should go to strip clubs—they’re the sexual equivalent of minstrel shows. Whether that’s true or not, I take the point. It’s vice but it can be fun … why would people keep doing it if it wasn’t? Still, strip clubs are depressing … the chicks are exploited by (usually older) guys who are paying for a quick, cheap thrill … the chicks are taking the guys’ money in return for it … it’s a cold exchange at best. So basically nobody would be involved in any of it were it not for the dollar factor….
So what’s the attraction? The sleaziness … I like the idea that if you’ve put a twenty in a dancer’s G-string that makes you a ‘classy’ guy! There’s also the cheap, dirty dream aspect … it does amaze me that there are guys who actually think these chicks really like them! I guess it’s the same feeling people get playing lotto…. And I understand that attraction too. Strip clubs, what they’re most like is going to the casino, selling you on a dream that as soon as you walk in, anything can happen. It rarely does.
So that’s another thing I like. The con aspect of it all, the swindle … comics have some of that, too … the carnival barker saying “C’mon in! Check it out—you haven’t lived ’til you’ve seen this show!”
AL: Your ink work has rich blacks and your compositions have harsh angles. Am I correct in seeing an influence from Kim Deitch’s work?
GH: Kim Deitch was a big early influence on my work and he definitely influenced the graphics, although I can’t say I’ve read anything by him in years. The most impressive thing I found in Kim’s work was really his storytelling. At his peak he was far and away the best narrative cartoonist of the 1960s Undergrounders. His Corn Fed comics 1 & 2 are U.G. classics … as is everything he did for Arcade back then.
AL: You met Skip Williamson at the Playboy office while you were in Chicago. This was quite fortuitous. Have you stayed in contact with Skip?
GH: No I haven’t stayed in contact with Skip! Actually the experience in Chicago meeting Skip at Playboy was traumatic as hell, I was on the streets, barely surviving, etc. … if anything it put the fear of God into me about being an “Underground Cartoonist”! Why would anyone choose such a lifestyle?
Although Skip seemed to have it as good as anyone would get it back then—we’re talking late ’70s. He was living pretty well, but then he had to deal with Hefner, which is really my idea of cartooning hell—someone should do a strip about that: A cartoonist goes to hell and he gets to do his own strip … amazing production, beautiful color, it gets read by millions, and a big paycheck too! The catch? Hefner’s editing you! The Devil himself! Change this, change that—get rid of that brushstroke! Re-draw that panel now!
Skip contacted me recently, in fact. He’d heard about my book Chicago, knew he was in it (I think) and wanted a copy. I sent him one … I hope he liked it!
AL: When did you get sober and what was that process like? Also, when did you give up smoking? In CHICAGO you draw yourself almost permanently with cancer in hand.
GH: I got sober in May of 1988! In fact I’d been doing the low-life thing, heavy drinking, drugs, promiscuous sex, wondering if I’d be around next year or next month … suddenly I turned 30 and I was like “Holy shit! I’m not dead—now what?” So like anyone else who’s totally whipped I checked into A.A. I didn’t have the energy to think, or even talk back to anyone, so basically it got me, I didn’t get it. I was lucky that way. The times in my life when I’ve stopped being argumentative something good usually happens. It did then. I’ve been clean ever since.
I gave up smoking about a year before I gave up drinking. It’s a tough one man! I never even liked smoking that much and it was a tough one to quit!
AL: I forget where I read it, but a recent review of CHICAGO described the sober adult you as possessing a “nervous calm.” Though clearly a contradiction I felt this descriptor clearly evoked a certain sober dude archetype I’ve witnessed. Calm, measured, but with an edge. Something in the eyes. It’s hard to explain. Any thoughts on this?
GH; I guess I’m one of those calm types who’s ready to explode at any given moment! Not literally … not a psycho who’s itching to go like, crazy violent or anything, but I’m a bit of an A.D.D. character. Crowds, visual stimuli, loud noises … I get easily overwhelmed by the too-muchness of life. It’s why I tend to focus intensely when I’m having a one-on-one conversation. Especially if it’s a conversation that interests me, like about comics or movies.
AL: I’ve noticed we have the same taste in shoes. Though I am currently without a pair I do normally wear Beatle boots. You seem to as well. Do you get them vintage? Or is there a current manufacturer you recommend?
GH: I’ve got rock ‘n’ roll tastes. As long as that shit’s not overplayed, it’s fine. I grew up in the 1970s and all of that clothing is laughably loud, crass, over-stated and can be worn only as an ironic joke.
Rock and Roll fashion on the other hand between 1965 and 1970 was at a peak, all of that stuff was cool without being overdone. Bob Dylan circa ’65, ’66, or the Stones until 1970 or thereabouts. Those are great looks, before they go over the top. Inspiring.
I’ve got an excellent pair of crocodile boots that I picked up a few years ago in Malibu. Expensive, but high quality. They were worth every penny. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the place I got them…. Sorry!
AL: In your author photo you are pictured in a bitchin’ mod egg chair. What’s the backstory on that? Is your place furnished with a lot of mid-century items?
GH: That bitchin’ mod chair is not an ‘egg’ but a Ball Chair that dates back to 1963, and designed by Eero Aarnio in Helsinki…. I saw it somewhere and had to own it! It’s one of those weird mod items from that era of 1960s cool. It’s comfily bizarre … there was even one made back then with stereo speakers built into the inside of it—now isn’t that just too groovy for words, man?
Yeah, I’ve got some mid-century stuff, not too much. And some taxidermy … a stuffed rattlesnake, an ostrich, other fun things … like a two-hundred-year-old mannequin chick with real human hair and porcelain teeth—I’m in love with her!
AL: You make no bones about being a rich kid. Do you ever worry that readers won’t identify with you because of this? Does it, narratively speaking, lower the stakes?
GH: No bones about it? I don’t know if I’d say that…. What happened was I was looking for ways to promote CHICAGO last summer, and someone (Noah Van Sciver, actually) suggested that I do a five-page daily journal piece for the Comics Journal. So I did it. It’s called 1% journal. I was thinking, well if I’m gonna do it honestly I really can’t keep my wealth out of the story. I mean it was weird to draw that stuff … about having a Maserati and a dog-walker and all of this bullshit, but I just went with it. At this point, I can’t see myself doing anything autobiographical if I’m not being truthful, you know? So I drew it.
No I don’t worry about people not identifying with me, because the way I told that story was one of being, in fact, very mixed about inherited wealth…. It’s a mixed bag. But then, as I say—that’s the paradox of doing memoir, if you really are being truly honest about your own experiences—whatever they are—people will feel something for you. They may not like you, but they’ll feel for you.
AL: You’ve made a number of references in your work to the weirdo fetishist surrealist Hans Bellmer. I also appreciate him. What is your attraction to his work? Do have any insights on the Surrealists in general?
GH: Hans Bellmer was one of the greatest surrealists…. Sculptor, photographer, painter, draftsman … his work is never thought of being in the same league as, you know, Dali or Magritte, but I find his work much more fascinating. It’s like he was deconstructing the male gaze, the way men see women, and objectify them. He created this doll with female anatomy that could be articulated into various poses … there’s an intensity, a kind of heightened state of arousal that he depicts that’s similar to pornography…. And yet his work isn’t pornographic really—it’s highly erotic. Powerful and disturbing.
I did a surrealistic biography of Hans Bellmer in which I drew Bellmer as a ventriloquist and the doll his dummy that he took around to Berlin cafes and did performances with. It seemed to fit with the decadence of the pre-war era. A surrealistic biography of a surrealist.
AL: Perhaps the stand out scene of CHICAGO is you young and crazed shooting up your families attic. I’m sure this was a difficult memory to dwell on, but at the same time am I wrong to detect a certain amount of glee in the depiction? It’s more or less an “action” scene and you weren’t shy about going balls-to-the-wall with it.
GH: That scene is definitely one of my favorites in the book and to draw it was really almost like being in a fugue state. Just reliving it, the craziness of it all…. Some people find it pretty disturbing, me I find it kind of hilarious, it’s just so over the top. It also allowed me to go apeshit visually. You know, being a comic book artist if you’re doing comics about reality and shit, you’re really involved in nuance, mood, tone … things aren’t happening and you try and depict that. That’s miles away from some of the Jack Kirby shit that got you into doing comics in the first place! So yeah, doing an action sequence with my 19-year-old self, naked, in the family attic squeezing bullets outta my dad’s .38 revolver was a blast! I recommend it to everyone!
AL: What’s your favorite band? Do you listen to music when you draw?
GH: My favorite band? Why pussyfoot around? Not just my favorite but objectively speaking the Best band is The Rolling Stones. Okay sure they didn’t put out a few obscure records like the Velvets that everyone who bought one blah, blah, blah. So fucking what? Who cares if they went onto becoming self-parodying oldsters? Doesn’t everyone really? If they’re lucky? Okay maybe not, so what. Anyway the point is their music at it’s best was The Best.
AL: You draw yourself eating ice cream to an eccentric degree. I’ve found since I stopped drinking I’ve got a ridiculous sweet tooth and eat ice cream all the time. I find this embarrassing for some reason. Anyways, what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?
GH: The ice cream eating scenes in CHICAGO were there to show the kind of existential nothingness that my character inhabits where life has just emptied out completely. “Doing nothing … as often as possible.” There’s nothing there but ice cream. And Cigarettes. And taking another spin with Dad’s revolver. What could go wrong?
You’ve got that sweet tooth because you’re not getting the fix you’re used to. Alcohol metabolizes into sugar when it’s in your liver, or some shit. So I’m told. Stick with the Milky-Way bars, Aaron—they probably won’t kill you as quick…. Don’t eat ’em while driving though—a gooey mess! Don’t do anything while driving—except driving!
AL: Have you ever been in a fight? Or maybe just get your ass kicked?
GH: Yeah to both. I grew up in Madison, New Jersey, which was this football/greaser/jock-town where kids were actually encouraged to beat the shit out of each other! “Let them work it out amongst themselves” kinda thing. So yeah I grew up with it, not that I was any kind of badass, but I was on the giving and receiving end of stuff that disturbs me to this day. Sounds weird but from my experience it’s actually more upsetting to beat someone else up than to get beaten up, and I’m not any kind of masochist—it’s just freaky to see yourself capable of violence, bloodlust. It’s in there though—we all have it.
AL: Phoebe Gloeckner wrote the introduction to CHICAGO. I recently saw the film adaptation of her book Diary of a Teenage Girl. I’m not one to shy away from difficult or challenging material in art but even I noticed myself squirming through most of it. At the same time, it was refreshing to see an honest depiction of young female sexuality that wasn’t puritanical. Did you see the film? And if so, how do you think being a parent yourself effected your interpretation?
GH: Well there was nothing in the movie that made me squirm! I agree that it’s great to see a movie attempt an honest depiction of teenage female sexuality…. My problem with it was that (unlike the book), it didn’t seem completely honest. The movie made fifteen-year-old Minnie into a bit of a Lolita figure, which was unfortunate, rather than a sexual being who’s still being taken advantage of by an adult. There’s an underlying rage in the book that seems missing in the movie. That’s just one opinion, and it’s coming from someone who thinks Diary of a Teenage Girl is one of the very best graphic novels. So what can I say?
Did it affect my parenting? A movie? Are you serious? Shit, the main concerns I have are that my kid not grow up like I did! No problems there (I hope!)…. Kids these days—they know all about where bad behavior leads: jails, re-hab, death—what fun can they possibly have? No much! It ain’t the misspent youth of my past…. The thrills of teenage degeneracy—where did it all go?