INTERVIEW: Glenn Head’s Cathartic Return to Chartwell Manor

Cover of Chartwell Manor by Glenn Head (Fantagraphics, May 2021)

Content warning: Discussions of sexual and psychological abuse and trauma.

Sometimes, your trauma stares you right in the face, but you have been so carefully conditioned not to see it. In the 1970s, comic artist Glenn Head spent two years at Chartwell Manor, an “elite” school where students were subjected to the kind of abuse that leaves permanent scars, inside and out, shaping their lives. Now an adult, Head takes a very personal walk down a traumatic memory lane to tell the raw and honest story of his experience and how it affected him, finding release in the telling. Ahead of the release of his graphic memoir from Fantagraphics this month, Head answers a few questions about Chartwell Manor for WWAC.

Cover of Chartwell Manor by Glenn Head (Fantagraphics, May 2021)

When reading the dedication to “Chartwell kids everywhere,” I immediately got the sense that this was intended for more than just those who attended the school, but perhaps for the numerous others who have suffered in such environments. Have you since had contact with any former students, other than those depicted in the story?

Yes, that was exactly my intention with the dedication. Children have no agency, or very little. They’re thrown into this world, and forced to make the best of it. So yeah, Chartwell kids everywhere are people like myself who have things happen to them that affect them, that may come to haunt them in later life. Things kept hidden usually for many years.
I haven’t had much contact with former Chartwell students . . . some. Interestingly, I was contacted a good bit recently while I was in the middle of drawing this book. In most cases I kept quiet about the graphic novel itself because it’s my own story. The most important thing here is that it be true to my experience of Chartwell. Not that I don’t feel a lot for those former Chartwell alumni. I do. And, if they read the book, I hope that they feel I’ve honored their experience as well.

Mr. Lynch describes students at the school as the “elite.” Were there those whom you feel actually felt this way about themselves? What did the term mean to you then?

“Elite” was a term used by Lynch simply to keep the kids off balance, isolated. To let the kids know they stood “apart” from others. If the students weren’t like others Lynch could manipulate them against the outside world, somewhat. “What goes on in Chartwell . . . stays here!” That kind of thing.

I don’t know that any of the kids actually thought they were in an elite environment, I think that mostly they were just trying to navigate a difficult situation, being away from their parents for the first time, and like me, trying to avoid the hairbrush, cane, or paddle.
There’s also the fact that some of these kids were really young. As young as five, six, or seven.

Truth — veritas — is the motto of Chartwell Manor and that’s what you have given us here in presenting your experiences. How does it feel to have your truth revealed in this way now?

It’s just totally liberating. This was a story that was eating away at me for a long time. Any abuse survivor can tell you that what follows the abuse is as bad or worse than the initial suffering, because often people do not want to know and are unsympathetic to you. So it’s easy to feel tainted by it–you just go silent, and keep it all hidden. It’s just my personality though . . . I will not go quietly! I don’t care who wants me to. I’m not exactly a whistleblower personality, but a comix artist who’s trying to really dig into the muck of childhood experience. It’s my job to lift up a lot of rocks and see what’s crawling around underneath.

How do you feel about your family members reading about your journey?

Well yeah it’s always potentially weird to do really personal work and then have your family see it, especially when there are sexual elements involved. There doesn’t really seem to be a way around that, though. Look if you’re going to do a story like this, you have to do it straight, really face the material or there just isn’t any point. But if you’re really serious about the memoir then you ultimately have to deal with the big topics, like sex and family. That’s how I see it.

Fortunately my family is pretty supportive of my work, for the most part. My siblings that is. Both my parents have passed. In truth I don’t think they ever got what I was attempting to do in comics.

Music presents itself in several places in the book. Did music carry you through the creation of this graphic novel? What else was on your playlist?

Music is a very big deal to me. Growing up I was at least as thrilled and excited by rock and roll as I was by comics. Some of this was just simple teenage rebellion. Maybe. But the force of that music at its best still moves me. I need it in my life. Iconoclasm is kind of an underlying thing there, that it’s very important to not accept the status quo. That was what rock and roll and underground comics were always about to me.

The book opens and closes with a line from Jumpin’ Jack Flash: “I was schooled with a strap right across my back.” Right there in that song: the anarchy, the rebellious energy, the trouble that follows it. That’s what the book is about.

My playlist? We’ll just say Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. There’s a self-punishing brutality to their music that I was channeling for some of the really harrowing street scenes in the book. The punk ethos is also in there, the snarl of Johnny Rotten, his contempt for authority and boredom. I still have that, I hate being bored!

It’s not all guys though. I always loved the sensitivity of Joni Mitchell, as well as Liz Phair’s take on female sexuality. In truth I’ve got thousands of things on my phone. Doesn’t everyone?

The only categorical statement I’ll make is I think British Rock and Roll was way better than American. How controversial is that?!

When were you introduced to indie comics? Which comics stood out to you and how did they influence your style here?

Well when I first read them they were called underground comics! You had to be 18 to buy them, they were X-rated, disreputable, anarchic, trouble-making, just on the verge of being an art form… just about! They were bad shit. which only made them more attractive. Not like now. Now there are no comic books. Just art books with comics inside ‘em.

I loved all those underground comics: Zap, Arcade, Bijou, I was in love with Robert Crumb’s work. That drawing… it’s a joy to behold! Those comic book covers of his. If you’re already drawing and you see that, you’re like “well this is it!” I know I was.

All of that stuff influenced me, but then so did the work of my contemporaries from the ’80s and ’90s, people like Kaz, Doug Allen, Gary Lieb, Roy Tompkins, Mark Beyer, Pascal Doury, Bruno Ricahard, Mark Newgarden, Julie Doucet, Phoebe Gloeckner. Many others too.

But then there’s the question of underlying influence. One of the things that came out of all of this is the conviction that a cartoonists’ work should be uniquely and authentically his own. This itself is obviously more important than facility. It’s gotta be you.

Has telling this story — in your favourite medium no less — brought you a sense of catharsis or closure?

Well it’s freeing because the story doesn’t own me anymore. Believe me, if you’re delving into this kind of thing you have to be pretty strong to use it as material. I don’t know…
I can tell you it’s weird though, to see my abuser, Terrence Michael Lynch as this cartoon character cavorting across the page. He was a violent, dangerous, poisonous character who damaged a lot of people. Lynch was really kind of absurd, an evil clown, larger than life, charming, manipulative. He was begging for the comic book treatment. He got it.

So for a cartoonist, sure, that’s cathartic.

Chartwell Manor will be available on May 25.

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.