Interview with UGC artist Howard Cruse, on character development, gay comix and the role of art in society. By Alexandra Rogers, University of Wisconsin-Madison Journalism Student, 4/18/09
When you first heard about Underground Classics, framed as the first serious examination of underground comix as an artistic movement, what was your reaction? Cruse: I’m always pleased when my existence is acknowledged.
In popular culture, but especially in comics, there is an origin story. So how did you get started in comics? Cruse: Creating comics came naturally for me from the time I started playing with pencils and crayons. My dad gave me a rapidograph and India ink when I was eight, and that sealed the deal. I liked making up stories, I liked drawing pictures, and I loved reading Little Lulu and Donald Duck comics, so drawing my own stuff for fun was the obvious next step. Then I learned that people could make a living being cartoonists. Boom! I had a career goal even though I was still in the third grade.
Actually, in the beginning I had my eye on drawing a syndicated comic strip like Blondie or Li’l Abner. Mad magazine whetted my appetite for doing satire when I hit my teens; I would draw issues of my own Mad imitation, called Asylum, and show them to my friends. When I entered college, though, I got temporarily diverted into theatre, especially playwriting and directing. Looking back, that’s pretty unsurprising, since writing and drawing a comic has a lot in common with writing and staging a play.
A big difference, of course, is that you need to get other people involved if you’re going to put on a play. With cartooning, you can just go to an art store, stock up on drawing supplies, and start working. This was the epiphany that hit me after a few brief dabblings in the New York theatre scene once my academic career was behind me.
Artists are usually depicted as solitary workers but I have seen enough photos of comix being created in group situations. How did you work then and how has that shifted over the years? Cruse: I have always been a loner when it comes to putting stuff on paper. I need to be lost in thought. Having other people looking over my shoulder totally blows my concentration.
Maybe I would have warmed up to group cartooning scenes if I had been around the famous beehives of underground activity in places like San Francisco, New York, or Chicago. But I was stuck in Alabama when I was getting started, and didn’t know any other cartoonists to be in a clique with.
Which comix artists are you closest to in terms of your appreciation for their work?
Cruse: I was fascinated and in various ways influenced by most of the “big names” you’d expect. I felt the most affinity for the cartoonists whose styles were linked to the classic comic strip creators—but with that ol’ psychedelic or sex-crazed twist. Robert Crumb, Jay Lynch, Skip Williamson, Lee Marrs, Gilbert Shelton and Bobby London come immediately to mind as artists I paid special attention to, but there were plenty of others that also had an impact on me. Justin Green, of course, upped the ante on self-revelation. Green kind of put everybody else to the test. I liked the autobiographical comix that were prevalent in the Wimmin’s Comix branch of things, and once I began including my experiences as a gay man in my stuff, I had pioneers like Roberta Gregory and Many Wings to emulate. By the time I made it into my first UG comic, the gross-out, taboo demolishing branch of the movement had been pretty thoroughly mined already by others. I was in awe of S. Clay Wilson’s readiness to take violence to outrageous levels but it would have been silly for me to try to go where he went.
In addition to the changes in style and content you describe, could you give us a sense of how you saw your audience over time? Cruse: Nowadays, of course, because of the Internet, I have lots of ways to get to know who’s reading my stuff, but in the early 1970s, when my comix mainly featured my character Barefootz, I had no way of knowing who my audience might be. I had a local following in Birmingham, but I had already been drawing Barefootz for four years before I ever went to a comic book convention and met comix readers who knew who I was but didn’t know me personally. That was at the 1976 Berkeley Con, which focused on undergrounds and was organized by Clay Geerdes. I was pleased to learn that a reasonable number of convention attendees and a few fellow comix creators were actually enthusiastic about what I was doing. This was reassuring because I had been getting grapevine feedback for a while about how most of the UG heavy-hitters in San Francisco hated Barefootz. They viewed it as “cutesy” and adolescent and undeserving of the “underground” label. So I came to Berkeley in 1976 feeling a little defensive and rejected but returned home with my spirits bolstered, since I did meet Barefootz readers who “got” what I was trying to do with the feature. And I made some new friends.
Of course, talking about Barefootz in this interview won’t be meaningful to most people, since what’s in this Chazen show are episodes of my comic strip Wendel from the 1980s, and I did a lot of evolving between Barefootz and Wendel. If anybody’s curious, they can go to the Barefootz section of my web site and see what I’m talking about.
Anyway, Barefootz was very stylized and in retrospect I can appreciate where the people who had trouble with its look were coming from. But it had its small, loyal following, and they kept me feeling reasonably appreciated until I was ready to move past Barefootz’s limitations.
My audience grew as I moved beyond Barefootz and expanded even more with the advent of Gay Comix, which I edited during its first few years. It was a big deal for gay and lesbian underground comix fans to see their lives portrayed non-stereotypically and respectfully by cartoonists who knew what they were talking about. And a lot of comics-creators who weren’t gay began taking me more seriously. Honesty in artwork gives it added punch. I think others saw that shedding the burden of being in the closet had freed me up in a good way.
Then my graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby came out in 1995, and all of a sudden I had lots more readers, gay and straight, from outside the comics-reading core. And eventually I was getting email about the book from far-flung parts of the world, thanks to Stuck Rubber Baby’s various translations and the ease with which readers could reach me once I set up my web site.
Comics with a c or an x is inherently a commercial enterprise, how did you find working with publishers and being one yourself? Cruse: I was fortunate in my business dealings, since most of my underground comix were published by Denis Kitchen. There was never much money to be made in undergrounds, but I could count on Denis not to stiff me. And it meant a lot to me that he “got” my Barefootz humor from the first, and that he stood by it over the years in the face of all naysayers. Denis also remained appreciative of the past greats among cartoonists, regardless of whether they could be called “hip” by self-conscious counterculture standards. Thanks largely to Kitchen Sink Press, Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman were lured into the underground orbit, and other classic comic strip creators like Ernie Bushmiller, Milton Caniff, and Al Capp were showcased for a new generation. Like Denis, I didn’t feel that digging the young rebels of the underground required me to reject the great cartoonists of the past. So Denis and I bonded on more than the business level.
When did you become aware of a change in collectors in terms of institutionalizing comix in libraries and museums? Cruse: I used to enjoy visiting Mort Walker’s Museum of Cartoon Art back in the 1970s, when it was located in an honest-to-god castle in Rye, New York. But It’s been great in recent years to see the comics art form finally being given its due in a more widespread way by the cultural gatekeepers of the world. Like most comics people I cheered when Maus made the front cover of the New York Times Book Review, and I’ve been even more heartened in the last year or two by seeing graphic novels reviewed regularly in venues like the Times instead of once in a blue moon.
And while its always been a rich experience to view original cartoon art on gallery or museum walls, where you can study all of the flaws and corrections that are wiped out in mass reproduction, those opportunities used to be rare. Now the momentum is in favor of more and more such exhibits. That’s cool. Seeing the actual artwork puts the viewer in closer touch with the creative process. The viewer is seeing what the artist saw while the drawing was going on. I loved having that opportunity when I was starting out.
Are any of your originals in a museum? Cruse: Not much. Here and there. Some of my early comics used to be part of the Museum of Cartoon Art collection, and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York has a piece or two. Other than that, my work mainly gets displayed for the public in the occasional gallery shows that want to include it, and when those shows are over they give it back. I was in last year’s Lit Graphic Show at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, a version of which is touring around the country now, and I’ve had work exhibited in London and Spain.
What are the connections you make between comix and the work of younger artists today? Cruse: Webcomics are where the real freedom is now. The lack of censorship on the Internet makes it a perfect place for the restless rebels and experimenters that would have been drawing underground comix before or putting out photocopies ‘zines in the ’90s. With the Web, there’s no bricks-and-mortar distribution system that can be shut down the way that local governments shut down head shops in the ’70s and still try to censor comics shops even today.
One thing that current comics artists with subversive leanings don’t have is a generation of eager hippies that can’t wait to get stoned and snap up whatever they draw. There’s more of a one-to-one connection between cartoonists and their fans now. Unless a cult builds up around a cartoonist’s work, you don’t have the feeling that his or her work is being appreciated by a whole international, self-aware community. Gilbert Shelton’s Freak Brothers, on the other hand, were being drawn for “freaks” to read, and freaks in Alabama knew that there were fellow freaks in Kansas or Maine or anywhere else that were laughing at the same freak jokes they were laughing at, and who were living variations on the same freak lives they were living when they weren’t reading comics—which was the freak style of living that Shelton was making comedy out of in his comix. There was a unique bond there, like the bond between the Beatles, when they sang about acid-tripping, and the acid-trippers around the world who knew how to decode the songs.
It was a very different time, one with a special, quasi-utopian feeling we’re not likely to see again anytime soon. But we’re living in unique times now, too. Who knows how the Internet would have affected the mix if it had been around when Crumb felt like hawking Zaps on the street? Most likely he would have rejected anything digital and stuck to ink on paper, but the options the Internet would have presented for reaching readers in the ’60s would have turned the decision-making for him and other undergrounders into a whole different ballgame.
The role of the artist in society is the kind of question that raises the hackles of many artists who see non-artists as trying to define creative individuals, but it seems a worthwhile inquiry given the social context that surrounded underground comix. So how do you see that role? Cruse: Basically I think art, viewed in the broadest sense of the word, is what keeps human beings from turning into robots without realizing it. Since so many things are constantly pushing us in the opposite direction, that makes keeping art as free as possible pretty important.