Howard Cruse has brought his cartooning and illustration career full circle, going from underground to a more above-ground version of the same. Cruse began his comic book career in the world of underground comics, most notably “Barefootz.” He also edited the anthology series “Gay Comix” and did the regular strip “Wendel” for the Advocate (the national gay-oriented newsmagazine). In the 1990s, he broke ground with his graphic novel “Stuck Rubber Baby,” which he did for an imprint of DC Comics.
More recently, Cruse financed the first issue of the North County Perp, a zine format anthology of local writers and artists that hearkens back to the days of do-it-yourself comic books — the undergrounds of the 1970s and the self-publishing movement of the 1990s. It was Cruse’s idea that he could draw upon the creative lessons of yesteryear and apply them to his current home in a scrappy way.
“The spirit is inclusiveness at the cost of conventional professionalism,” said Cruse.
The first issue offers a wide variety of irreverence in regard to personal and local issues — essays and comic strips cover everything from agnosticism to body image to a fantasy gravy crisis to a very real examination of the old local political chestnut, benches in downtown North Adams.
“I just wanted to throw open the door to a wider range of creative writing and art than one finds in the local papers and literary magazines,” said Cruse. “If I had my druthers, you’d have an honest-to-god underground newspaper.”
Cruse had ambitions to be a cartoonist from the age of 7, though spent a lot of his time pursuing writing.
“I pity the poor editors of national publications who got my submissions when I was 9 years old,” said Cruse. “I was sending humorous verse to the New Yorker and things like that. I had totally unrealistic visions of how quickly I would be embraced as a major talent. I did get in the habit of going through all those rituals of submitting and getting rejected and all that quite early.”
Perhaps getting past the gloomy struggling artist period so early in life helped his course along as a teenager. It was early on in college that he began a subversive path, managing to get a four-page comic book story lampooning the John Birch Society into the literary magazine of Birmingham Southern College in the 1960s. Cruse’s path, however, veered off into theater and comics would have to wait. This path eventually took him out of Alabama, into Pennsylvania and eventually to New York City.
“I allowed myself to be propelled along by the expectations of other people who had pushed me onto grad school,” said Cruse. “I was dissatisfied, I didn’t feel that I knew myself, I didn’t know how to write plays that had any originality. I got in a funk and left college and moved to New York and lived with my hippie friends in the hippie, 1969 environment in New York City.”
It was after this year immersed in the counter culture that saw Cruse return to Birmingham and doing work for the Birmingham Post Herald as a cartoonist. He had also discovered underground comics and made the acquaintance of legendary comic book publisher Denis Kitchen, who was soon publishing Cruse’s stories through his Kitchen Sink Press, along with other cartoonists like S. Clay Wilson, Trina Robbins and, shortly thereafter, early work from Art Spiegelman.
Working in underground comics became Cruse’s passion for a number of years, but his art style differentiated him from his peers. Cruse’s drawings lacked the coarse nature of so many others in the underground scene — and was very respectful of all that came before him. He was, after all, raised to be a polite Southern boy.
“My sensibility as a cartoonist has always been somewhat traditionalist,” said Cruse. “My stuff looks like it could appear in a newspaper comic strip. The difference is that I became inspired to subversive content by underground comics. I just lost interest in gag cartoons.”
Underground comics also allowed Cruse some elbow room in narrative that newspaper strips just couldn’t. Story length gave characters time to live and breath and offered humor the chance to be more than the kind of quick laughs readers would find in strips like “Hi and Lois.” Unfortunately, it was a genre that was beholden to other factors in society for distribution — most notably drug culture — and while morality is in the eye of the beholder, business concerns are not always.
“When I first began really being interested in underground comics myself, the local head shop, they had a wall of underground comics that was more exciting than any rack of comics that you could find anywhere,” said Cruse, “and they were next to the psychedelic posters and the bongs and all of those things. There was this real boom of underground comics because they were new, there was this audience of hippies who would buy anything if it had references to pot in it.”
Though Cruse eventually moved on from the world of underground comics, he is quick to acknowledge their impact on the comic book, opening up the concept of what was acceptable subject matter by pushing the boundaries in a medium that had been defined by adolescent power fantasies for so long. Much of the subject matter and sensibility of the underground creators has slowly trickled into the mainstream, where graphic novels are now commonplace adult purchases.
“The groundwork was laid for today’s young cartoonists to put anything they wanted to on paper,” said Cruse. “Whether they find an audience or not starts being about whether they have anything to say and that’s kind of the way it should be in art. I think we’re in a really golden age of comic art in a sense of what is being produced — the problem is, a lot of people who are doing the better stuff are starving.”
It’s exactly this sort of transition to the mainstream that Cruse was also able to pioneer in the 1990s with his graphic novel “Stuck Rubber Baby.” Cruse’s book is a serious literary work about the 1960s South in regard to racism and homophobia and, at the time, such books did not get much attention in publications, nor prime space in bookstores, unlike the current market where works like “American Born Chinese” and “Fun Home” get plenty of attention.
“We could not get it reviewed in the New York Times,” said Cruse. “Basically, the Times treated ‘Maus’ as an anomaly and Speigelman as an anomaly — except Spiegelman told them, ‘Well, I’ve got these friends’ and if you were sponsored by Spiegelman, you had a shot. There were some of the people from the ‘RAW’ crowd who also put out comics and also got attention from the New York Times. But it was a different world from now when they very frequently review graphic novels.”
It was also a different world in that major companies viewed such works as experiments. DC Comics raked in money for years by publishing Superman and Batman, but in the 1990s began to explore adult-oriented graphic novels through imprints — and unlike the underground publishers who might wish for such projects, a company like DC could actually afford to make serious work happen.
“The only reason that ‘Stuck Rubber Baby’ could happen is because you had a big company like DC that could throw serious money at me as an advance,” said Cruse. “The ironic thing is that it was 10 times as big an advance as I had ever had for anything in my life and it was also woefully too little. Denis Kitchen couldn’t have begun to give me an advance like that.”
Cruse found that the opportunity to create in the long form was exhilarating — and exhausting. He also realized that all the artistic satisfaction in the world cannot stave off economic realities — even with a sizable advance, he found himself in debt after the book was released. All the stresses combined have prevented him from pursuing another such project.
“I have mixed feelings about the labor intensiveness of the graphic novel form,” said Cruse. “It’s really, really hard work and as you get older, chopping off five years of your life becomes a bigger proportion of what you can reasonably expect to have left.”
“Stuck Rubber Baby” did give Cruse the chance to meditate in print over his former life as a nice southern boy and compare his adopted home of New York City to the land of his fathers. What he found was that even though it’s doubtful he could live there again, his emotions toward the South are not black and white — and he does see that things have changed since he was growing up there.
“Birmingham has a significant visible gay community and they have a significant bohemian community,” said Cruse. “They’re much more visible than they were when I was there, but nonetheless, there isn’t a lot of cultural support for cutting edge art that challenges or hits any of the buttons that are so sensitive down south. You can do okay if you paint flowers, but the only people who are successful artists — who would also be successful on the national or international scene — are artists who are savvy enough to leapfrog over the local barriers.”
Cruse has realized that there are those who leave town and those who don’t — and he’s begun to understand what motivates those — like himself — who do. It’s all about connection and the free exchange of ideas with your peers.
“It’s weird to want to be among the greats in your field, it’s like you’ve got a swelled head,” said Cruse. “I decided if I really going to be a cartoonist, I’m going to have to go to New York where the publishing happens. I was a few blocks from Julliard and just the elevator conversations you would hear, everyone had a project, everyone was striving to do something really interesting. People go to New York to fulfill their dreams. Community theater isn’t enough, they want to be on Broadway.”
Decades later and Cruse has fulfilled his dreams, settling into his artistic identity — and an artistic community — all the while acknowledging the journey that brought him here.
“I’ve been doing this long enough that I know who I am as an artist,” said Cruse, “and I’m not as into that day-to-day challenge of being part of the ferment of a set of striving young artists. At this point, I’m a striving old artist. We’ve also cultivated a community of artist friends up here, and so I get plenty of stimulation and support here. In the long run, though, I’m just me in my little space trying to do my thing.”