I was heartbroken to hear about Howard Cruse’s death yesterday. He was my good friend and a vigorous supporter of my work, and I had a few opportunities over the years to write about his career. This interview that follows originally appeared in the North Adams Transcript in 2007 when Howard was devising the North County Perp, a zine that collected words and pictures from other creative types in the Berkshires. I was lucky to have a short story appear in its second and final issue, whipped into shape by Howard’s editing.
Though the article focused on the Perp I used it as an opportunity to introduce many local people who knew and liked Howard to his work and achievements in comics, which not everyone was aware of. Many just knew him as a lovely person.
And so I wanted to put this interview out there for posterity. Howard talks a lot about his own unassuming demeanor in context of his radical work and his underground comics comrades, and I find this all fascinating and straight to the core of who he was.
I will miss Howard horribly, and I know a lot of other people who feel the same. You can read my personal remembrance of Howard that I wrote for the Comics Beat here.
J7: When did you first want to be a cartoonist?
HC: I had ambitions to be a cartoonist from the age of seven. I also wanted to be a writer. I pity the poor editors of national publications who got my submissions when I was 9 years old. 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 and I submitted several comic strips for newspaper syndication in the course of my teenage years and college years.
I managed to break ground in our college literary magazine which had never even considered running a comic strip format before I did a four-page comic book story satirizing John Birchism, somewhere in the mid-’60s. They were so timid, so afraid that the board of trustees of Birmingham Southern would get upset that they ran little disclaimers saying that this is not really about any real organization, this is just about a state of mind. But they still let me publish the comic strip.
I got diverted while in college into theater, which has a lot in common with writing comics, particularly playwriting and directing. I was under the influence of a very important artistic mentor, who was head of the drama department there, and he became my friend, we stayed friends long after I left college until he died. He changed my ideas about what art was all about and I lost interest in doing the newspaper comic strip because, in general, you had so little creative freedom. I had pretty much given up on comic books until the underground movement came along. I thought I was going to be an academic theater director like my role model and I got a playwriting fellowship to Penn State University when I finished college in 68, but I really hated grad school. Nothing wrong with Penn State, they had a perfectly good drama department and all, but I allowed myself to be propelled along by the expectations of other people that had pushed me onto grad school. 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. I did that for about a year and I was freaking out from no income, so I moved back to Alabama, where I got a job working for this local television station and also, there was an editor for a paper that’s disappeared now, it was the better of the two dailies in Birmingham, it was called the Birmingham Post Herald. This editor decided that I was a youngster who needed to be given a chance. I think he knew my father, which probably affected his decision, but he let me do this little comic panel for the paper and that got me back into comics. It was an earlier version of Squirrel.
I discovered underground comics and Denis Kitchen opened doors for me. That became a passion for a number of years.
J7: Did you ever consider altering your style to enter the industry?
HC: My sensibility as a cartoonist has always been somewhat traditionalist. 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 which, these days, are about the only thing you can have in newspaper comics. There are a number of continuity strips that are grandfathered in by virtue of longevity, or tie-ins to movies like “Spider-Man.” I see that “Mary Worth” is still going and “Rex Morgan, M.D.” and it’s very frustrating because if someone offered me the chance to do a narrative comedy strip. Like “Li’l Abner,” which was one of the greats in its heyday before it went to hell. In its heyday, “Li’l Abner” was great. That would be my role model if I was going to do a daily strip. To do these two or three panels followed by a punchline really bores me.
The extra space you could find in underground comics, I said ‘well, this is really cool, I like a little room to let characters develop’ and then when I did the graphic novel, “”Stuck Rubber Baby”,” that was even more exhilarating, because I didn’t have to stick to any kind of episodic length at all. My “Wendell” strip, which ran during the ‘80s in the Advocate, in general, for most of its run, had two full pages to fill. I could have a one-act play in those two pages, but still, two pages was the length of every episode.
Doing “”Stuck Rubber Baby”,” I could let every scene play out at its organic length instead of having to come to some stopping point. That’s why “”Stuck Rubber Baby”” is the most exhilarating creative experience of my life, unfortunately, it’s really hard to make doing graphic novels practical economically and I went deep into debt doing “”Stuck Rubber Baby”” and it left me shellshocked. That’s why I have not tried to do another one.
It was done for DC, who had this imprint called Paradox Press, which was actually an offshoot of an earlier imprint called Piranha Press. Piranha Press was founded as a place for unusual experiments and the editor who left DC while “Stuck Rubber Baby” was in progress, but the guy who signed the contract, really liked the statement that “”Stuck Rubber Baby”” would make about the seriousness of their interest in doing things that were not common comic book fare and he gave me a great deal of creative freedom. As a matter of fact, pretty much that was the reason I was willing to do it.
It stood apart from DC, but DC has a history of being open to experiments, the better side of a mainstream company. They really embraced “Stuck Rubber Baby” and let me do my thing even after Mark Novello left the company. I was afraid I was going to fall into the hands of someone who wouldn’t keep his promises. I think largely because nobody in their normal editorial staff really knew what to do with a project like “Stuck Rubber Baby”, so they continued to let me do it my way, so it was really a satisfying thing. DC Comics has done a number of really radical experiments over the years, but “Stuck Rubber Baby” is kind of in its own little category.
J7: Long term story projects weren’t normal back in the day.
HC: 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. The ironic thing is that it was ten 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, particularly since I felt “Stuck Rubber Baby” should not be issued serially, I felt it needed to enter the world as a total book that people had to either buy or not buy. There was talk of if we should make this a series and I felt strongly that if it was a series, people would have bought it out of curiosity for a few issues, but they would have been so uncomfortable with the content that so many people would’ve dropped off that it would’ve been canceled. I still think that’s would have happened. People had to take a deep breath and say “Okay, racism and homosexuals, am I ready for this?”
J7: Graphic novels weren’t easily available in regular bookstores when “Stuck Rubber Baby” was done – and even now, they are lumped together with comic book collections.
HC: There’s always an issue of where to put serious graphic novels because, to the untrained eye, they look like regular comics and therefore, they tend to wind up next to Garfield. Of course, now you’ve Manga filling up the shelves.
The frustrating thing is that when I was a kid . . . it was head shops that made underground comics possible. Essentially, the old-style underground comics fell by the wayside when the government went after head shops with a vengeance, for selling drug paraphernalia. When I was living in Atlanta in the early ’70s and I first began really being interested in underground comics myself, the local headshop, they had a wall of underground comics that was more exciting than any rack of comics that you could find anywhere, 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.
You had the first flush of really inventive groundbreaking underground cartoonists followed by a lot of mush because if you could be dirty and put in drug references then somebody would publish it. There were a lot of really bad underground comics in 1973 – and then the Supreme Court came out with its obscenity decision, which was like shooting a cannonball through the whole system. Before that, a local prosecutor couldn’t prosecute someone for selling an underground comic unless, by national standards, it was obscene. Once it became local standards, god knows, by Alabama standards, “Ulysses” would never have been published.
J7: What is your relationship with the south these days?
HC: I have a lot of fondness for the south because I have a circle of friends there and I always tell people whose impression of Birmingham is totally drawn from the worst of the media it got when it was turning firehoses on civil rights demonstrators that no one should spend time in Birmingham unless you can find your subculture. The dominant culture has real problems. I don’t want to suggest that it hasn’t improved a huge amount. These days Birmingham spent years with a black mayor and they have a significant visible gay community and they have a significant bohemian community. They’re much more visible than they were when I was there, but nonetheless, there isn’t a lot of cultural support – and by that I mean community support – for cutting edge art. I don’t by that mean picking up a tin can off the street and calling it art, but the challenges, supposition that may be anti-religious 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 and achieve an audience without regard to Birmingham culture.
A quick sidestep. I’m so aware of people who are breaking their backs to bring Birmingham and Alabama up to snuff artistically. When I ditch Alabama, I don’t want to overlook that. There’s a really good museum, a lot of stuff that’s good is happening in that town, but among my circle of friends – who were very supportive and thought I was terrific and loved my comics – it’s weird to want to be among the greats in your field, it’s like you’ve got a swelled head. The big difference is that when I decided if I really going to be a cartoonist, I’m going to have to go to New York where the publishing happens.
When I got to New York and I had a little apartment on the upper west side during the period just before gentrification propelled the rents beyond anything I could have possibly afforded, 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, or work for Joseph Papp. They want to be in the same league as top-notch people and that’s not possible in Birmingham, unless you have somewhere to bypass the local barriers.
There are excellent actors in local theater in Birmingham, but very rarely do they find themselves in the company of people who could challenge them to be at their very greatest. What I wanted was the kind of culture who valued people who would reach for the stars. That’s what is so great about New York and I love New York for that reason.
J7: New York City offers a field where there is an exchange of ideas with your peers more than a small town does.
HC: I really enjoyed moving to North Adams and I think it works to move to North Adams at this point in my life for two reasons. One is the Internet. Most of the work I do nationally happens on the Internet at this point. I couldn’t have possibly have been a serious cartoonist without being near publishing before.
Also, I’ve been doing this long enough that I know who I am as an artist 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.
J7: You’re that wherever you live.
HC: When Eddie first brought up the idea of “shall we move to North Adams?” — which we had become aware of because we have friends who live near here and we had visited them plenty over the years — my first reaction was panic because I had lived in rural Alabama in the ‘50s and I immediately projected that onto rural Massachusetts in the 21st century and they’re not the same. I really had to convince myself that I would not be out of touch with the world through living up here.
But then I thought that the previous five years in New York City, I hadn’t gone into an art director’s office in Manhattan once. Manhattan art directors would telephone me or e-mail me and we would talk about what they wanted me to do for them, I e-mailed them sketches and they would improve them or change them, then I would do the artwork and send them the artwork in digital form, so there was absolutely no reason that what I was doing in Queens couldn’t happen in rural Massachusetts.
J7: Even in a city, you can become self-contained.
HC: Particularly when I was working on “Stuck Rubber Baby,” I was essentially out of circulation for four years. Obviously I saw my friends, but people who had been following my cartoons could be forgiven for thinking I was dead. One time, somebody printed my obituary in a San Francisco paper because they had me confused with another artist who has a similar style. This was during the AIDS epidemic and us gay people were dropping like flies. Somebody alerted me to that fact, so we cleared it up. Unfortunately, Mark Twain had already done a bit of flying on that.
J7: Your current life and demeanor hides a more radical past – how do you feel about that march from a younger artistic on the fringe kind of life to living in the country being professional?
HC: There’s nothing like living a few decades to help you be clear on the distinction between radical appearance and interior individualism. When I was young, to have shoulder length hair was a political statement, it meant that you were on the side of the counter culture, you probably did all the things that the hippies did, mainstream culture didn’t like you and the hard hats wanted to beat you up and you were against the war and anybody else you saw with long hair was probably somebody you would like.
For a while, that was true, the term “let your freak flag fly,” it had meaning. And then, the hippie appearance became a fashion statement that was absorbed first by Madison Avenue and started appearing in ads and on mainstream television and then the conservatives who would beach you up looked like you. Meanwhile, if you became more and more serious about being an artist, some of these other things became distractions. For instance, if you had shoulder-length hair, it takes forever to dry after a shower and if it’s not going to make a statement that you are opposed to Richard Nixon, then it just becomes less important to have that long hair. Clothing styles change. If I knew paisleys were going to go out of fashion, I would’ve stocked up on hundreds, because that was my favorite period.
Within the underground comics world and hippie culture, I was on the conservative side – not politically, but in the sense of respect for tradition. There was never a point that I felt all the cartoonists from the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s who were my forebears deserved the back of my hand. Even if in content, I was for a level of freedom about things like sex and religion and all of that stuff, that they were not thought of, their craft was wonderful and I aspired to that old-style craft and never gave that up.
The person I am today who visually doesn’t come across to be any kind of radical – and I was raised to be a nice polite boy – hasn’t given up any of my beliefs that sex should be totally integrated into the realm of topics that are covered without embarrassment. I don’t break as many taboos in my work right now because, frankly, it became boring. All the taboos got broken right and left by the underground comics artists and after you’ve had Robert Crumb fucking a headless woman with a decapitated neck a number of times, there’s no point in drawing that kind of thing over and over and over again. I became interested in what I considered the real issues of life, the same kind of issues that a lot of people who were never hippies are concerned about.
At some level, I live in a state of constant apoplexy about the current government, but I also learned that apoplexy doesn’t wear well if it’s just dumped into art without being digested and formed. People don’t like being preached at, they don’t like being screamed at, and so I have to find a way to channel my feelings in terms that people who are not just like me can relate to. Unfortunately, there are not venues for being as outrageous as I’d like to be. I can’t make money at it. I could do it, there are all sorts of places I could go and get comics published that are more radical in content than most of what I do now, but I couldn’t get paid enough to pay for the time it takes to do them and this is my perpetual dilemma. This is why I’m waiting for that McArthur Fellowship, for them to knock on my door and say “We’re going to give you a million dollars to do whatever you want.” Then you’ll see!
J7: The mature graphic nature of modern comics has caught up with the undergrounds – but there is something missing of a political and deeper nature.
HC: If you look at the underground comics artists who have remained productive over the years, they’ve all found ways to enrich their art with something beyond breaking taboos.
The groundwork was laid for today’s young cartoonists to put anything they wanted to on paper. 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.
If you just go down the racks, you see excellent work.
I never had the breakthrough thing that made me a household name and a lot of artists have. It opens up chances to make the art you want to make without having to factor in paying the rent, or in my case the mortgage.
J7: That’s a rare bird in the industry.
HC: If I had the temperament and talent and inclination, maybe they’d be making movies about my superhero now, but they’d probably own the rights and I wouldn’t get any money for it.
Shortly after “Stuck Rubber Baby,” some independent filmmakers decided they wanted to make a “Stuck Rubber Baby” movie, it was something they were trying to make happen for a while, but they couldn’t get any bankable director interested and it ultimately moved onto their back burners. DC comics own the licensing rights to that and DC Comics isn’t interested in having movies made unless they are going to be big moneymakers, which means superhero.
J7; The market for non-superhero is great, never been better, but the superhero thing is still an impediment.
HC: In terms of big studio movies, they turn to superheroes, because they want franchises, they want there to be a “Spider-Man 3” and a “Spider-Man 4,” etc. Some of them do it well, I enjoyed “Spider-Man,” but independent film is where the action is artistically the same way that independent or alternative comics is where the action is in comics artistically. Some really cool movies have been made, look at “Ghost World” or “The Road to Perdition.” If you start making a list, there are a number of interesting movies made from non-superhero graphic novels these days and a lot of them fly under the radar.
When “Stuck Rubber Baby” came out, we could not get it reviewed in the New York Times. Basically, the Times treated “Maus” as an anomaly and Spiegelman 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 Time. But it was a different world from now when they very frequently review graphic novels.
I’m so pleased by the attention that Allison Bechtel got for “Fun Home.” Those of us who’ve known Allison over the years and know not only what a terrific cartoonist she is , but a nice a deserving person she is, we just knew, okay, she agreed to do a graphic novel, I mean, this is a serious woman with serious talent, we knew it was going to deserve attention whether or not it actually got it. But the fact it actually got it and was named as one of the best books of the year by Time Magazine, all that stuff, that is so great. And Allison, when I congratulated her, said ‘I can’t believe you’re still speaking to me’ because most people felt that if “Stuck Rubber Baby” were published today, it would get some attention. We couldn’t get on TV, the Voice reviewed it, but for the most part it was ignored by the mainstream press.
I have mixed feelings about the labor intensiveness of the graphic novel form. 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. I have a couple of things that could be graphic novels in my mind right now. I don’t know if there is anything that would shake things up as much as “Stuck Rubber Baby” did because that particular story was full of really big themes. That’s my book about civil rights and homophobia in the south in the ‘60s and that’s not ground I’m interested in plowing over again.
The most rewarding thing about doing that book, other than just meeting the challenge of “Can I do a graphic novel?” was the characters, I really enjoyed living with those characters for an extended period of time and discovering new things about them. Which means that if I had the artistic freedom that comes with money, I might just as likely write plays or write novels as do another graphic novel. On the other hand, there’s another part of me that really enjoys drawing, so who knows? I might decide that I would really dig drawing a really long story. Probably I’d rather do short comic book stories in longer form and I don’t have to draw all the pictures.
J7: Would you consider collaborations with other artists where you just write the scripts?
HC: I would consider that. I was approached about that recently. I hadn’t thought about it but I had realized that this might be one way to get around this. That particular project fell through, but it did cause me to give thought to that.
I sense that’s sort of like writing a play or a movie, if you write a play or a movie, other people are going to interpret it and you accept that, so I don’t know why I should have resistance to that in the comics form. On the other hand, as soon as I start thinking about a story that can be told in comics form, I start thinking of how I would draw it and I don’t know whether I could back off from the control freak in me.
When the proposal for “Stuck Rubber Baby” was floating around DC comics, I learned through the grapevine, the editor, the guy who ultimately ended up being the editor of the book after Mike Novello left, someone quoted him, he said “That’s a very interesting book, Howard Cruse isn’t the person to draw it.” And looking at “Wendel” and other things I had drawn in the past, I totally understood where he was coming from. I wasn’t sure I was the person to draw a book that needed to be as gritty as that book, but the thing I realized was that I wasn’t sure if I was capable of drawing it, but I didn’t know anyone who was more capable. Anybody else would be drawing the characters from the outside and I knew the characters from the inside. I kind of think that the saving grace of my pathetic level of drawing realistically is that it’s communicated that the characters have an interior life. There are a lot of cartoonists who draw a lot more realistically than me but don’t really communicate that. I think that’s my strong point.