Howard Cruse talks comics history and the diversity of underground comics


From Stuck Rubber Baby. - HOWARD CRUSE
  • Howard Cruse
  • From Stuck Rubber Baby.

Denver's independent comic and art expo, DiNK, celebrates its third annual event April 14-15. With a wide variety of exhibitors and speakers, DiNK's focus on diversity draws artists of all kinds to share their experiences, their works and their insight. One such artist, Howard Cruse (whom we profile in more depth in this week's Queer & There) has been drawing for almost 70 years, and has seen eras of comics come and go.

We spoke with Cruse, 73, about his extensive history in comics, and his perspective on the cultural shifts that have shaped the industry.
Indy: I’d love to know more about your history in your own words — how you started creating comics, and why.

Cruse: I’m just somebody who grew up drawing from the time I was 5. And I discovered comic books around that time. I would read the newspaper strips and I enjoyed making up stories. So comics was kind of a natural form for me to fall into. Sometime around when I was 8 or so ... my father told me that cartooning was something people actually did for a living, and that was a very attractive idea for me. I was growing up in a rural southern town, where most people were farmers, and all my classmates came from farm towns, and I would go visit them. I saw how hard farmers have to work, and I thought, “Gee, it would be nice to be able to draw pictures and make a living instead of plow fields.”

[After high school] I began to get things published — little things here and there in some magazines. In the early ‘70s, I discovered underground comic books, and that’s where I really felt like I fit in, because the idea there was to draw things from your heart, or uncensored, that were about things that were real to you, rather than escapism [or] fantasy. ...

Then, the gay magazine, The Advocate. ... I sort of pitched them the idea of doing a regular comic strip, for them, and so I wound up doing this comic strip called Wendel. This was about the title character and his circle of gay friends, and his parents, and it was a main activity of mine during the 1980s. And then in 1990 ... I wound up spending four years doing this graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby. It’s about growing up gay in the South during the Civil Rights era. It’s not strictly autobiography. It’s a novel, fiction, but it drew on my experiences growing up in Alabama, during that time. 
From Wendel. - HOWARD CRUSE
  • Howard Cruse
  • From Wendel.
It’s interesting to hear the flow through your career, because you’re describing decades. I’m curious how the culture as a whole has shifted over these decades, and how that has affected your work and your motivation.

When I was just starting out, it was a given that, if you were gay, that would be compartmentalized in the private side of your life because you couldn’t be openly gay and have a cartooning career. And I always assumed that that’s the way it would be, until the gay liberation movement happened in the late ‘60s and through the ‘70s. I became aware that it was important not to be hiding part of myself if I wanted to do stuff that really was truthful and came from the heart. And so I gradually began to use the gay side of myself in my work, but I also had a big desire not to be totally pigeonholed on that topic, so I’ve also done comics on a variety of other things.

But I’m very oriented toward comics that reflect the full range of the world, not just sex, but the values of the culture. So one of the main motivators for doing this graphic novel [Stuck Rubber Baby] was my distress over the backsliding that America did after the 1960s. It looked like we were really moving toward human rights and all sorts of liberation, aside from gay liberation, and then the ‘80s just turned into this materialistic period that revered wealth — basically kind of like it is now. And I was very anxious to sort of pay tribute to the genuine heroism and un-cynical approaches to life that were prominent during the 1960s.

And so that’s been a main motivator for me, is just being real. I’ve just never been very interested in superhero comics or fantasy comics. And that’s the reason I was so glad that the underground comics scene came along, and it was possible to not have to be part of the superhero machine.

It seems like what was once the underground comic scene — the diversity of both represented identities and stories— is now a facet of mainstream comics. Can you tell me about that shift?

A lot of the openness and freedom of comics, particularly the independent branch of comics, grew out of underground in that it was about cartoonists owning their own work, and not turning it over to some company, and being as free as possible. A big difference is that, during the birth of the underground comics, we started in the 1960s. Essentially, there was a community that was ready to be the audience, which was the counterculture, the hippie community. It was a movement for liberation on a whole lot of different fronts.

Whereas counterculture, as such, kind of dissipated at the end of the ‘70s, and cartoonists who wanted to draw in the same kind of free way — they were more on their own to find an audience. One thing that ended the underground comics era was the government went on the attack against head shops, which was a place where many underground comics were sold. Then as part of the crusade against drugs, the prosecutors targeted these head shops for anything they could get them on.

And underground comics — one reason they could be totally free and free of censorship was that they were not sold on newsstands. Newsstands had become self-policing [thanks to] the Comics Code Authority, which was an industry creation in response to the fact that comics came under attack in the 1950s as being bad for children. Essentially you had very stringent rules to get sold on newsstands. But because the underground comics were adults only, they were able to ignore the comics code authority, and have this kind of freedom. ...

I think the independent comics [culture], as I say, it doesn’t see itself quite as a movement in the same way that the counterculture saw itself as a movement. But the cartoonists who really followed their creative lights in independent comics, in their own way, that was its own kind of quieter movement. ...

When I was a kid, before the big superhero boom, you had every kind of topic in regular mainstream comics. Unlike undergrounds they were for kids, and you couldn’t have any sex or drugs or heavy politics, but you had cowboy comics and space comics and spinoffs of every popular TV show, and it was a wonderful variety of comics that was very inspiring. Whereas once all of a sudden the big Marvel boom happened during the ‘60s, it just essentially squeezed out all these other kinds. Because superheroes are where the money was. It’s like movies now. ... Most of the really fine movies that are made these days are made by independent filmmakers, not Hollywood, and that’s kind of a parallel to what happened in the world of comics.
Another thing that has obviously changed is the internet ... I’m curious your perspective on the incredibly wide accessibility that people, especially young gay people figuring out their identities, have to all these diverse storylines.

The internet is a very paradoxical animal. It’s kind of a golden age for creativity. Anyone, no matter how oddball their idea is or what their orientation is, or in what way they may not be considered mainstream themselves — they can find an audience. Anywhere in the world. And that’s a wonderful thing, and there’s some great creative stuff happening in all forms, including comics online.

But there’s a downside, which is the readership of content online has become accustomed to the feeling that everything should be free. ... I don’t envy young cartoonists trying to start out their careers now, because in the old days, in the world of print, it was not that hard to find places that would pay something, at least, even if it was the local alternative paper. And once you began to build a career, build an audience and learn your skills, you could get real professional rates for doing stuff for print.

I, myself, basically supported myself doing humorous illustrations for mainstream magazines like American Health and Bananas Magazine. There were a number of magazines that used me regularly, and I could do my underground comics without worrying about the fact that the page rate for drawing underground comics was very low. Not because the publishers were cheap, but simply because the audience for them was not widespread enough to make it feasible from a business standpoint to pay large rates. ...

It’s very hard, this phenomenon, with print having sort of been eclipsed by the internet, it’s a real dilemma for people who don’t want to just do comics or cartoons for fun, but want to be professionals. It’s very hard to be a professional these days, and I’m not sure what the answer is for that.
From Stuck Rubber Baby. - HOWARD CRUSE
  • Howard Cruse
  • From Stuck Rubber Baby.

Events like DiNK [Denver’s Independent Art and Comic Expo] for instance — were those kinds of conventions as valuable back in the day as they are today?

They’ve always been great for cartoonists to meet other cartoonists. Because cartooning is a very isolating profession. You tend to work by yourself in a little studio. ... Gatherings like that allow people to build up a circle of colleagues and friends — that’s always been true. I didn’t become interested in going to conventions until they began to be interested in things beyond superheroes. But in time, and during the ‘80s, more and more of the conventions were interested in independent comics, and in cartoonists with unusual interests and ambitions. That was a place where fans of comics would go and they would run into comics they might not see easily in their hometowns, and their awareness would be expanded of what you could do with a comic form. ...

Meeting readers is very enjoyable. It’s one of my favorite things about the internet. It’s very easy for people who read my stuff to make contact with me directly. Whereas when I was a kid if you were a fan of some author or something, the best you could do was send a letter care of their publisher, and it might or might not reach them.

And I’m sure that some comics people don’t want to be bothered with interacting with their readers, but I personally find it good for my morale to know that there are people out there who are interested in what I’m doing.

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