The following interview is the first of two times that Gay League had the privilege to interview with Howard Cruse. Anton Kawasaki took the opportunity to talk with Howard in 1998, the early days when Gay League made its first tentative steps on to the Internet. The interview, like its companion piece coming later, was lost in March, 2009 when hackers took down nearly the entire site. In light of Cruse’s death in November, 2019 we correct a long standing oversight with its republication.
Gay League: OK – Let’s start from the very beginning, with a young little Howie Cruse in Alabama. When did you know that you wanted to be a cartoonist for a living?
Howard Cruse: When I discovered that people could do that. I drew pictures around the house from the age of five or so, when I was 8 or 9 my father mentioned to me that drawing people could be an actual profession. That sounded good to me! Cartooning looked like a lot less work than any of the other ways people earned a living in Springville, Alabama, which was really a farm town. Farmers work really hard, y’know. I felt like I’d rather do something that was less…. harrowing than that!
GL: How did being artistic as a teenager effect your being gay? Were you always drawing guys you thought were attractive?
HC: Learning to be honest with yourself can be a long process. Society said that if an artist was going to draw anybody naked, it had to be women. I had to gradually figure out that it was naked men that I really wanted to draw! Once I was old enough to be fascinated by nakedness, I mean. When I was 11 or so and coming of age sexually, I wondered why, when it came to making art, it was accepted that you could draw, paint or photograph naked women all the time, but it wasn’t acceptable to do naked men. I didn’t realize what was behind thoughts like this, of course. I probably convinced myself that it was some kind of discrimination issue! Something within me knew that it was probably not a question I should be asking around a lot, though!
Then I ran into my first gay porn in a second-hand magazine store. Of course it wasn’t really porn as we think of it today – this was the fifties. It was a little magazine called Body Beautiful, and it was ostensibly an aid for artists who wanted to do figure drawing but couldn’t afford models. It was filled with photographs of men posing in skimpy little “posing straps.” I was very turned on by that and excited that there was such a thing as making art out of naked men.
Then as my drawing skills improved I realized that I was capable of drawing things that turned me on. I did a little comic strip about that in Dancin’ Nekkid With The Angels – a strip called “Unfinished Pictures.” It was about me learning that I could draw sexy pictures, except I would always have an orgasm before I got done…
HC: ….and I would lose the momentum and then never finish the drawing.
GL: What kind of influences did your family have on you, if any? Especially your father, who was a minister.
HC: I came from a thoughtful family, a family that valued education. So I was encouraged to read – there was a lot of reading in our house – and that was a very formative, important influence. My father being a minister caused me to spend a lot of time mulling over questions of The Meaning Of Life and The Meaning of Religion and some of these large cosmic issues. Of course if you’re from the South you tend to think about those things constantly because the culture is so saturated with religion – and so I don’t think you have to be a Preacher’s kid to have that preoccupation. But I certainly did…. and when I was a teenager, it manifested itself mainly in terms of rebellion against the religion I was raised with. Then later, I went through some changes, thanks to the 60’s and psychedelic drugs and all that stuff, which opened my eyes to different ways of thinking about the large issues of life that went beyond the material world. So I got a new slant, and I would say that most of the work that I’ve done in the years since then has been informed by this different set of underlying values that I got during that period.
Usually the effect of all that doesn’t show up explicitly in my work. I don’t think talking about religion is all that fruitful, although it can be stimulating and interesting. Religion is there to be comtemplated, with mortality being this mysterious thing that’s there to be dealt with, and we all have to figure out what we think about our place in the Universe, etc. Being a Preacher’s kid I had to wrestle with this natural duality between the churchy kind of views I received from others and my own perceptions and feelings about fairness. I was always batting those back and forth in my mind.
GL: Did you read any comics as a kid? What were your favorites?
HC: Oh yeah. I came of reading age before the big Marvel explosion. To me comics were Dell comics, largely humor comics, with DC Comics coming in a distant second. My favorite comic in the world was Little Lulu, which I still feel was, in its prime, when I was 7, 8, 9 and 10, one of the really great comics. It was the only comic I ever subscribed to in my life, and I couldn’t wait to get the next issue. I was also into the Disney Duck titles, and I read Superman and Batman. I read pretty much whatever was around, but I think I was most influenced by the humor comics and particularly the ones that had some real intelligence behind them.
GL: So I imagine Carl Barks was a big influence on you, then?
HC: Yeah – not that you could say my stuff is terribly Barks-like. I mean I would go through periods of imitating anybody who was around, so I did my period trying to do Barks-like stories in my childhood, but I think the main thing that I got from Barks that it was possible to be funny in a smart way. As well as to have a sense of a larger world in your comics rather than being restricted by these very narrow horizons. I liked the world-travelling aspect of Uncle Scrooge.
GL: What were some of the highlights of both the positive and negative reactions you’ve had from being a “gay” cartoonist?
HC: I came out professionally in 1979 as part of the process of soliciting work for Gay Comix. Since we were just starting Gay Comix at that time, I took that occasion to indicate that I was more than just some liberal doing his bit to help out the downtrodden. It was important for the credibility of the title that I be clear about being gay myself. The cartoonists we were trying to find had to know that there would be a gay editor in charge who would understand where they were coming from.
I had been planning on eventually coming out professionally for many years before that. I decided early in the 70’s that I wanted to do that. But I wanted to find the right way to do it. And I also had a real desire to establish myself first as a cartoonist, before introducing that gay element into the picture…. because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed or looked at as someone who was exploiting a gimmick as a way of getting attention. I wanted to get the attention based just on my cartooning first. But I knew that in time that I wanted to go further.
I took it in steps. In 1976 I began introducing gay characters into my stuff…. or rather, introducing the fact that one of the characters who was already in my strips was gay. In Barefootz, I had character named Headrack, and I did my first political gay story about him, a story where he was expressing his frustrations with homophobia. But even having done that story in ’76, I hadn’t actually made the statement that I was gay. And I was nervous about doing that, because I didn’t know what effect it would have on my career. On the other hand, if I was going to do it at all, and I did want to do it, I wanted to do it early in my career, so that I wouldn’t be tempted later on not to do it, in case I got too successful.
My role model, in that regard, was someone like Allen Ginsberg. As long as I had been aware of him, he had been open about being gay. I felt if I came out early, then any success that I got would be gotten without having to worry that it was only because I was keeping a big secret that the success had come. So finding the right timing was kind of a balancing act. Coming out as part of starting Gay Comix seemed perfect. Because it was all about creating something affirmative.
It wasn’t saying “By the way, here’s my deep, dark secret”; it was saying, rather matter-of-factly, “OK – we’re doing this comic, And we want you all to get involved.”
GL: So how did Gay Comix initially come about?
HC: Well [Kitchen Sink publisher] Denis Kitchen was aware that underground comix needed a shift of focus away from just breaking taboos – because there was just a limit to how much mileage you could get out of breaking taboos over and over again. Everything had been done, just about every taboo possible had been broken in the course of the 60’s and 70’s. Dealing with social issues was a good alternative. So he had his eye out for social currents that could be expressed in comics form. And the gay movement was there and was building up steam.
I had come out to him earlier, around the time when my Headrack story was published. So Denis wrote to me in 1979 and said “Why don’t we do this comic called Gay Comix and why don’t you be the editor?”
The problem was, unlike most underground anthology series, I couldn’t just pick my favorite artist and say “Hey, be in this book!”.
GL: I was just about to ask – how did you go through the process of finding just gay and lesbian artists?
HC: Well, what we did is, we sent a letter out to everybody, gay or straight, saying “We’re starting this book, and we’re sending this letter to everyone because we don’t know who’s gay and who’s not. If you’re gay, or you have cartoonist friends who are gay, please give this to them – we’d really like to have good people for this book.” There were a few openly gay cartoonists already, mostly women, that I was aware of. I was aware of Roberta Gregory – mainly from her Dynamite Damsels book, and Mary Wings, from her Come Out Comix and Dyke Shorts. So I wrote to them and said “please be a part of this”, because I also wanted this to be a co-gendered project. I didn’t want a strictly male book. So I was pleased when both of them said they’d be interested in getting involved. Then Lee Marrs volunteered to be in it. That was great, because she had a real following from her Pudge, Girl Blimp comix. And then Rand Holmes volunteered to do the cover for the first issue….
GL: And what a great cover!!
HC: Yes, it’s very nice, very striking. It certainly got everyone’s attention. So by then we had a solid core of contributors, between me doing stuff plus stuff that would be coming in from others I knew were good, so I was confident that at least half the book would be good stuff. And I was just praying that the rest of it wouldn’t be embarrassingly bad. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of good stuff that came in for that first issue, and it’s been building ever since.
The book was kind of a welcoming call to a lot of cartoonists who hadn’t realized they could be open about their gayness in their cartooning. A new generation of gay and lesbian cartoonists started coming from everywhere. Years later, when we did a show of gay and lesbian cartoonists at the Community Center here, I think we wound up with, like, 88 people in the show. Then a few years after that Jennifer Camper curated another exhibit at A Different Light bookstore in New York and work came in from another 30 or 40 people that hadn’t been ready to send things to the first one. The 80’s was a time when lesbian and gay cartoonists blossomed right and left. It seems inevitable now, but we didn’t know when we were getting ready to put out the first issue of Gay Comix if it would be a series or just a one shot. But the first issue did pretty well. Well, it didn’t make anyone rich…….
HC: ….but it seemed to quickly attract a following. Most of the gay bookstores supported it. So we continued to bring more issues out. I myself didn’t try to put out more than one a year for those first four issues. [Subsequent editors Robert] Triptow and [Andy] Mangels were more ambitious about putting issues out frequently. Not that they always succeeded in getting them out super-fast! (laughs) But they tried.
GL: What made you stop being editor after just four issues?
HC: Well by the time I did the fourth issue, I had just started the Wendel series, and it was taking up a lot of time. Editing a book involves a huge amount of correspondence. It was a very time-consuming thing, but it was never seriously income-producing. I was doing it for a token fee, and the page rate was….. ridiculously low. Which is in the nature of underground comics. For most creators they were mainly labors of love.
So something had to give if I was going to have the simpler life I needed so I could give my best to Wendel. But Gay Comix needed to maintain momentum. I suggested Robert Triptow to Denis Kitchen as a possibility for the next editor. Fortunately, Robert was willing to do it.
GL: Speaking of Wendel, how did he come about? What did you want the strip to be in the beginning?
HC: Well, the editors of The Advocate were aware of me because they had asked to reprint a strip I did for the Village Voice called “Sometimes I Get So Mad.” That strip was my vehicle for coming out of the closet in the mainstream, or quasi-mainstream, press. I think that was in 1981. And I got the chance to be in the Voice because of the first issue of Gay Comix, which made lots more people aware that I was gay and also generated interest in my work. An editor at the Voice asked me to draw that strip to accompany an article about the anti-gay backlash that was going on then, and still is. Then The Advocate asked to reprint it. So by 1982 they knew who I was, and I knew who they were!
In those days The Advocate was a tabloid. And the notion of drawing a comic strip for one of those big tabloid-sized pages was very enticing. I’ve always liked to work in a larger format than the daily strip. I mean I concentrated on the daily strip format in the beginning, but I felt more and more restricted by it as I went along. I thought I could actually DO something if I had that much space – a full tabloid page.
Actually, I approached them first with the idea of doing a series based on the characters Luke and Clark, The “Dirty Old Lovers” from the third issue of Gay Comix, whom I eventually snuck into the Wendel strip by the back door. They were very funny characters. It was a breeze to write for them. But the Advocate was courting younger readers, like, readers in their twenties. They asked if I’d do something featuring a young man in that age group.
At first the strip wasn’t set up to be in every issue. As a matter of fact, in the beginning its episodes were few and far between. But because it was originally set to run in what they called the “Pink Pages” – which was this back section of sex ads, printed on pink paper, which no longer exists except as a separate publication called Advocate Classifieds – the surroundings made it natural for it to be sex-focused in the beginning. So the first few scripts were about cruising in bars, and stuff like that.
But the AIDS epidemic was building up steam by then, and it took everybody some time to realize what a huge impact it was going to have on all of our lives. It was certainly casting a pall over one-night stands in gay bars, and I realized fairly quickly it was just not possible to do carefree humor about sex in the same way we’d done it before the epidemic. Everything was anxiety-ridden. No one knew that there was even such a thing as safe sex.
So I realized the strip needed to have a different focus and out of that need I more-or-less stumbled into the idea of letting Wendel get into a relationship. Once I started down that road, of course, I wondered why it had taken me several months to see how interesting that plotline could be. After all, by that time Eddie [Sedarbaum] and I had been together for several years. I was not a single guy who went out to gays bars all the time. By changing the strip’s direction I was able to draw much more on the humorous aspects of my own life. And drawing about gay relationships was practically virgin territory for gay male cartoonists. All the gay cartoons about males had been generally about the bar scene up until then. So I had a clean field to play in, a new area that wasn’t overrun with cliches. Doing the strip became more fun. I mean, it was fun in the beginning too, because I do enjoy drawing stuff about sex. But in terms of my own creative growth, I think the strip gained an exciting new dimension as soon as I introduced Wendel to Ollie.
I had made a few attempts before that to do comic strips about gay couples, but except for Luke & Clark, the characters just hadn’t caught fire. Looking back, I can see the reason. I had tended to conceive them as human matched sets, pairs of people who sprang from the mouth of Zeus as a fully formed gay couple. Yet in reality, the thing that makes the whole notion of couplehood so interesting is that you get two people with two different histories and two different personalities who have to work out by trial and error exactly how their lives are going to mesh. So that process of discovery became a big part of what the strip was about. Eddie and I had been going through all of that, so I could build strips around a lot of stuff from my own experience. I’ve had two major relationships in my life. Between my first relationship with a fellow named Don Higdon and the relationship I began in 1979 with Eddie, I had a lot of personal experiences to work from.
GL: So we just saw Wendel again in Gay Comics #25, which just recently hit stores….
HC: That’s true. It’s the first time I’ve drawn Wendel in a comic strip for about……. 6 or 7 years….
GL: …and what do you think Wendel & Co. would be doing today in 1998?
HC: Well, you know, if I were to actually do another Wendel story, the obvious first question would be: am I going to let on that all these years have gone by since we last saw these characters? After all, it’s been almost ten years since the last Advocate strip appeared. Would my characters be nine years older? I dunno. That’s a big chunk of life history to throw away. On the other hand, it would be interesting to see what ever became of that gang.
When I stopped the strip, one of the things I regretted was – I was beginning to get interested in what was going to happen to Ollie’s son Farley as he moved into adolescence. You have to wonder what kind of teenager he would turn out to be. It took me a while to get a handle on him – he started out a little bit bland, but by the time I stopped the strip he was beginning to get interesting. It would have been fun to see where Farley took me. And one wonders whether Ollie would meet with any success in his desire to be an actor. Would he have a breakthrough or keep on being a perpetual wannabe?
There was plenty still to work with. But I’m not very inclined to do Wendel as a series again, as if that was remotely feasible economically, because of the way the strip totally took over my life while I was doing it. It was impossible to do anything else on the side. There’s no way I could have ever done Stuck Rubber Baby while I had Wendel to turn out every two weeks. And doing projects like Stuck Rubber Baby, that ask new things of me and force me to stretch in new directions… that’s very important to me. My ideal life would be to do a series of projects that have a beginning and an end. I could do one, then move on to the next. That way I’d be able to experiment and try new things all the time, which is what keeps being an artist interesting. And I could revisit Wendel every now and again in one-shot projects that don’t go on forever.
GL: Going back to Gay Comix – The first strip you did for the first issue was “Billy Goes Out” which is still recognized as a milestone today. It’s been reprinted several times and still holds up after all this time. What are your thoughts now on that strip?
HC: A lot of people really responded to that strip. Of course I was a little scared while I was doing it, because it was pretty frank about that backroom bar scene, and the sex was, like, really in your face. I mean, literally! Putting stuff like that on paper was a little like inviting your mother to come in and watch you masturbate! Crumb and the other undergrounders had done lots of sex stuff, but this was gay sex, and that always gets looked at differently. And what were my readers gonna think about me? I mean, I knew nobody was gonna think I’d learned about all of that stuff from books!
Also, the form of that piece was experimental, with the counterpoint always running through it between what Billy was doing and what Billy was thinking. Once you start experimenting in your art, you’re never 100% sure that readers will connect with what you’re trying to do. And AIDS was in the air, of course. None of us knew how that was going to play out.
GL: It’s interesting now that it seemed his boyfriend Brad died from a gay bashing when…..
HC: Well now….. you don’t really know that that’s what happened to Brad. I left it ambiguous. Read the story carefully and you’ll see. It’s intentionally ambiguous about exactly what happened at that Gay Pride march. We don’t know the exact sequence of events, we don’t know exactly what the subject matter is – all we know is that Billy reached out to his lover’s family for comfort and got rejected. Some kind of crisis obviously happened, but various scenarios are possible. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t purposely tempt readers to interpret it just the way you did….
What I wanted to express in that particular turn of events was the precariousness of life, the precariousness of relationships. We don’t know what’s in store for us. We think our life is solid and then the rug is pulled out from under us in some way or other. That’s part of the basic texture of life, and part of the reason why Billy was confused and solitary throughout the course of that story. Some people misread the story as a repudiation of that 1970s backroom bar scene. They felt I was showing it as inherently full of emptiness and futility. But that’s not the way I look at it. Billy’s thought balloons showed that he was a fully rounded person, not some sex machine. He had dialogues with his penis about basic needs. You don’t have to share drinks with your dick at a bar to know what that dialogue is about. All of us have dialogues with our physical needs. How much are we gonna build our lives around them? How much are we going to tend to other parts of ourselves? Sometime we just need hugs. Flesh needs to feel flesh. If we don’t happen to have a lover at the moment, that doesn’t mean the need to be touched evaporates.
Anyway, at that point in Billy’s life he was in too much pain to make use of the possibilities that other people offered. He couldn’t let himself connect with the one guy that evening who was interested in him as a person. But that doesn’t mean he was basically shallow and sex-obsessed, or that there was anything wrong with going out and having the kind of sexual night the story shows. Unfortunately, Billy was a prime example of the kind of guy that wasn’t likely to survive the AIDS epidemic. In fact, I suggested in my “Safe Sex” comic strip that Billy didn’t survive.
GL: Speaking of that strip [which appeared in Gay Comics #4], you seemed to use a more scatter-shot approach to that – rather than your more linear approach of storytelling. Was that deliberate? Were you trying to cover as many sides of AIDS as possible?
HC: Well, there were a lot of experimental forms pioneered in the early underground comic books, with Robert Crumb being a principal pioneer, and the stream-of-consciousness montage form I used in “Safe Sex” was one of those. By the fourth issue of Gay Comix, which was set to come out in 1984, I felt we could no longer go without including an AIDS story. But the deadline was approaching and none of my contributors had submitted one, so I felt like “Well, I guess it’s up to me.”
GL: Do you think they were purposely avoiding that topic?
HC: I think all of us were, to some extent. It was hard to know how to deal with that topic in a comic strip. It took me a long time to incorporate it into Wendel, and I basically had to change the tone of the entire Wendel series in order to make it a world that could absorb something as serious as AIDS. In the second series, after the year and a half when the series wasn’t appearing [the spring of 1985 through the fall of ’86] – I very consciously darkened the strip’s tone. In the first series, it had been a much lighter strip, on the whole. I knew that needed to change, but I didn’t want to insult all the people who were suffering by trivializing their struggle. That would be very easy to do if I let myself toss something thoughtless into my comic strips, whether it was Wendel or, earlier on, some story I did for Gay Comix.
It was a trick time. I’m sure that many cartoonists felt “We’re in the business of being funny. What’s funny about AIDS?” and so they were avoiding it. I referred to that conflict in the first panel of “Safe Sex’ where I’m chewing on my drawing pen while the words “Not funny! Not funny! Not funny!” are popping around in my brain. But part of the mandate of Gay Comix was to reflect the lives of gay people as they were really being lived. And in the summer of 1983, when I had six pages of Gay Comix to fill, there was no avoiding AIDS. I felt like, “Well, this has had a huge impact on us, so I’ve gotta do something in my comic book about it.”
I tried doing a linear story with a conventional plotline, but I just didn’t like what was coming out. I felt I WAS trivializing the subject. The stories that kept coming were melodramatic, sentimental and saccharine. Any time you do something about young people who get sick and die, there’s a good chance it’s going to turn into Love Story [a 1970 tearjerker staring Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw]. Eventually I decided to come at the subject from a different angle by trying to express the feelings that were in the air in 1983, the turmoil, the overwhelming AIDS anxiety. We were all part of that, not just those of us who were sick, so I could look at it from the inside. You could bring dark humor to it without trivializing the deaths of our friends.
HC: Well that’s two entirely different questions. The actual drawing of the book, from the time the contract was signed until the last page was finished, covered about 4 years. And we can add on to that the “post-production” work – designing and drawing the cover, patching in corrections, writing text. That stuff spilled pretty far into a fifth year.
But it was worth the time and trouble. In drawing that book I was doing something with emotions and feelings that had been building up for 20 years. I had watched the Civil Rights movement play out in Birmingham during my high school and college years, and it changed my life – it made me aware of what a big impact street activism can have on a culture. Birmingham was changed tremendously by that trauma. So a time came when the gay movement started gaining speed – and I was much more motivated to be a part of it, because I knew it could actually accomplish something, based on what I’d seen earlier.
Also, I had a big head of steam building up in me over the fact that America had begun turning it’s back on so much that I thought we had learned in the 60’s. Particularly during the 80’s, our willingness to throw all our ideals out the window and embrace selfishness and racial animosity was just appalling. Racism had gotten respectable again, except now we were dressing it up in different terminology. Suddenly now we’re talking about immigration, and we’re talking about welfare, and we’re talking about affirmative action and a whole bunch of other issues. But in my mind, what it’s all really about is people’s fear of people who are different than them. But Reaganism could get away with all this because of the genial, avuncular face it put on it.
I wanted to express my anger over that. And I wanted also to convey the sheer inspiration of that period,when you saw ordinary people behaving in heroic ways in behalf of noble causes. All those themes, I had felt deeply about for a while, but there wasn’t room to do them justice in the context of Wendel. I needed a larger canvas. And so when I was encouraged to approach DC about doing a graphic novel, it wasn’t hard to come up with subject matter.
At that time  Mark Nevelow was the editor of Paradox Press, which was then called Piranha Press. Mark’s goal was to have an area of DC Comics set aside for cutting-edge experimental things. I had stopped doing Wendel the year before and was still looking for the next thrust of my creativity, and I went and talked to Mark about possibly doing a graphic novel. He said “Well, suppose you did do a graphic novel…. what would it be about?” I hadn’t expected that direct a question so quickly and I had to sort of grab something out of a hat. But since I had already been thinking that I would love to do something about the South, and racism, and my early years. I put that together with the one element in the book that is somewhat autobiographical, compared to other things, which was being gay but trying to be straight and out of that confusion fathering a child. I put that plot element together with the Civil Rights movement and it sounded like something fresh that hadn’t been done before.
So Mark was open to that idea and I felt very excited about being encouraged to strike out into really new territory. Then it took about nine months for my agent to work out the contract and all that…. (laughs)
GL: Did you have any idea the book would take so long?
HC: Oh by no means. No, no… that was a shock. And I’m still dealing with the after effects.
GL: People want to know……. how did you survive during all of this?
HC: (laughs) Well, frankly it wasn’t easy. It was a matter of running through my savings, and borrowing on my life insurance and running up credit card bills and doing anything I could to stay afloat while I drew! It’s not that I didn’t get a good advance from DC. DC gave me what was really quite a generous advance, and that advance paid for my first two years of drawing. Unfortunately, at the end of that time I had two more years to go. It was my own miscalculation that got me in the fix. I signed the contract based on my belief – that turned out to be wrong – that I could do it in two years.
Two years sounds like an awful long time in the abstract (laughs). I thought, “Hey, I can do a book in two years if I really apply myself!” Having never done this kind of project before, I just didn’t realize how much sheer thinking time was going to be required. After the contract was signed, it took five months before I drew my first picture. I had to do four drafts of my script before I felt sure in a clear cut way that I knew what the form of the book was going to be, what the story was going to be. And even while I was drawing the book, it was constantly undergoing revisions. At my instigation, not DC’s; Paradox gave me a pretty free hand, creatively. So the book had an extremely laborious and lengthy birthing process. But it was very exciting creatively.
GL: Would you ever do a project of that scope again?
HC: Someone would sure have to convince me it was practical. Because on a practical level, Stuck Rubber Baby was just….. folly! But I’m glad I didn’t know that it was going to be that way, because then I would have been afraid to tackle it. And as an artist I got so much out of doing it that I have no regrets. But it was a kind of a nightmare on the practical level, once I really realized that this novel was going to be like Hurricane Andrew roaring through my life. I went through a lot of emotions about that, but I said “I’ve gotta finish this…. it really will be a disaster if I don’t finish this.” Then I would not only have run through all my savings, but I wouldn’t even have a book to show for it! I said “No matter what happens I’m going to finish this book, no matter what I have to do… this book will be finished.” And some friends pitched in and helped me work out a fundraising plan where people would buy artwork from the book in advance as a way of helping me finance it. What finally made finishing the book possible was getting this thing called “The Stonewall Award” – this is an award that a foundation in Chicago gives out to reward gay activism of various sorts. I think somebody who knows me must have put a bug in their ear. There’s no way you can apply for this award. It’s like the MacArthur Foundation Awards. It can drive you crazy if you think you’re doing good work and you’re strapped. You want the help but you can’t apply for it. Some invisible person somewhere has to notice you. But for the money to come at just that time was too perfect to be a coincidence. Somebody who knows me must have told somebody in Chicago, “You know, that guy who did Wendel is having a real rough time and needs money bad.” Because out of the blue, one morning this Federal Express letter came and said “Would it be ok with you if we gave you $25, 000?” (laughs)
HC: It was actually to both Eddie and me. Part of their motivation up there at the Anderson Prize Foundation was to recognize an activist family, a gay couple whose partners were each doing something useful for the lesbian and gay community. Eddie and I fit that template. Eddie has his own career in community organizing and I had been doing gay comic strips. So it was a shared prize. I only got $12,500 out of it. But that’s a hell of a lot of money to drop out of the sky, especially when you really, really need money. So I knew, once that money came in, that even though I’d still end up very much in debt, that I would be able to finish the book. That was a huge relief. I’m still recovering from the toll it took. But I knew it would make a great anecdote one of these days. (laughs)
GL: What kind of routine do you try to keep as an artist?
HC: Well you have routines when you have regular work. Everything about my life has been irregular for the past few years. I haven’t had a single project like Wendel or Stuck Rubber Baby since….. since I finished Stuck Rubber Baby. Basically my life is comprised of trying to get freelance work from various sources and learning these new computer graphic skills which I finally decided I had to get under my belt, being that the world is changing and I could not get away with being an artist in the 21st century and not Photoshop and Illustrator and all those things.
So I’ve spent a lot of time educating myself, sitting in front of my computer. Of course, buying that computer itself was a pretty big risk at a time like this. But it’s beginning to pay off a little in terms of work, and hopefully that trend will continue. I feel much more creatively empowered now that I have these skills and I really enjoy the hell out of using them.
GL: What other things can we expect from you in the future?
HC: Well I have one comic strip project – it’s a 5-pager – that I’m just in the early stages of doing now for a magazine that’s starting up in the Fall. But it’s too germinal to talk about yet. I’ll talk about it more once I’ve got in safely in the can.
Earlier this year I was asked to contribute to an International anthology of comic strips and other art about Princess Di, but the publisher decided not to go ahead with the project. I guess the market was saturated with Princess Di books and they decided it wouldn’t fly commercially. But I was finding it an interesting challenge to work through thoughts about Diana. I wasn’t part of the throngs who were weeping when she died, but I didn’t have neutral feelings either. It’s pretty rare to see a member of the British Royal family that you have much admiration for. I thought, if you’re going to be a rich princess in the first place, she certainly did it better than most would.
GL: What advice would you give for someone who’s fallen out of their artistic routine and feels their ideas and creativity have dried up?
HC: (pause)… Now this question is coming from some particular artist, isn’t it?
GL: (laughs) Yep, you got it.
HC: It certainly didn’t sound like a generic question. (laughs)
GL: No, no… it isn’t. It’s very much a planted question from someone.
HC: Well, there have been times in my life when I’ve been creatively blocked, and what I’ve usually ended up doing at those times, and these are pretty much the only times when I’ve done this, has been to start noodling in a sketchbook. Not the way Crumb does. It’s not about precise drawing. The sketchbooks that I’ve had were places to do stream-of-consciousness drawings, very quick stuff, not finely-wrought drawings. The Crumb sketchbooks are beautiful, but I’ve rarely been motivated to put that kind of work into drawings that are just for myself. I’ve used sketchbooks to try and figure out where my head is at. Because usually what’s behind being blocked is being scared. Something is causing me to tighten up and be afraid. Maybe the work I’ve been doing lately seems artificial, not truthful, because maybe I’ve been letting myself be too concerned about commercial considerations. So I need to poke around in my subconscious in an unpressured way, just to see what’s happening there.
There were three issues of Barefootz Funnies, and the third one I had a hell of a time finishing. It came out in ’79, about the time I was figuring out that I should bring that series to a close. It had ceased to fulfill a real function. Instead of being liberating, its tight format and style were holding me back. But during the three years since the second issue had come out I had been stockpiling strips for a third one, and I had about 3/4ths of an issue ready to go. But I didn’t have a lead story. And I was blocked. I just found it impossible to do any more Barefootz stories. My head was not in the Barefootz place any more.
Sketchbook experiments finally got me over the hurdle. If you look at that third issue of Barefootz Funnies you’ll see that the opening story is sort of in the same category as the “Safe Sex” story we talked about. It’s called “Barefootz Variations”, and it’s sort of a montage story, a 6-page parade of images expressing the inner conflicts I’d been having about the character of Barefootz and the style I’d been drawing him in. I vented all the mixed-up, love/hate feelings I’d come to have about the character. It’s the same thing I did in using “Safe Sex” to vent my feelings about AIDS. It’s not a linear story. It’s looking at the Barefootz characters in a lot of different ways, asking myself “How do I feel about being sexual in comics? About being ‘cute’? About being subversive?” Barefootz was always interesting in my eyes because of its subversive subtext. It had a surface that looked innocent, but underneath it was weird and raunchy and psychedelic. But there was a limit to how far you could venture into reality-based themes using the Barefootz style. “Barefootz Variations” kind of puts the internal wrestling match I was going through out there for public display.
So that was an example where stream-of-consciousness pulled me out of the writer’s block, and allowed me to finish a book that had gotten stalled. I knew when I sent it to the printer that that third issue would be the swan song for Barefootz. Which isn’t to deny that I still have fond feelings for the characters and enjoy returning to them every now and then in a small way, as I am doing on my website these days.
GL: Are there any other “new” things we can expect from the website?
HC: I’m hoping to come up with some surprises. A problem with working on the website, of course, is that it’s all labor done for nothing…..
GL: (laughs) Yes, I am very aware of that.
HC: I’m happy to do creative work for low pay or nothing if I also have some money coming in from somewhere else. But the rent doesn’t pay itself and I’ve gotta have money coming in from somewhere. If the website turns out to be an avenue by which I indirectly make some money – for example, if somebody somewhere decides to buy some original artwork that they’ve seen there, or if I get freelance jobs because somebody saw something there that they liked – then that will justify the time it takes to do it. I’d like to be able to put more time into it, to do comics directly for the web. But something has to subsidize work like that.
GL: So you’ll just see how it goes for now?
HC: Yep. I’m hanging loose and seeing what happens. Meanwhile I’ll be putting up the occasional unpublished piece. I have things in my files that I find amusing but that, for one reason or another, never saw print. I’ll put those things up every now and then – and oddball items like that poem I wrote while I was in high school about having tea with a naked lady.
GL: (laughs) Yes, I saw that!
HC: One thing that the website medium invites you to do is to sift through your life and make a work of art out of it, a kind of collage. It’s a way of looking at my life as a whole and saying “How does the nerdy guy from high school relate to the guy who did Stuck Rubber Baby, or to the guy who once worked at an ad agency in Birmingham?” By now my life had built up all these different parts covering a big span of years. What does it all mean as a unit?
The web is a way of playing around with the different sides of myself. And since admission is free, you don’t feel as guilty if you indulge yourself and bore a few people here and there. They can go or stay, as they wish. But the creative challenge, of course, is to keep it interesting. It’s fun to play around with this stuff. I hope there’s a way I can keep on doing it.
GL: What are your thoughts on the comics industry now? Do you think it has much more of a future?
HC: Let’s face it, the comics industry as it now works has a fundamental, practical problem, which is: the people who do the best work do not reap rewards that will permit them to keep on doing the best work. Over the long haul that’s demoralizing for individual artists and terrible for the art form itself. Yes, you can get rich doing superheroes, but is that the best that our art form has to offer? I don’t think so.
GL: What made you go choose the path of underground comics rather than the more mainstream world of superheroes?
HC: Well now first let’s look at the regular book world. With all its faults, there’s still plenty of diversity. You’ve got your Norman Mailers, and you’ve got your Jackie Collinses, you’ve got your Stephen Kings, you’ve got all the people who do detective stories, and there’s a place for all these ways of being a writer. Now imagine a world where only murder mysteries can be published. Whatever anyone wants to express has to be done within the context of a murder mystery. No matter what the underlying topic is. Sure, you can deal with serious themes, the editor tells you, but not unless you put a dead body somewhere. Serious artists would be tying themselves in knots trying to find a way to deal with the questions of cosmic importance that they care about while still finding a way to insert a murder every few chapters.
That’s the way it was with superheroes for quite a while. You’d have well-meaning but awkward attempts to bring social conciousness into a story, but you couldn’t help thinking, “Gee, if they just didn’t have to get everybody in costume!!”
HC: It’s better now, of course, but not nearly as much better as it needs to be. When I was reading comics as a kid, the Dell comics line had this vast array of topics. You had your cowboy comics, your space cadets, Howdy Doody, Little Lulu, Uncle Scrooge……. just about everything was in some Dell comic. And if it wasn’t Dell than it was DC with it’s superheroes, which at least had the courtesy to begin and end a story within a reasonable number of pages, and meanwhile DC had Bob Hope and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and the Fox and the Crow and A Date With Judy! There was room for all kinds of creativity. Unfortunately, it was also the 50’s, so there were lots of courses to keep people’s creativity in check. But still, the range of possible genres was dazzling. If the mainstream, commercial comics field had that kind of range in today’s world, with all that underground and alternative comics have done to loosen things up, you might really see the art form flower.
But it has to work on the economic level. And I don’t think any of us are smart enough, given the world we live in today, to know if that’s ever going to be possible.
GL: Thanks for your time, Howard!