I know of Howard from working at and helping out with The Underground Comix Hall of Fame. Howard Cruse is a big deal in comix history for his gay themed comix… It’s almost a shame he’s know for his sexuality, as his artwork is first and foremost perfect, amazing, and what he should be known for and is known for among those in the know… I guess, as underground comix and political art go, you are known for the subject matter you tackle as well as your talents. I asked Howard, knowing he was very knowledgable in the underground arts and art in general. It was an honor to get to hang out with him, as well as getting a response from him for our little project.
What is underground art?
Frankly, I don’t think the term “underground” is useful any more except as a cultural artifact. Others may disagree, and I’ll leave it to them to do so. I myself can only speak from my perspective as a cartoonist who first began reaching a national audience during the time when “underground comix” were viewed by participants as a rebellious movement in defiance of the self-censorship common in commercial comic books.
Somewhere some academic has probably cobbled together retroactively an “official” definition of “underground” as applied to comic books. But going by the way we used the term back in the 1960s and ‘70s, comics were “underground” if they reached readers through non-mainstream channels and when they embodied the idiosyncratic visions of individual artists whose main goal wasn’t commercial success. In practice such underground pioneers often gained their “street cred” by expressing transgressive points of view or violating whatever taboos they could think of, but their work’s lasting value was demonstrating how insightful comics could be when the creators drew on their interior realities unfiltered.
Are there rules or a set of ethics to the underground?
While a favorite pastime of some undergrounders was expressing their disapproval of other undergrounders they felt were failing to meet their own personal standards of “undergroundness”, such judgments were fairly subjective (not to mention frequently self-serving), and not based on any generally agreed upon code of ethics that I was aware of.
What is selling out?
Consciously creating dishonest work to make a buck — which is not the same thing as simply using one’s artistic skills to pay for the necessities of life while setting aside as much time as possible for one’s “real” work.
Can underground go above ground and still be underground?
What’s the line between “underground” and “mainstream” these days? Was Crumb’s Book of Genesis mainstream? When Fantagraphics publishes collections of his work that was originally drawn for underground comix in classy editions sold at Barnes & Noble, is it still underground?
The inescapable fact is that the quasi-utopian, anti-establishment counterculture that spawned and supported underground comix in the 1960s and 1970s dissipated long ago. The movement’s legacy survives, though, since independently produced, often self-published, comic books have continued to grow and flourish beyond the orbits of Marvel and DC, and even DC put out a welcome mat for Stuck Rubber Baby, which was more restrained than the comix of yore in terms of sexual explicitness but still made full use of the thematic freedom that I exercise while drawing my stories Snarf and Gay Comix. Comics creators today take it for granted that they can draw the comic books they want to draw without bowing to mainstream limitations. They may not have stoned hippies haunting head shops in search of their work, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find readers — especially now that the Internet gives them potential uncensored access to a worldwide audience.
In other words, the lay of the land is different now, and dividing the division of the artistic world between underground and “above ground” has become meaningless by now. Thanks in part to the creative freedom embodied in the original comix underground and parallel movements in underground and independent films (not to mention the limits that were overcome on regular newsstands by culturally insurrectionary publications as varied as Playboy, Hustler, and the Evergreen Review), today’s mainstream society is open to independent visions and aggressive challenges to assumptions about what is or isn’t acceptable in art to a degree that was unimaginable in the 1960s and 1970s.
Have you ever sold out?
Every idealist makes compromises along the way while pursuing the freedom to exercise his or her ideals more purely. It’s called paying your dues. Carving out the freedom to be who you really want to be is a slow process, with lots of acquiescence to the requirements of everyday survival. But in general I’ve kept my true values in mind and aimed at moving in their direction as steadily as possible.
Is it possible to steal an idea?
I suppose so, in that being totally original 100% of the time is a pretty tall order. Hacks will pilfer, of course, but serious artists are more likely to inadvertently plagiarize than to consciously steal, since our fallible memory banks can easily disguise a hazy recollection of someone else’s long-ago riff as newly minted inspiration.
It’s embarrassing when you realize that you’ve accidentally fallen into that trap. But legally speaking, no actual theft has taken place in such an instance because ideas themselves cannot be copyrighted, just a particular artists’ concrete execution of them. And two serious artists will create very different treatments of a single idea, because each one brings his own personality and life experience to his treatment.
Your biggest artistic regret?
Times during my early career when a desire to be “one of the underground gang” led me to be blind to my own sexism and/or internalized homophobia. Also, times when I did bad drawings because I was too impatient to take the time to do good ones.
Your biggest artistic inspiration?
When it hit me that being my true self on paper was an actual option.
What is dangerous art?
Dangerous to whom? Thought-provoking art is dangerous to powerful people whose power depends on audiences unaccustomed to thinking.
Bonus question… nature or nurture?
You meant nadir or neuter, I assume?