Howard Cruse: The Back Door of Consciousness

“I would like to create characters that will resonate a century from now, even to people who are not living in a gay subculture or under the gun of bigotry.”


Last week we heard of the death of the pioneering underground cartoonist Howard Cruse. Initially known for his free-wheeling character Barefootz, who first appeared in the University of Alabama’s student newspaper in 1971, Cruse went on to found the publication Gay Comix in 1980. Over the years Cruse wrote and drew some exclusive comix for the Voice, featuring characters by turns ebullient, brainy, questing, and combative. In the story below, from June 26, 1984, specialized “gay laboratories” turn out “solar-powered oppression-sensitive subjective insight-exchange helmets.”

Cruse (born the son of a Baptist preacher in Springville, Alabama, in 1944) drew on his experiences in the South during the civil rights era for his 1995 graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, perhaps his best-known work. A decade earlier, he zeroed in on the prejudices from on high for a Voice cover looking at the state of gay life in America.

A few years later the cartoonist sat down with editor Richard Goldstein to explain why he saw comics as the perfect medium to get past some of society’s worst blind spots: “Cartooning has the advantage of being mischievous and naughty. It’s like play.”

Howard Cruse Interviewed by Richard Goldstein: The Back Door of Consciousness
June 28, 1988

WHEN THE ADVOCATE decided to resume running Wen­del, Howard Cruse’s groundbreaking gay comic strip, many of us breathed a sigh of relief. We thought we’d have to settle for Cruse in books, Gay Comix (which he founded), and the posters and pamphlets he frequently renders for AIDS education and numerous gay organizations. Cruse is as protean as he is committed. But it’s his representation of gay people, in the full flush of an innocence we all feel within but are often denied from without, that makes his work so artful — and so useful.

GOLDSTEIN: In comics, it seems, the prohibitions against showing gay are much more severe than in other media.

CRUSE: Well, there’s still a lot of pressure to view comics strictly as a children’s medium. They were at­tacked during the ’50s as being hazardous to the mental health of children, which caused mainstream comics to rule out any challenge to the standard way of looking at life. And when the underground comics rebelled against all that, many of the artists — the male artists, particu­larly — were still prisoners of their own homophobia. I remember Robert Crumb, in a piece he called “Let’s Talk Sense About This Here Modern America,” had a list of people he hated, including fags and fag-hags. It was generally considered hip to dismiss gay people, as it is today.

GOLDSTEIN: What prevents people from seeing the full humanity of gay characters?

CRUSE: A straight friend who got my book, Dancin’ Nekkid With the Angels, told me his friends had asked: “Why should I buy a book to read about gay sex?” Now the book has some explicit sexual images, but it’s not about gay sex. But the assumption is that the lives of gay people are totally about sex.

GOLDSTEIN: You’ve done a lot of safe-sex literature, very successfully, it seems to me, because it’s cartoony; it has a certain innocence, even though it’s about death and sex. To impose innocence on those subjects seems radical.

CRUSE: I think the basic shorthand of cartoon illustra­tions can make a statement. Open-faced qualities in the characters. Eyes that don’t look shifty. Smiles that are not strained. These things say to the reader that, even if the experiences being described are sexual, these are not sleazy people. This is a radical message simply because the overlay of falsehood about gay people is so strong.

GOLDSTEIN: Do you regard your comic strips as a model for your own life?

CRUSE: Cartoons are fantasy, and fantasies are often rehearsals for life. A good cartoon is shorthand for a perspective on life. It can get at the truth of experience without having to depict it literally.

GOLDSTEIN: What’s the power of exaggeration as a weapon?

CRUSE: Really, I think the power of all art is its poten­tial to save mankind from being robotized by being fed a relentless drumbeat of assumptions about life. Cartoons are wild; they bypass the rational and go straight for feelings. A feeling doesn’t require an explanation, but it sometimes suggests an explanation after the fact that can make us question our assumptions. Cartooning has the advantage of being mischievous and naughty. It’s like play.

GOLDSTEIN: Why do you think the innocence your work projects seems so empowering?

CRUSE: It’s tremendously empowering when you’re gay to realize that you’ve been doing it right, and it’s the bigots who are stumbling about in a fog about this subject. Suddenly you realize that simply accepting your own place in the world permits you to just put away all this energy you’ve been using to deal with what the Bible says or what this or that politician says.

GOLDSTEIN: Can you do that without art supporting you, without imagery and representation?

CRUSE: It’s very hard to get through the relentless propaganda: You are wrong, you are bad, you shouldn’t think this thing, you shouldn’t be doing this thing. A childlike, irreverent art like cartooning allows you to get in touch with these parts of yourself from before all of this programming happened. It wakes you up.

GOLDSTEIN: So art is a model for the process of coming out.

CRUSE: I guess it’s analogous to coming out in that it is a route for people to break through the programming. Art can go in the back door of consciousness, just by making you feel directly.

GOLDSTEIN: Do you think it’s essentially the power to represent that has given the gay movement its dynamism in the last 20 years?

CRUSE: I think there is a great deal of power in being able to see yourself in art. If you pick up a book or a comic book, or see a play or a movie, suddenly you realize someone completely disassociated from you felt things you feel and made them into art. It’s very validating.

GOLDSTEIN: There’s a contradiction in the fact that you’re working in a popular form that doesn’t reach a mass audience. How do you deal with the possibility that your work might be unacknowledged, not because of its inherent limits, but because of a homophobic culture?

CRUSE: As an artist with the usual aspirations, I’ll be pissed off if that happens. I don’t want to think about being gay all the time. I want to have my life, my lover, my friends, and I don’t want to have to spend my time being scared and angry. My sexuality will always have a place in my work. It’s the energy that has to be mar­shalled to defend it that creates the distortion. I’m interested in the undercurrents of life, the ways that people relate to each other, whether they’re gay or straight; the way they love each other and betray each other. These are the things that make all narrative art resonate. I would like to create characters that will resonate a century from now, even to people who are not living in a gay subculture or under the gun of bigotry.

GOLDSTEIN: What would have to happen to make that so?

CRUSE: People would have to learn how to think for themselves.