Review: The Other Sides of Howard Cruse

Artist(s): Howard Cruse.

Almost two years ago, I’d interviewed Howard Cruse upon the publication of The Complete Wendel, and I’d asked him whether a collection of his non-gay work would happen someday (his gay short stories were already collected in From Headrack to Claude). The author was cautiously optimistic at the time, and I’m very glad to say the possibility has become a reality, with The Other Sides of Howard Cruse1, a thick hardcover published last summer by Boom! Town.

Covering four decades of strips done with unfailing underground sensibilities, this book gives us stories ranging from hippie dreams to political commentaries, but this time without any gay themes, which makes it an important addition to Cruse’s collections of maybe better-known gay-themed works.

About half the book is dedicated to Barefootz, a very quirky strip started in 1971, about “a sweet guy with a huge head and enormous bare feet who hangs out with cockroaches, a horny girlfriend, a hippie artist wannabe and a weird beast of unknown origin who barfs frogs by the hundreds from underneath a bed”, in the words of the author. I’ve always found those strips fascinating, both for their often absurdist humor and for the mirror they offered of a period I’ve haven’t known. Cruse was influenced by his use of mind-altering drugs, a use he doesn’t disown nor encourages now. They’re also interesting for their limits (it’s hard to address serious themes with such goofy imagery), against which Cruse ended up fighting by the late 70s, leading him to make different artistic choices — a move that would happen again years later with Wendel. You can read a few strips and the author comments on the trippy history of Barefootz at Cruse’s website, where you’ll find commented excerpts from various strips included in the book, which also contains longer and illuminating comments by the author.

Then we get about 30 more strips, some already well-known and reprinted, others obscure or new enough to have never been collected before. It’s a veritable Cruse orgy! Well, you know what I mean. I can’t comment on each and every strip, so let me choose a few.

Lulu all grown-up

Though other readers might find some strips dated for referencing older events or situations, those are the ones I prefer, especially the ones showing the influence of Cruse’s formative years. For example, the 1989 story Raising Nancies, which combines the title character from Ernie Bushmiller‘s classic strip with those famous “sea-monkeys” promised in the ads of old comic-books; or The Nightmares of Little L*L*, published in 1978, where Cruse imagines what kind of life a grown-up Lulu might lead. A revisionist take on a classic strip…Moore didn’t invent anything with Watchmen!
In those two strips, and in others, fond childhood remembrance and adult disquietude combine to create an interesting experience for the reader, even more, I imagine, when said reader knew the characters in his youth, which wasn’t my case. Cruse also has fun in the Lulu strip by paying homage to the character’s creator style in the flashback sequences, while the “modern” sequences are drawn in his more realistic style. Already then, Cruse could show the variety of his artistic talent.

A clearly underground side of Howard Cruse is also included in the book, with some very raunchy strips. The easy excitability of teenagers is covered in Unfinished Pictures, where a young artist discovers the erotic power of pictures, while dental hygiene is improved by use of cum as dentifrice in Big Marvy’s Tips on Tooth Care; humanized animals also get their rocks off — or at least try to — in two Shearwell stories, with the eponymous sheep pursuing females. I told you it wasn’t gay.

Very 70s tales are also represented, with a darkly funny story about an acid trip gone bad as well as more than one story about UFOs. One of my favorite stories in the book is Under the influence of a UFO, where a boy finds pleasure in pushing a bulb string up his nose, claiming he’s doing it because of a UFO meeting. It combines the mundane with the otherworldly in a way that rings true, though from what Cruse says in the book, only half of it is true. I’ll let you guess which one.

The presence of politically-charged tales is no surprise, knowing Howard Cruse’s interest in politics and his strong, left-leaning inclinations. In fact, the angriest story in the book is a political one: Creepy Snuff Porn (1987) is an assault against the Meese commission, which in 1986 had delivered a reactionary report on pornography. Cruse eviscerates it (well, his character literally does), in a way that readers would not have expected from the creator of gentle Barefootz.

A final note on the staying power of Howard Cruse’s strips: a couple of months before the whole book, a comic-sized preview was published for Free Comic Book Day. Boom! cleverly worked with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to produce The Censored Howard Cruse, which included a few strips with black bars in place of potentially-offending art and text. The result was both disturbing and funny: it was disturbing to think that decades-old strips could still be subject to lawsuits by close-minded people, but also funny because of course, the black bars did nothing to hide anything, in fact they attracted attention to the drawing and words, the way those stupid bleeps highlight the hypocrisy of TV shows.

While Howard Cruse keeps producing new strips, though at a slower pace (see online here for recent one-pagers, and the latest one is a gay-themed 8-pager for the 11th issue of Man About Town), The Other Sides of Howard Cruse will undoubtedly remain the definitive companion of his shorter work besides From Headrack to Claude. The production values brought to this handsome hardcover by Boom! makes it a great choice for a gift toward a gay friend who only knows Wendel or Stuck Rubber Baby, or a straight friend who likes his comics to make him laugh and think at the same time. In fact, I’m pretty sure even your enemies would be entertained. I only need to find myself enemies to test that theory. Any candidates?

  1. This large-sized, 228 page book is available from Amazon. A complete story was previewed at the Comics Beat site. There’s also a good interview of the author done by the Comics Reporter.

1 comment to The Other Sides of Howard Cruse

  • Jim L

    I’ve been a huge fan of Howard Cruse’s work for many years. My favourites are the Wendell comics and, of course, Stuck Rubber Baby, which particularly struck a chord with me, and also depicted the time and place it was set in perfectly. I re-read these books every few years, and hopefully this will be another of his wonderful collections that I`ll add to that list.