Andrew J. Kunka is the author of the book Autobiographical Comics and a professor of English at the University of South Carolina Sumter. The comics scholar’s new book is The Life and Comics of Howard Cruse: Taking Risks in the Service of Truth.
The book looks at the life of the late cartoonist Howard Cruse, but it primarily takes a deep dive into a lot of the short comics work that Cruse did over the course of his career. Cruse is known as the godfather of gay comics and is known for his graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, his long running comic strip Wendel and his role as the founding editor of Gay Comix. His short comics work, from the earliest stage of his career and the comics he drew in the later years of his life, have been understudied, and Kunka does a deep dive into why these comics, which are reprinted in full, are important. It is a thoughtful and deep analysis and celebration of an important and understudied cartoonist.
Kunka was kind enough to take some time out to talk about the book and his work.
Was your initial idea for the book this plus a long interview with him?
Yes. I knew in advance that I wanted to ground the book in archival research, and that a big chunk of research would be at Columbia University’s Rare Books and Manuscript Library because Howard had donated his papers there. Plus they have Denis Kitchen’s papers, which were essential for tracing their friendship, Howard’s earliest publications of his Barefootz strip, and the origin of Gay Comix. I had also been in touch with Howard and he was very excited about the project. I wanted to do a kind of career life spanning interview with him as a fourth or fifth section of the book. Later, though, Howard contacted me and said that he had been diagnosed with cancer, and he didn’t think he would be up for doing a long interview during that treatment, but that things looked good for recovery after chemotherapy. We had planned the interview for January 2020 and then when we were close to Thanksgiving 2019, he sent me a message saying, if you want to do this interview, we need to accelerate the timeline. And within three days, he had passed away. I had to rethink how I would approach the book, but his husband Ed was incredibly supportive and really great. He was able to send me hi-resolution scans of Howard’s comics. Denis Kitchen was also fantastic in helping me. They both read the manuscript, fixed errors that I had made, and filled in some of their own memories. But I do think it would have been a very different book if Howard were still alive while I was writing it.
I loved the format and for Howard one of the appeals must have been that you were going to look at his short work and look at his career differently. Most of us read Stuck Rubber Baby and to a lesser degree Wendel, and the rest of his work doesn’t get addressed as much. You try to look at his early work and the work he did the last few years of his life.
I’m glad you said that. I had written a book about autobiographical comics for Bloomsbury, and one of the things that struck me was that all these great autobiographical cartoonists from the underground era and early independent era did most of their best work as shorter pieces for anthologies. Not just Howard but Dori Seda, Trina Robbins, Carol Tyler, and others whose early autobiographical works aren’t often read and studied because we tend to privilege the graphic novel as a form, especially for autobiography. So when Frederick Luis Aldama, who edits the Critical Graphics series, asked me, if I wanted to do a book for this series, this problem immediately came to mind. He described the format to me: it would be highlighting a creator’s shorter works with a biographical and critical apparatus to it. I was really excited by that prospect and so I gave him a list of people who I thought needed that kind of attention, like the ones I mentioned. He said, why don’t you do Howard? He would be great for this. Plus Howard had this reputation of being one of the nicest human beings around – and he really was. I really liked the idea of the Critical Graphics format and on top of that, Howard’s shorter works haven’t really gotten the attention that they deserve. Stuck Rubber Baby is an amazing work. Everybody should be reading that. Barefootz has been reprinted. Wendel has had attempts at reprinting as well. Boom! did a really good collection of his shorter work called The Other Sides of Howard Cruse. That has basically what Howard described as his “non-gay” comics. Howard had even self-published a book called From Headrack to Claude to keephis queer comics alive. I thought there needed to be a way to get those important comics out to the public again.
So you wanted to look at his work, where do you start? How do you start?
Basically I read everything I could get my hands on that he had done, which was largely the stuff that had been in the different collections that had been published over the years. I went through all those and figuring out what the trends or the categories that I could fit the different works in. I knew from the outset the two centerpieces were going to be what I think are Howard’s two best and most important short works – “Jerry Mack” and “Billy Goes Out.” I wanted those to be the centerpieces of two of the chapters. When I had met Howard in 2016, I asked him about “Jerry Mack.” It’s about a cartoonist who as a teenager had a relationship with another guy who grew up to become a minister. It was clear there were autobiographical elements to the story, but it does not appear to be a fully autobiographical story. Howard wasn’t the teenage boy who grows up to be the cartoonist in that story; it’s based on another person that he knew. Instead, Howard took an that he witnessed and made a story from a different point of view. A normal impulse would have been to tell it from the point of view of the young man who grows up to be a cartoonist, but instead he tells it from the point of view of the minister flashing back to this experience he had. There’s such a level of empathy that goes into that choice. To choose the person who would in another writer’s hands be demonized and make them a sympathetic character is really amazing. That kind of transformation that had to take place from taking an autobiographical experience into what “Jerry Mack” becomes made me think about how he approaches autobiography in general.
There’s a real playfulness in Howard’s approach to autobiography. One of my favorites is “The Guide,” where he’s telling the story about his first LSD trip,. It seems like it’s a true story, and then the guide gets chopped into pieces at the end. [laughs] So we know at some point it diverges from the truth. He’s playing around with how we think about autobiography and how comics can tell personal stories. So, I wanted one chapter to focus on this inventive approach to autobiography and how he blurred the lines with that genre.
With the parody chapter one of the things I really wanted to highlight was what a great mimic Howard could be of other artists’ styles. One of the things that he and I talked about was our shared love of old Dell Comics – and Little Lulu in particular. He learned how to draw by imitating Little Lulu comics. That really shows when he does “The Nightmares of Little L*l*”, which is a deep dive into Little Lulu. To get a lot of the jokes you have to have been immersed in that series for much of your life the way he was. His parody of Nancy in “Raising Nancies” is another example of his ability to mimic other artists’ styles. He had also thought a lot about his own theory of parody, especially in terms of the legality of parody and copyright infringement, and so that, along with his mimicry, made me think that I wanted a separate section on his parodies.
Then, for the commentary and satire chapter, I wanted to really show the breadth of his political interests. He’s known for being the godfather of gay comics, editing the Gay Comix series, and doing a lot of gay activism through his comics, but he also covered a lot of other topics. I wanted to take a look at how he created a kind of essay in comics form that he could use for dealing with a variety of different political and social issues.
Talk more about the essayistic comics. Today this is very common, but when he started making these forty years ago, that wasn’t common at all.
One of the earliest examples is “Safe Sex,” the comic about AIDS that he did for the fourth issue of Gay Comix. He was surprised when he started doing Gay Comix that he wasn’t getting any AIDS stories, and so he wanted to make sure that he did one. He started out doing a narrative of the experience of someone who had AIDS, but he confessed that he didn’t know anyone at that time who had gone through that. He said every result was maudlin or wasn’t ringing true. Instead he decided to do this satire in essay form about AIDS panic in the gay community. That’s a really amazing piece that is organized more like an essay or rhetorical argument than a narrative, even though it does kind of build towards this conclusion where the Howard character is having to revise the book of gay history because AIDS has really impacted the progress that he felt he had been witnessing after Stonewall. You can read the panels in that story in almost in any order because they’re not dependent on a narrative. That ended up developing into this essayistic style in which he would largely improvise what he was doing. He had a topic he would start with but didn’t have a plan as far as where it would end or where it would go even in the next panel, and then he would just draw whatever panels seemed logical to follow after the first panel. You’re right that we see a lot of these essay comics in different places like The Nib, but in the early 1980s where would you have published something like that? Gay Comix provided Howard and other creators with the venue to explore this kind of commentary in comics form.
I feel like I’ve read all or most of the comics, but the way you present them, it’s possible to see what they meant in terms of his career and his style. Which obviously was your point, so I guess I’m saying you do a good job at it.
I appreciate that. I included an example of Barefootz at the beginning to give a sense of what it was like for people who haven’t seen it. I also had an example of Wendel. I didn’t include any pages from Stuck Rubber Baby because that 25th anniversary edition was in the works when I started the project, and so there were some potential issues with competition. However, Howard was excited both books could enhance each other. What you’re saying made me think of the evolution of his style, too. I talk about his style a lot, from Barefootz to his Gay Comix and other late underground work, through Wendel, Stuck Rubber Baby, and later. For example, the style he goes to immediately after Stuck Rubber Baby is so loose and cartoony in a way that is the opposite of Stuck Rubber Baby, which is tight crosshatching and almost photorealism. Getting to see the span of his career and the span of his style changing from period to period is one of the benefits of a book like this.
He talked about a few times about what it took to make Stuck Rubber Baby. That it required him to develop a different style and approach. He felt more comfortable as a humorist.
Even though he got a lot of heat for his early humorous style. That’s one of the things that I think stuck with him as a sensitive area for much of his career. That other underground cartoonists like Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith were pretty harsh about him being included as an underground cartoonist in anthologies since his style on Barefootz was so cute. They clearly weren’t getting at what he was trying to do with using a cartoony style to lure us into some really heady or transgressive ideas. Later reviews of Stuck Rubber Baby would often comment on how jarring the transformation of his style was for those who were mostly familiar with Barefootz or other early work.
Did you have free reign as far as what to include in the book?
I had a limit on the number of pages of comics I could include in the book. But other than that. Howard, and then later Eddie, were pretty open to letting me use anything that I wanted to. There was one comic I wanted to use that there wasn’t a really good high res image of. That was just a one-page comic and wasn’t really essential. Other than that, he had kept hi-resolution images of all of his work. That was helpful. So, other than that one comic and some concerns about using pages from Stuck Rubber Baby, I could pretty much use whatever I want.
Talk a little about comics studies. As a non-academic it’s interesting that as comics studies are becoming more accepted we’re starting to see books like the Critical Graphics series or Bart Beaty’s book about Archie that challenge comics studies to rethink what gets studied and how it gets studied – in ways that might challenge some of the acceptance it has, but are fundamental to understanding comics.
Bart’s Twelve Cent Archie is great. That book, and the book he did with Benjamin Woo, The Greatest Comic Book of All Time, have been huge influences on me in recent years. In The Greatest Comic Book of All Time, each chapter is basically asking, what if this comic were considered the greatest comic of all time? What if an Archie comic were considered the greatest comic of all time? What if a Rob Liefield comic were considered the greatest comic of all time? And they also cover the canonical stuff like Maus. Those two books rewired my brain on this idea that we should be looking at other comics that don’t get as much scholarly attention. We have certain biases, like I mentioned earlier, based on access and format. How often is a comic reprinted? For example, Bart and Benjamin talk about the EC bias in histories of 1950s comics. That’s because we’ve had access to those EC comics, which have been reprinted over and over again since then 1950s. So we get this narrow historical view if we only focus on what’s been reprinted. That’s something that I was keeping in mind with the Howard Cruse book, to give readers and scholars better access to comics that were published in underground or independent anthologies and might not be easy to find unless one were to track down the originals. It’s something I keep in mind in general for all of my scholarship now.
One of my future projects is going to be on Dell and Gold Key comics. In the 1950s, Dell’s market share was around 35% of the comic book publishing industry. They had 11 series that sold over a million copies an issue. However, most of these comics are not going to be reprinted ff they’re not Carl Barks Duck comics or John Stanley comics, because of licensing issues. But Dell and Gold Key were doing interesting things. For example, they didn’t sign on to the Comics Code, so it’s interesting to look at how they published comics that might not have passed the Code. Those comics that are worth talking about, yet they rarelyget talked about in the history and scholarship of comics. So I hope one of the trends we’re going to be seeing in comics studies is this attention to things that are neglected or off the beaten path. There can be as many essays as people want to write about Maus and Fun Home and Persepolis and Watchmen, but what are some of the things that people were reading that were really popular that nobody reads or talks about anymore?
You’re in the English department, and I think there’s a way that Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman are showing their work and influences and its very easy for an English or cultural studies scholar to find a way into the work. But its a very different thing to get into a lot of other artists and comics.
I did a paper at a conference a few years ago on one of Dell’s adaptations of the 87th Precinct TV series made in 1962. It’s about heroin addiction and heroin dealing. Because Dell didn’t sign onto the Comics Code, they could make a comic like that. Who’s studying 1960s TV crime adaptations? Somebody asked me at the conference, what’s your research methodology? I said, I went to a comics show, I saw this comic for five bucks and I thought it looked cool. [laughs] That started me asking the question, if they could do a comic about drugs once, did they do it again? Now I’ve got six long boxes of Dell and Gold Key comics. Not all of them are about heroin addiction! But that’s my methodology.
I think I’m a nerd for knowing there was a short-lived 87th Precinct TV series. But there was a comics series?
It was just two issues. One of the issues (Four Color 1309) was drawn by Bernie Krigstein. One of the great EC artists, yet work on this comic is never going to get reprinted.
You talked about being a lifelong fan of Howard’s, what was your entry point?
My entry point was Stuck Rubber Baby. And so it’s been odd to go back and see what he did after and before. Because the book stands out for so many reasons.
When I was a kid I had a subscription to Comics Scene magazine and he had his “Loose Cruse” column in there. That exposed me to reading a whole bunch of underground comics. I really credit that with keeping me in comics at an age where others abandoned it. He was writing about the Air Pirates which led to me tracking down Dan O’Neil’s stuff and other underground creators that he mentioned. I found stuff that even if I didn’t understand it at twelve or thirteen, I aspired to understand it. I credit Howard with keeping me going in comics at a time when I wasn’t sure there was going to be a lot of stuff for me in the coming years.
Well I hope that this and the anniversary edition of Stuck Rubber Baby help to bring more people back to Cruse’s work.
I hope we start to see more reprints of Howard’s work. A new complete Wendel would be great. There’s a lot of Barefootz stuff that’s never been collected. In the 1980s he had another go at trying to get a Barefootz syndicated strip (which had been an early goal in his career) and I don’t think those strips have ever been reprinted. There’s also a lot of stuff that I didn’t cover in the book. There could be another book covering other short work because I was limited to how many pages of comics I could reprint. I’d love to see another volume like come out.