Howard Cruse is one of those cartoonists who exist kind of under the radar for many readers, and that's a shame.
He's probably best known, to the extent that he's known at all to most readers, as the creator of Stuck Rubber Baby, an outstanding and epic graphic novel about coming of age as a gay man in the late '60s. If you've never read that book you owe it to yourself to check it out. Stuck Rubber Baby is a moving and fascinating work of art, one of the best graphic novels of the 1990s.
Stuck Rubber Baby is Cruse's only longform graphic novel, but the master cartoonist has also done a huge amount of work in short stories and even in comic strips throughout his career. This new anthology collects some of Cruse's best miscellaneous strips spanning three decades or so, and it's a real treat to read so many wonderful strips collected together.
Maybe Cruse's most fun strips are his "Barefootz" pieces, surreal and often ridiculously silly shorts that feature an absurdly dressed man — in a fancy suit and tie with gigantic bare feet — living in an apartment with a gang of extremely friendly roaches and a strange magical creature while also hanging out with his artistic friend and his very horny girlfriend.
These "Barefootz" strips are kind of indescribable if you've never read them — equal touches surreal, hilarious, bizarre, dated and incredibly creative. They have an underground sensibility — one strip starts with Barefootz's girlfriend Dolly saying, "God! I'm so horny today!" — but the underground sensibility is wrapped in a very cute, very traditionally cartoony style. Some strips depend on their delirious wordplay, others on some hysterical sight gags and others with the sort of bizarrely funny stuff that could only appear in comics — see the page below for an example of, well, all of the above.
It all adds up to a completely unique, idiosyncratic style, especially in collected form where the cumulative effects of the endless surreal unpredictability of these strips makes them an intensely joyful cacophony of comical craziness. One strip may be about Glory, the magical creature that lives under Barefootz's bed, creating a stream of frogs that scatter around his apartment:
While the next page is a brainy and slightly dated piece of wordplay, and the next an even more dated piece that hinges on Barefootz's friend Claudette's giant afro.
Then the next strip begins with Barefootz screaming, "Don't make frogs at me, Glory!"
By the time I worked my way through about 100 pages of Barefootz material, I found myself alternating between being exhausted and exhilarated by the material. It all was so fresh (despite its being some 30-40 years old) and intriguing and fun and escapist and the roaches are so cute and Barefootz's friends are so wacky and of course Glory is an endless source of joy and hilarity and enthusiasm that the whole things actually left me kind of spent.
There was absolutely no way to know what to expect in one of these strips — Cruse veers wildly, from a "Barefootz" that's full of dick and tit jokes into a complex satire on anarchy and the nature of control in society, to a multi-page strip about an artist feeling endless existential angst.
I guess what I'm saying is that the first half or so of this book might be best consumed during a few different sessions. Cruse's creativity is explosive and infectious, full of endless enthusiasm that both filled me with joy and left me overwhelmed. These strips were clearly never meant to be collected in a fancy hardcover collection; instead, they were planned to stand on their own in various underground comics and newspapers of the era. And as a burst of bright, cheerful enthusiasm next to the likes of Crumb and Wilson, Cruse's strips really stand out. But placed all together in a nice collection, they kind of exhaust the modern reader a bit.
Of course, as I mentioned, the "Barefootz" strips only take up half of this collection, with the other half containing various other short stories created by Cruse for various comics. These strips also are tremendously fun and full of all kinds of unique artistic takes on their subjects. "Unfinished Pictures," for instance, is a hilarious take on the real reason why teenagers take up cartooning (yeah, all you cartoonists out there know that Cruse is right about this!)
Other strips are equally as insightful. "Hell Isn't All That Bad" is a fascinatingly lighthearted look at the afterlife, positing a Hell that isn't so bad once you get used to it and filled with nice people who are ready to be friends once you let your guard down. I kind of got swept away by the jolly irreverent feel of this strip in all its happiness and joy at the community of living in Hell. And as Cruse reminds readers in his comments on the story (also printed in this book) that as a gay man living in the deep south in the 1960s, this story took on a surprising amount of resonance in his daily life as well. It's pretty darn easy to see the symbolism in this piece when you look at it closely.
Some of the strips are topical, unfortunately in ways that
still resonate today. "Some Words from the Guys in Charge" is a collection of commentaries from the middle aged white men who are in charge of the world which sound like some of the bullshit we heard during this year's Presidential election. It's rather depressing to know that a comic created in 1990 about hypocrite assholes still has credence in 2012, but that's one of the depressing realities about the world today.
And then there are the wacky strips that reflect back on Cruse's childhood obsessions. His love of the old comic strip "Nancy" resulted in a surprisingly spooky and unnerving exploration of the way that we dispose of the things we loved in our childhood as we get older without any consideration of what impact that discarding has on others. I actually read a bit of an elegy for lost childhood into this strip. It made me miss the younger years for my kids and made me reflect back on the things we enjoyed together — though I was laughing through my tears while reading this strip.
It's really a shame that a book like The Other Sides of Howard Cruse will get lost on the shelves of the few comic shops that will likely order it, because this is a thoroughly satisfying collection of stories that pack a surprising amount of bang to them. Underneath Cruse's seemingly charming art style is a world of complexity directly below the surface, adding depth and richness and flavor to the strips. It's good that BOOM! used the plural Sides for this book's title, because it serves up many sides of a very creative and thoughtful creator.