In case you haven't noticed, I try to make this blog as eclectic as possible. My philosophy is always keep 'em guessing (assuming anyone spends a single second of their spare time on such guesswork.) I just did a comics-related post, so that means the very next post--the one you're reading now--should have nothing to do with comics. Unfortunately, the Grim Reaper doesn't seem to care all that much about my keeping this blog eclectic. The past two weeks two very talented cartoonists were taken from us and I don't believe I should ignore that or put a "Quips and Quotations" in between two comic-related posts just to have some semblance of variety (yes, I actually considered doing that. I know, I'm ruthless.) Besides, the two cartoonists themselves were different enough from each other to pass the variety test. One was a mainstream cartoonist, and the other considered underground/alternative. Let's start with the...
|Gahan Wilson 1930-2019|
After looking at those some of you may be wondering, so where's the mainstream cartoonist? Well, during his 50-year career Gahan Wilson cartoons regularly appeared in Playboy, The New Yorker, and The National Lampoon, all publications that could be easily purchased without having to go to a head shop. True, Wilson wasn't necessarily in the mainstream of that mainstream. As a practitioner of what's been variously called black humor, sick humor, gallows humor, and grotesque humor, he swam in the same waters as other cartoonist greats as Charles Addams, Don Martin, and Gary Larson. Not that there wasn't a degree of variety among them. Martin, who spent decades at Mad before defecting to Cracked late in his career, had more in common with a Warners Brothers animated cartoon than with Wilson. As for Addams (whose recurring characters in New Yorker single panel cartoons eventually led to The Addams Family in all its television and feature film permutations), Wilson was often compared to him, but I think they were different enough. Addams portrayed the out of the ordinary as, well, out of the ordinary. In other words, there was a "normal" world for all his ghouls and monsters to play off of. If a baby came floating out of the Tunnel of Love or Uncle Fester was seen sharpening the spikes of a fence, a passerby was usually seen looking on in amazement (and maybe stark terror.) Wilson took that tack occasionally, as when the lady doing the jigsaw puzzle notices a piece missing in the corner of the comic panel, but for the most part the "normal" people in his comics went with the macabre flow (maybe because the normal people were pretty macabre-looking themselves.) Look at the guy in the one comic making the pizza. As far as he's concerned, it's just another customer that's walked in. Wilson had most in common with Larson of The Far Side fame. It wasn't just the weird punchline but an entire universe that was in sync with the weird punchline. In Larson's vision, it's not enough to have a giant mailman destroying a city, all the dogs have to join forces to defeat him. That could have been a Gahan Wilson cartoon. In fact, Larson could have written a year full of gags for Wilson, and Wilson could have written a year full of gags for Larson, and the respective fans of each would have thought they came out of the original cartoonists minds. But that doesn't mean the two men were exactly alike, either. The difference comes in the drawing. Not simply that the men had different styles, but the different things they did with those styles. Larson drew ciphers. Seen one old woman, one pudgy kid, one middle-aged man, and one cow, and you've seen them all. And unless somebody saw something that surprised or scared them, you never saw eyes in Larson's cartoons. People either wore pupil-obscuring glasses, or there was a simple parallel line where a pair of eyes should be. A Gahan Wilson cartoon, however, was all about the individuality. You could have a roomful of 20 people (or 20 monsters) and every single one would look different. And you could see the eyes behind the thickest glasses. Nothing was truly standard or stereotypical in a Wilson cartoon. Given that the punchlines were relatively simple, you might wonder if all that uniqueness was necessary. Larson certainly didn't think so. But maybe Wilson was trying to make a larger point. There are no duplicates in nature. Every snowflake and fingerprint is different. Spend enough time with a pair of identical twins, you'll eventually be able to tell them apart. Even Dolly was said to have turned out a bit different from the sheep from which she was cloned. Every animal, vegetable, and mineral is different from every other animal, vegetable, and mineral, even if they're members of the same species or fall under the same classification. This is a scientific truism we sometimes forget, especially when we label something grotesque, and Gahan Wilson was there to gleefully remind us that we ourselves may not be immune from that grotesqueness.
Here's Gahan Wilson as a guest on David Letterman back in 1982. You'll see he's quite the raconteur:
The Algonquin Round Table by way of Stephen King.
Now we come to the underground, or alternative, cartoonist:
|Howard Cruse 1944-2019|
Looks like a nice young man, doesn't he? By every account, he was a nice young man., and then a nice middle-aged man, and finally, a nice senior citizen. Yet of the two cartoonists I'm eulogizing today, most of the time he would have been considered the more controversial. Even today, among some people living in what's referred to as "red states", or some people who live in blue states but nonetheless have a red state mindset, he would still be considered controversial. About halfway down the next spate of images, you'll see why:
You'll remember that I referred to Howard Cruse as a underground/alternative cartoonist. I did so because he has at various times been described as both of those things (as has Robert Crumb.) And some would have that "alternative" is merely a term that has superseded "underground", the same way we now take our prescriptions to a pharmacist rather than an apothecary, or call that big room under a house a basement instead of a cellar. But the terms aren't really as synonymous as all that. Back in the late 1960s, when free speech was still narrowly defined, there was a whiff of illegality about underground comix (yes, that's the proper spelling.) It was underworld as well as underground. If not the aforementioned Crumb or Gilbert Shelton themselves, than the fly-by-night counterculture merchants who sold their works were regularly hauled before judges on obscenity charges. Though I disagree that they should have been, it wasn't wholly without reason. For a few years there, a copy of Raw was as or even more sexually explicit than a movie shown in a theater where the audience was comprised mostly of old men in raincoats. But as the legal prohibitions fell away, and people like Harvey Pekar and Chris Ware less interested in merely telling dirty jokes entered the field, it ceased being underground but was still different enough from Marvel, DC, and King Features to be considered alternative.
So where does that leave Howard Cruse? A versatile artist whose drawing style changed to suit the content and subject matter, he started out in underground comix with a character called Barefootz, a very cutesily drawn character who walked around barefoot but otherwise wore a suit and tie. Also featured was his oversexed girlfriend Dolly, frustrated artist friend Headrack, and a bunch of darling cockroaches. Barefootz eventually gained a substantial following but what those followers may have not know known was that Cruse was gay. After all, Barefootz was heterosexual, even if he did often resist the advances of the nympho Dolly. Cruse decide to make supporting character Headrack gay, but as fitting a supporting character, chose to make it a sidelight of the comic rather than the main event. In the taboo-breaking world of underground comix, homosexuality was the love that dared speak its name, but only in a whisper. That only reflected society, even counterculture society. To be what is now called LGBTQ back then was to be a member of the underground's underground, and to be an alternative's alternative. But as the Gay Liberation Movement gained momentum, Cruse decided to do comix that spoke more to the self--his self. He produced a new strip for The Advocate titled Wendell, all about a gay young man and his friends. Drawn in a style similar to either an Archie comic or a knockoff of an Archie comic, the humor became especially pungent as the Christian Right-supported Ronald Reagan seized control of the levers of power, soon followed by the onslaught of AIDS. Undaunted by what at the time seemed (to me at least) as a mortal wound to the Gay Rights Movement, Cruse not only continued writing and drawing the comic, but for underground publisher Dark Horse Comics edited Gay Comix that featured many other LGBTQ cartoonists (including Allison Bechdel, of Dykes to Watch Out For and Fun Home, the latter turned into a Broadway musical.) In 1995, Cruse came out with a graphic novel for alternative comics publisher Paradox Press, an imprint of the mainstream DC comics, titled Stuck Rubber Baby. Drawn in a much more realistic style than Cruse had heretofore been known for, the story dealt with a young white man in the 1960s South named Toland Polk (thought by some to be a stand-in for the Alabama-born Cruse himself) who comes to terms with his emerging homosexuality in the shadow of an emerging Civil Rights Movement. Sales were modest, but Stuck Rubber Baby won all kinds of comics-oriented awards (the usual consolation), including Best Graphic Novel from two of the more prestigious, the Eisners and the Harveys.
In recent years, even decades, gay characters and gay themes have crept into mainstream comics. The latest incarnation of Wonder Woman is lesbian, in one version of Riverdale (who says only superhero comics can have multiple universes?), Archie Andrews gives his life for a gay friend. As far back as 1993, the comic strip For Better or For Worse ran a coming-out-of-the-closet storyline that caused a good deal of controversy (Doonesbury featured gays much earlier than that, but that hardly counts--that strip is always controversial.) All this is to the good, but I don't know that it's any better than good. There may be a tokenism to some of these efforts that's simplistic at best and self-congratulatory at worse (FBOFW's gay story line was carried out with intelligence, but the Archie comic seemed more like a marketing gimmick, and besides, it's usually not straight males who suffer violence at the hands of homophobes.) Just be grateful that the subject is being covered at all, no matter how superficially done, may be the message being sent. If you want a more insightful view into the lives of gay, lesbian, and transgender people, at least as far as comics go, you have to look outside that mainstream. And that's why Howard Cruse remained a significant cartoonist right into his 70s. As the legal prohibitions fall away, LGBTQ may no longer be underground, but it is still different enough to be alternative.
Here's Howard Cruse in a video he made about three years ago, taken from his own YouTube site:
I get where he's coming from, but still think he's a bit too hard on himself. He's a raconteur in denial.