Comic creator Howard Cruse inspired by real-life events

Posted
Sunday May 12, 2013

When Howard Cruse is illustrating a comic or graphic novel out of his Williamstown home office, his characters aren't wearing colorful spandex and flying high above the skyline.

Instead, they're quite grounded -- in reality.

Unable to find a stable career in the theater industry after graduating from Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama, Cruse became the editor of Gay Comix in 1979, which published comics and graphic novels exploring, sometimes explicitly, gay themes.

"It was my way of coming out of the closet professionally," Cruse said.

Cruse edited the first four issues of Gay Comix before stepping down. Gay Comix ceased publication in 1998.

In addition to having illustrations published in The Advocate and Playboy, Cruse's work includes "Barefootz Funnies," a quirky comic book series about a dapper, albeit barefoot, young man. It originally appeared in 1971 in The Crimson White, the University of Alabama's newspaper.

Of Cruse's nine comic books and graphic novels, his 210-page graphic novel, "Stuck Rubber Baby," based in part on Cruse's observations of homophobia and racism in the South in the early 1960s, is the most recognized.

First published in 1995, "Stuck Rubber Baby" won best graphic novel at the United Kingdom Comic Art Awards in 1996 and the 2002 French Prix de la critique. It was reprinted in 2011 and has been translated to a half-dozen languages.

Cruse recalled seeing people everywhere on the Birmingham-Southern campus in the 1960s wearing shirts sporting popular logos and characters from superhero comic books. When most people's interest peaked in superhero comic books, Cruse's interest was fleeting.

"I didn't appreciate the superhero comics because they weren't dealing with life's substantial issues," Cruse said. "Marvel did a nod to real life, I give them credit for that. But it was so strained that I couldn't get around people running around in spandex."

Cruse's attention instead shifted to underground comics -- comic books and graphic novels that steered away from the fantastical and instead focused on more realistic topics in an adult manner.

Underground comics became so because of the Comics Code Authority, established by the Comics Magazine Association of America, Inc. in 1954.

The Comics Code Authority was separated into three general standards with a list of guidelines to obtain the Comics Code Authority seal. Among them, criminals could not be shown in a sympathetic way (and by extension, police and law officials weren't allowed to be shown in a negative light); no gruesome imagery (the words "horror" and "terror" were prohibited from a comic's title); no profanity; no nudity, and divorce could not be treated humorously.

Comic book characters like Catwoman, a sexy antihero in the Batman comics, disappeared for almost a decade after the Comics Code Authority.

"Comics were a very censored medium," Cruse said. "There was a notion that they must be accepted by children."

Cruse said he bought his underground comics in the only places he could find them: "Head shops and places that hippies went."

Northampton resident Pete Laird, alongside Kevin Eastman, created a comic book that was mainstream, though the comic book's characters lived underground: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which spawned merchandise, movies and TV shows.

Though Laird did not return calls or emails from The Eagle, he has been vocal on his blog about the upcoming "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie. Laird no longer holds the rights to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles property.

On his blog, Laird has criticized the casting of Megan Fox as April O'Neil, but also advised fans to take the "chill pill" suggested by the movie's producer Michael Bay ("Transformers"), who was quoted last year saying the turtles were going to be of an alien race, an origin different from the comic books. Bay later clarified the statement.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" hits theaters June 6, 2014.

For more than 20 years, Laird ran the Xeric Foundation, which gave more than $2.5 million to self-publishing comic book artists, according to the website.

Due to the advent of the Internet and online publishing, the Xeric Foundation now only donates funds to charitable organizations.


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