Superman, Batman, The Green Hornet and other good guy/bad guy story lines have flooded comic books for decades.
But these are not the stories that comic book writer Howard Cruse likes to tell. He prefers the impactful experiences of homosexuality and civil rights throughout the decades.
Last week, Cruse spent time with FDU students in the classroom, educating them on the technical aspects of comic drawing, as well as the social issues comics can address, as in his graphic novel “Stuck Rubber Baby,” which celebrated its 15-year anniversary last June with a new cover and introduction.
Cruse also made an appearance on March 2 at Dewey’s Comic City on Madison’s Main Street.
“One of the reasons why my book creeps into academia is because it relates to a number of different issues,” said Cruse.
Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., during the 1960s, Cruse was engulfed in the notions of the civil rights and feminist movements, as well as his love of anything comic. He started out reading “Little Lulu” and Donald Duck comics before noticing an adult form taking shape below him. The underground comic movement of the 1960’s was “a reaction against the blandness of regular comics,” said Cruse.
The underground comic movement broke every taboo around, according to Cruse. It confronted issues of sex, drugs, rock and roll, politics and religion.
“It was a huge creative explosion with plenty of stuff to offend their parents,” said Cruse.
He added, “They [underground comic writers] realized that they could do comics and didn’t have to stick to the rules, family friendly rules and censorship of mainstream comics.”
During this time, it was mandatory that mainstream comics contain a Comics Code Authority Seal of Approval, which regulated the content seen by the public.
The underground movement recognized that if they made adult works with “Adults Only” stickers on the cover, this seal needn’t be present. This protected the underground comic book industry from government censorship.
As a gay man growing up in the south, Cruse drew inspiration from the underground comic movement for what it lacked, homosexual content.
Cruse said, “Interest in sexual liberation sort of stopped at the heterosexual line.” It wasn’t until the female cartoonists joined the club with their liberal notions of sex that homosexuality was addressed in comic form.
Lesbian comic book writers Mary Wings, who published “Come out Comics” in 1973, and Roberta Gregory, who published “Dynamite Damsels” in 1976, paved the way for writers like Cruse.
In 1979, Cruse began his work as editor of Gay Comixs, a place for gay and lesbian content in the comic book world.
“I wanted the openness, non-expletive human-based stories about the gay experience as opposed to campy, stereotypes or highly sexualized stories,” said Cruse. Wings and Gregory contributed to Gay Comixs.
A big story for the gay community during Gay Comixs’ 1980 release was the AIDS epidemic.
Cruse created “Safe Sex” as a response to AIDS.
“My ‘Safe Sex’ piece was reflective of the general confusion and anger and fear and all of those things that were rife in the community at that time,” he said.
This piece was drawn in 1983, and published in 1984. Because of the sensitive nature in handling the topic, his piece got the support of all those who read it.
Cruse was even approached to have his “Safe Sex” piece translated into a theater piece, though this never ended up happening.
Cruse said, “Another regular writer for The Advocate of health issues said he felt it said more about the experiences we were having with AIDS than many of the journalistic essays that were being written.”
Owner of Dewey’s Comic City, Daniel Veltre, believes Cruse’s work opened up doors for comic writers that would have been otherside locked. By adressing homosexuality in his second issue of Gay Comixs in 1976 and in his graphic novel, “Stuck Rubber Baby,” he was able to broaden the content of comics.
“It was controversial in the beginning because there were not many gays creating gay content,” said Veltre.
He said one of the successes that Cruse’s works carry is how he uses gay content, without making homosexuality a “big deal” and focusing more on the experiences, turning what could have been portrayed as a gay character into a character that just happens to be gay.
“He [Howard Cruse] is such a pioneer in comic book history,” said Veltre.
With Cruse’s groundbreaking career as a comic book writer whose content addressed social issues that are just as much a part of life in 2011 as in 1960, it was only natural for Cruse to grab the attention of FDU visual arts professor, George Cochrane.
Cochrane is known on campus for his 24-part graphic novel, which is still a work in progress.
Cochrane and Cruse met over the summer at Cochrane’s graphic novel exhibit at MASS MoCA in Massachusetts.
As Cochrane became acquainted with Cruse’s work, specifically, “Stuck Rubber Baby,” he knew that he wanted to bring Cruse to FDU to show students someone who has been and is still a vital part of the comic book community.
“Since I started working on my own graphic novel, it became clear that there was an audience of students here for the subject and a real interest and curiosity and hunger to study it in the classroom that I wanted to bring to campus what wasn’t already here.”
This is where Cruse came in. He brought the knowledge of pressing social issues as someone who lived through a time of inequality, the experience of a successful comic book writer with his own techniques and voice, and the ability to connect his work with content in several academic areas.
“To have the content of the work connect to other classes was always the fantasy,” said Cochrane, who involves his students in his own graphic novel by using it as a teaching tool.
Currently, the visual arts department has created more classes like character modeling and art of the graphic novel to appeal to students interested in comics.
Cruse was not only brought into the art classes. He also participated in Professor Gary Darden’s Contemporary America: 1954-Present class, in which students read “Stuck Rubber Baby” and related these events to events in America during the civil rights movement.
“Stuck Rubber Baby” contains issues that go far beyond homosexuality and tiptoes into the ideas of racism and feminism.
“It brings up important social issues and there seems like nothing more current than homophobia and racism,” Cochrane said. “I mean when do those issues ever become something we can say we’ve gotten past?”
Cruse and his work served as a primary source, according to Cochrane. People have often turned to memoir for first-hand accounts of events.
“Howard Cruse was alive and living in the areas that this book references, although obliquely,” said Cochrane. He added, “Why can’t a graphic novel be read and seem to carry as much fictive truth as ‘War and Peace’ is for the Napoleonic War?”
Along with exposing students to the content of Cruse’s work, Cochrane wanted to show students another way of making a graphic novel. Though he said his method works well for him and other students, there are techniques that only Cruse can expose the students to, like Zipatone.
Zipatone is a technique used in old comics, which created a grey tone image using small dots, changing the lightness and darkness with the white space left in between the dots.
While Cochrane continues to do his graphic novel by hand using ink washes, Cruse has come around and joined the technological age, showing students the advances in making a comic.
“This is a great example to students, again, the notion of diversity of the individual voice the medium provides,” said Cochrane.
Students now engaged in the graphic novel movement await the next graphic novelist to expand what they think they already know about graphic novels.
Cochrane said, “While not in its infancy, it [graphic novels] is young enough that the rules are being written by the people who are making them today and I just wanted the students to feel like they could be making them today.”