Review by François Peneaud
Howard Cruse is best known for his Wendel strips and his graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, both gay-themed (though not exclusively). Covering four decades of strips produced with unfailing underground sensibilities, The Other Sides of Howard Cruse gives us stories ranging from hippie dreams to political commentaries, but this time without any gay themes.
About half the book is dedicated to Barefootz, a very quirky strip started in 1971, about “a sweet guy with a huge head and enormous bare feet who hangs out with cockroaches […] and a weird beast of unknown origin who barfs frogs by the hundreds from underneath a bed”, in the words of the author. Those strips are fascinating, both for their often absurdist humour and for the mirror they offer of a long-gone period. They’re also interesting for their limitations: it’s hard to address serious themes with such goofy imagery and Cruse would later struggle to find an appropriate venue for his more real-world concerns.
About thirty more strips are then offered, some already well-known and reprinted, others obscure or new enough to have never been collected before. It’s a veritable Cruse orgy!
Strips showing the influence of Cruse’s formative years are also present. For example, the 1989 story ‘Raising Nancies’, which merges Ernie Bushmiller‘s classic strip with those famous sea-monkeys promised in the ads of old comic-books–or ‘The Nightmares of Little L*L*’, published in 1978, where Cruse imagines what kind of life a grown-up Lulu might lead. A revisionist take on a classic strip…
In those strips, fond childhood remembrance and adult disquietude combine to create an interesting experience. Cruse also has fun in the Lulu strip by paying homage to the character’s art style in flashback sequences, while the “modern” sequences are drawn in his more realistic style.
Very 1970s tales are also represented, with a darkly funny story about an acid trip gone bad as well as more than one story about UFOs. One of the weirdest in the book is ‘Under the Influence of a UFO’: A boy finds pleasure in pushing a bulb string up his nose, claiming he’s doing it because of a UFO encounter. It combines the mundane with the otherworldly in a way that rings true, though from what Cruse says in the book, only half of it is true.
The presence of politically-charged tales is no surprise, knowing Cruse’s interest in politics and his strong, left-leaning inclinations. In fact, the angriest story in the book is a political one. ‘Creepy Snuff Porn’ (1987) is an assault against the Meese commission, which in 1986 had delivered a reactionary report on pornography. Cruse eviscerates it (well, his character literally does), in a way that readers would not have expected from the creator of the gentle Barefootz.
While Howard Cruse keeps producing new strips, though at a far slower pace, The Other Sides of Howard Cruse will undoubtedly remain the definitive companion of his shorter work besides From Headrack to Claude. The production values brought to this handsome hardcover by Boom! Studios makes it a great choice for a gift for a gay friend who only knows Wendel or Stuck Rubber Baby or for a straight friend who likes his comics to make him laugh and think at the same time.