Into the Underground (Almost)

[Adapted from “Not Being There Yet,” one of my “Loose Cruse” columns that were published in Comics Scene magazine in 1981]

Once in a happy while, a young cartoonist will encounter a cartoon buyer who is prepared to offer a living wage in return for precisely the drawings that the cartoonist prefers to draw. But by all reports, that’s rare! Most of us who want to be professionals rather than hobbyists have to do a lot of bending in the early years in order to keep afloat. When we manage to harvest a little creative satisfaction in the course of our contortions, it’s a special pleasure.

Thinking of this, I’m reminded of a particular day in 1969. I was living in New York at the time and was due that day to deliver my last job to Tom Borowik at Flaghouse, Inc. Tom had hired me for sporadic freelance gigs even though I was just out of college and very green around the edges.

Today he listened as I said my piece.

"I don’t expect I’ll have time to do Flaghouse jobs for awhile," I told him. "I’ve decided to try concentrating on ‘underground’ cartooning.”

Tom nodded thoughtfully. "I don’t know how much money there is in underground stuff," he ventured.

"I still want to give it a try," I said.

In those days I was always quitting jobs. I once gave notice at the end of July because I couldn’t bear to spend August indoors while Central Park beckoned. I had an almost mystical faith in my bank account’s ability to spontaneously regenerate. Still, I wanted Tom to understand where my head was at. He had done me the favor of behaving as though I had a promising future as an artist at a time when my own confidence in that prospect needed all the bolstering it could get. I felt he deserved an explanation.

I had connected with Flaghouse the previous winter through a classified ad in the Village Voice. Flaghouse was seeking freelance cartoonists, and that’s what I wanted to be. When I answered Tom's ad I was employed as a "paste-up artist" (a now-obsolete craft in which I had become proficient while laying out our student newspaper in high school) where my role was to hunch over a drafting table and arrange type and images for the pages of textbooks and the occasional pornographic magazine. It was absorbing work that helped the days pass swiftly, but it wasn't cartooning and was best tackled in small doses. I was nearing my burnout threshold when I spotted the Flaghouse ad.

Today Flaghouse distributes athletic equipment and camping supplies, but its initial enterprise was providing pennants and custom-made flags to high schools across the country. Hence its name. By the time I encountered Flaghouse it was already diversifying its catalog (today, in fact, it carries no flags at all). But in 1969 the banner business still looked bullish at the House of Flags, and here came I with my portfolio composed of a mishmash of posters I’d drawn for college plays, logos for Alabama Volkswagen dealers, comic strips already rejected by every syndicate in the country, etc. Never was a youngster’s flag-designing potential so clearly in evidence.

Let me acquaint you with the flag-production process, so you’ll see how I fitted in. A direct-mail brochure from Flaghouse would catch the eye of the principal (or student council or PTA) of, say, Scrubbutter High School in Montana. Flaghouse’s mission was to deliver, upon request, a free flag design based on the school’s colors (green and gold) and the symbol or mascot of the school’s athletic team (the Scrubbutter Flaming Otters). This initial design was a free service with no strings attached. If the design proved pleasing, Flaghouse was prepared to translate it into an actual banner at a reasonable price.

"Sounds good," the Principal (or whoever) would say, and the handy coupon would be mailed forthwith.

Every few days I would stop by the Flaghouse office and pick up a few dozen such orders, along with standard illustration boards on which blank flag formats were printed. "The Scrubbutter Flaming Otters!" I would murmur to myself. "Let’s give those kids at Scrubbutter High something to cheer about!" Across a rich green field would go heroic golden letters announcing the name of the team. In the center, a snarling otter would be rendered in a dramatic pose.

How many of my designs were accepted, I wonder? How many were actually sewn into noble banners that conceivably are still flyingaloft to this day? Let other artists be hung in elitist galleries. I was being hoisted up flagpoles all over America!

As I recall, I was paid seven dollars a shot for these designs.

Emboldened by my freelancing coup, I quit my job at the type shop. I set up a stiff regimen for myself. Rising at 7 a.m., I would plunge into the day’s quota of lions, tigers and bears. At first I worked in tempera, striving for maximum originality and flash with each design. Then the arithmetic of the situation began to sink in. At seven dollars per design and with Manhattan rent to be paid, I had to turn out a lot of flags. And fast!

So I streamlined. I switched to Magic Markers. I worked up drawings of the more popular animals and traced them over and over again. I worked till 11:00 at night, hit the sack, then rose with the morning traffic to go at it again. I felt intrepid. I felt disciplined. I felt stupid.

I soon learned an unfortunate fact about freelancing: sometimes you’re in demand and sometimes you’re not. I’m not sure how many flag-hungry schools I thought there were out there on the coupon circuit, but demand for my services dropped off once I had worked through Flaghouse’s backlog of orders. (Or perhaps a more adept flag-renderer was siphoning off my assignments.) After a few weeks Tom thanked me and said he’d give a call the next time my talents were required.

Unemployed! Suddenly I remembered the appeal of regular salaries.

Flaghouse didn’t abandon me entirely. Indeed, as I said earlier, in the long run it was I who did the abandoning. I dutifully turned out occasional jobs for Flaghouse in the few months before my final defection: decals, certificates for Best Camper of the Summer, things like that. Scattered jobs from other sources occasionally came my way.

Still, I wasn’t really making it. I was surviving, yes, and sometimes when I was working I’d sense a glimmer of nascent professional pride. But something more had to lie beyond all of this, and I knew I wasn’t there yet.

The germ of a breakthrough dates from that rocky time. My cartooning efforts had previously been pretty traditional. Jokes were arranged Just So in the customary number of panels. But there were other drawings as well that I had been doing through the years. These were squeezed into margins of textbooks and compressed within the random empty spaces left among notes from boring college classes. These were doodles, not "important" because they were not for publication.

In these scribblings, my subconscious imagery spilled without censorship onto paper. The drawings were disturbing in their idle perversity. Cows gave arduous birth to elephants. Spikes were pounded beneath the nails of swollen fingers, or between teeth and bleeding gums. The necks of hapless clowns were wrung by robots. These were throwaway items rendered in pencil or ballpoint and long ago discarded. Friends who peered at these images as I drew them usually eyed me warily afterwards, but still seemed eager to see what I would come up with next. In their awful way, these drawings were crowd-pleasers.

I remembered those doodles during the summer of ‘69, and wondered if they would still evoke fascination if rendered in a more crafted style. Thus was born a series of weird drawings that I collectively named Phenomena.

Isolated as I was from the work of artists around me, I thought I was exploring uncharted territory. Actually, I was experiencing my personal version of a creative ferment happening everywhere. These were times when all boundaries that had heretofore restricted the form and content of art were being radically questioned. Actors were vaulting confrontationally out of their safe proscenia. Pop artists hoisted comic book panels and soup cans into galleries. Psychedelic rock posters upended most traditional rules of graphics. (Underground comic books were happening, but I hadn’t seen them yet, though the strips offered in underground newspapers provided a fragmentary glimpse of worlds to come.)

The upshot was that I stopped assuming that comics existed only for laughs or storytelling. I saw possibilities for cartooned communication on deeper psychological—indeed, even mystical—levels. Much that has been of value to me springs from that insight. Phenomena was the crude initial result.

What were those Phenomena drawings like? My fuzzy memory can still recall one that depicted a monkey perched upon a giant human hand, peeling the most prominent finger like a monumental banana. Freud wouldn’t have found the symbolism of that one overly opaque! (That particular original has either been lost or sold by now, but a few survived in my files long enough to be scanned and digitally archived — like the one below. Why is it signed "Kirk" instead of "Cruse"? That's a story for another time.)

In those psychedelia-drenched times I modestly thought that the whole Phenomena series was irresistibly bizarre, groovy, trippy and keen! It should be a regular feature in the East Village Other, I decided.

The Other, nicknamed EVO, was the radical "hippie" journal of the period. I was digging rock-and-roll and getting stoned and leading a marginal enough existence to feel fairly hippie-ish. The smattering of comix that had caught my attention within its pages and the pages of its spin-off, Gothic Blimp Works, made me think that EVO might get off on my odd visual fantasies. So I trekked from my one-room apartment in Chelsea into the wilds of the East Village.

The lyric dream of Flower Power had taken on fuzztone distortions along the streets where I walked. Smiles had too much amperage. Shaggy pilgrims seemed relegated to a destinationless saunter past the youthful panhandlers with dilated pupils who jockeyed for handouts. Or maybe everybody was out shopping for eggs and butter and my own mind was building unfamiliar images out of its own discomfort. I was a tourist there, not a native. Long-of-hair certainly; perhaps even cosmic-of-vision. But a "street person"? No.

I ascended a narrow stairwell and entered the EVO office. Mounds of paper were strewn across all available flat surfaces. Several workers glanced up at me as I stood awkwardly in the doorway. I felt more transparently unhip by the moment. After all, this was hardcore counterculture here. Even the T-squares had beards. I managed to announce that I had some cartoons to show. One fellow whose name I don’t remember took me aside and thumbed through my drawings.

"I like this one and this one," he said finally, selecting out a couple.

"I was hoping I could have, like, a regular feature," I said. "Y’know, every issue."

"We don’t do that for anybody," he said. "That’s our policy. Nobody gets run two issues in a row. Not even Crumb! We don’t want any 'stars'!"

Oops! Not only was I inadequately hip, I was inadequately egalitarian. You see, in my secret heart of hearts, I wanted to be a star!

I also wanted a feature that would provide me a guaranteed space, where I could experiment (and even fail sometimes) without worrying about having individual segments jettisoned because this one or that one left somebody cold. Brash me! I wanted artistic control!

It was clear that the Other and I were operating out of different mindsets. I took back my drawings and thanked the guy for his time. We did the ritual handclasp that somebody had invented for hip folk to do, and I left.

I trudged back to my quarters on Fifteenth Street. As I trudged, I wondered what I would do now. I had bowed out of mail-order flag production. The underground and I hadn’t meshed.

What would become of this Alabama kid adrift in his fantasies of sublime accomplishment?

©1981, 2018 by Howard Cruse

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