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]

One day during the summer of 1969, I decided that it was time to make a big change.

I took a deep breath and began sharing this news with Tom Borowik at Flaghouse, the mail-order retailer of high school flags who had been funneling frequent illustration gigs my way for several months. Tom listened thoughtfully 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 but was politely skeptical. "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 becoming fairly comfortable with quitting jobs. I had convinced myself that I could somehow always get another one if need be. That appealing conviction had led me to give notice to Al at MAG Computer at the end of July, simply because I couldn’t bear to spend August indoors while sunny days outdoors were beckoning. Unfortunately, in time I would experience less generous swings of the economic pendulum, but in 1969 job shortages rarely impacted the lives of young, middle-class white guys like me. That made the incautious hippie lifestyle possible, in many ways. America's post-war economy was continuing a great run, and although I was technically not part of the baby-boom (having been born a year before the population bulge's official launch), I shared with my baby-boomer friends a blithe confidence that the prosperity the nation was then enjoying could be counted on to extend into the future indefinitely. America's people of color, of course, were not similarly privileged and therefore such complacency was not built into their societal DNA. But however much my sympathies had been on the side of the Civil Right activists who were challenging the white majority’s longstanding views about race, I was personally living primarily among whites, and my assumptions mirrored theirs.

One of those assumptions was that, if one was willing to forego a few luxuries and creature comforts, one could always find a way to stay afloat, whether by the largess of parents willing to subsidize their countercultural preferences or by taking low-paying jobs that always seemed available if they were seriously needed.

As a freelance cartoonist, I was still far short of prosperous, but with the help of reality-bending psychedelics I had developed an almost mystical faith in my bank account’s ability to spontaneously regenerate. And after all, moments of LSD-fueled enlightenment had assured me that money was actually nothing but paper. And who wants to tether their life choices to a bunch of pieces or paper?

I was naively certain I could always dig up bread if I seriously needed to. But in the meantime, grooving on the beauties of nature, whether in a stoned state or a sober one, seemed a highly evolved mode of enjoying, minute by minute, the satisfactions of a non-acquisitive lifestyle.

While I wasn’t really "making it" in a conventional bourgeois sense, I was surviving. And when I was working I could feel a glimmer of old-fashioned professional pride without being sucked into crass materialism.

My path was two-thirds of the one advocated by the counterculture's guru Timothy Leary. I had "turned on" and "tuned in," but even though I hadn't really "dropped out" — my dreams of becoming a famous cartoonist were undimmed — I felt close enough to the Leary template to claim adequacy as a rebel against the boring straight world.

One conventional aspect of my lifelong ambitions was being grudgingly surrendered. With the newspaper syndicates' unanimous rejection of my comic strip series Muddlebrow, which at the time I viewed as my most sophisticated cartoon offering yet, it was dawning on me that I might never make a place for myself in the funny pages I had devoured since I first began to read.

It was a bitter pill to swallow, but the bitterness was softened by an epiphany of sorts. My cartooning efforts had previously been pretty traditional. Jokes were arranged Just So in the customary number of sequential panels. But there were other drawings as well that I had been doing through the years. These images had typically been squeezed into margins of textbooks and compressed within the random empty spaces left among my notes from boring college classes. In essence, these were mere doodles. I had always seen them as unimportant because they had never been created with publication in mind.

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 happened to peer at these images while I was drawing them tended, understandably, to eye me warily. But even so, they were always 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. While I had yet to be exposed to them, underground comic books were a happening thing, which is not to say that I hadn’t caught glimpses of weird drawings in the underground newspapers then surfacing on New York newsstands. These disturbing images were being created by R. Crumb and other rising stars of the cartooning underground, whose visions were clearly prompted by the same consciousness-raising substances I had been ingesting frequently.

Observing that ferment, if only sporadically in the beginning, rearranged by cartooning priorities. I discarded my longstanding assumption that comics existed only for laughs or linear storytelling. I saw possibilities for cartooned communication that unspooled on deeper psychological — perhaps even mystical — levels.

This was the root of a series of surreal cartoon images I called Phenomena.

What were the 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 in the series survived in my files long enough to be scanned and digitally archived — like the one I’ve posted below.) Not being ready yet to abandon the option of selling my more mainstream work, I adopted the pseudonym "Kirk." That authorial subterfuge allowed me to let my most unsettling imaginings run free.

Where did “Kirk” come from? Contrary to many suspicions that have reached me over the years, it had nothing to do with the captain of the Enterprise in Star Trek. I think I chose it because it was short and easy to letter in a distinctive way.

In those psychedelia-drenched times I modestly thought that my Phenomena series was irresistibly bizarre, groovy, trippy and keen! Naturally, I thought, it clearly belonged in the East Village Other.

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 their stuff in the paper 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. After exchanging the ritual handclasp that somebody had invented for hip folk to exchange, I left.

©1981, 2018 by Howard Cruse

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