Part 2
in which the young cartoonist gets scorched by his illusory Sun
while learning that a more gratifying mode of flight awaits him

by Howard Cruse

The good news was that Playboy wanted to publish not one but several of my submissions.

The bad news was that its publisher and editor-in-chief, Hugh Hefner, wasn't interested in anything other than my parodies of strips by other cartoonists.

Hef really disliked my native drawing style. It was as simple as that. It wasn't just the Barefootz stuff that left him cold. Anything I did that wasn’t a riff on other artists' creations was dead in the water.

My Little Lulu parody had shown that I could pull off that kind of satirical mimicry, so he wanted more of the same and nothing else.

That wasn’t a total surprise to me, given Hefner’s history as a fan of the early issues of Mad Magazine — specifically, the ones that Harvey Kurtzman edited. When Harvey jumped ship from Mad after 28 issues (the first 23 of which were in comic-book format) because it’s publisher, William M. Gaines, wouldn’t grant him part ownership of the title, Hef decided to use his Playboy money to go Gaines one better. How would he do that? He would bring into Playboy’s orbit the principal artists who had made Mad a fifties phenomenon in the first place.

He envisioned a new humor magazine that would be very much like Kurtzman’s Mad, except that it would sport lots of interior color sections and production values far higher than Gaines could afford.
It would be called Trump (no relation to today’s U.S. President), and it would be suffused with Kurtzman’s special brand of satire because Kurtzman himself would be at the helm. Harvey’s longtime collaborators Jack Davis and Will Elder accepted his offer. The only true luminary of the original Mad who chose not to come immediately along for the ride was Wally Wood. Other celebrated cartoonists such as Al Jaffee and Arnold Roth came on board as well.

Above: A panel from Will Elder's parody of Al Capp's Li'l Abner,
as published in the first issue of Trump

Despite all the talent involved, though, Trump folded after only two issues. Both demonstrated what a comedic blockbuster the magazine could have been had the launch’s timing not turned out to be bad. I have no firsthand knowledge, of course, but the scuttlebutt has always been that Trump’s 1956 debut coincided with an economically shaky period in the Playboy empire due mainly to an overly optimistic expansion of the brand’s franchise. With his money tree suddenly providing less of an economic cushion than anticipated, Hef cut his losses and abandoned the Trump experiment. But the two issues of Trump that made it to press undeniably represented high-water marks of American satire.

Hef’s preference for my parodies to the exclusion of my non-parodic submissions disappointed me but, given his history, didn't surprise me. It made me uneasy, though, since it didn’t augur well for my sustainability as a Playboy contributor. I couldn’t help wondering: Could I maintain my place in Hugh Hefner's world once I ran out of mainstream comic strips to lampoon?

Still I was jubilant about having my work in Playboy for at least a while.

My strips began appearing in “Playboy Funnies” as 1978 drew to a close. My friends back in Birmingham thought my presence in the magazine was cool, and I chose to believe that I was being propelled upward to new level of professional status.

Six of my parodies followed suit as the early months of 1979. Three more were completed and awaiting publication. Alongside me in “Playboy Funnies” were cartoonists, both underground and mainstream, with whom it was groovy to rub shoulders. Skip Williamson, Art Spiegelman, Trina Robbins, and Chris Brown were better known than me, but here I was on the playing field with them. Also present was Randall Enos, who had critiqued some of my lessons in the early-‘60s, when I was a lowly high school student industriously taking the Famous Artists Cartoon Course by correspondence.

I got feedback from only two of the cartoonists whose strips I parodied. Mell Lazarus, creator of Miss Peach and Momma, was amused enough by my “Moms” lampoon that he asked for the original. When I mailed it so him he reciprocated with a signed Momma original. On the other hand, T. K. Ryan disliked my parody of Tumbleweeds—or at least, I can only assume that he did based on the stern letter of reproach his lawyer sent to Playboy. The letter demanded an apology from me and a promise that I would never again draw Ryan’s characters.

I was bummed out by Ryan’s reaction. I had sent him a glowing fan letter some years before, in return for which he had sent me a signed Tumbleweeds original. When the Playboy containing my parody was on the verge of hitting newsstands, I was so confident that he would get a kick out of it that I wrote and told him to be sure and catch my spoof. But then came the lawyer's letter hinting at a potential lawsuit.

I concluded that being parodied is an acquired taste that not everybody acquires.

That wasn't the only lawyer's letter objecting to my parodies that reached Playboy in the following months, Michelle told me. The objections were apparently strident enough to make Hugh Hefner’s own lawyers nervous. And it didn't help that 1979 was also the year when the legal ground suddenly shifted under the feet of comics parodists like me.

A new uncertainty about exactly what was allowable arose because of a decision by the U. S. Supreme Court to let a relevant 1978 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stand. It was the culmination of years of conflict between Walt Disney Productions and a collective of San Francisco countercultural cartoonists who called themselves the Air Pirates, after the title of their thoroughly disrespectful underground comic book called Mickey Mouse Meets the Air Pirate Funnies. There on the cover were Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, drawn just like the Disney artists had drawn them when the characters were launched in 1928. Inside the comic, assorted Disney characters, supposedly protected by longstanding trademarks, were depicted engaging in disreputable behavior.

Dan O’Neill, the insurgent collective’s dominant instigator, put forward ideological defenses of the group's unapologetic appropriation of Disney characters, calling the Air Piurates' provocation allowable parody under the Fair Use exception to normal copyright law.

Disney’s lawyers, on the other hand, called the cartoonists’ actions trademark infringement, plain and simple.

Above: a photo by Clay Geerdes of the Air Pirates
(Gary Hallgren, Dan O'Neill, Shary Flenniken and Ted Richards)
raising funds for their defense at the 1976 Berkeley Con

I don’t want to get sidetracked here. The merits of the positions taken by both Disney and the Air Pirates have been discussed widely over the years, and anybody who has early issues of Comics Scene magazine lying around (or lovingly bagged) can check out my own three-part discussion of the dispute in 6 through 8. Or for a lengthier overview, Bob Levin’s 2003 book, The Pirates and the Mouse: Disney’s War Against the Underground, may offer helpful perspectives. I’ve only brought up the Air Pirate case here because of the monkey wrench the Supreme Court's 1979 validation of the 1978 Ninth Circuit ruling threw into my own tenure at Playboy.

In the course of explaining why Disney should win and the Air Pirates should lose, the Ninth Circuit judges made up some shaky new rules about the dos and don'ts of creating comic strip parody in general.

Their lack of familiarity with this art form showed.

Prior to their ruling, parodies of the sort that had proliferated in Mad since its 1952 debut were accepted as models for the form. Comic strip characters lampooned in Mad were, more often than not, drawn to look as much like their satires' targets as possible. The duplication of the familiar characters' appearances made their ludicrous departures from what was expected funnier.

Sometimes the parodies were simply amusing tomfoolery; at other times significant critiques were being made. Mad had popularized the looking-just-like-the-original-while-making-fun-of-it template, and numerous other magazines sprang up subsequently to imitate Mad. Trump did Mad even better than Mad did. Everyone instinctively understood how comic strip parody worked, even those who had never heard the term Fair Use.

Then came the new rules propounded from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

No longer could comic strip parodists mimic our targets exactly. We could make them look kind of the same, but they needed to also be different. Our job was to do no more than the minimum that was necessary, the new ruling said, to “conjure up” what we were parodying in the minds of our readers. Nothing more.

Conjuring had never before been part of a cartoonist's job description. Who could be sure how well our conjuring was succeeding? A highly subjective legal distinction was being promulgated, one that left us in the dark about exactly how far in our mimicry we satirical cartoonists could safely go without risking a successful infringement lawsuit.

When I was drawing The Nightmares of Little L*l*, I had cheerily followed the time-honored Mad rulebook. I had done my best to duplicate the Little Lulu drawing style I had grown up while assigning to the characters’ antisocial behavior that would be maximally humorous. Michelle and Hef had been pleased with that approach and asked me to pull off similar stunts for “Playboy Funnies.” I had made every effort to comply.

Now Playboy was getting cold feet. The syndicate lawyers who were breathing down Hugh Hefner’s neck were having their desired effect.

I learned that things had changed when I blithely arrived in Michelle Urry’s office one day to hand over the work I had finished. That’s when she broke the news.

She apologetically instructed me to return home and draw revised versions of the B.C. and Wizard of Id parodies I had already finished. In line with the Air Pirates ruling, Michelle told me, “From now on your versions can look almost like the real strips but not exactly like them.”

I reeled a bit but said I would do my best to follow that vague directive.

Above: Parody panels that had to be re-drawn
because of the Air Pirates ruling

Michelle also urged me to submit more sketches for strips that weren’t spoofs, just in case Hefner backed down even more than he had. I said O.K. while wondering what such comic strips might look like? Hef had only given his thumbs up to my parodies so far, and knowing that he disliked my “real" drawing style was a major downer.

Soon thereafter I returned with revised versions my finished strips as instructed. Michelle said she would ship them to Chicago for Hefner’s feedback. I would be paid for the extra work, she assured me, and I was. But time went by and neither of them ever appeared in Playboy.

Meanwhile, there were those other non-parody sketches to be considered. Hef liked a number of my gags, but as I feared he didn't like how I drew them. They invariably came back from Chicago with directions like “Different art style” scribbled in their margins.

Michelle and Hef tried to steer me toward alternative styles, citing classic features from the past like Betty Boop and Tillie the Toiler as potential models. I tried, but nothing I did made the grade. And they shouldn't have; even I didn't much like what I was coming up with. Still, I persisted: gags that Hefner liked were drawn over and over, in style after style. But the more I was pushed to draw in ways that weren't native to me, the more I lost confidence in my own artistic instincts. Spontaneity was impossible when I had to scrutinize each line I put on paper to weigh whether it had been adequately cleansed of its Cruse-ness.
Above: Successive attempts to draw the way Hugh Hefner wanted me to draw

To add to the surrealism of all this, I never met or spoke directly with Hugh Hefner. Even though I spent months jumping through hoops to please him, all of our interactions were channeled through a surrogate — namely Michelle Urry. Distant friends may have assumed from my presence in Playboy's pages that I was taking frequent swims in the storied lagoons of the Playboy mansion. Not so. For me, the silk-pajama-clad satyr existed only as a distant oracle at whose whims I was being asked to dance an impossible jig. My creativity had been commandeered by a distant volcano-deity who was instructing me from afar about how I should cartoon.

I was being paid well, of course, so I had a limited right to complain. But the intrusion still chafed.

Eventually I explained to Michelle know what a toll was being taken on my ability to draw uninhibitedly. She responded sympathetically. "Well, that won't do!" she said firmly.

She proposed a new strategy. “Buy a sketchbook and start drawing in it,” she suggested. “Forget about catering to what you think Playboy needs. Forget about imitating other cartoonists. Just draw whatever comes into your mind, in whatever style suits you. Let images and ideas flow freely.” Whatever I came up with, she promised, she would show to Hef. Perhaps between the two of them they would notice a sweet spot where my own sensibility and Hef's could overlap.

Re-energized, I picked up a bound sketchbook on my way back to my apartment and, once there, began filling it with drawings. In contrast to the fully rendered images that fill R. Crumb’s famous sketchbooks, mine were little more than doodles. I was casting fishing lines into my subconscious to see if more than castaway inner tubes would snag on my hooks.

Freed of concerns about pleasing Hugh Hefner, I found my drawings becoming more heartfelt. My interior concerns crept unimpeded onto the pages.

This was a change. Neither Michelle nor Hef had ever shown any interest in my interior life and I had never tried to inject that inner self into my parodies. My job had been to riff on the surface attributes of other cartoonists’ work, but now I was being invited to draw pictures with no predetermined idea of what their content should be. I was letting myself be me, and in doing so I discovered something significant: once you give yourself permission to stop self-censoring, it can quickly become addictive.

First of all, I made it clear that Michelle and Hef were dealing with a gay guy — a gay guy who felt pretty conflicted about the uncomfortable dance he had been dancing with the emphatically heterosexual Playboy.

It’s not that I had been personally closeted prior to my arrival at the magazine's door. All of my friends had known I was gay for years. But for simplicity's sake, I had been taking advantage of the culture's default assumption that everybody was straight unless they said otherwise or happened to be readably homosexual.

A male cartoonist who drew sexy women in his cartoons, it was generally assumed, must be drawing on heterosexual erotic fantasies of his own. True, a lot of my submissions hadn't included buxom or naked women, but enough of them did to foster my heterosexual cred. Hot guys were nowhere to be found.

The fraudulence had been bothering me more than I realized, though, and my sketchbook threw any illusions about my orientation overboard.
Above: A sketchbook drawing and the gay guy who drew it

Authenticity in my working life as well as my personal life was becoming more important to me. The chance to be part of the post-Stonewall gay liberation movement had been one of my main reasons for moving from Alabama to New York two years earlier. In light of that, allowing the folks at Playboy to continue thinking I was straight seemed less like professional pragmatism than cowardice.

Meanwhile, even as my conflicts about Playboy were simmering, I had embarked on a new partnership with a cute New Yorker named Eddie Sedarbaum, who since 1979 has been my lover and since 2004 my husband. Behaving as if I was hot for Hefner's naked Playmates every time I walked into Playboy headquarters was a betrayal of my values.

So in my sketchbook's pages, I took a plunge into honesty.

Above: Eddie and me marching in the 1979 Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade

It felt good. Laying all of my cards on the table was exhilarating. Of course, in my mind I was also grasping at a straw or two. Maybe, I let myself fantasize, Hef and Michelle would perk up at discovering the previously muted sides of this cartoonist from Alabama. Maybe I could add a bracing new flavor to Playboy’s heterosexual soufflé. Maybe my newborn frankness would suggest intriguing ways to expand the magazine’s horizons.

Or maybe I was propelling my future at Playboy over a cliff! Gulp!

The latter outcome was more likely to follow, I knew in my heart. But somewhere along the line I had simply stopped caring. Being myself at last felt too damned good to let concerns about my career bring me down.

Shortly after I brought the sketchbook to Michelle, she sent me a friendly note about it. "Your notebook is charming," she wrote, promising that she would show it to Hef soon. "I know he will enjoy seeming some of the styles, and he will appreciate the tenderness."

Months passed thereafter during which I heard nothing more from Playboy. One day the remaining sketches and finishes that I had left with the magazine were returned to me by mail, no longer slated for publication. The enthusiasm that had led Michelle to exclaim "We've got to get you into Playboy!" during my first visit to her office was obviously spent.

In the last note she sent to me, her tone was brisk. "I would love to talk to you," she wrote, "but I have run out of ideas on what to tell you."

Thus ended my improbable career as a Playboy cartoonist. I would have no more of the magazine’s sizable checks to deposit. I would not be ascending to fame on the back of the Great White Rabbit.
Paradoxically, though, throwing my whole self into that sketchbook for Playboy turned out to have a beneficial effect on my art.

I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but sometime during the late stages of my Playboy adventure, my longtime underground comix publisher Denis Kitchen wrote to proffer an unexpected proposal. Kitchen Sink Comix, he told me, wanted to publish a new anthology comic book to be called Gay Comix. How would I like to be both its editor and a contributor?

The idea was a bit scary, but inviting. Having come out of the closet to Michelle and the uber-hetero Hugh Hefner, I now knew how good it felt to be authentic instead of guarded. I was ready to leave the last remnants of my closet behind for good.

Eddie’s instincts mirrored my own. Taking this step, he agreed, would be a risk I would never regret taking. I would be able to give other queer cartoonists the opportunity for unhampered expression that I had never had. And the stories I would be drawing for Gay Comix myself could be honest as never before.

I had experienced the high of being fully authentic in my cartoons. From now on I wanted to experience that high again and again.

And that's how things have worked out.

Above: The debut of Gay Comix was a turning point in my career.
(The first issue's cover art, by the way, was drawn by the late, great Rand Holmes.)

Click here to see examples of my sketchbook drawings.
Click here to see sketches for parodies and other stuff that never made it into Playboy.
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