I was rummaging through my flat files last week in search of something or other and I came upon a couple of my early efforts at celebrity portraiture.

One is a drawing of the legendary folk-singer Odetta; the other is a group caricature of the Mamas and Papas. Both drawings date from my undergraduate days at Birmingham-Southern College.

Those of the five who still walk the earth were forty years younger then than they are now and so was I. Whatever her actual age was in 1965, however, Odetta had already learned how to appear ageless and immortal onstage. A native of Birmingham whose family moved to California when she was six, she returned to play a concert at the city’s Municipal Auditorium in ’65, and my enterprising classmate Bill Barclift succeeded in getting a backstage pass for an interview that appeared the next year in Quad, BSC’s student literary magazine. My drawing accompanied Bill’s interview.

Odetta played a concert at MCLA here in North Adams last winter. A fierce blizzard that evening discouraged Eddie and me from getting to the show, but Odetta herself did not let the snowfall deter her from making the long drive from Boston so the show could go on.

Friends who saw her perform reported that the frail, elderly woman who appeared on the stage was in sharp visual contrast to the robust figure who knocked my Birmingham crowd dead forty years ago. The power of her voice and personality, though, remain as formidable as ever.

Time takes a toll on all of us, but some have a gift of seeming somehow undiminished by whatever the passing years can deal out.

I drew the Mamas and Papas during the 1967 "Summer of Love." My heart was in San Francisco that summer but my body was stuck holding down a summer job in the art department of the Birmingham News. My main duty was retouching wedding photographs for the paper’s society section, but once or twice a week the art director would throw me a small spot illustration assignment.

The Mamas and Papas drawing stood out from all my other illustrations that summer, both for the prominence of its display (it was cover art for the paper’s Sunday-supplement magazine) and its subject matter. Although I had taken a mere puff or two at that point on the stray marijuana cigarettes that passed my way and although my first LSD trip still lay several months in the future, my soul was already awash in the utopian euphoria that came with membership in a counterculture that was just then reaching the Bible Belt and was feeling its oats. Love of the Beatles from 1964 onward had been my first experience of feeling aligned with my generational peers instead of alienated. The zest and soaring harmonies of the Mamas and Papas represented everything that was spiritually liberating in that period. I relished drawing their faces, and if I had had a way to take part in the summer’s pilgrimage to San Francisco, you can bet I would have happily worn "a flower in my hair" (as suggested in Scott McKenzie’s hit single) without feeling the least bit silly.

Instead I remained in the Magic City, retouching photos and executing small drawings (plus that cover art) for the News. For a while I allowed myself to imagine that this grunt work might somehow open the door to drawing an actual comic strip for the paper — a strip whose success locally might conceivably lead to national syndication and fame. Maybe if I kept thoughts of hippie rebellion at bay I could manage to join the company of cartooning heros like Al Capp, Walt Kelly, and Charles M. Schulz.

When I mentioned such dreams to my boss, however, he quickly squelched them.

"I’ll never let one of my staffers draw a regular feature," he informed me. "It would turn into some kind of "star" situation and the other staffers would be jealous."

As soon as he said that I knew that, while having a summer job was handy and retouching photos was not that abhorrent a way to pull in a buck, my future as a cartoonist clearly did not lie at the Birmingham News.

You see, I wanted to be a star.

About Howard

I'm a cartoonist and writer, best known for my graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, and my comic strip from the 1980s, Wendel.
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0 Responses to Likenesses

  1. Andrew5 says:

    I’m glad to read that you regard Walt Kelly as a hero! He’s definitely MY hero, not just for his gorgeous artwork but for his bravery and humor.

  2. Howard Cruse says:

    You’re not kidding, Martha. And if you would just let your hair grow out, you and she could pass for twins!

  3. mthomases says:

    The other night, I dreamed we ran into you at a Ronnie Spector concert. She looked great.