Side-Whiskered With “Gorgeous”

Among the half-dozen photographs that recently re-surfaced in an old box of slides I was burrowing through was this 1971-ish shot of me with "Gorgeous O’Toole" (above). Gorgeous was one of the papier-mâché hand puppets who made occasional cameo appearances alongside Wilbur and Oscar on The Sgt. Jack Show, which was broadcast every weekday afternoon on Birmingham’s Channel 42 while I was the station’s art director.

When Gorgeous appeared on the show she was operated and voiced by my first long-term boyfriend Don Higdon, since my own two hands were both needed to animate the aforementioned groundhog and yellow monkey.

Don performed as Gorgeous for free. It was a lark, and Gorgeous’s appearances on the program were few. Counter-intuitively for a character with the surname "O’Toole," Gorgeous’s vocal style as rendered by Don was basically derived from Barbra Streisand’s, although he would sometimes allow a little Mae West to creep in.

Sgt. Jack himself, by the way, was animated by — I mean, played by — Birmingham’s popular radio deejay, the late Neal Miller.

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Below: A makeshift puppet stage was hurriedly carved into the original set for Sarge’s show when I joined the station staff in 1969 and Wilbur the Groundhog joined the show’s cast.

Below: We had time to create a more spruced-up environment for the puppets when Channel built a new station for itself in a year or two later.

Introducing My Introducer
With the release date of my new collection The Other Sides of Howard Cruse drawing nearer, let me inject an appreciative shout-out to my fellow underground comix veteran Jay Lynch. As you may gather from the credit line on the book’s cover, Jay has contributed a perceptive introductory essay that covers not only the book’s contents but also our shared professional history, which started with underground comix but expanded thereafter.

During the early 1970s, long before Jay and I met, I began following Jay’s work in Bijou Funnies, the Chicago-based comix series he co-founded. His approach to comix back in the day encouraged this Birmingham boy to believe that there was a place for straight-out funny cartooning in the often fiercely (and sometimes self-importantly) taboo-shattering underground field.

I found myself under the same roof as Jay for the first time when I attended the 1976 Berkeley Con, a convention organized by UG chronicler and cheerleader Clay Geerdes and geared specifically toward the underground comix movement.

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Below: The flier Jay designs for the Berkeley Con the year I was there.

Jay’s and my first substantive conversation, though, happened sometime after my move from Birmingham to New York City in 1977, when Jay telephoned me at the behest of the Topps Chewing Gum company, whose creative director, Len Brown, regularly trolled the underground comix netherworld in those days looking for cartoonists with an oddball edge who could add punch to the company’s trading cards and stickers, not to mention their teeny-tiny Bazooka Joe comic strips. Art Spiegelman, the celebrated author of Maus, famously contributed to both the Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids series, as did Jay and numerous other underground and punk cartooning luminaries (all of whom went un-credited at the time).

Maybe Jay or Len had been paying attention to my early UG comix all along, or may it was my inclusion, along with other undergrounders, in Playboy magazine’s "Playboy Funnies" section in 1978 that propelled me into their radar range. But however the impulse was generated, Jay’s unexpected phone invitation precipitated my initiation into the Topps circle of freelancers.

My early contributions to the Topps line were not ones likely to linger in most people’s minds. Mainly I was enlisted to do cartoon interpretations of the licensed characters that populated the screen of video game arcades.

Above: Three of my Topps video game sticker cards

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In time, though, I was enlisted to design remakes of the Bazooka Joe cast of characters, who had been mere tykes as Woody Gelman originally conceived them but who it had been decided should be reinvented as teenagers in the early 1980s. And I have mentioned in a 2006 blog entry my glancing association with the Garbage Pail Kids phenomenon.

But I had never been involved at all with the Wacky Packages series — which is why I found it passing strange when I was asked to participate in a panel discussion on that very topic at the 1999 Philly Non-Sports Trading Card Show. Why was I invited? Who knows? I guess my connection to other Topps projects was enough to qualify me in the organizers’ eyes. Anyway, I got a free limousine ride from Jackson Heights to Philadelphia out of the deal, and the conversation while I traveled was excellent, since three of the four other panelists — including Jay Lynch — were also passengers in the limo. The other two were Bhob Stewart, whose creative career has covered many bases including film and writing along with cartooning; and Zina Saunders, the daughter of the very Norman Saunders who painted the company’s Mars Attacks card series. (Len Brown joined us once we got to the card show.) Zina, by the way, is a marvelously talented illustrator in her own right, and she and I developed an ongoing friendship and mutual admiration society as a result of our Philadelphia sojourn.

Jay and I have indulged in periodic phone conversation over the years. But unless I’m forgetting something I believe that that 1999 excursion to Philly was my last time to visit with him in the flesh. It takes a while to drive to Pennsylvania, fortunately, so as you may imagine, hilarity (and no small amount of professional gossip) ensued. And now, these thirteen years later, we’ve enjoyed a long-distance reunion of sorts as a result of the essay he has written for my new book.

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Below: A photograph of me with Bhob and Zina (on my right) and Len and Jay (on my left), taken while we served in a 1999 police line-up. (Just kidding; we were posing for a group shot after our panel at that year’s Philly Non-Sports Trading Card Show.)

Postscript: Fame and Buttons

Here’s a little-known fact of even littler consequence: Jay Lynch and I were "button-mates" in the series of "Famous Cartoonist Buttons" that was marketed under by Krupp Comic Works’ "Pinback Jack" imprint way back in 1975. (Buttons from the series are still available from the Steve Krupp’s Curio Shoppe on Denis Kitchen’s current web site).

My inclusion in Denis’s button series was, in all likelihood, the first time the word "famous" was ever used in the same phrase as "Howard Cruse." It was all I could do to resist expecting red carpets to be rolled out ahead of me whenever I strolled along the sidewalks of Birmingham’s Southside.

I’m happy to report that my giddiness subsided before I could wander absent-mindedly into dangerous traffic at any of the neighborhood’s intersections.

Toland Does Poland

At first glance the book above may look just like the 15th Anniversary edition of Stuck Rubber Baby that was published by Vertigo a couple of years ago. But when you look closely you’ll notice that my graphic novel’s protagonist Toland Polk has gone and mastered Polish since we last saw him.

That’s when you’ll realize that you’re looking at the Polish-language edition of Stuck Rubber Baby that was issued last year by Centrala East Cover. The international rights folks at DC Comics sent me a copy of the new translation a couple of weeks ago, and although I can’t personally read a word of it (too bad Eddie’s mom Evelyn isn’t still around to have a go at it), it feels good to be able to pop this nicely packaged new version of my graphic novel to the bookcase in our living room shelf already holds SRB‘s Italian, Spanish, and French editions — not to mention the handsome new German hardcover that was published recently by CrossCult.

More Toland News

Even as Toland basks in his newly heightened stature in Poland, it was called to my attention this week that my character (in his English-speaking incarnation) made the cut a couple of years ago, while my attention was apparently elsewhere, in a list called "The Seven Best Gay Characters in Comics," which was composed in 2010 by comics creator Ty Templeton for his blog, Ty Templeton’s Art Land!

The remaining six characters who rub shoulders with Toland in Templeton’s list of LGBT honorees is the Marvel Comics universe’s Wiccan, The DC Comics universe’s Batwoman, text Mark Slackmeyer in Garry Trudeau‘s Doonesbury; Midnighter in Warren Ellis‘s Stormwatch; Lawrence Poirier in Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse; and "Hopey" from Jaime Hernandez‘s Love and Rockets.

There are honorable mentions, too, like Bitchy Butch from my friend Roberta Gregory‘s Naughty Bits.

Where is Alison Bechdel‘s Mo from Dykes To Watch Out For, you might ask? Well, that seems a particularly conspicuous omission, but winnowing down today’s multitude of exceptional LGBT characters to a list of seven was doomed to be an impossible task, anyway, and the choices were Templeton’s to make — this being his blog, after all. Meanwhile, honorary dyke status is bestowed (with plausible deniability) on both Peppermint Patty and Marcie, who don’t reveal any girl-crushes in Peanuts but who most knowledgeable readers are confident will figure out that they’re lesbians by the time they reach middle-age.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Hey, here’s stuff of mine that you can buy!
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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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