Part 1
in which a young cartoonist, like Icarus vis-a-vis the Sun,
approaches the lucrative pinnacle of his chosen field

by Howard Cruse

Why do I remember one of the headiest (if shortest-lived) breakthroughs in my cartooning career with all the nostalgia that a sausage has for its meat grinder?

The fact is, I should be grateful to Playboy magazine. And as I approach the 40th anniversary of my brief stint as an honest-to-God "Playboy cartoonist," it's probably time to say so.

Playboy gave me a welcome taste of high visibility back in the day, and also helped me, via trial by fire, to veer onto a creative path that was a lot healthier for me and my career.

Many can, do, and always will argue about the merits of Playboy’s celebration of non-monogamous recreational sex as propounded by its publisher, Hugh Hefner. But aside from such arguments, several facts about the magazine are beyond argument.

From its launch in the fifties, Playboy showcased dozens of our finest cartoonists (not to mention notable fiction-writers and journalists) and paid them generously for their contributions. By the time I graduated from high school Playboy was reputedly second only to The New Yorker as a gag cartoonist's dream market. On top of that, Hefner's series of “Playboy Philosophy” essays, coinciding handily with the arrival of birth-control pills, gave a significant push to what came to be called the Sexual Revolution.

Like most ambitious young cartoonists in the 1970s, I had a go at cracking both Playboy and The New Yorker. Like most, I made no headway. That was mostly due to stiff competition from my betters, of course, but there was also the inconvenient fact that I've never had a knack for single-panel gag cartoons. I've tried from time to time and have come up with a handful I can still have a chuckle over. But in general that form and I aren't a good match.

Also, my drawing chops in those Alabama days inarguably fell short of maturity.

By the time I resettled in New York City in 1977, I had long since given up on Playboy. The Village Voice seemed more suited to my sensibility. That's why it was a total surprise when Skip Williamson, a fellow cartoonist from the underground comix world (now deceased, sadly) telephoned me out of the blue. I had never met Skip, but Snappy Sammy Smoot and his other audacious characters had impressed me for years.

Skip hailed from Chicago in those days -- Playboy's home turf -- and had apparently worked for the magazine in some capacity for a while. He told me that Playboy was about to start a new comic-strip section to be called “Playboy Funnies” and that Hugh Hefner ("Hef" to his friends and pretenders to familiarity with him) wanted to lace the section with strips by cartoonists who had a track record in underground comix. Would I be interested, Skip asked, in subwaying across town to meet with Michelle Urry, Playboy's Cartoon Editor, in the magazine’s Manhattan office?

Did I play hard to get? I did not!

Sitting nervously near the Playboy reception desk with my portfolio of comic art balanced against my knees, I fantasized about what might lie in store. Finally I was summoned into Michelle’s domain.

Entering her office was an amazing experience, somewhat akin to Dorothy stepping through the door of her black-and-white Kansas house into the Technicolor vista of Munchkinland. As a Southern-born cartoonist who hadn’t been this close to an upper echelon of professional cartooning since serendipitously being allowed into Milton Caniff’s studio while I was still a teenager, it was bracing to enter a room strewn with full-color cartoon originals by accomplished Playboy regulars like Gahan Wilson, Erich Sokol and Eldan Dedini.

The icing on that cake was spotting a beautiful Jack Davis original that was leaning against one wall. I still remember that cartoon vividly; indeed, I remembered having admired it when it first appeared in Playboy’s pages. I had been an ardent Davis fan since the early issues of Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad and onward. Now here was work that had been painted by his very hand.

Above left: Cartoon Editor Michelle Ury; Above right: the Jack Davis cartoon whose original was leaning against Michelle's office wall. (In case the cartoon's text is too small for you to read here, the golfer is saying, "Go ahead and putt. . . It'll be a few minutes before the shock wave reaches us."

Michelle was attractive and personable. She and I got along fine in that first meeting (which she conducted fully clothed, in case the setting prompts you to wonder). As she thumbed through the pages of my portfolio, she expressed enthusiasm for several items in it.

"We've got to get you into Playboy!" she told me.

The item that most interested her was The Nightmares of Little L*l*, a four-page Little Lulu parody I had recently drawn. Like so many other aspiring cartoonists of my generation, I had been shaped in my prepubescent years by Mad magazine in its Harvey Kurtzman-edited iteration. It had inspired me to engage in a higher level of satirical impudence in my own stuff. Michelle was well aware how taken Hugh Hefner had always been with the style of parody Mad trafficked in.

With that in mind, no doubt, Michelle asked to borrow my L*l* piece so she could ship it to Hef in Chicago for consideration. Her unexpected request left me giddy at the possibility of enjoying a four-page showcase in Hefner’s prestigious publication. Obviously, I told her to go for it.

Above: Panels from The Nightmares of Little L*l*, Michelle's favorite piece from my portfolio

That fantasy didn’t pan out, unfortunately. Giving four whole pages to an unknown newbie was apparently too much for Hefner to swallow. But despite that rejection, though, Michelle thought I still had a good chance of cracking “Playboy Funnies,” especially if I came up with more comic strip parodies. Not multi-page ones, maybe; ones that could slip smoothly into the small spaces that would be allotted to strips in“Playboy Funnies.” She was confident I would make the cut, but my first step would be to go home and work up sketches.

Not all of them would need to be parodies, she explained, but some should be. They could be sexually randy; Playboy was a magazine for grown-ups, after all. But they would need to be acceptable for newsstand display.

In practical terms that meant that, while naked females and sexual innuendo would be welcome, practically de rigueur, I should not take my freedom too far. No erections and no penetration, she explained, was the rule at Playboy.

As a cartoonist with roots in uncensored underground comix, I was fine with being funny about sex. Eager, even. Compared to undergrounds, mainstream comic strips were relentlessly prim. That primness was what I was being invited to parody, and I considered that sexlessness overdue for roasting. My point of view was: What would it be like if sex were matter-of-factly embraced by our cartoon favorites instead of being invisible?

Comical incongruities came to mind effortlessly.

Past Supreme Court rulings had determined parodies to be legally allowable forms of artistic commentary, protected from lawsuits as "fair use" exceptions to our otherwise restrictive copyright laws. This meant that, within certain limits, the unauthorized appropriation of copyrighted characters in pursuit of parody was fair game. Mad had been demonstrating how to do that for years.

Since Michelle had encouraged me not to feel I could only submit parodies, I let my imagination roam freely. I even wondered whether I could slip my Barefootz characters into the mix. Barefootz had never been as innocent as it looked, even if its big-headed and small-bodied cast did suggest otherwise. Letting them loose in Playboy seemed worth a try, at least.

That notion was quickly snuffed out. Lots of underground comic book readers had found it impossible to “get” the joke on which my Barefootz series was built, and when I brought in my first batch of sketches with a couple of Barefootz entries included, it was clear that Michelle was one of their number. “I just don’t understand the point of adult characters having children’s bodies,” she confessed.

She did agree, however, to run a strip featuring Barefootz’s friend Dolly by Hef. Libidinous as always, Dolly was shown wrestling with a recalcitrant vibrator. But the joke of that strip soared completely over Hef’s head. He returned it with a scribbled note suggesting that the device explode instead of going limp.

Uh, if the mechanical phallus didn’t go limp like a wilted penis, there would be no joke, Mr. Hefner, I argued inside my head.

But Hef was the boss and I wasn’t, so rather than argue I discarded the submission entirely. (Years later I had a chance to finish and publish the Dolly strip with its flaccid phallus intact; you'll find it in my 2012 collection The Other Sides of Howard Cruse.)

Above top: Panels from my sketch for a Dolly strip; Hef wanted the vibrator to explode rather than wilt. Above bottom: The same panels for which I did finished art for my own edification, years later.

The only submissions that Hef was enthusiastic about were parodies. From his Chicago digs came go-aheads for my spoofs of T. K. Ryan’s Tumbleweeds, Mell Lazarus’s Momma, and the Fred Lasswell incarnation of Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. I left the New York Playboy headquarters in a haze of exhilaration. This really was going to be my Big Break!

Not that I didn't have reservations about Hef’s insistence that I change the title of my Tumbleweeds parody from “Tumblewords” to “Tumblebrush.” In my view that title-switch undermined the core of my lampoon. I was making affectionate fun of the deliciously baroque dialogue placed by Ryan in the mouths of his dusty Wild West archetypes. This was a humorous gambit that I had long admired, along with the elegance of Ryan's drawing style. I had written a fan letter to the cartoonist while I still lived in Birmingham in which I told him how much I dug those particular attributes. In response to my compliments he had sent me one of his Tumbleweeds originals, signed. It was the feature's incongruously elevated dialogue that made Tumbleweeds special.

My original title “Tumblewords” would have nailed my parody’s spirit. Hef’s substitution referred to nothing beyond the strip's cowboy setting. But as I said before, Hef was the boss, so his chosen title was the one that appeared in "Playboy Funnies."

—To be continued

Wanna know what happened next, gang?
Did things pan out in Playboy Land for this intrepid cartoonist?
You can learn by reading Part 2 of my saga
(and get a peek at some extra artifacts in the bargain)!

Above: Words tumble over themselves in my parody of T. K. Ryan's Tumbleweeds

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