Howard Cruse: Underground cartoonist and godfather of queer comics

He was one of the first to chronicle gay life in a recurring comic strip and a graphic novel

Harrison Smith
Friday 27 December 2019 09:56
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Cruse was credited with paving the way for LGBT+ cartoonists such as Alison Bechdel
Cruse was credited with paving the way for LGBT+ cartoonists such as Alison Bechdel

Howard Cruse was a pioneer of LGBT+ comics who served as the founding editor of Gay Comix – one of the first series to feature work by and for openly gay men and women – and later published Stuck Rubber Baby, an acclaimed graphic novel inspired by his early years in Jim Crow-era Alabama.

Cruse’s work was alternately cute and cheery, with simple backgrounds and comically exaggerated character features, and dark and dense, richly textured with dots and crosshatching that took him many hours per panel.

His style drew comparisons to such disparate artists as Dr Seuss and Robert Crumb. But his subject matter was almost entirely his own, as he became one of the first cartoonists to chronicle gay life in a recurring comic strip and then in a graphic novel.

In a career that began when homosexuality was criminalised and comics were treated as a third-class art form, Cruse – who has died aged 75 – was credited with paving the way for LGBT+ cartoonists such as Alison Bechdel, author of the long-running comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”, and with nurturing a community of artists that only recently acquired mainstream recognition.

The son of a photojournalist turned minister, Cruse first became known for his 1970s series “Barefootz”, which featured a friendly young man with oversized bare feet and later included a gay character. The cartoon appeared in magazines and in anthologies by publisher Denis Kitchen, who in 1979 invited Cruse to edit what became Gay Comix, released with the tagline: “Lesbians and Gay Men Put It on Paper!.”

Cruse had not yet come out in print when he was approached by Kitchen. But he had immersed himself in the gay liberation movement, spurred by the Stonewall riots in Manhattan – an event he witnessed by chance in 1969 after taking LSD at a Tiny Tim concert in Central Park and taking a cab down to Greenwich Village.

Cruse edited the first four issues of Gay Comix, which debuted in 1980 and featured cartoonists including Robert Triptow and Trina Robbins, aiming to present stories that showed gay men and lesbians as true-to-life characters rather than caricatures. He later handed off editing duties to focus on his 1980s comic strip “Wendel”, about a gay writer and his partner during the Reagan years.

Appearing in the LGBT+ magazine The Advocate, the strip was one of the first times that the intimate life of a gay couple had been shown in a serious way. It also touched on issues including Aids and gay-bashing, which Cruse said he endured in 1973 when he was attacked in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park.

Cruse returned to his youth in Alabama with Stuck Rubber Baby (1995), a 210-page, semi-autobiographical graphic novel about a young white man, Toland Polk, exploring his sexuality in the fictional town of Clayfield.

An illustration from the 1995 graphic novel ‘Stuck Rubber Baby’

Less humorous than his earlier work, the book interwove civil rights demonstrations, a lynching and the aftermath of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. It also drew on a pivotal event in Cruse’s early life, when he and a girlfriend, Pam Montanaro, had a child who was put up for adoption. Cruse, who said he was still coming to terms with his sexuality, attributed the birth to a faulty prophylactic, which gave the book its title.

The book received Eisner and Harvey awards, two of the highest honours in comics. But it soon fell out of print and faded in the comics world before being reissued in 2010 with an introduction by Bechdel. A 25th-anniversary edition will be published next year by First Second Books.

Howard Russell Cruse was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944, and raised in nearby Springville, where his father preached at a Methodist church. His mother was a homemaker who later worked at the telephone company Southern Bell.

As a boy, Cruse created theatrical shows and fell in love with the comic strip sections of Sunday newspapers, drawing his own cartoons about Landie Lucker, “the super elf”. His crayons and pencils were soon replaced by a Rapidograph drawing pen, a present from his father, and by 15 he was publishing his own comic strip in the county newspaper.

Cruse attended the Indian Springs boarding school but credited his formative education to the Famous Artists School, a correspondence course that helped him develop his cartooning skills, and to letters he exchanged with Milton Caniff, creator of the “Steve Canyon” and “Terry and the Pirates” strips.

For a time he also pursued a career in drama. After graduating from Birmingham-Southern College in 1968, he joined WBMG-TV in Birmingham as an art director and a children’s show puppeteer. He later enrolled in a playwriting programme at Pennsylvania State University, only to drop out and move to New York City in 1977. He had realised, his husband said, that “you can do a comic strip like a play, and you don’t have to worry about actors or buying props”.

Cruse had by then created “Barefootz”, which debuted in 1971 in the University of Alabama student newspaper. He later did illustration for publications including The Village Voice and Playboy, and he volunteered with gay rights organisations alongside his partner of 40 years, Ed Sedarbaum, who ran unsuccessfully for New York state senator in 1998. They settled in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and married in 2004.

He is survived by his husband and daughter, whom he reconnected with before publishing Stuck Rubber Baby.

Howard Cruse, artist, born 2 May 1944, died 26 November 2019

© Washington Post

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