Review by Joe Palmer
A recent Northwest Press release publicized its digital release of Howard Cruse’s From Headrack to Claude, a collection of various strips and illustration work by the seminal LGBT cartoonist. This book was first available (and is still) from POD publisher Lulu at almost twice the price. With regard to Cruse’s work itself, the content is nearly the same. What follows is an adaptation of the original review with new comments regarding the notable and noticeable differences between the two versions.
Consider the current state of comics and LGBT characters and stories. The big four publishers have cautiously swam in the shallow side of the pool occasionally showing off or taking a dive in the deep part while an increasing number of queer artists and writers have not only left the pool for the beach, they’re riding a wave. That wave is certainly built on creativity and ambition and fueled by the desire to tell stories, just as it owes an enormous debt to the creative people who first jumped into the waters decades ago. Among those first cartoonists was a young man from Alabama named Howard Cruse.
Cruse is perhaps best known for his graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby that tells the coming of age story of a gay man during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Before the graphic novel Cruse created a number of cartoons and strips, notably Wendel, his other masterpiece that recounted the everyday adventures of a gay man and his friends in the pages of The Advocate. Cruse gave up editing Gay Comix in order to work on the strip. The Wendel strips were published in a collection in 2001 and others in the out of print Dancin’ Nekkid With The Angels. Other work was problematic in tracking down. The slightly oversized From Headrack To Claude gathers between its covers some of the difficult to find strips along with the cream of Dancin’ Nekkid along with a couple recent pieces from the Young Bottoms In Love and Boy Trouble 2 anthologies.
The world was changing in 1969 when Cruse first arrived in New York City. While I was too young to know on my eleventh birthday that in gay people (whom it seemed so outlandish an idea that there could be another person like me) rioted that village, Cruse was just coming into adulthood in this transformative time when gays finally said no more and began to decide for themselves what life would be like rather than live by dictate and fear of retribution. Cruse was the right talent at the right time and place to capture the burgeoning, uncloseted gay subculture as it tried to define itself, defend against homophobia, and worst of all, dealing with the nascent AIDS epidemic. Somehow Cruse distilled these heady forces to show the human condition of the everyday gay man, and so much the better when the hypocritical and self-centered folks get exposed along the way.
As these strips are records of their time, one might think their relevance is diminished, but this is not the case. Granted, great strides have been made since Stonewall, but while reading through this volume I was consistently reminded of the old adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. Take the deeply closeted minister Jerry Mac, a man who as a teenager was beaten by the father of his best friend for an affectionate kiss or closeted celebrities and politicos lampooned in His Closet. This collection includes a short story entitled Billy Goes Out, which was first published in Gay Comix #1. I stumbled across this comic quite accidentally at a news stand in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago one evening walking home from the old Howard El. Internally I jumped for joy at proof of gay people involved in comics. the story recounts a night in Billy’s life in New York City “before the epidemic had reared its head” as he resigns himself to go through the typical gay rituals of a going out on a Saturday night. Each panel contains a flashback on Billy’s life through a hybrid thought and picture bubble. Fresh faced and cute Mark, newly arrived from Wichita, is dismissed by Billy, a checklit of reasons appearing above his head. Then Cruse shares the reason for Billy’s sadness as he gives us glimpses into a relationship Billy had with Brad, and how it came to an unexpected end. The last panel shows Billy blissfully dreaming of a naked embrace with Mark whom he rejected earlier. The story is tragic and yet powerfully hopeful solely because of this dream image and it has stayed with me in the 32 years since I first read it.
Cruse had the foresight to insert back stories to help put the works and some in story references into context. As much as these back stories contribute, they are also my one extremely minor disappointment. Or rather their layouts are the issue since sometimes they were confusing to follow. I believe some of my concern over this crowded feeling is alleviated in the digital edition as its contents are either re-ordered or given more room. Some of the text and strip content seems to be re-ordered as well, presumably for a better reading experience though I’ve yet to determine this personally by reading.
Regardless of my quibble with the print version, it was in reading a little background for Homoeroticism Blues that crystallized the importance of Cruse. The artist quoted language added by the homophobic Senator Jesse Helms to the 1989 Senate Appropriations Bill who was incensed that the National Endowment for the Arts had partly funded an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s explicit photographs. Cruse’s brief reference to Mapplethorpe reminded me of Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz, all gay artists whose sexuality informed their work. Tragically, their lives were cut short by AIDS. It made me realize how Cruse might have been lost to us as well had some unknown factor changed.
Aside from the difference mentioned above there are several other notable and noticeable changes with the digital version. The first is the use of color and an additional 12 pages. The majority of Cruse’s work has been in black and white, as a matter of no frills necessity for underground and alt comix. When color is used in the Northwest edition it is vibrant and beautiful, whether the material is photos of Howard and Don Higdon in cyanotype tones or a full color of he and Ed Sederbaum, cover repros, spot illustrations, or the closing three strips of recent work. Really lovely in its simplicity.
A side by side comparison of the two for page content seems a little confusing. As mentioned above, the order and seemingly format of some items is different in Northwest’s edition. Confusion is nothing new for me as I’ve a fuzzy brain. A contents page is missing in the digital version. Are they an anachronism now? I find them helpful, say for when I want to know what page Billy Goes Out starts without flipping through the entire book. The additional 12 digital pages may be all text or related to text features rather than work not included in the print volume. I should stress “may” as a contents page would be helpful in determining this.
A significant bonus to the digital copy is the inclusion of Sean Wheeler’s half-hour documentary feature, I Must Be Important ’Cause I’m in a Documentary!! which recounts Cruse’s life and career. Unfortunately I’m unable to comment on the documentary because of Northwest Press’ choice of platform delivery which is exclusive to Apple devices. When asked about this matter, publisher Christensen explained that the iPad is the best device for viewing comics and that had he followed through with his idea to use Google Books as a venue he would’ve been forced to reduce the quality of books to meet their specs. Christensen also stated he is following developments with Amazon’s Kindle Fire though that current platform has been rather problematic and frustrating, and hopes this will improve in time.
You may be wondering how I’ve been able to access the book content. The answer to this is Northwest Press provided a PDF copy, as happened with its previous release of Diary Of A Catering Whore. I respect Christensen’s choice though it’s unlikely I will be able to purchase or fully appreciate future books if they include extra content such as the documentary here. I simply don’t have funds and am reticent to invest in another device, despite Apple’s reputation. There is the less expensive iPod option but its smaller view screen would seem problematic for a pair of older eyes.