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Howard Cruse

Many words come to mind at the mention of Howard Cruse’s name. Cartoonist, activist, mentor, friend, supporter; modest, lovable, thoughtful, smart, articulate, influential.

The America of Cruse’s youth and young adulthood was in many ways different from America today. With the end of the Great Depression and World War II, America pictured itself in glorious symbolism as the primary actor on the world stage. Many Americans were left out of that glory. McCarthyism ruined the careers and lives of many people. Jim Crow was firmly entrenched at every level. The beatniks of the 1950s gave way to the hippy movement of the 1960s. Second Wave feminists demanded equal rights and freedoms and celebrated the option of more bodily autonomy with the advent of birth control. Yet, homosexuality was illegal in forty nine out of fifty states. (Illinois would prove to be the exception when it decriminalized acts between consenting adults in 1961.) One could still be fired from jobs in all fifty states for not being straight. And then there was the culturally divisive Vietnam War. (On second thought, there are some disturbing parallels in today’s America.)

Perhaps rebel is another appropriate descriptive for Howard. As the youngest child of a Methodist and later Baptist minister and a quintessential homemaker mother growing up in Birmingham, Alabama during this time, one would not have been surprised if Cruse had continued on a path to a “respectable” life conforming to more contemporary values. Realizing around age 11 that in his own pointed words “…[he] was most likely to become that most monstrous of beings: a homosexual” gave Cruse an invaluable perspective, a perspective that remained secret for some time out of sheer necessity.

Cruse’s initial cartooning efforts about a dog named Reuben appeared in the Indian Springs School newspaper where he attended boarding school. Other work in The Baptist Student and Mad magazine competitors Fooey and Sick would soon follow. As a teen Cruse admired the skills of Milt Caniff, the creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon comic strips. A correspondence between the two culminated in a trip to New York City where Cruse met and had lunch with his idol.

In the decade following boarding school, Cruse divided his time between attending Birmingham-Southern University, where he indulged his love for theater, with intervals working in television. Cruse’s rebel spirit may have first appeared in his cartoons during this period with a four page strip in which he satirized the ultra conservative John Birch Society. The strip earned Cruse the faculty advisor’s disdain and a full page disclaimer in the paper.

Cruse moved to New York City in 1969. On that pivotal night of June 28th, Howard and several friends were dropping acid at a Tiny Tim concert in Central Park. Afterwards, the group went to Greenwich Village and found themselves on the periphery of the Stonewall patrons clashing with police in the infamous Stonewall Riots.

By his own account in From Headrack to Claude, becoming an openly gay cartoonist was the furthest thing from his mind. Cruse was trying to decide if he had the chops to make it as a cartoonist at all. Cruse returned to Birmingham by autumn of that year.

Back home Cruse fell in love with Don Higdon, a theater student at BSU. Cruse credits Higdon with helping him to think matters through and crucially with finding his inner Barefootz, the character that Cruse would imbue humorous weirdness and then political and social satire. Their relationship lasted four years.

Finding humor in Barefootz, Denis Kitchen (Kitchen Sink Comix) ran Barefootz as a strip in several of his underground comix before giving Cruse the opportunity to expand the character into a solo series. While Cruse had made some minor forays with incorporating gay sexuality into his work, the story Gravy on Gay from Barefootz #2, published in 1976, proved to be the pivotal point for the cartoonist. Using the Barefootz supporting character Headrack, Cruse assertively confronted the prejudice and tropes perpetuated by straight society as embodied in the angry, entitled, straight, white guy Mort.

Fellow comix artists criticised his style as “too cartoony,” a critique that matched too closely with his own concerns about how this style might not match his own goals and vision. A change would come gradually.

Early in 1977 Cruse moved back to New York City with the intent of starting a “real” cartooning career. His position as art director at Sci-fi genre media magazine Starlog helped Cruse find contacts as well as keep him afloat financially. Cruse would soon meet the great love of his life, activist Eddie Sedarbaum. The couple remained in New York City until they moved to North Adams, Massachusetts in 2003. They married the following year.

From 1979 and onward, Cruse’s cartooning career took off and continued to rise. That year Denis Kitchen proposed the idea of a new comic edited by Cruse to be simply and boldy titled Gay Comix. Despite a lack of blowback from the Headrack story three years previously, Cruse had not officially come out. Coming to the realization that such thinking was cowardly, Cruse accepted the position as editor and came out in correspondence mailed to potential contributors. Cruse’s editorship ended with issue #4 in which he included a note asking for more contributions from women. His work appeared in those same issues and several others. Robert Triptow succeeded Cruse as editor and was followed by Andy Mangels. He never ceased to encourage upcoming talent.

Cruse turned his attention to developing Wendel, a strip featuring Wendel Trupstock and his boyfriend Ollie Chalmers. His idea to have Wendel, Ollie, and the rest of the cast respond and react to real world news afforded Cruse the opportunity to address a number of topics including the AIDS Crisis and the stark and brutal hypocrisy of the Reagan administration and its Moral Majority proponents. However, it was not all doom and gloom. Cruse wisely understood lightheartedness and humor as an important counter balance to pain. He offered hope and empathy to every person reading that week’s installment. Here is where his style of cartooning was able to meet his goals as it combined Cruse’s biting wit with the now expressive and lovable rendering of his characters. The Wendel strip was a beloved feature in the Advocate until 1989.

With Wendel finished, Cruse began to concentrate on his next, most ambitious project: Stuck Rubber Baby, a 210 paged graphic novel for DC Comics imprint Piranha Press (later Paradox Press.) Stuck Rubber Baby recounts the story of a closeted gay man living in the South during the 1950s and 1960s — a setting and time that Cruse knew well — who finds greater acceptance among members of the local black community, as they deal with racism and the fight for Civil Rights, than he does among his own white peers.

Stuck Rubber Baby is more than any summary can do justice. To quote Cruse from an interview with Alex Dueben (Graphic Gay Coming of Age): “My goal was to create the kind of novel that is too full of incident for someone to simply summarize in their mind in one sentence. I wanted it to be like life, where you spend a year of your life and you can’t just remember everything that happened, but it’s all part of a process.” It was all that and so much more.

Stuck Rubber Baby also demonstrated the storytelling options available in the long-form, original graphic novel format. Such original graphic novels as Will Eisner’s A Contract With God and long-form storytelling as in The Hernandez Brothers’ Love & Rockets existed before Stuck Rubber Baby. In my opinion, Cruse took this growth in comics storytelling format as the opportunity for which he had spent most of his life in preparation. He used it to tell a nuanced, subtle and emotionally complex story about a flawed, confused, and selfish Toland Polk, one of the good men who does nothing, until he decides to be better.

I fear perhaps that with all these words I have simply listed and described Cruse’s work and accomplishments.

Cruse’s work first came into my life at some point following Jim Shooter’s infamous Bruce Banner YMCA rape story in The Hulk magazine. I’ve talked about my anger over this story elsewhere on the site as I’ve also recounted finding the first issue of Gay Comix at a newsstand as I walked home from the El train after a soul sucking day job. I was thrilled and sobbed with each reading because for the first time in my 13 years of reading comics, I saw people who were like me. Unfortunately I never found another issue despite living in Chicago which had a number of comics shops. That copy (and others later purchased on Ebay) remains safely tucked away in my collection.

Cruse was kind and supportive to Gay League in its early days by honoring our first interview request. A second interview followed a couple years later. Records of the interviews exist and we will work to restore them. Cruse humored Gay League when asked if he would grant permission to use an image of Wendel on promotional giveaway membership cards.

Some years ago I asked Cruse to sign a second copy of Gay Comix #1 to be auctioned for a charitable cause. He happily agreed and so I packed up the comic and included a check to cover the costs of return postage and envelope. Opening the return package I found a note inside politely declining my check on the grounds that he was happy to help. Not long afterwards he got in touch to inquire about the item’s success and humbly apologized that his autograph didn’t bring more bidding.

I regret that these instances and the occasional messages back and forth were the extent of my interactions with the man. Many others knew him far better personally and professionally than I and are sharing their insights and stories about Howard. Please read their tributes.

Cruse was the consummate storyteller. Tapping into our collective psyche he told hard truths about the human condition and made people better for it.

We were blessed to have Cruse as our chronicler as well as our mentor in art and in life. May he and his work be long remembered as the touchstones they so rightly are.

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