May you live in interesting times.
So goes the saying, incorrectly attributed as a Chinese curse.
Economic incentives for the rich; ultra conservatives whipping up fear against the LGBT community with charges that our goal is to legalize perversions, while at the same time we’re working for civil rights; AIDS crises; a blonde pop star with provocative sexuality and messages.Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But I’m not thinking of America in 2011, but America in the 1980s when many Americans were in thrall to the veneered charm of the so called great communicator, Ronald Reagan. Today it’s the Glenn Beck, the Tea Party and the mysterious Koch Brothers working to dupe Americans.
Everything old seems new again, eh?
Thankfully Howard Cruse was there the first time around to capture the zeitgeist of the times. Cruse spent much of the previous decade defining his aspirations and honing his skills with work in the underground comix world, in which he came out in 1976, and then went on to become the original editor of Gay Comix in 1980. As important as the anthology was, Cruse moved on to a more ambitious project, which brings me to this new edition of The Complete Wendel, published by Universe Press.
Wendel was, simplistically put, a comic strip. Yet it was so much more than the average comic strip. It had gay people! Still, comic strips with gay characters and content weren’t new. The Advocate magazine, which published Wendel, had run two gay strips previously, and a smattering appeared in other venues, as well as gay and lesbian stories in a few pioneering underground comix. According to Cruse, the Advocate initially offered no long term commitment, ordering strips one at a time. Other cartoonists might let that kind of uncertainty affect their narrative, but Cruse happily busied himself with lovable red-headed Wendel and fleshing out his world first with supportive friends, first with supportive parents, best friend Deb, and boyfriend Ollie, who — surprise! — had a young son named Farley (AKA Branman when he was in his superhero disguise), Farley’s mom Carol whose off panel high maintenance presence threw barbs, and Ollie’s oddly named friend Sterno whoinadvertently changed Wendel and Ollie’s relationship. What makes them feel alive and memorable is that Wendel, Ollie, Deb, Tina and the rest of the ensemble cast members were just everyday people trying their best to live life while dealing with everyday problems. You might have a friend like one of them or you might be facing a similar problem (ever have a friend overstay their welcome or lose a job?), and if neither were true for you, you could appreciate the humor and hijinx (either wacky or romantic/ sexual or both) that Cruse infused in their lives.They were human and that was their charm and appeal. The significance of this may seem lost today but take into account that at the time conservatives labeled us sexual perverts much louder than today and with dire consequences (legislation and funds for AIDS was stingy) while simultaneously there was the widespread mystique of sexual freedom and reveling in being a sexual outlaw, sodomy being illegal in many states, let alone the reality of same sex marriage.
Looking back, Wendel seems to be a natural progression for Cruse on another front. A few years before Cruse began to inject social and political commentary in his work, notably the underground Headrack comix. Nor was he the lone wolf in the underground comix world, but that’s another discussion. The Advocate presented a special opportunity though. A bi-weekly publication afforded the chance to incorporate real world events and topics when inspiration struck, lending the aura that Wendel’s world existed in real time. This was a dramatic uptick in exposure from the underground comix world with infrequent publication and often problematic distribution. That was the price of thumbing a collective nose at the Comics Code Authority and artistic integrity. Nationwide distribution was a dream come true. Lest I forget, rest assured that there isn’t any heavy handed preaching in these topical instances. It just isn’t Cruse’s nature to be dogmatic.
There is one point that could potentially be misinterpreted by some readers. Cruse occasionally put the word fag or faggot into the mouths of his characters as a non-derogatory descriptor. Back then the words were re-appropriated and used by some gays to defuse the negative connotations in the same fashion as some African Americans’ use the N word. Take this as evidence that attitudes are neither universal or unchanging.
Readers may know about a previous collection, Wendel All Together, published a decade ago by Olmsted Press. Both are printed in oversized format and contain the full run, however, Universe’s edition is an extra 16 pages. Olmsted went out of business though copies of its volume occasionally surface on the secondary market. Now there’s no need to search and wait for it, unless you’re an avid collector of all things Cruse.
Time and time again while sitting with this book I was reminded of why Cruse belongs to the class of storyteller. Comparisons can be inaccurate or find disfavor with the reviewed, but it occurred to me that Wendel (and Stuck Rubber Baby) would appeal to readers of Armisted Maupin’s Tales of the City books.
Universe Publishing is an imprint of Italian publishing house and bookseller Rizzoli, whose former Chicago store I had a mad love for in my Windy City days. The imprint has published other books of gay interest such as David Leddick’s Male Nude Now and Paul Cadmus The Male Nude by Justin Spring, which have sat proudly in my bookshelves for a few years.