Howard Cruse, a gay cartoonist whose groundbreaking underground comics were a strong influence on the succeeding generation of queer comic artists, has died.
Cruse first gained attention in the 1970s with his contributions to various underground publications, particularly for his series “Barefootz,” in which he included a supporting character named Headrack who was gay. In 1979, he became the first editor of “Gay Comix,” an anthology featuring comics by openly queer cartoonists, where he highlighted the work of lesbian artists like Roberta Gregory and Mary Wings. According to Cruse’s obituary in the New York Times, publisher Mike Kitchen says he had been adamant that women be given equal representation in the magazine from the very beginning.
“From the first issue he insisted that half the book always be by lesbians and half from gay men,” Kitchen told an interviewer, “even though it was more difficult then to find lesbian artists.”
In the 80s he created the strip “Wendel,” which was published in The Advocate. Given wide freedom to include nudity and adult language in the comic, Cruse originally intended it as a humorous series about the sex lives of an idealistic young gay man and his friends. With the advent of the AIDS epidemic, it evolved into something more complex, and the strip began to address the disease – along with gay-bashing, closeted celebrities, activism, and the obstacles faced in same-gender relationships – as the characters learned to navigate the changing cultural landscape of gay life under the hostile shadow of the Reagan administration.
In a 1988 interview with the Village Voice, Cruse said, “It’s tremendously empowering when you’re gay to realize that you’ve been doing it right, and it’s the bigots who are stumbling about in a fog about this subject.”
Cruse wove his own life into “Wendel,” giving the title character a boyfriend and drawing inspiration from his own relationship with real-life partner Ed Sedarbaum, whom he met in 1979. They would eventually marry in 2004.
In 1995 Cruse published “Stuck Rubber Baby,” a semi-autobiographical graphic novel about a closeted gay man in Alabama who becomes involved with the civil rights movement. The characters include a female activist with whom he has a child (as Cruse had himself done) and a black man who becomes his first gay lover. The book, which grapples with the ingrained homophobia and racism of American society and contains some of Cruse’s most detailed, realistic art, was widely acclaimed, winning a Harvey Award and an Eisner Award as well as nominations for several others.
One of a younger generation of LGBTQ comics artists that felt the influence of Cruse’s work is Alison Bechdel, the MacArthur “Genius” Award-winning cartoonist (and creator of the Bechdel Test) whose 2006 autobiographical comic “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” was the basis for the Tony-winning 2015 musical, “Fun Home.” On hearing news of his death, Bechdel tweeted, “I am so sad and stunned. Howard Cruse died suddenly today. He is one of the sweetest people I have ever encountered, period, and he was super generous to me when I was a young cartoonist coming to him for advice. What a blow. The world has lost a true comics superhero.”
Cruse died of lymphoma on November 26 in Pittsfield, Massachusets, near the home he shared with Sedarbaum in nearby Williamstown. He is survived by his husband, his daughter Kimberly Kolze Venter, two grandchildren, and a brother, Allan.