Howard Cruse, the “Godfather of Queer Comics” and one of the greatest cartoonists of his generation, passed away on November 26, 2019, at the age of 75 after a brief battle with lymphoma. He is survived by his husband and partner of over 40 years, Eddie Sederbaum.
Born and raised in Alabama, Cruse began his cartooning career in 1971 with the strip Barefootz. Then, in 1979, his publisher, Denis Kitchen, asked him to edit a new title, Gay Comix. This required Cruse to come out of the closet, which he worried would sink his illustration and cartooning career. But Cruse had moved to New York City and was becoming increasingly open about his sexuality; he knew he needed to join the LGBTQ-rights movement galvanized by the Stonewall riots (which he had inadvertently witnessed while wandering through the area, high on LSD).
Cruse sent a letter asking for submissions to everyone on Kitchen’s mailing list — since it was impossible in those closeted times to know who was queer in the comics world. He wrote that he sympathized with the fears that coming out as a queer cartoonist could engender “ostracism… negative reactions from fans… [or] long-term career damage [due to] homophobia on the part of editors or publishers,” but that “our silence has allowed myths and pointless hostilities to poison our lives and the lives of the straight people around us. It’s time to take some risks in the service of truth.”
Gay Comix launched with work from two queer women who had already been pioneering gay content in comics, Roberta Gregory and Lee Marrs, as well as a story of Cruse’s own, "Billy Goes Out," which depicts a young man’s night out in the gay bars and remains one of the masterpieces of short-form comics. The bottom half of the vertical panels depict the occasionally explicit action while the top half represents Billy’s thoughts. Cruse uses this format to show the emotional complexity and humanity of a gay man who is cruising for sex while simultaneously mourning the death of his lover and dealing with the rejection of his family. It stands out in the canon of underground comix as depicting sex not for shock value or titillation but for more complex thematic purposes. With this story, Cruse established himself as a master of the comics form with profound things to say.
Around the same time that Gay Comix debuted, Cruse began his strip Wendel in the pages of the Advocate magazine. With Wendel, Cruse became not only a better illustrator and cartoonist but also a more authentic storyteller. Wendel focused on the personal lives of its characters but also dealt with issues such as coming out, the AIDS crisis, gay-bashing, and the political realities of living as a queer person in the Reagan era, all with a warm intelligence and wry sense of humor. It was the first time the intimate life of a gay couple was represented in comics in a realistic and sustained way.
Like Alison Bechdel’s later Dykes to Watch Out For, which it inspired, Wendel was serialized in a queer magazine, distributed by queer distributors, and sold in queer bookstores. Cruse had been correct in his fear that coming out and making gay stories would mean losing much of the work he had been making his living by. Luckily, there was a world of LGBTQ cultural production that could sustain him. The work of important cartoonists like Cruse, Bechdel, Eric Orner, Rob Kirby, and Rupert Kinnard was disseminated within the community but remained largely unknown by the broader comics world and beyond. Queer comics were the underground of the underground.
Most of the LGBTQ cartoonists who published strips or full-page comics during this time looked to Cruse for advice, guidance, and inspiration. In Jennifer Camper’s words, “Howard was an amazing mentor. Every time I hit a wall of: how do I do a contract, or how much do I charge for this, or what if they don’t pay me? Well, call Howard — he’ll know! He really is the Godfather of Queer Comics.” Howard, ever the Southern gentleman, opened doors for his own work and then ushered as many people as he could through them.
As Wendel came to an end, Cruse began another even grander project. DC Comics’ alternative imprint Piranha Press gave him an advance to create a graphic novel based on his own experiences as a closeted gay man in the South. Cruse’s art evolved to fit the gravitas of the project: he pulled back from the cartooniness of Wendel to create atmospheric stippled and cross-hatched textures, more realistic figures, and meticulously constructed page layouts. He worked on 24x18” artboards, spending an average of five days on each. He also used a hyper-compressed style of cartooning that created a novel’s worth of richly realized characters, world-building, and plot development in 210 pages. Stuck Rubber Baby, with its complex meditations on race, sexuality, and gender in the Civil Rights era Alabama is perhaps the closest we’ve come yet to the Great American Graphic Novel.
Since his advance only covered two of what would become a four-year project, Stuck Rubber Baby caused Cruse severe financial hardship for years. He maxed out his credit cards and sold original pages to keep afloat. The book debuted to critical acclaim, winning Eisner and Harvey Awards among others, but it never sold well or broke into the mainstream. The world was not ready yet for a monumental, queer graphic novel; that would come 11 years later with Bechdel’s Fun Home (she would also write the foreword for the 2011 edition of Stuck Rubber Baby). First Second Books will be putting out a 25th-anniversary archival edition of Stuck Rubber Baby this coming year, with previously unpublished material. While it’s tragic that Cruse will not be around to see the new edition, it assures that his legacy continues.
While we still have a long way to go, we now live in a world in which LGBTQ comics and creators regularly achieve recognition in the comics industry and beyond. Much of that progress can be traced directly back to Howard Cruse. The responses to his death are striking, with so many cartoonists describing how his influence was instrumental to their own careers. The example set by the Godfather of Queer Comics will continue to inspire all of us to “take some risks in the service of truth.”