When I was in college and still closeted, I happened to be in a bookstore near Copley Square one day, and I spotted a brightly colored cartoon image of a naked man being lifted into the air by an angel. I blinked, paused to look at it, and thus began my love of the comics of Howard Cruse.
Cruse, if you’re not familiar with the man’s work, is a writer-cartoonist who helped pioneer the trail of gay comics. His work was found in various humor magazines, in Heavy Metal, in the Advocate throughout the 80s….he really did bring his work to a widely varied group of readers. His style is instantly recognizable, and his work generally has a deeper and more nuanced feel than a lot of sex-humor style strips I’ve seen through the years. When we started our comic Circles back in 2000, we wrote to him, and he was very kind and receptive to our letters. He even gave us permission to republish some of his funny animal strips in one of our issues.
So if you’re looking for some comic work that ranges from sweet to raunchy to emotionally wrenching, allow me to suggest three of his seminal pieces for your enjoyment.
An Eclectic Collection of Miscellany
The book I spotted way back when was a collection of Cruse’s work through the years. Entitled “Dancin’ Nekkid with the Angels”, this collection was stunning to me as a college student. Penises! The man was drawing penises! And some of those penises were *gay* penises. Given just how deep in my closet I was lurking in those days, I’m still stunned I brought the book up to the cash register. As it was, doing so helped me take my first steps towards the door of that closet. Seeking out other, similar work ultimately led me to Glad Day Books, a now-closed gay bookstore in Boston. I was soon developing a veritable library of work that had no place in a closet.
But I digress.
Cruse’s work in this book really runs the gamut from gross to funny to sad. Bizarre comics like “Under the Influence of a UFO”, in which the narrator tells us of an period during his childhood in which he repeatedly inserted a knotted string into his nose, join pieces poking fun at the gay community, like “Dirty Old Lovers”, in which a pair of lauded role-models of the community turn out to have a rather seamy side.
One story which has always stood out painfully in my mind is a piece called “Billy Goes Out” in which a young gay man cruises a gay neighborhood looking for, as Cruse puts it “sex and/or love.” The reason I find it so haunting is that the character, while looking for whatever he’s looking for, is remembering and/or fantasizing about various events in his life. These seem to include what might be the funeral of his lover, and the violent reactions of his lover’s family towards him. I felt very deeply about this piece, and it still affects me whenever I read it.
A Story of Love, Told in Strip Form
It was many years after reading “Dancin’ Naked with the Angels” that I discovered Cruse’s comic strip “Wendel”. I found it through a book called “Wendell All Together”…which wasn’t, actually, the complete book it sounds like. Happily for you, dear readers, the event that inspired this column was the release of “The Complete Wendell”, a new collection of everything, including a brand new “Where Are They Now” comic strip and an introduction by Alison Bechdel. This is an excellent piece, and it really illustrates Cruse’s ability to tell a story, still be funny, develop likable (and not so likable) characters, and keep things moving at an excellent pace.
The strip centers on Wendel Trupstock, a young aspiring-writer who’s looking for love and/or sex, to paraphrase from above. He finds both in the form of Ollie Chambers, who yearns to be an actor (but who works in a copy shop.) Other characters in the series include Sterno, a childhood friend of Ollie’s who invades his apartment; Farley, Ollie’s son from a disastrous marriage; Deb, Wendel’s co-worker at Effluvia magazine, and her lover Tina; Wendel’s uncle Luke, and his lover Clark (the Dirty Old Lovers mentioned above), and a huge cast that help the main characters find their way through a maze of love, life, fear, and the crazy, troubled times of the 80s for the gay community. Honestly, though, it feels just as on-spot and topical today as it was 20-30 years ago.
One review I quite like about “Wendel” says, if I may paraphrase, that the strip pulls back the curtain on being gay and reveals that the characters are just people. And that’s just how it feels. You could substitute any sort of relationship for the relationships shown in “Wendel”, and the stories would be just as poignant, funny, touching, real, and warm.
In 1993, DC Comics started a new imprint called “Paradox Press”. This imprint released some of the most incredible and important comics work of the last few decades, like Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”, John Wagner and Vince Locke’s “A History of Violence”, Max Alan Collins’ “Road to Perdition”, J. M. DeMatteis and Glenn Barr’s “Brooklyn Dreams”, and Howard Cruse’s “Stuck Rubber Baby”.
Published in 1995, “Stuck Rubber Baby” is a coming of age story about Toland Polk, a young man living in Alabama in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. As the novel progresses, he comes to terms both with his own racism, which he wars against, and with his homosexuality, which he gradually comes to accept.
This book is amazing. Not only is it a deeply moving story about incredibly important issues, but it’s also some of Cruse’s most detailed artwork. It uses a complex cross-hatching style to give texture to objects and backgrounds, and it has more panels per page than many comics. It took four years to create, and the love in it really shows.
Without a doubt, I feel that “Stuck Rubber Baby”, while not as fun as many of Cruse’s works, is probably his most important and the one that will continue to be found in bookstores and libraries for years and years to come.
Do you know Howard Cruse’s work? Is there a piece of his I might not have mentioned that’s a particular favorite of yours? Let us all know.