The Underground Comix era began in the late '60s in response to the heavy censorship of the medium due to the presence of the Comics Code Authority. People wanted to make books that looked like their lives, and so, as we had the indie explosion in cinema, so did comics see their own groundbreaking era of creativity. Some of these comix aged well, many of them haven't, but all of them existed in the spirit of disrupting the status quo of the medium.
When discussing an era of experimental and groundbreaking autobiographical works in the comix scene, queer comix by queer creators so often fall by the wayside. While many artists of this time period went on to have illustrious careers, queer creators get nary more than a footnote. In hopes of changing the conversation for the better, we bring you Pride-ographies, a series of deep dives into queer comix history.
Howard Cruse is often referred to as "the Godfather of Queer Comics," and there can't be a more illustrious title than that. Yet, so often his work as a creator and editor goes more or less ignored in the greater story of comics, underground or otherwise. In some ways, this relative anonymity makes sense; indeed, Cruse does only have one graphic novel that could be considered definitive of his work, the critically acclaimed Stuck Rubber Baby. However, even that was printed at a no longer existent imprint at DC Comics called Piranha Press, and while there is an ebook available if you look for it, it's not exactly easy to track down.
But this is a creator who worked in comics, at least on-and-off, for much of his life. The first substantial comics work from Cruse was the strip Barefootz, which began in 1971. While Barefootz would not introduce an explicitly queer character until 1976, there still is a subversive tone to the book, though it was widely criticized by purveyors of the anthologies in which it appeared, alongside "edgier" artists of the time. Though the strip dealt with a lot of themes that were generally considered a bit too cute for underground comics of the early '70s, it was still fairly subversive in that it ultimately reveals that one of the primary characters is queer, which was exceedingly rare at the time. In his own life, Cruse was closeted when he began Barefootz, and as its popularity and its appearances in alternative weeklies grew, he was going through his own process of coming out, so there is a lot of on-panel growth even if it isn't always explicitly stated.
By the end of the 1970s, Cruse was ready to move on from Barefootz. In 1980, which Kitchen Sink creator Denis Kitchen had the idea for a one-off anthology collecting the work of queer creators, Cruse was the person he asked to edit it. This was no doubt due to several factors, not the least of which that Cruse among the only out (even remotely) cartoonists working in comics at the time. Though he apparently had a concern he might be tanking his career by working on the book and thereby completely outing himself to the comics world, Cruse stepped up to bat and asked others to do the same.
Cruse's work as an editor in Gay Comix is impactful, and multiple artists cite him as being a generous creator who was happy to share knowledge with others, but it's his comics that show a massive stylistic change from his earlier work. In the first issue, he debuted his short story, Billy Goes Out, which separates real-life events that occur on the bottom of the panel with his own inner monologue above. It shows a great understanding of the comics medium while telling a deeply personal and moving story of a young man who is out cruising while also reeling from the traumatic events in his life. After departing from Gay Comix after the first four issues ran their course, Cruse created the ongoing comic strip Wendel, which ran in The Advocate for most of the 1980s.
In the early '90s, Cruse was approached by Piranha, a no-longer-existent publishing house at DC Comics, which had been formed with the intention of printing underground comics. This would ultimately become Stuck Rubber Baby, ostensibly following a character named Polk, a white, closeted gay man who finds a sense of purpose in activism. Cruse took twice the allotted time to finish the book, and by then the imprint had folded, so it was published at the also now-defunct Paradox Press imprint. The subsequent anniversary collection was printed by Vertigo, which also no longer exists. Despite the rocky printing history and the difficult schedule behind the book, Stuck Rubber Baby is considered to be an important, political, humanitarian look back by an artist who witnessed pivotal events firsthand.
Stuck Rubber Baby is by no means a breezy read, and it deals with graphic issues of violence throughout. Cruse was in Birmingham, Alabama, through at least part of the most impactful years of the Civil Rights movement, and he draws from deeply triggering historical events. Black protesters are killed by bigots, gay bashings occur, the protagonist is painfully closeted and fearful of his life through much of the book, and the story is told through the eyes of a character who, decades later, is frustrated to see the world at large work so hard to forget these things. Yet, it is still the story of a person who sees horrible things and can't help but get involved to fight against them, who finds a sense of community alongside people fighting for their very lives, and thus there are elements of hope to be found.
Howard Cruse passed away last year, survived by his longtime partner, Eddie Sederbaum, who is one of the subjects in Blake Bell's book I Have to Live With This Guy!, which publishes interviews with the spouses of several comic artists. In the book, Sederbaum's impact on Cruse's work is clear, as we learn that he would often do casual, realistic poses for Cruse while he was working on illustrations.
Cruse's work might not be easy to condense or define with a pull quote, but his impact on the comics world can't be overstated. One of the early pioneers of gay liberation in comics, and someone who stood by his revolutionary beliefs throughout his entire life, Cruse remains an artist who existed in a very specific time period, the events of which influenced him greatly. Though we will never see another like him, his support for queer comics paired with his own groundbreaking narrative honesty will be emulated as long as comics exist.