If you want to know the history of queer comics, who better to ask than the first editor of Gay Comix? In honor of Pride Month, The Beat caught up with cartoonist Howard Cruse for a phone chat about the history of queer comics, the strides the industry has taken since he came up in the underground comics scene in the early ’70s, and how his career changed as he embraced his identity as a gay man.
Although Cruse’s most well-known titles have been out of print for some time, his impact on the industry can still be felt and he’s still working, though he admits he’s slowed down quite a bit. Read on for Cruse’s thoughts on the growing LGBTQ comics community and the importance of learning and remembering history, in addition to lots of stories about his work.
Samantha Puc: You’re considered one of the pioneers in the queer comics scene, so for our readers who aren’t familiar, can you explain how you got started in comics and how your career has progressed as a cartoonist?
Howard Cruse: I broke into the comic form through underground comix in the early ’70s. I don’t know if all of your readers are familiar with underground comix — they probably are; they’re pretty savvy, I’m sure — but this was a very uninhibited and uncensored medium that didn’t bother to try to get the Comics Code Authority seal of approval.
Basically, there was practically no gay presence in the early decade or so of underground comic books. I decided, sometime around 1972, that I would eventually introduce a gay character into my series Barefootz, which was my central project during the 1970s.
I didn’t commit to being gay myself immediately, although any sensible person would have figured that no straight person would have done that story. Finally, when that didn’t destroy my career, I decided that I would accept Denis Kitchen‘s invitation to edit an underground comic book called Gay Comix. I thought, “Well, that’s a good way to come out professionally in a way that doesn’t seem like I’m confessing to some deep, dark secret.” As a matter of fact, I just mentioned it in the letter soliciting contributions that I understood that many cartoonists might be afraid of being open about their gayness because of career implications, and that I was familiar with those feelings because I had them too. I felt that visibility was very important at that time, because there was a lot of anti-gay stuff in the late ’70s and early ’80s, so I challenged cartoonists to join me in doing this book.
We didn’t know at the time whether it would be a one-shot. We weren’t necessarily thinking ahead to whether it would be a series. However, there was a network of gay bookstores that embraced the comic, even though a lot of the direct market comic shops were wary of the subject matter. We didn’t have a lot of penetration in comic shops, except for the very forward-looking ones, for a number of years. The gay bookstores made up for that.
I hasten to mention, because everyone always says Gay Comix was the first gay underground comic and then I have to correct them. Before Gay Comix arose, there were three comic book titles in the underground written and drawn by gay people. Mary Wings had put out two titles, Come Out Comix and Dyke Shorts; Roberta Gregory had put out Dynamite Damsels; and Larry Fuller had put out Gay Heart Throbs. Basically, Mary and Roberta were role models for the very human stories that I was hoping to have in Gay Comix. Gay Heart Throbs didn’t really try to have much depth. Larry was breaking ground having a comic by and about gay men. Anyway, Gay Comix was pioneering in the sense that, for one thing, it was bi-gender — back in the days when we only thought there were two genders — and I didn’t want it to be a boys’ club like early undergrounds had been. I wanted to be sure that gay men and lesbians were there.
Because it turned out that the series was a success in gay bookstores, Denis wanted to do more. By the third issue, we had our first trans story by David Kottler. Then after four issues, I had begun doing my regular Wendel comic strip for The Advocate and I felt I didn’t have time to be editing Gay Comix. So, we passed the editorship over to Robert Triptow, who edited a bunch of issues and then he passed the title onto Andy Mangels and I mention that because it’s important that these guys get credit for being part of that process, too.
That’s how I got started. I also had a mainstream cartooning career, mainly as a magazine illustrator. A humorous illustrator. I had trepidations, as I mentioned, about whether I would find it hard to get work if everyone knew I was gay. By that time, I was living in New York; I had been in Alabama until 1977. In New York, the art directors in general just wanted good cartoonists. They were not concerned if they were gay. Of course, one never knows which art directors might have chosen not to give me work because I was gay, but I never knew about those.
Puc: How has your career progressed since then? You still do magazine illustrations and things, right?
Cruse: Well, not so much, now. I’ve slowed way down because I’m 75 now and I don’t have the same energy I had once. I get Social Security cheques that help with the household costs and I mainly work on projects that are not because someone is paying me, but because that’s where my muse takes me. In fact, these days, I’m doing more writing than cartooning. I’m also involved in some book collections of my comics. I sort of still maintain a certain visibility in the comics world, even though I now live in rural Massachusetts and don’t get out much.
Puc: I saw that there’s an exhibit currently showing your work in Brussels, is that right?
Cruse: Right. Well, that was nice! Those kinds of things happen because some particular gallery owner likes my work and decides to ask if he can do a show. My husband and I got to go; [the owner] brought us over and paid our way and put us in a hotel, which was a very interesting experience. I do some public speaking here and there, sometimes at institutions like schools and sometimes for gay groups. The things I’m most known for are Gay Comix, Wendel, and Stuck Rubber Baby, but I’ve always done other things along the way, both mainstream and in comics.
Promotional images are going up on Frédéric Lorge's Comic Art Factory windows in anticipation of next week's opening of my exhibition in Brussels. pic.twitter.com/N3xUwEnNqO
— Howard Cruse (@HowardCruse) May 8, 2019
Puc: You spoke a little bit about how, when you were first coming out, you were concerned about losing work from art directors because you were gay — did that fear ever dissipate as the years went on and you continued to produce work like Wendel and Stuck Rubber Baby?
Cruse: Actually, Wendel and even moreso Stuck Rubber Baby expanded my audience beyond the gay community. So, I was actually paid a reasonable, professional rate to do Wendel and I didn’t need the magazine work as much during the period when I was doing that. But I always kept my hand in when opportunities would come along. I still enjoy doing cartoons that are not related to being gay and I also have a lot of concerns in the world besides gay issues. I’ve done things about various social issues and evil corporations and things like that.
Puc: As far as representing social and political issues in your work, was that something that you set out to do when you started your career?
Cruse: Well, that was in my nature all along, but I was more able to do it after I stopped doing the Barefootz series. The characters were very stylized with big heads and little bodies; they looked like something you might see on a newspaper page, so they looked very friendly. They had subtexts that were sex, drugs and rage under the surface, which is what made them underground. Even though the first gay story, the Headrack story “Gravy On Gay,” was done when I was still in Birmingham in 1976, it became apparent that if I was going to really move into more overt political comics, that I couldn’t do it within the Barefootz universe. The characters were just too stylized.
So I began experimenting with drawing characters who were proportioned more like real people. Once I started doing Gay Comix, for the first time, I could actually delve with some depth into the gay experience and in underground comics, I didn’t have to be careful about the sexual parts of it. One of my frequently-cited stories from Gay Comix #1 was a story called “Billy Goes Out,” which was a story about making use of the gay free-for-all in backroom bars and things like that, in places like New York. In Wendel, I couldn’t be quite as explicit but I didn’t have to be too coy.
When DC Comics asked me to do Stuck Rubber Baby, I explained that I would have to have gay content or else I would be seen as a sell-out. I didn’t mind the fact that, for a book that was going to be in mainstream bookstores, I didn’t have to show erections and penetration and stuff like that, which you could do in underground comics. That didn’t hinder me in telling the story, but the fact is that I began getting respect from my comics creating peers when Gay Comix came out and people saw that I was serious. A lot of the original underground cartoonists were skeptical about me because my strip looked so, on the surface, like it was not very underground. When my Wendel comics began being collected in books and were more easily available to non-gay readers, I began to get feedback at the rare comics conventions I would go to, from regular, famous comics creators who said that they really appreciated the work.
One guy, a big name artist, told me that from looking at Wendel, it was a revelation to him that when you have a gay couple and one of them comes home from work, they might hug. He didn’t know that gay people did that, too, because we were stereotyped as being totally sexualized people who didn’t have real love relationships.
Puc: When you told DC that you had to have gay content in Stuck Rubber Baby, was that a hindrance or were they willing to incorporate that without putting up too much of a fuss?
Cruse: The editor understood where I was coming from. And by the way, Stuck Rubber Baby was originally going to be published by an imprint that DC had established to be not part of the DC Universe. It would be creator-owned, non-super-heroish stuff. It was called Piranha Press and the original editor was a guy named Mark Nevelow. He appreciated my work in general and I asked for a meeting with him. I wouldn’t have done so if a friend who worked at DC hadn’t said, “Hey, you should check out this Piranha Press thing. It might be a good thing for you to do.” That happened when I had just ended my Wendel strip.
Mark Nevelow was very open; he said he was fine with a story where the central protagonist was gay. He said he would want there to be straight characters, too, so that straight readers would not feel left out of the picture. That was fine with me because the idea I had going was to do a story that was set down south in 1963, which was before the Stonewall riots. It would give me an opportunity to have a wide range of characters that were not part of a gay village subculture.
Puc: Do you feel like the perception of LGBTQ themes and characters in comics has changed over the years, between when you were working on those titles and the current titles that are coming out from creators who are working now?
Cruse: After Gay Comix — in the decade afterward and basically ever since — there’s been an explosion of talent, really fascinating LGBTQ creators coming from all different angles. Right now, the spearhead of LGBTQ comics is in the trans community. The individuals are all coming from different places and their comics and styles differ greatly; the stories have more depth. It’s been very satisfying to see the younger generation coming along and expanding what we tried to start with Gay Comix. When I was doing Gay Comix, I was the editor you had to go to if you were a queer cartoonist who wanted to be out, but by now, I’m no longer the gatekeeper. I don’t even know all of these people. I meet many of them when I go to the Queers and Comics Conference. There, you meet a lot of these people and as an old codger now, I feel really proud of the younger generation for taking the ball and running with it.
Puc: When you do get a chance to meet these younger creators, are a lot of them familiar with your work?
Cruse: Most of them are familiar with Stuck Rubber Baby. That’s the book of mine that stayed in print for the longest time and was talked about the most, so it’s pretty well-known in the queer community. A number of them are old enough to remember Wendel, which, I haven’t done a new Wendel strip since 1989 so plenty of people have been born now who never saw it. And it’s very specifically set in the ’80s when homophobia was at its peak and Ronald Reagan was president and stuff like that. It was a whole different time from now, where you have openly gay people in movies and television and gay themes everywhere and it’s no big deal. I think everyone has sort of relaxed into that new reality, which is good; the only problem is, it helps if people know the history and appreciate the work — including life and death incidents — that went into bringing homosexuality out of the stereotyped shadows.
Puc: How do you feel the comics landscape has changed as those creators take the bull by the horns and try to tell the stories they want to tell, especially at the Big Two, who have very specific ideas of what their characters are supposed to look like and represent?
Cruse: I was never that much into the whole Marvel/DC/superhero form. It seemed artificial to me to pretend that you were engaging in real-world, serious issues when everybody’s wearing costumes and flying through the air and knocking buildings down. I appreciate the fact that many of my friends are big fans of it and of course, the movies are hugely successful now. If people are really into action and fantasy, go for it. I appreciate that a lot of the movies are done well now, even if I don’t go to a lot of them because I get bored of super-fist-fights.
The thing is, it was the whole independent comics movement done by creators who wanted to do all their own stuff, who didn’t want to have to follow the template of the Big Two. The gay comics explosion was all part of that larger, independent comics explosion. And of course, now you have webcomics, which are a whole new, wide-open arena where you can be as talented as possible and you rarely make any money.
Puc: If you were creating comics today, are there titles or teams you’d want to work with? Is there anything you’ve read recently that has you really excited?
Cruse: I’m a fan of a number of other cartoonists. I tend to see more of these gay works, because I have so many friends in that community and they send me copies of their new books, but I’ve always been a loner. In underground comics, I wrote and drew everything and lettered. Denis usually gave me total freedom. I never developed the habit of working as a collaborator in comics. I’ve done it a couple times; I did a series for an in-house magazine at DC that Lee Marrs wrote and I drew.
I also did some comics for Bananas magazine; that was one of my mainstream jobs in the ’80s and it was kind of a hybrid MAD Magazine and teen fan magazine. It had lots of comics in it and it was put out by Scholastic. The editor was a guy whose name in the magazine was Jovial Bob Stein — he later became famous and fabulously rich as R.L. Stein writing the Goosebumps series — and he was a great guy, a very terrific guy to work with. He scripted strips for a series called Doctor Duck, which was about this doctor who was a duck and he was kind of a Groucho Marx, anarchy character who put his patients through all sorts of ringers. Bob Stein would do the scripts, but he also was very casual about saying, “Here’s the script. If you have ideas for changes, just go for it. Don’t worry about adhering to my strips if you think of different ways to do things.” So, he was a very easy collaborator to work with. And I’m good friends with Lee Marrs, so it was pleasant working with her too.
Basically, I tend to just like to work by myself and do things my way.
Puc: Do you have any predictions or theories for how LGBTQ themes, characters and creators will continue to grow or change in the future of comics?
Cruse: I think most people feel that the days of the 32-page, pamphlet-style, saddle-stapled books are on their last legs, except for ones published by huge publishers. Right now, square-back graphic novels and anthologies are where the most creative work is happening. I think that will continue, now that LGBTQ people are more integrated in society in general. There are millions of us and we are more visible. It’s a different environment, so queer comics creators don’t necessarily have to just do stories about the gay thing. Many of the political comics I’ve done in recent years, as I said, have been about things that concern me politically or are simply human interest stories that weren’t about being gay. The freedom to range far afield, even though you’re gay, is a real benefit of the legacy of the gay liberation movement. But it’s a totally different creative environment.
I don’t think you could predict anything, except that the sequential panel format of comics — the mixture of words and pictures — seems to be going strong. I don’t think that’s going to go away any time soon.
Puc: On the subject of political cartooning, obviously, there are a lot of politics inherent in comic stories, even when it’s a superhero story. Do you feel that increased participation of queer people in the industry and increased visibility has an effect on politics at large, especially for non-queer readers who are engaging with this content?
Cruse: One of the reasons we started Gay Comix was because of the important need for gay visibility in all fields, not just comics. You know, gay doctors, gay lawyers, gay garbage collectors, gay whatever. I think that has begun to happen in superhero comics; there was a period when Marvel said there are no gay people in the Marvel universe, but that has changed. I think it has an effect of normalizing the idea for straight readers of the presence of gay people in their lives. I think that has a political effect in the long run, because so much of politics — particularly homophobic and transphobic politics — is built around the idea that LGBTQ people are practically a separate species, a Satanic people or something. Whereas, when people know that their neighbor is gay or that some characters in the DC or Marvel universes are gay, it just stops being such a big thing.
There was a time when straight actors were terrified to play gay characters in movies, because they thought they would always be typecast as gay. Obviously, that’s not true now. There are plenty of big stars who do gay roles without any negative repercussions in their careers; you also have people like Sir Ian McKellan, who came out in the theater and showed that you can still play straight roles, even if everyone knows the actor is gay.
In general, I just think there’s been a developing sense of normality about being gay, which is a good thing. Right now, we have the rise of various forms of bigotry under the current administration and so there’s a danger of backsliding. I think that it’s even more important now than it was before for LGBTQ people to be assertive about their place in the world and in the art that they create. Otherwise, they could be driven back into a kind of cultural closet.
To keep up with Howard Cruse and explore his work, follow him on Twitter, pledge to his Patreon or visit his website. If you are in Brussels before July 6, you can also visit the Gay Love – Howard Cruse comic art show at Galerie Comic Art Factory, Chaussée de Wavre, 237 Ixelles, 1050.
Plus, you can catch a new Howard Cruse comic in Theater of Terror: Revenge of the Queers, a queer horror comics anthology from Northwest Press. The project is currently on Kickstarter and the campaign ends Sunday, June 16 at 1:16 p.m. EST.