From Headrack to Claude – Collected Gay Comix of Howard Cruse

By Howard Cruse (Nifty Kitsch Press/Northwest Press)
ISBN: 978-0-578-03251-1 (TPB)

It’s long been an aphorism – if not an outright cliché – that Gay (or we could be contemporary and say LGBTQ) comics have long been the only place in the graphic narrative business to see real romance in all its joy, pain, glee and glory.

It’s still true: an artefact, I suppose, of a society seemingly obsessed with demarcating and separating sex and love as two utterly different and possibly even opposite things. I prefer to think that here in the 21st century – at least in most sensible, civilised parts of it – we’ve outgrown the juvenile, judgemental, bad old days and can simply appreciate powerfully moving and/or funny comics about people of all sorts without any kind of preconception, but that battle’s still not completely won yet. Hopefully, compendia such as this will aid the fight…

Oh, and there’s sex and swearing so if you’re the kind of person liable to be upset by words and pictures of an adult nature (such as joyous, loving fornication between two people separated by age, wealth, social position and race who happily possess and constantly employ the same type of naughty bits on each other, or sly mockery of deeply-held, outmoded and ludicrous beliefs) then go away and read something else.

In fact, just go away: you have no romance in your soul or love in your heart.

Howard Cruse has enjoyed a remarkable cartooning career which has spanned decades and encompassed a number of key moments in American history and social advancement.

Beginning as a hippy-trippy, counter-culture, Underground Comix star with beautifully drawn, witty, funny (not always the same thing in those days – or now, come to think of it) strips, his work has evolved over the years into a powerful voice for change in both sexual and race politics through such superb features as Wendel and his masterpiece Stuck Rubber Baby – an examination of oppression, tolerance and freedoms in 1950s America.

Since then he has become a columnist, worked on other writers’ work, illustrating an adaptation of Jeanne E. Shaffer’s The Swimmer With a Rope In His Teeth and continued his own unique brand of cartoon commentary.

Born in 1944 the son of a Baptist Minister in Birmingham, Alabama, Cruse grew up amid the smouldering intolerance of the region’s segregationist regime; an atmosphere that shaped him on a primal level. He escaped to Birmingham-Southern College to study Drama in the late ’60s, graduating and winning a Shubert Playwriting Fellowship to Penn State University.

Campus life there never really suited him and he dropped out in 1969. Returning to the South he joined a loose crowd of fellow Birmingham Bohemians which allowed him to blossom as a creator and by 1971 was drawing a spectacular procession of strips for an increasingly hungry and growing crowd of eager admirers.

Whilst working for a local TV station as both designer and children’s show performer he created a kid’s newspaper strip about talking squirrels, Tops & Button, still finding time to craft the utterly whimsical and bizarre tales of a romantic quadrangle starring a very nice young man and his troublesome friends for the more discerning college crowd he remained in contact with. The strips appeared in a variety of college newspapers and periodicals

He was “discovered” by publishing impresario Denis Kitchen in 1972 who began disseminating Barefootz to a far broader audience in such Underground publications as Snarf, Bizarre Sex, Dope Comix and Commies From Mars: all published by his much-missed Kitchen Sink Enterprises outfit.

Kitchen also hired Cruse to work on an ambitious co-production with rising powerhouse Marvel Comics, attempting to bring a somewhat sanitised version of the counter-culture’s cartoon stars and sensibilities to the mainstream via The Comix Book: a traditionally packaged and distributed newsstand magazine. It only ran to a half-dozen issues and, although deemed a failure, provided the notionally more wholesome and genteel Barefootz with a larger audience and yet more avid fans…

As well as an actor, designer, art-director and teacher, Cruse has appeared in Playboy, The Village Voice, Heavy Metal, Artforum International, The Advocate and Starlog among countless others, yet the tireless storyman found the time and resources to self-publish Barefootz Funnies, two comic collections of his addictively whimsical strip in 1973.

Here in a captivatingly forthright grab-bag and memoir gathering the snippets and classics left out of previous must-have collections The Compete Wendel and Early Barefootz, Cruse traces his development through his cartoons and strips, all thoroughly and engagingly annotated and contextualised by the author himself and fondly, candidly explored through a backdrop of the men he loved at the time.

This book was originally self-published in 2008 and is now available digitally – with updates and extra material – from those wonderful people at Northwest Press.

Acting as an historical place-setter, Cruse’s informative ‘Preface’ sets the ball rolling, laconically tracing his artistic career and development and using domestic autobiographical strip ‘Communique’ (from Heavy Metal) as a smart indicator of his home life at the time before a more detailed exploration overview of the Queer comics scene in ‘From Miss Thing to Jane’s World’ before the book truly begins.

For a better, fuller understanding you’ll really want to see both the Wendell and Barefootz collections but for now we relive history in first chapter ‘Artefacts & Benchmarks’ Part 1: 1969-76 blending contextualising prose recollection with noteworthy strip ‘That Night at the Stonewall’, advertising art, abortive newspaper strip sample, an episode of Tops & Button, and other published work plus gay sitcom feature ‘Cork & Dork’.

An early example of advocacy comes from wry cartoon homily ‘The Passer-By’ before more reminiscences and picture extracts take us to an uncharacteristically strident and harsh breakthrough.

Preceded by explanatory sidebar ‘Backstory: Gravy on Gay’ we are introduced to Barefootz’, way-out friend confidante and openly gay hippy rebel Headrack in ‘Gravy on Gay’: in which the laid-back easy-going artist is confronted with the ugly, mouthy side of modern living as voiced by obnoxious jock jerk Mort

The march of progress continues in Artefacts & Benchmarks’ Part 2: 1976-80, detailing a variety of comics jobs from Dope Comix and Snarf to the semi-legitimacy of Playboy and Starlog and first meeting with life partner and eventual husband Eddie Sedarbaum before My Strips from Gay Comix 1980-90 traces his editorial career on the landmark anthology by reprints his own strip contributions.

It all begins with ‘Billy Goes Out’: recalling the joyous – or it that empty and tedious? – hedonistic freedoms of the days immediately before the AIDS crisis…

Incisive cloaked autobiographical fable ‘Jerry Mack’ takes us inside the turbulent mind of an ultra-closeted church minister in full regretful denial after which further heartbreak is called up in devious tragedy ‘I Always Cry at Movies…’ and home chores are dealt with in a manly manner in ‘Getting Domestic’.

Some historical and political insight is offered in ‘Backstory: Dirty Old Lovers’ before the outrageous and hilarious antics of the oldest lovers in town scandalise the Gay community in ‘Dirty Old Lovers’, whilst the thinking behind clarion call ‘Safe Sex’ is detailed in a ‘Backstory’ article prior to a straightforward examination of Acquired Immune-Deficiency Syndrome and its effects on personal health and public consciousness…

Surreal comedy infuses the tale of a man’s man and his adored ‘Cabbage Patch Clone’ after which faux ad ‘I Was Trapped Naked inside the Jockey Shorts of the Amazing Colossal Man!’ and Matt Groening spoof ‘Gay Dorks in Fezzes’ closes this chapter to make way for Topical Strips 1983-93.

With Cruse’s particular brand of LGBT commentary reaching more mainstream audiences through publications such as The Village Voice, a brief ‘Backstory’ relates the author’s ultimately unnecessary anxiety to inviting in the wider world through polemical sally ‘Sometimes I Get So Mad’ and wickedly pointed social and media satire ‘The Gay in the Street’. Both that oracular swipe and ‘1986 – An Interim Epilogue’ are also deconstructed by Backstory segments (the latter being a 2-page addendum created for the Australian release of ‘Safe Sex’ in Art & Text magazine) before ‘Backstory: Penceworth’ reveals one of Margaret Thatcher’s vilest moments. In 1988 her government attempted to send back sexual freedom to the Stone Age (or Russia, Nigeria and other uncivilised countries today) by prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality”. The law in Britain – (un)popularly known as Clause 28 – was resisted on many fronts, including the benefit comic AARGH (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia). Invited to contribute, Cruse channelled Hillaire Belloc’s Cautionary Verses and excoriatingly assaulted the New Nazism with ‘Penceworth’: a charming illustrated poem like a spiked cosh snuggled inside a velvet slipper…

Luxuriating in righteous indignation and taking his lead from the New York Catholic Church’s militant stance against the LGBT community, Cruse then illuminated a supposed conference between ‘The Kardinal & the Klansman in Manning the Phone Bank’ and targeted similar anti-gay codicils in America’s National Endowment for the Arts in ‘Homoeroticism Blues’

Another Backstory explains how and why a scurrilous article in Cosmopolitan resulted in ‘The Woeful World of Winnie and Walt’ – a complacency-shattering tale in Strip AIDS USA pointedly reminding White Heterosexuals that the medical horror wasn’t as discriminating as they would like to believe…

That theme is revisited with the kid gloves off in ‘His Closet’, after which ‘Backstory: Rainbow Curriculum Comix’ and ‘The Educator’ clarify how School Board rabble-rouser Mary Cummings set back decades of progress in American diversity education through her oratorical witch hunts. Cruse’s potent responses ‘Rainbow Curriculum Comix’ and ‘The Educator’ follow…

Cruse has been relatively quiet in recent years, and the artist’s Late Entries 2000-08 follow, including a full-colour rebuttal fromm Village Voice to Dr. Bruce Bagemihl’s study on animal homosexuality. ‘A Zoo of Our Own’ is accompanied by a fulsome Backstory and is followed by wry and engaging modern fable ‘My Hypnotist’ and semi-autobiographical conundrum ‘Then There Was Claude’ before the bemused wonderment wraps up with prose article ‘I Must Be Important ‘Cause I’m in a Documentary (2011)’ and a superb Batman pin-up/put down…

This is a superb compilation: smart, funny, angry when needful and always astonishingly entertaining.
© 1976-2008 Howard Cruse. All rights reserved.

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