Howard Cruse, a groundbreaking cartoonist who pioneered LGBTQ themes four decades ago, has died at the age of 75.
His husband, Ed Sedarbaum, said Cruse, who lived in Williamstown, Massachusetts, was diagnosed with lymphoma in August and passed away at the nearby Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield on November 26. The couple moved to western Massachusetts in 2003 after living together in New York City for 34 years. Here, the couple were active and respected members of both the arts community and the LGBTQ rights movement.
Cruse’s website at howardcruse.com offers a panorama of the enormous volume of creative work he produced over more than half a century. His greatest fame came from his “Wendel” comic strip recounting the adventures of a gay man, his lover, and their friends and families, which ran in The Advocate from 1983 until 1989, and from his 1995 graphic novel “Stuck Rubber Baby,” which drew on his own struggles as a young closeted gay man during the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement in the South of the 1960s. The work was hailed for its insight into issues of race and sexuality in that era.
Cruse was born on May 2, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, the second son of a photojournalist/ Methodist minister and his wife. Sedarbaum told The Berkshire Eagle that his husband was raised to be “mild mannered,” “very sweet,” and “really considerate,” but that Cruse was not himself religious. No scolds, his parents were very supportive of his artistic passions.
As a precocious teenager of sorts in 1959, Cruse created a comic strip “Calvin” for the St. Clair County Reporter, the local newspaper in the family’s hometown of Springville, Alabama. A cartoon art contributor to national humor magazines as well, Cruse, at 16, was invited to New York to meet the famous cartoonist Milton Caniff, whose strips “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon” were syndicated nationally.
Cruse demonstrated more eclectic arts inclinations when he attended Birmingham Southern College, where he became involved in the theater program — acting, designing sets, playwriting, and directing. For the campus literary magazine, he wrote a satire of the John Birch Society, the most significant far right organization of the time. The magazine’s faculty adviser okayed its publication but insisted on appending a full-page disclaimer.
After college, Cruse worked as an art director for a Birmingham television station. For two years, his “Tops & Button” cartoon appeared in a Birmingham newspaper, and then for a decade he produced “Barefootz,” a favorite in the underground comic world, admired for its subversive tone.
Two years after moving to New York in 1977, Cruse met Sedarbaum, and like so many couples of that time they enjoyed an extended engagement until they were able to legally marry in 2004.
In 1980, Cruse founded “Gay Comix,” an anthology series for LGBTQ cartoonists. His own work for the series often explored the complicated challenges of growing up gay in the pre-Stonewall South.
“Gay Comix” quickly resonated nationwide, among both aspiring young queer cartoonists and other youth, many of them still closeted, who had never seen representations of their lives before. Cruse mentored younger artists and contributed his work pro bono to gay rights and AIDS groups. In 1985, he created a safe sex poster for Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
While creating “Wendel” for The Advocate in the 1980s, Cruse was also a frequent contributor to The Village Voice. Sedarbaum told The Berkshire Eagle that his husband’s work in that decade “was an avenue to LGBTQ cartoonists to talk about their lives. And he captured how the gay community was handling the homophobic oppression during the Reagan years.”
During those years, Cruse and Sedarbaum became active in direct action groups including ACT UP and Queer Nation. Sedarbaum also became active in Democratic politics, and in 1998 challenged an anti-gay Queens state senator, George Onorato, in that party’s primary. Though his effort fell short, it was a harbinger of the dramatic progressive shift that has overtaken the borough in the years since.
Though the couple left New York in 2003 to settle in western Massachusetts, their connection to the city and its LGBTQ community remained profound. In a message to Gay City News, Sedarbaum wrote that Cruse’s “years in the heart of the movement in NYC were essential to who he was and who he became.”
Cruse’s publication of “Stuck Rubber Baby” in 1995 was a phenomenon in the comics and graphic novel industry. The prizes it earned included the Will Eisner Comic Industry Award, widely considered the equivalent of an Oscar in the film industry; the Harvey Award, another prestigious industry honor begun in 1988; the United Kingdom Comic Art Award for Best Graphic Album; and the critics’ prize at the Angoulême International Comics Festival in France.
“Stuck Rubber Baby” will be reissued in 2020.
A frequent presenter at comics conventions, Cruse in recent decades contributed to many anthologies and published collections of his work.
Perhaps no higher tribute in the queer comics world can be paid than that posted on Facebook by Alison Bechdel, creator of “Dykes to Watch Out For” and author of the graphic novel “Fun Home,” which adapted for Broadway. She wrote, “I am so sad and stunned. Howard Cruse died suddenly today — I knew he was fighting cancer, but it seemed like he was going to be okay. God! He is one of the sweetest people I have ever encountered, period, and he was super generous to me when I was a young cartoonist coming to him for advice. What a blow. The world has lost a true comics superhero.”
In addition to his husband, Cruse is survived by his daughter, Kimberly Kolze Venter, and his brother, Allan Cruse.
Sedarbaum said memorial services will be held both in western Massachusetts and New York. Details will be published at howardcruse.com
Gay City News appreciates the generous assistance provided by Jay Blotcher and Richard Goldstein in providing details about Howard Cruse’s life and career.