Howard Cruse is considered by many to be one of the great modern American cartoonists, though he’s drawn few comics in the past two decades. A noted underground creator before becoming the founding editor of the anthology “Gay Comix” in 1980, Cruse has a reputation for tackling head-on a topic that had been largely taboo. Throughout most of the 1980’s, he wrote and illustrated a comic strip for “The Advocate.” “Wendel” began as a light-hearted sex comedy, but quickly became something more as the titular character started a long term relationship and the strip depicted the gay community in a way that had rarely been seen before.
After he ended the strip, Cruse created the graphic novel “Stuck Rubber Baby,” released in 1995 through DC Comics and re-released in a new hardcover edition last year from by Vertigo. Compared favorably to Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” at the time of its release, “Stuck Rubber Baby” told the fictional account of a young white man coming of age in the Civil Right era, though much of it was informed by Cruse’s own experiences growing up.
The Universe imprint of Rizzoli has just released “The Complete Wendel,” collecting Cruse’s strip from “The Advocate” with additional material and a new strip detailing where the characters are now. CBR News spoke with Cruse about his work and career and whether we can look forward to more from him in the future.
CBR News: When reading “The Complete Wendel,” it was interesting to see how the strip evolved over the years. Take us back to when the comic began. It would have been 1982 when it started, correct?
Howard Cruse: ’83 was when it first ran. I had gotten my feet wet doing stories for “Gay Comix,” a comic series which I also edited and had started. “The Village Voice” had noticed those and asked me to do some gay-themed strips for them, and then “The Advocate” asked if it could reprint the first strip I did for the “Voice.” I got acquainted with the editors through that. I don’t think they actually remembered that I’d sold some gag cartoons to them back in the seventies. That was long ago. Having made contact, I began lusting after the large pages of “The Advocate,” which was a tabloid at the time. I was thinking that it would be fun to do a comic strip that would occupy one of those pages. At the time, I was just thinking of getting one single strip in there, just for fun. They had this section called the pink pages, which was the disreputable part of the magazine. They had the sex classified ads and stuff like that. Only subscribers got that section. It wasn’t on the newsstands. I thought, why don’t I do something humorous about the gay singles scene. I worked up a proposal and sent it to them, and they were fine with it. It was a single strip. They were very pleased with it and it got some good reader response, so they asked for another one. And then they asked for another one. It was after I’d done several they said, why don’t you start doing these for us frequently? It wasn’t established for some time that it would be every issue, but it was most issues for a while. Then finally they said, okay, let’s just put it in the main section of the magazine and run it every issue. And so the first series in the book, the ones that are printed sideways, that ran through 1985.
All of a sudden, they told me of their decision to shrink the size of the magazine to a conventional [magazine] size. That threw me, because the whole idea of having a big page to do a strip was that I had room to have a whole little sequence. It was not just about doing a gag, it was a mini one-act play. When I tried to do a single page strip on the smaller size, it distorted the whole feeling of the strip. It wasn’t enough room to develop anything or set a pace, just an aim and a joke. I thought it damaged the strip, so I told them that I thought I would not go with them to the new format. About a year and a half later, I had the idea of, what if you give me two of the new size pages? And also could you pay me a little more? By then, they had decided that it was a valuable feature and so they said yes. We worked out a deal where essentially I had creative freedom. I would send them the finished strips and they would print them. That worked well for another few years, starting in ’86 going until ’89, when I decided that the money I was making from the strip was not keeping up with inflation and I began to hurt financially. I said, it’s time to end the strip. I probably would have ended it a year after that, if nothing else had entered into it. I like to try new things. I don’t like to just do the same project year after year after year.
When I first started the strip, I thought it was just going to be a spoof of the sex scene, but by then, AIDS was beginning to make a big impact on the community. I realized that the sense of light-heartedness and one night stands and all of that was becoming burdened by the fact that this deadly epidemic was going on. I got the idea of letting Wendel get in a relationship, and that was a great idea. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier. I could use the material from my own relatively new relationship. My husband Eddie and I had gotten together in ’78, so it was still fresh in my mind. All of that awkwardness of starting a new relationship and learning to live with somebody that you hadn’t known existed a few years before. That was great, because there had been sex-focused gay cartoons before, but there hadn’t really been one that followed the ups and downs of a relationship. That allowed me to feel like I had covered new ground and that made it more creatively interesting.
Was the strip particularly autobiographical? You wrote in the book’s introduction about how you would often tie the strip to current events.
Exactly. There are not exact parallels in my life to the characters or most of the events. Usually, I was satirizing and exaggerating things that happened in the real world. In that sense, it’s autobiographical, but through a comic prism. People would often ask whether Eddie and I were Wendel and Ollie, and the truth of the matter is, that was not the case. Wendel and Ollie represented two side of my personality. There was the side that’s idealistic and excited about being an activist and full of ideas and ambitions, then there’s the side that’s older and a little more scarred by life and that was the Ollie side. The character of Sterno was really the one that was most parallel to Eddie.
One thing that interested me, and I thought it was an interesting parallel, is that Alison Bechdel’s strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For” started a little after “Wendel.” What distinguishes them both is that they are ultimately portraits of the gay and lesbian communities at that time.
Well, the fact is that I’m not particularly skilled at making things up out of thin air. “Wendel,” and I think this is true of Alison’s strip, too, was really based on the life I was leading. Since the life I was leading not only involved being in a relationship but involved a circle of friends with varying personalities, it was perfectly natural to reflect the kinds of relationships with the kind of people that I was in regular contact with. This was in New York during the 1980s, so for instance, the friends that I ran around with were people who for the most part were political activists. The rise of the AIDS epidemic had generated a more intense activism, because people’s lives were actually at stake. That became reflected in the strip and that was something that was community-wide. I never felt that the strip was about politics. It was about people, but the people in the strip were political.
And it is about people. I don’t mean to imply otherwise, but simply depicting the gay community, especially back then, was a political act.
I guess now we’re used to the idea of the gay community as a community, but then that was kind of a new concept that the general public at large was skeptical of. We were thought of, during the homophobic eighties, as essentially libidinous people who couldn’t control our crotches. It was hard to acknowledge that we had families and friendships. That our relationships were more substantial than just a chance to have a lot of sex. It was certainly a political action to not yield to those stereotypes and to say, this is the way it actually is. Also, there was my feeling of responsibility as an artist in the gay community, to give gay people the experience of being taken seriously in my field. Obviously, I was just one cartoonist, but it had not been done much to simply take as a premise that we’re regular human beings. [Laughs] That’s something I tried to do in the strip.
How did this book, “The Complete Wendel” happen? There have been other collections before.
There were partial collections, but once the strip had a beginning, middle and end, it just made sense to put it all in one book at some point. The early books had gone out of print by the end of the nineties, so I put a certain amount of energy into trying to interest publishers in doing a complete “Wendel” collection, but without much success for a long time. Then, in 2000, this publisher called LPC Group agreed to put out a complete “Wendel” collection called “Wendel All Together.” That was exciting, but the bad news was that they promptly went bankrupt. Eventually, the book was sold as part of the bankruptcy and was purchased by a small press in Rhode Island. So, technically speaking, it was in print. You could buy it from their website. Finally, I managed to get the books declared out of print by personally purchasing the remaining stock. In return for doing that purchase at remaindered rate, the rights came back to me. Denis Kitchen, my longtime publisher in underground comics, who by this point has become a book agent, agreed to see if he could place it with a new publisher. When Rizzoli became interested, that was very exciting, but they wanted to give it a new title and put at least some new material in it. That’s why “The Complete Wendel” came about. They asked me to do the new feature at the end, “Where are they now?” so there would be a new comic strip in the book and Alison did her introduction.
I wanted to ask about the pull quotes on the book. You have praise from the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner, cartoonists Alison Bechdel and Lynn Johnston and Sir Ian McKellan. Four very impressive people.
[Laughs] I had gotten to know Tony [Kushner] before “Angels in America.” He was already making a name for himself among people who followed innovative theater. When I got the chance to do “Stuck Rubber Baby,” he was interested in it. Then, when I had this financial crisis, he was very helpful in being one of the people who purchased artwork from it before it was drawn in order to help raise funds to finish the book. I asked him tentatively — giving him lots of permission not to, because by then he was a really big deal — but I said, would he possibly do an introduction to “Stuck Rubber Baby,” and he did a wonderful one in the original edition. Tony had been a big supporter of “Wendel” all along. When we first met, it was just socially. I didn’t know who he was and he didn’t know who I was, but then when it came to light that I was doing “Wendel,” he was excited because he had become a regular reader. Tony was very supportive of me and always has been.
In the case of Ian McKellan, it occurred to me when putting out “Wendel All Together” that Ian McKellan would be the perfect person to blurb the book. For one thing, he’s clearly a mensch, you can tell from his interviews. A real courageous person for having come out of the closet. I thought, maybe there’s an Ian McKellan website, and lo and behold, there was. So I left an email for the webmaster and asked, is this just a fan site or do you actually know Ian McKellan and he said no, we’re in contact every few weeks. I said, would you mind forwarding an email from me to him. I composed an email and described “Wendel” and asked if he would consider taking a look at the entire collection and if he liked it, to do a blurb for this collection. A few days later, there was an email from Ian McKellan in my inbox, which was wonderful. I’ve been such a fan of his. He can do no wrong, as far as I’m concerned, as an actor.
As you mentioned, you did a “Where are they now” strip for this collection. Had you thought about the characters over the years?
I thought about them. As I say in my preface to the book, they’d become very real to me and my mind would drift to what they might have been doing. When Rizzoli asked me if I would do a “Where are they now” feature, I felt that I really should cooperate and do that, but in a way, it was weird. I wouldn’t want to pin that down. I think of that as a province of the readers to make up their own stories of what might have become of the characters, which is why I open that thing with a dodge that we’re just speculating about imaginary characters and here’s some speculations from me and you do your own. The chronology’s a little weird because they’re obviously not aging in real time. It was a goof. I don’t take it seriously at all.
Since “Stuck Rubber Baby,” you’ve mostly retired from cartooning.
I’ve done small projects, often for obscure places. There was a magazine named “Harpoon” that ran for, I think, three issues. It was a well produced humor magazine, but very few people saw it. I did a few pieces for that. Because “Stuck Rubber Baby” was received so well, a lot of people assumed I was going to do more graphic novels, but that took a lot out of me. For one thing, it took me ten years to recover economically. I had to concentrate on doing freelance illustration work and teaching and anything else I could do to try to get out of debt. Also, I’m not somebody who has a stack of novel ideas waiting to be exploited. “Stuck Rubber Baby” specifically drew on my experience of being in Alabama during the sixties and a lot of feeling that accumulated over my memories of the Civil Rights Era and my anger at the degree to which the ideals of the Civil Rights Era were being abandoned. By the time the eighties were over, I had a lot to say about the cynicism that had overtaken America and I wanted to express that and my beliefs in the continuing values and heroism of that time. As well as talk about how unheroic I had been, although I didn’t use myself as a character, obviously. I didn’t have interesting adventures like Toland, but I did share with him the cynicism about what grassroots politics could accomplish and then having that cynicism countered by watching real change happen down South. It was very natural for me to want to be a part of the gay rights movement. That’s one reason I moved from the South.
Maybe something will happen and I’ll get excited enough to do another graphic novel, but I think that’s unlikely. It takes a huge amount of energy and I’m twenty years older than I was when I started “Stuck Rubber Baby.” I get exhausted just thinking about it. I’ll do small projects.
I think the question in people’s minds is, you created a successful long term comic strip and then you went and created what I think is one of the great graphic novels — and then you haven’t done many comics since.
For me, it was sort of like climbing the mountain that was waiting there to be climbed. If you were doing short pieces, as I was doing with “Wendel” and for underground comics, in the back of your mind was always this question of, could I do a long form comic? Could I do a graphic novel? If so, what would it be like? That was something that I would think about idly over the years, but it was so incredibly impractical because, how was I going to support myself while that was going on? Then I had this unexpected opportunity thanks to DC Comics to do a graphic novel. Even though it turned out that the advance they paid, which was lavish compared to any advance I’d ever received before, but half as much as I needed. It will always be the peak creative experience, I think, of my life. I’m so glad I got to do it once. I just can’t do it time after time. Doing a comic strip like “Wendel” was hugely fulfilling. I was living and breathing those characters over the years.
Do you see yourself doing more cartooning?
Oh sure. I still cartoon. It just, like I said, tends to pop up in obscure places.
I know that you did a few short comics for Jennifer Camper’s anthologies, “Juicy Mother.”
Yes, I did short pieces for Jennifer Camper. There used to be this webcomic called “Young Bottoms in Love” that I did a story for. It was reprinted when they did a book collection, and also I included it in my self-published collection “From Headrack to Claude.” I did it through lulu.com. Basically, I was tired of having all of this stuff that I’d done for “Gay Comix” and other obscure places being out of print. Since there was no sign on the horizon for a publisher that wanted to do a book collection of all of my gay themed stuff over 32 years other than “Wendel” and “Stuck Rubber Baby,” I just decided I’d do it myself as a print on demand book. It costs virtually nothing. It also is never going to be seen in a regular bookstore. If you go to my website, you’ll see references to that as soon as you get there. That has all of my “Gay Comix” stuff, all the stuff I did for “The Village Voice,” and the piece I did for “Young Bottoms in Love.” All of that stuff that I did before 2009.
The problem is, I have no market. To the extent that the alternative papers still exist, they’re all so hard up for money, they won’t pay any serious money for comic strips. Unless you’re ready to go through the rigors of self-syndication, which is really, really hard and takes up all your time. Alison [Bechdel], although she did it successfully for many years, it was very wearying and she was happy to put that behind her. If I have an idea for a comic strip now, I have no place to publish it. I could publish it on the web. It’s unclear whether many people will see it and you get no money for it. And it’s a little demoralizing to do too much free work. I mean, nobody pays me to do my blog, and I enjoy doing the blog. That’s a creative outlet, right now. I still might do a webcomic, sometime. Like I say, things stir in my head. I’m trying to retire from sweating it a lot. I’ll do it if I feel like it, but at this point I’m on Social Security. I have a check coming in every month, and though it’s not lavish, it keeps the wolf from the door. I’m not under the gun to freelance all the time.
It’s not a good time for many publications.
Nobody knows how things are going to sort out with print vs digital. It all depends on, can anyone make money on these things? The idea of doing webcomics for free is particularly attractive if you’re young and at the beginning of your career and don’t mind living in poverty or you have a day job. There’s a lot of great comics being done on the web. But when you get older, it’s a little harder to justify spending time doing a lot of things for free.
Also, I’m sure it’s disheartening to do for free something that you used to be decently paid to do.
Yeah. This is my profession. I like having it as a profession. I don’t particularly enjoy reverting to amateur status. But the point is, I’m not a snob about doing stuff for free. If it’s fun, I’ll do it. I just did a comic strip for an Italian magazine. They were doing a jam strip with dozens of artists from all over the world, and there’s no mention of my being paid for my three panels. If I have a chance to do something fun, I’ll do it. I didn’t get paid for the “Juicy Mother” stuff. Jennifer’s a friend. Things come up where I do things for free, but as a practice, like I said, it’s demoralizing. It makes you feel not valued if nobody will pay you for your work.
And doing something long term or a long form project is a whole other commitment of time and energy.
It’s a big commitment to do a series. The only way to make a webcomic work is to be very reliable, to do it on a regular schedule and to do it for a long time. So many webcomics that have actually established themselves sell merchandise and sell advertising. Those happen because people have the energy and determination to deal with those hurdles. I dealt with a lot of hurdles like that in the early stages of my career. I know comics pay very little, but it was a chance to express myself and make a name for myself. Early in your career, that’s a big, important thing. I know I’m repeating myself.
If I had the equivalent of “Wendel” today, I can’t think of any magazine that would pay reasonable money for it. But even if there were, I sort of feel like, I did that. I had that experience. It was a great experience. I don’t need to keep doing it. I’m beginning to feel like a slacker in all this conversation. [laughs] I’m in transition. Right now there happens to be a little burst of interest in books collecting my old material. Part of what I did in the last few years was doing new cover art for “Stuck Rubber Baby” and the new cover art for “The Complete Wendel” and the new comic strip for “Wendel.” Right now there’s some movement about doing a book collection of my non-gay comics. That involves a certain amount of work. Some of my older comics need to be digitized and need to be worked on because they have yellowed and decayed and the zip tone has come off over the years. There’s a lot of projects that have to do with revisiting old work going on right now, but in the back of my mind are new projects that I may very well get around to.
The main thing is, I want to stay creative. That’s very important to me. The blog gives me a chance to do that, as well as the small cartooning projects that come along.
Obviously, I wonder whether young gay people could relate [to “Wendel”] since the world has changed so much since the eighties. I’m hoping it’ll be interesting as a period piece. Hopefully we’ll never again have the kind of governmental homophobia and homophobia in high places that was going on the eighties. Hopefully we’ll never again see a threat to life like the AIDS epidemic. AIDS is, of course, still with us, but we no longer have our friends dying right and left, at least in the gay community. Sadly, it’s happening overseas. It’s a look at how gay life used to be, and hopefully young gay people will get a little perspective on what they have now and maybe what their responsibility is to their own community at this point.
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