When Howard Cruse's first and only original graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, was published by DC Comics' Paradox Press imprint in 1995, it garnered great reviews, where it could get them, before it silently slipped away from a world that wasn't quite ready for it.
Poised for rerelease this June from DC, Cruse's autobiographical and ahead-of-its-time work explores the gay themes of his shorter cartoon work, but within the context of the Civil Rights movement in 1960s Alabama--the world in which he was born and raised. Illustrated in a detailed drawing style that used stippling to model the figures, Stuck Rubber Baby surveyed the struggles of the Civil Rights movement in the racist south but also offered the story of a young gay man coming to terms with his sexuality during that volatile period of American history. The book was a creative high point for Cruse that not only revealed a new level of maturity in his storytelling but in his artwork as well, rendering a dark tapestry of the history of racial conflict in the U.S. that is both a personal and public story for him.
Cruse made his name in underground comics in the 1970s after moving on from his initial dream of having his own daily comic strip in a national syndicate and into a more raw creative field. In 1980, he edited the first issues of Gay Comix, and his regular strip Wendel appeared in The Advocate, a precursor to the autobiographical slice of life style comics that would dominate self-published and indie titles in the 1990s.
For the past several years, Cruse has made a new home in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts with his husband Ed Sederbaum, pursuing personal projects, as well as his freelance career. He published two issues of the area's local artzine, The North County Perp, which features his own work alongside local creators. He has also put together print-on-demand collections, most notably From Headrack to Claude, which collects a number of his gay-themed comics. Cruse also regularly maintains his blog Loose Cruse.
PWCW: Is the reissue of Stuck Rubber Baby the result of your idea or DC's?
Howard Cruse: I got an email message from Joan Hilty, who is an editor at Vertigo and also an old friend, and she said that DC Comics was going reissue it as part of a reissuing a bunch of books from the back list, specifically Vertigo books. As I understand it they have developed a new cooperative distribution deal with Random House. I think that's the impetus partly, and, of course, the landscape has changed. When Stuck Rubber Baby came out, it was pretty much ignored by most of the mainstream press. It did get some reviews here and there, but, for example, it did not get a review in the New York Times Book Review. The book had a hard time breaking through to readers who might be interested who didn't already know my work from the work I had done in the gay community. I think they are hoping that at this point the book-having gained more visibility by virtue of winning a number of awards and getting a number of translations into other countries-maybe will get some fresh attention. We are all certainly hoping that. They wanted a new package, so I've done new cover art, and they have a new introduction by Alison Bechdel.
PWCW: Fifteen years has made a big difference for gay themes and portrayals of gay people in mainstream popular culture. What impact do you think that will have on the reissue?
HC: In the 1980s there was a burst of gay themed novels that made it into the mainstream, and people were saying, "Oh, this is a new gay fiction boom." Since then it has been more common for straight people not to feel that if a book has gay themes it's not for them, and so that makes for a more accepting situation for a gay author. However, I think the prejudice has been more about comics than about gays. Obviously earlier than that gay content was a big issue, but I think people learning to view stories told in the comics form, as literature, is still fighting its way.
I think the opinion-makers and the intelligentsia--so-called--have gotten that idea more, and there are art galleries that are showing original comics art on their walls, and a number of [comics] have become so familiar that no one questions if they are literature. But still you're kind of fighting uphill with a lot of people. There's still a tendency that drives comics people crazy-when newspapers put the headline for a story about some new graphic novel as "Bam, pow, comics are now for grown-ups!" It has a condescending ring to it. Also at this point, a bigger problem than non-acceptance of gay artists is simply that the world of print is falling apart. There are no longer nearly as many gay papers or alternative papers that will run comics, so a lot of cartoonists are limited to the web, which is why web comics is where the real creativity is flowering at this point in history for both gay comics and non-gay comics.
PWCW: Your life has changed enormously since you did Stuck Rubber Baby - for instance, you left in New York City in 2003 after three decades there. How has the transition to rural life affected your work?
HC: The fact is that I am now no longer a young Turk in any sense of the word. I'm a guy who went on Social Security last year. I no longer live anywhere near a major gay community, but the kinds of things that made me want to draw stories about that community, I've already drawn that. I have a low boredom threshold and I don't like covering the same ground over and over again. Wendel flourished because it grew out of the experience of not just being gay in New York, but being gay at a time of great challenge under the Reagan administration. There was a great deal of ferment within the gay community, some of it in direct response to attacks from outside. At this point there are still attacks from outside, but it's not as ferocious as it was during the 1980s. I mean, Eddie and I are married. That was unimaginable in the â€˜80s!
PWCW: A long-form work like Stuck Rubber Baby was really a one-time endeavor for you-what are you looking forward to doing creatively at this point in your life?
HC: I don't have the markets I used to have, but also I have to find myself as a person. Who am I as an older person? What are my interests and what do I want to do artistically? I don't want to do a succession of graphic novels. I was able to do Stuck Rubber Baby because it dealt with themes that had been simmering within me ever since I was a kid in Birmingham, Alabama. It summarized pretty much everything I had learned about making comics from the preceding 20 years I had been doing underground comics and Wendel. So while I was doing Stuck Rubber Baby, I also had the feeling that this was the peak of that experience, although I will continue to enjoy drawing and probably draw comics from time to time, as the central core of my creative being it doesn't play the role that it used to.
I'm interested in other things-I'm interested in doing some playwriting and perhaps writing fiction in text form. I'm also interested in rediscovering my roots in theatre. Right now I'm in a community theater production-this is returning to my roots from my college days that haven't had a chance to be expressed in quite a few decades because there was simply never the time. It takes out of your life to do theater. I'm in a real period of ferment right now. What I've done before isn't necessarily predictive of what I'll do next, and I'm not entirely sure where this will all lead.