Howard Cruse, a pioneering underground and queer cartoonist and author of the acclaimed queer/civil rights graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, died November 26 from lymphoma at a hospital in Pittsfield Ma., near his home in Williamstown, Ma. He was 75.
A well-known underground cartoonist who began his career during the rise of eccentric small press comics in the 1960s and 1970s before revealing his sexuality, Cruse is also hailed as “the godfather of queer cartoonists,” for coming out as gay at a time that put his mainstream publishing career in jeopardy.
Cruse was born in Alabama and began is cartooning career in college and in local newspapers. His first comics strip Barefootz, launched in 1971 and featured a cute drawing style in a series that did not include LGBTQ content. In 1979 Cruse began editing Gay Comix, an anthology title launched by Denis Kitchen of Kitchen Sink Press, moving to reveal his own sexuality and recruiting a generation of queer cartoonists for its pages. And as the LGBTQ movement and AIDS crisis began to grow in the 1980s, Cruse also created Wendel, an ongoing humorous comic strip about an idealistic gay man and his friends that ran in the LGBTQ newsmagazine The Advocate.
In 1995 DC’s now defunct Paradox Press published Stuck Rubber Baby, a groundbreaking 210-page graphic novel set in the South (based on his life) during the Civil Rights movement that focused on bigotry aimed at the LGBTQ community and the racism faced by black people and their fight for social and racial justice. Cruse worked on the book for four years (though his advance ran out after two years, leaving him in serious financial trouble) and developed a new and more realistic stippled and cross-hatched drawing style to better reflect the serious narrative of the book.
Despite disappointing sales, Stuck Rubber Baby received high critical praise and won Eisner and Harvey awards for Best Graphic Novel in addition to being nominated for ALA’s Lesbian and Gay Book Award and for the Lambda Literary Award. A new 25th anniversary hardcover edition of Stuck Rubber Baby will be published by First Second Books in 2020.
While Cruse is hailed for his cartooning skills and groundbreaking queer comics works, he is equally praised for his work in support of a generation of LGBTQ cartoonists who sought out and received his advice and support in innumerable ways. Among them was Alison Bechdel, who notes Cruse's influence on Dykes to Watch Out For and her bestselliing queer graphic memoir Fun Home.