Today, a gay character in comics doesn’t seem that odd. Just last year, Archie Comics introduced Kevin Keller, Riverdale High’s first gay student, with hardly an eyebrow raised. But in the 1980s, life was very different for the homosexual community. So, when Howard Cruse wrote and drew his groundbreaking comic strip Wendel, it was revolutionary.
In her introduction to The Complete Wendel, a new collection of the series coming from Rizzoli’s Universe Books imprint in April, cartoonist Alison Bechdel, creator of the critically acclaimed graphic memoir Fun Home and a friend of Cruse’s, explained why, in its time, Wendel was so unique.
“You’ll find virtually no discussion of gay marriage in the pages of Wendel,” wrote Bechdel. “The issue that has now become practically synonymous with LGBT civil rights was not high on the homosexual agenda in the eighties. Yet Wendel and Ollie’s loving, committed relationship is a paragon of stability,” Bechdel wrote. “They parent a young boy, negotiate with Ollie’s ex-wife, have loving exchanges with Wendel’s parents, and come out to co-workers. They don’t live in a parallel universe like Chelsea or Castro, they’re ‘the gays next door,’ integrated for the most part seamlessly into the broader community,” she explained.
The Wendel comic stripran almost continuously from 1983-1989 in the national gay interest magazine, The Advocate. But this is the first time the entire comic strip series will be collected and widely released. There was another collection in 2001 titled Wendel All Together, but due to the collapse of Olmstead Press (a division of the LPC Group), there are very few copies to be found.
The book will be a part of Rizzoli’s Gay Interest list and is part of a larger list of comics-related books slated for this year. Universe has previously partnered with DC Comics to produce a book about Wonder Woman, as well as the DC Cover Girls book and according to Pearlman, the house is looking to produce more graphic novels in the future.
Rizzoli is typically known for fine art and coffee table books, but Robb Perlman, the Universe editor who brought in the project, feels that Wendel is important enough that it will hold its own on a list heavy with works on classic and cutting-edge contemporary art and design.
“What [Howard Cruse] did was so incredibly groundbreaking when it happened. It was an important thing that happened in comics and cartoon art but it was also an important thing that happened in history and in American media,” said Pearlman. “I thought his characterization, his style, the sincerity with which he worked and still does work, sort of set the tone for a lot of other artists and a lot of other art. It was an important piece of history that needed to be remembered and out there.”
“It really is a period piece. It is life as it was once lived and not life as it’s lived now,” said author Howard Cruse on the relevancy of Wendel for a modern audience. “Obviously the success of the book with younger generations will depend on how interested they are in stretching their imaginations to imagine a time when things were very different than they are now,” said Cruse. “It was much more threatening to be gay because of the level of discrimination and stigma that was coming down from the government and religious leaders to just general public figures that were dismissive to condemnatory to gay people,” he said.
We’ve come a long way since then, but both Cruse and Pearlman expressed that the stories Wendel told, while dated, are at their core, so universal, that a modern audience will still be able to learn from the strip.
“People who are not necessarily gay, but who are interested in what the world looks like from the perspective of gay people, those are the people who we hope will take interest in this book, which you don’t have to be a gay liberationist to enjoy,” said Cruse.