As It Happens

Remembering Howard Cruse, a gay comics pioneer and 'tremendous mentor'

New York cartoonist Jennifer Camper remembers her friend Howard Cruse, who broke barriers with his comics about gay life and civil rights.

Jennifer Camper says Cruse 'opened the door for people who were not represented in the comics industry'

Jennifer Camper with her friend Howard Cruse. (Submitted by Jennifer Camper)

For cartoonist Jennifer Camper, it wasn't just that Howard Cruse broke down barriers. It's that after breaking that new ground, Cruse continued to pave the way forward and share his many talents with future generations.

The underground cartoonist died on Nov. 26. He was 75.

The Comics Journal described Cruse as the "godfather of queer comics" and "one of the greatest cartoonists of his generation."

Cruse was best known for his graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, and for his strip called Wendel, which told the story of a young gay man. 

Camper first met Cruse when she was just starting out in the industry. He quickly became a mentor and friend to the budding cartoonist.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Camper about their friendship and how Cruse helped create space for so many other cartoonists to share their stories.

Here is part of their conversation.

What was most special about Howard Cruise's comics?

His comics were groundbreaking. He told stories that had never been told before in comics form or in much of literature.

He opened the door for people who were not represented in the comics industry, and that included queer people, women and people of [colour].

And his technique was amazing. He did things in comics that nobody had really tried before. And that was really exciting to see.

Let's just start with the stories themselves. What was the story he was telling through his comics?

In his comic Wendel, he was telling us a story of regular gay person and what they go through in their day-to-day lives.

He brought in all the issues of the time, and Wendel was published in the '80s. So we were dealing with Reagan politics and the AIDS crisis — and just the day-to-day lives of regular gay people in America.

And as simple as that may sound, that was spectacular because nobody else was doing it.

It's hard to imagine ... now what it was like in the '80s, isn't it? Because now there is so much freedom, so much openness, and yet, at the time, when he started his career, homosexuality was still criminalized, wasn't it?

It was. And he started doing openly gay cartoons during the '70s in the underground comics world where it was completely filled with straight white men.

Howard was the first that I know of that had an openly queer character. And then in 1980, he started editing Gay Comix, which was an anthology comic book that was with queer men and women. And Howard always opened the door to have equal representation for women.

You mentioned the HIV AIDS crisis in the 1980s. People were losing friends at a rapid rate and it was a huge crisis for people. How did he depict that in the comics?

He depicted in his comics as the reality that we were living with.

It was very personal to him, to all of us, and he had that visceral experience of everyone's fear of losing their loved ones, losing their community, and of their own health and preciousness of their lives.

And then fighting, at the same time, the political repression that was going on at the time.

How open was he in his [comics] to being sexually graphic? Was there eroticism or explicit sexuality in them?

Yes, his comics were very sexy. And in all his comics there was a great deal of warmth and humour and sexiness, and he was being published in the gay publications that allowed that kind of storytelling.

It was exhilarating for people to see their own lives and their sexuality represented. And also, the way he drew people was just very exuberant, and his characters were all sort of bigger than life.

And so it was playful, as well, was it?

Very much so, very much so.

And then his groundbreaking work was Stuck Rubber Baby, which he published in 1995. And that was a graphic novel about a gay man coming of age in Birmingham during the civil rights movement activism of the 1960s.

There, he brought in all kinds of historical and personal references to the civil rights movement and the early gay movement, and had incredible insights into how they intersected.

How did you become friends with Howard Cruse?

I met Howard originally through his work. I saw his work in his early underground comic called Barefootz. And then when he created Gay Comix in 1980, I saw those first issues, and I submitted work to it.

I was a young cartoonist just starting out and had only been published in a few gay newspapers.

He accepted my work and he was my first editor who corrected my misspellings, and did all those wonderful things that an editor did.

He became my mentor. We later met in real life and he was there for me all through my career and for so many people.

A huge number of queer cartoonists and other cartoonists turned to Howard whenever we had a question. He was a tremendous mentor to a number of cartoonists.

Is there a particular memory, something you will remember Howard by?

He was such a southern gentleman. He was so generous and so humble.

So many times all of us would gush about how grateful we were to him. And he would sort of laugh at us. But he was always able to give us time. And there's any number of techniques I use today that I refer to as the Howard Cruse method.

I remember an afternoon in my apartment where he painstakingly showed Alison Bechdel how to do cross-hatching on my coffee table. He offered Ivan Velez a table at an early Comic-Con when nobody would have queer cartoons at a comic convention. There's just any number of generous actions he took.

I still reread all his work, and it's still very powerful and relevant today.

Written by Katie Geleff and John McGill. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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