Nov 27, 2015

Howard Cruse: The World's Most Depressing Gay Comic Artist

I just bought From Headrack to Claude, a compendium of the work of Howard Cruse, with author commentary.

He's one of the most famous gay cartoonists of all time, so I thought I should give his work another chance.

Until recently  I thought it was a nom de plume, Howard Cruise, as in a play on cruising.

I first heard of "Howard Cruise" in the early 1980s, when the Advocate featured his comic strip Wendel.

Wendel was an average-looking, not-too-bright gay guy getting himself into mildly amusing situations as he negotiated life in the gay ghetto of New York.  Cruising, dating, romance...homophobia, AIDS, misery, heartache, despair pain, sadness, death.

Soon the mildly amusing situations gave way to the grim and heartrending, as Wendel faced gay-bashing, breakups, debilitating non-AIDS related illnesses, homophobia, AIDS, death, death, misery, depression, despair, heartache, pain, death, death, death.

This cover shows Wendel, his boyfriend, and their son watching in dismay as murderous hands approach, and the voice on the radio says: "We red-blooded, God-fearing Americans know what to do with the degenerates in our midst."

Who could stand to read the thing?

Eventually Cruse squeezed all of the tears he could get out of Wendel, and put him out to pasture, turning to other depressing projects.  In 1987, Dancing Nekkid with the Angels appeared: Comic Strips and Stories for Grownups.  

For grownups?  Does that mean that the gloves would come off, that the glimmers of humor that occasionally appeared in Wendel would be gone, replaced by "life is endless pain, unremitting agony!"

Sorry, there aren't enough antidepressants in the world to handle that.  I ran.

Next came a graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby published in 1995.

Ok, the title was disgusting -- who wants to read a graphic novel about a rubber baby with needles sticking out of it?

Upon research, I discovered the title is actually an incredibly obscure reference to what happens when a condom (aka rubber) gets "stuck," allowing semen to escape and conception to occur.  That's even more disgusting.   And it doesn't seem like a problem gay people have often.

It is the semi-autobiographical story of a boy experiencing the unremitting agony of life while growing up in the 1950s South.  Of course, most everyone he meets want to kick him out of the house, beat him up, arrest him, or kill him because he's gay, but that's only the tip of the iceberg of the gloom and despair:
1. His parents die in an auto accident, naturally.
2. He has sex with a woman to "cure" his gayness, and gives up the resulting child for adoption.
3. His friend is murdered.
4. A community center is bombed, killing lots of his friends.
5. His other friend is murdered.

Ok, I get it: gay people are doomed to lives of constant pain, unremitting agony, sadness, heartache, depression, despair, tragedy, gloom, death, death, death, death, death.

Or is it everybody, just the human condition?

From Headrack to Claude is supposed to contain "all" of  Cruse's 1970s Barefootz underground comix, Wendel (of course), Stuck Rubber Baby, some depressing one-pagers, and a send-up of the 1950s comic book Little Lulu.  Her traumatic memories involve child molestation, drug addiction, masturbation, fetishes, and...well, you get the idea.

Claude is about how all religious people are violent homophobes who want to kill us.


Look at this picture of a guy with washboard abs and huge veiny biceps.

Now try to convince yourself that life is unremitting agony.

See also: Gay Comix of the 1980s.; The Horrible Beefcake of the Horrible Home Town of Howard Cruse


  1. Cruse (also Cross) was a common nom de plume for Cruz as well. So people in California didn't know you were Mexican, or people in Florida didn't know you were Cuban.

    So, a reference to self-hatred?

    1. I thought it was a nom de plume, after "cruising," the search for anonymous sexual partners.


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