Thursday, December 10, 2009

From Stonewall to Gay Marriage: The cartoon art of Howard Cruse

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All images courtesy of Howard Cruse.

There's something quite wonderful about artist Howard Cruse, and it isn't that he is gay, or a cartoonist. It's his perspective on gay life, his insights. You scan his latest work, a modest 99 page compendium of his gay cartoons from the last thirty-plus years, and realize that you have something important in your hands. In barely 100 pages, densely populated with his work, he has captured the emotional ups and downs of being gay in the America during the second half of the twentieth century.

Young Howard

More than some dry text on a gay studies reading list, he's captured an era. Through his characters, From Headrack to Claude is a personal collection of angst, rage, sexual folly, political activism and battles that mark the emergence of the gay movement, AIDS, safe sex, and the political battles with foes from Anita Bryant and Jesse Helms to Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell.

As you scan each panel of the chronology you discover the little details that mean so much. Headrack is introduced early on, Tiny Tim tip toes through the tulips on Page 7, Gay Lib emerges on Page 24, hot sex and relationships succeed and fail over a succession of pages, arriving, finally with the adventures of Claude who serves as the other bookend.

Attempting to put into words the genius that informs the cartoons is a hopeless task. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these are cartoons that express a million relationships, and the endless political struggles that have occupied the lesbian and gay community for the past 50 years.

The hypocrisy of religion is a favorite theme.

The collection also serves as an autobiography of sorts for Howard, and his long time partner, Ed Sederbaum. (They live down the street from me in North Adams.) In fact, without knowing either, you can easily deduce the complexities of their relationship. Copious notes appear throughout the book, which attempts to corral all of the artist's gay-themed comics he has ever published. Some may indeed be familiar, since Cruse was the first editor of Gay Comix starting in 1979, in which some of these pieces appeared, and of the famed 1980's Wendel series in the The Advocate.

The book makes a superb holiday present for both the mature gay who probably lived through much of the same adventures as Cruse's cast of characters. But it also is an eye-opener for those new to the community. It helps bring the colorful history of the gay movement down to earth, in the form of characters and adventures that speak to all ages.

From Headrack to Claude is available from Lulu Press for under $20.00. Howard Cruse is also the artist behind the full length Stuck Rubber Baby, the award winning novel-length cartoon story of growing up gay in Alabama.

Fans of the artist frequent both his website where there is a wealth of historical materials, and his blog Loose Cruse.

Safe Sex and Aids received the Cruse treatment in a major project that broke all the rules.

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