Acclaimed gay cartoonist Howard Cruse, whose strip “Wendel” graced the pages of The Advocate in the 1980s, has died.
Cruse died of cancer November 26 in North Adams, Mass., surrounded by friends and family, his daughter, Kimberly Kolze Venter, announced on Facebook. He was 75.
“He left a legacy with his artwork and was a trailblazer in this time,” his daughter wrote. “I’m so proud of him and so blessed he was in my life.”
Cruse, who grew up in rural Alabama, first gained popularity in the 1970s with a comic strip called “Barefootz,” which ran in underground newspapers and magazines. In the 1980s he founded the Gay Comix anthology series to run work by out creators. The 1980s also brought “Wendel,” which “chronicled the adventures of an upbeat young gay man trying to finish his novel and make sense of the world with the help of his boyfriend, Ollie, and a wonderfully diverse cast of friends, relatives, and hangers-on,” Alonso Duralde wrote in The Advocate in 2001, the year a collection of all the “Wendel” strips was published.
“Wendel” ran in The Advocate from 1983 to 1989, with a brief hiatus in 1985 and 1986; the cover and strip reproduced here marked its return. Cruse originally conceived of the comic as a humorous look at cruising, but he had to get political given the era, marked by the AIDS epidemic and the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who was no friend to LGBTQ people.
“Once I had done a couple of episodes, it was beginning to sink in that there was too much anxiety involved in the cruising scene in those days, because this was early in the epidemic, and I found it hard simply to make jokes about bar life,” he told Duralde. Advocate editors said Cruse could submit anything he wanted, so the strip featured issues of the day, but it also delved into Wendel’s romance with Ollie and never lost its sense of humor.
Cruse won even more acclaim with his graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, published in 1995. It told the story of a gay man coming of age in the South during the civil rights era of the 1960s and reflected the author’s life to some extent. It won several awards and was translated into a variety of languages. A 25th anniversary edition will be released next year by First Second Books, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Later, Cruse provided the illustrations for the book The Swimmer With a Rope in His Teeth, which came out in 2004, and he wrote and illustrated Felix’s Friends: A Story for Grown-Ups and Unpleasant Children, published in 2008. His work was also featured in anthologies.
Cruse’s survivors, in addition to his daughter, include his husband, Eddie Sedarbaum, and his brother, Allan Cruse. Find out more about Cruse’s life and career here.