Apart from two short works in recent anthologies, Howard Cruse has unfortunately been absent from bookstores for a long time. The publication of From Headrack to Claude1, a collection of gay-themed stories which does not contain any really new work, will hopefully serve as a reminder of the historical and artistic importance of Howard Cruse’s contribution to the field of (queer) comics.
In 100 pages, 24 strips ranging from a few panels to 12 pages, and informative behind-the-scenes comments, Cruse covers more than thirty years, beginning with the Barefootz strip where one of the character momentously came out: Headrack was a painter, friends with the eponymous shoe-less main character, in a strip that Cruse wrote and drew in the 70s for various underground comics. Then, in 1976, a long story showed Headrack confronting a homophobic guy in the unique way of the characters of that series, that is, by blending social commentary and absurdist humor, real-life questions and flights of fancy which owed not a little to Cruse’s own dabbling in mind-altering drugs. Cruse wasn’t professionally out yet, so this strip was obviously very important to him (and it’s never been reprinted before).
Even more important was his 1980 professional coming-out when he edited the first four issues of Gay Comix, a comic-sized anthology published by Denis Kitchen. From Headrack to Claude contains all the strips he did for this anthology, except for a one-pager that’s included in the big Wendel All Together collection. There’s great humor in some of those strips (the parody of Matt Groening’s Akbar And Jeff is hilarious, as is the story of a lonely gay guy ordering a butch-looking, mustachioed doll to keep him company), but it seems to me that, essentially, Cruse’s stories are about the way we relate to each other, filtered through Cruse’s sensibilities, where whimsical situations and serious themes are never incompatible.
Billy Goes Out shows a young man wandering through his own life after a tragic loss, Jerry Mack sees an older pastor reflecting on his youth and the way he “managed” to escape his same-sex attractions, and Dirty Old Lovers gives us the unforgettable portrait of two old guys still taking large bites out of life, and not giving a damn about how others see them. In the gay community, which often seems torn between the need for self-expression and the slippery slope of conformity, Cruse’s two old characters stand out among the clones and muscle queens.
The most serious story might be Safe Sex, which arose from Cruse’s desire to address the question of AIDS in a short story. The result is an intelligent mosaic of bits of dialogs and situations, never preaching but presenting a complex view of the state of affairs in 1983. And a lot hasn’t changed that much, it seems to me.
While Barefootz was drawn in a big foot/big head style, the stories from Gay Comix are mostly drawn in the more realistic style used by Cruse in his Wendel strip, which began in 1983. Characters retain that bounciness which in my opinion describes as much their body languages as their attitude toward life. Another characteristic of most of those pages is their density: while being reader-friendly, Cruse’s panels are very full. Characters, backgrounds, dialogs and captions build a world which readers can immerse themselves in.
The following section of the book includes ”topical strips”, as Cruse calls them, where he directly tackles various gay-related problems, a good part of these strips having been done for the Village Voice magazine. Contrary to what was done for Gay Comix, these strips are often not stories but little essays portraying the author himself reacting to the subject, but Cruse still manages to infuse them with a gentle self-deprecating humor that makes them far more than a simple soapbox.
The book ends with a few unpublished pieces (so that even those readers who know Cruse’s work well will have some nice surprises) and black-and-white reprints of the two recent strips he did for Young Bottoms in Love and Book of Boy Trouble Volume 2. They looked great in color, and they look even better without it.
I think it’s fitting that the last trip reprinted is the one-pager Then There Was Claude, depicting a bed scene between an unnamed narrator and Claude, a young, cute, would-be preacher quite at ease with being closeted most of the time. Here in only one page, inspired by the author’s own life, you have sex, humor, social commentary and a cartoony line art blended with Cruse’s “busy inking” which I associate with Stuck Rubber Baby. It’s a summary of Cruse’s whole career, thematically and stylistically.
The strips reprinted in From Headrack to Claude might not be new, but they’re as relevant as when they were first published. More importantly, they’re as well-written, as well-drawn, and as funny (and often more), as anything else that’s been published in the last 30 years, within or without the gay comics arena.