Howard Cruse talks about The Complete Wendel

All Hail Rizzoli, rescuer of lost strips!
Those of you who’ve been coming to this site from the beginning might remember a review I’d written 9 years ago about Wendel All Together, the collection of Howard Cruse’s strip from the 80s, which chronicled the lives of a group of gay and lesbian friends. Unfortunately, the publisher of that book soon went under, and the book disappeared from the bookshops. You’ll understand why I began this post the way I did when I tell you that a new version of that collection has just been published by Rizzoli USA.

Besides all the strips from that excellent series (do have a look at my previous review if you don’t know Wendel), the book1 contains an all-new introduction by Alison Bechdel, a new preface by Howard Cruse, and a two-page Where are they now? strip, especially created for this collection, that shows what happened to the main characters in the last twenty years. I’m extremely happy that a new generation of readers will be able to discover why Howard Cruse was already an important (queer) artist, even before his magnum opus Stuck Rubber Baby.
Howard Cruse has been kind enough to answer a few questions about his strip and its legacy. I hope his answers will make you feel like reading a strip that’s both a documentary of past gay times and a really fun read.

I'd love to see that in a sitcom

When you were drawing the strips, do you remember whether you had the idea that these would have a life beyond the magazine pages of The Advocate?

Sometimes I had fantasies of a TV sitcom, and we even had a brief glimmer of interest from the program development people at HBO ten years or so ago. But that idea failed to advance beyond the glimmer stage. A songwriter years ago saw so much of Wendel and Ollie in his own relationship with his lover that he was convinced enough that he was destined to adapt the strip into a musical that we had a couple of preliminary meetings about it. But then he and his lover broke up and he decided it was too painful to even think about going any further with the project.

When you look back at the Wendel strips, is there one aspect that seems more important to you, between the everyday life it portrayed and the topical militancy of its characters?

Wendel was always first and foremost about the characters, not the politics. But since the feature’s characters reflected my own circle of friends in New York — everyday gay men and lesbians with assorted personalities who were concerned enough about the political issues we were all swimming in during the Reagan-Bush years to build activism into our lives — the presence of politics in the strip was inevitable.

Do you have an idea of the legacy of the strip, of its influence on other (queer or not) artists?

A number of younger LGBT cartoonists have said that Wendel, along with the Gay Comix series, inspired them to draw on their own experiences more honestly in their own comic strips, which is gratifying to hear. Of course, Wendel faded from the scene twenty years ago in terms of being a regular presence, and it’s the work of those younger cartoonists that’s inspiring the next generation in line. In general you have to credit the early underground cartoonists for inspiring me to get real in my comics, and most of them will tell you that pioneers like Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman were what got their juices flowing. There are enough “legacies” to go around; who knows how my own stuff will be viewed in the long run? Positively, I hope.

You drew an all-new strip for this collection, answering some questions about the life of your characters since the end of the strip. Have you thought about the kind of subjects you might write about, were you to write the strip nowadays?

If I were to seriously resurrect the strip today, which isn’t going to happen, a big issue would be deciding where the characters would now fall in the arcs of their lives. I would want to draw on my own present-day experiences, but you have different things on your mind when you’re 66 than you did when you were 39, which is how old I was when I started the Wendel strip.

The world has changed and I’ve changed. The question in any revived strip would be: How much has Wendel’s world changed? The Wendel Trupstock depicted in my “Where Are They Now?” two-pager still looks pretty much the same as he always did (one assumes he’s just one of those Warren Beatty-like people whose faces remain determinedly youthful until they finally collapse into wrinkles late in life), and I made only modest concessions to age in some of the characters — most obviously in Farley, who had to be a grown-up now. But I blatantly fudged in terms of how realistically I allowed and of them to age. I was drawing a short, light-hearted feature, frankly billed as idle speculation, about characters whose lives, if they weren’t fictional, could have taken any number of courses in the years since 1989.

The Wendel gang that readers got to know in the pages of the Advocate were pretty firmly rooted in 1980s America, and except in a silly exercise like “Where Are They Now?” I don’t feel inclined to pry them out of that period. The LGBT community was under steady assault back then, and my comic strip’s characters responded to that assault in plucky, humorous, inventive ways, just as the real-life gay community did on the whole. Cartoonists who are more immersed than I am in today’s battles — over gay marriage, gays in the military, and homophobia in the largely more veiled ways it’s expressed today (Uganda aside) — will need to bring their own powers of observation and satire to bear on events as they unfold.

Right now I’m more urgently concerned personally about social inequality, corporate domination of politics, and the rise of Tea Party extremism here in the U.S. than I am about strictly gay matters. Those are the currently pressing issues more likely to inspire any comics I might draw today — though I hope I would be able to bring the same human-oriented spirit to them than I tried to bring to the Wendel series.

Your characters were always fired up about the militancy of their times, and knowledgeable about their homophobic enemies. Do you have opinions about the current state of American queer militancy and its enemies?

I don’t encounter queer militancy much in my daily life here in Massachusetts at present. Massachusetts is a “blue state” whose citizens and leaders are sympathetic to gay rights in the main. When I see militancy from a distance (the battles over Prop 8 in California come to mind), I applaud it and support it as best I can. When militancy gets humorless and dogmatic, of course, I make fun of it.

Any project you might like to talk about? Is there a possibility of a collection of your non-gay strips, now that the gay ones are collected in From Headrack to Claude and in Wendel?

That could happen, but it’s been “all talk and no contract” so far and could easily go the way of my evanescent HBO series. So don’t stay up late waiting for it.

  1. You can find this 280-page book at Amazon.

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