Cartoons “go straight for feelings,” Howard Cruse told The Village Voice in 1988. “A good cartoon is shorthand for a perspective on life,” he added. “It can get at the truth of experience without having to depict it literally.”
As a pioneering artist in LGBTQ comics, Mr. Cruse illuminated the truths lived by those who were lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgender — whose experiences were largely excluded from that realm of creative expression.
In the 1970s, and even into the ’80s when he spoke with the Voice’s Richard Goldstein, there was “still a lot of pressure to view comics strictly as a children’s medium,” he said, and homophobia was not simply prevalent — “it was generally considered hip to dismiss gay people, as it is today.”
Mr. Cruse, who had lived in Williamstown in recent years, was 75 when he died Nov. 26 in a Pittsfield hospital. His husband, Ed Sedarbaum, said the cause was complications from lymphoma.
Some forty years ago, Mr. Cruse was the founding editor of Gay Comix, which was one of the first series to feature work by and for openly gay men and women, and which showcased his work and that of women such as Roberta Gregory and Mary Wings.
He then developed “Wendel,” a comic strip about a man and his lover navigating the early years of the AIDS epidemic. His work both inspired artists who followed and opened doors for them.
Alison Bechdel, whose 2006 graphic memoir “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” was adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical, bought the first issue of Gay Comix at the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in Greenwich Village soon after moving to Manhattan.
“I had no career goals until I picked up that comic, and I knew at that moment what I was going to do with my life,” Bechdel told The New York Times. “He created a path for me and many other queer cartoonists.”
Cartoonist Justin Hall, a California College of the Arts professor who edited the collection “No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics,” called Mr. Cruse “one of the greatest cartoonists of his generation.”
Hall told The Washington Post that Mr. Cruse “is known as the godfather of queer comics, not just because of his artistic talent, not just because of his pioneering works, but because of his generosity, his belief in community, and his dedication to helping us all.”
Mr. Cruse was first known for his 1970s series “Barefootz,” which featured a friendly young man with oversized bare feet, and which later included a gay character. The cartoon appeared in magazines and in anthologies by publisher Denis Kitchen.
Kitchen invited Mr. Cruse to edit what became Gay Comix, which was released with the tagline: “Lesbians and Gay Men Put It on Paper!”
Mr. Cruse edited the first four issues of Gay Comix, which debuted in 1980 and also featured cartoonists such as Robert Triptow and Trina Robbins. Gay Comix aimed to present stories that showed gay men and lesbians as true-to-life characters, rather than caricatures. Mr. Cruse eventually handed off editing duties to focus on his 1980s comic strip “Wendel,” about a gay writer and his partner during the Reagan years.
Appearing in the LGBTQ magazine The Advocate, the strip “was the first time the intimate life of a gay couple had been shown in a serious way,” Hall said.
It also touched on issues including AIDS and gay bashing, which Mr. Cruse said he endured in 1973 when he was attacked in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park.
“Almost all of my comic strips, one way or another, are my life seen through a prism — not necessarily the details of it, but my emotional observations of it,” he once told the Advocate.
Through his work, Mr. Cruse came to understand the importance of representing himself, as well as other gay men and lesbians, in comic books.
“It’s tremendously empowering when you’re gay to realize that you’ve been doing it right, and it’s the bigots who are stumbling about in a fog about this subject,” he said in the interview with the Voice, where he had been an occasional contributor.
His other work included 1995’s “Stuck Rubber Baby,” which told the story of Toland Polk, a closeted gay man in Clayfield, Ala. — a fictionalized Birmingham — who becomes involved in civil rights demonstrations.
Toland’s friends include Ginger, an activist with whom he has a child (a plot point that paralleled Mr. Cruse’s life), and Les, a black man who becomes his first gay lover.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner provided Mr. Cruse with some financial support during the writing process and wrote an introduction for “Stuck Rubber Baby,” which won a Harvey Award and an Eisner Award, two of the most prestigious honors in comic books.
In a Chicago Tribune review, Harvey Pekar, the comic book writer known for his series “American Splendor,” wrote that “barren of superheroes or talking animals, ‘Stuck Rubber Baby’ certainly isn’t standard comic book fare. The people most likely to enjoy the book will be enthusiasts of good contemporary fiction, although most of them are unused to shopping for comics.”
Howard Russell Cruse was born on May 2, 1944, in Birmingham and grew up in nearby Springville, Ala. His father, Clyde, was a Methodist minister and photojournalist, and his mother, Irma Russell, was a Southern Bell Telephone executive.
Aspiring to be a syndicated cartoonist from an early age, Mr. Cruse copied the styles of artists such as Al Capp, whose “Li’l Abner,” a satirical strip about a hillbilly clan, was extremely popular.
During high school, he published a comic strip in a local paper and also traveled to Manhattan on a trip arranged by one of his high school teachers to meet Milton Caniff, creator of the comic strips “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon.”
At Birmingham-Southern College, where he studied art and theater, Mr. Cruse acted and designed sets for stage productions. After graduating, he joined a Birmingham television station as an art director and puppeteer and created a daily single-panel cartoon about squirrels that ran for two years in The Birmingham Post-Herald.
Mr. Cruse and Sedarbaum, his partner of 40 years, settled in Williamstown and married in 2004 after same-sex marriage was legalized in Massachusetts.
In addition to his husband, Mr. Cruse’s survivors include his daughter, Kimberly Kolze Venter of Roswell, Ga.; his brother, Allan of San Francisco; and two grandchildren.
According to a funeral home notice, services will be private and a public memorial gathering will be announced.
Venter, who is 55 and met Mr. Cruse when she was 21 and in search of her birth parents, wrote of her father on Facebook: “He left a legacy with his artwork and was a trailblazer in this time. I’m so proud of him and so blessed he was in my life.”
In the 1988 Voice interview, Mr. Cruse said he was “interested in the undercurrents of life, the ways that people relate to each other, whether they’re gay or straight; the way they love each other and betray each other. These are the things that make all narrative art resonate.”
Material from The New York Times and Washington Post were used in this report.