Sunday, August 30, 2009

More Central than Christopher Street

From Headrack to Claude

I do not remember not knowing Howard Cruse. He has always seemed more central to queer life in NYC than Christopher Street. His art work personifies the gay world from the joyous high of Stonewall to the lower depths of Log Cabin Republicans. Since the very beginning of TOSOS back in 1974, Howard has been our main and most generous supporter, contributing his amazing talent to countless productions, including title graphics for all but three of my major plays. ( He has just published a new collection of some of his greatest cartoon strips. I asked David Stern, Webmaster for TOSOS, and a huge fan of Howard’s, to review From Headrack to Claude for my blog site:

David Stern:

I came out over the first collection of Howard Cruse’s Wendel.

It belonged to Yolanda, my oldest friend and one-time girlfriend. I was visiting her in Boston in 1987, the summer after I came out as bisexual at college with the requisite awkward preliminary adventures. I was devouring this book of hers that had caught my eye, a wonderful book of comics whose characters were somehow more real -- no, more possible for me-- than any other gay representation I’d seen before. I hadn’t known how hungry I’d been for a picture of a real gay life—how much I’d been trying to find some sense of who I could be, surrounded as we all were by the old jokes and the new plague. I marked my place in the book without thinking, looked up at Yolanda, and blurted out, “you know, I think I’m actually gay.”

She said, “I know.”

I’ve read a lot more of Howard Cruse’s work since then, and I could say a lot of amateurish things about how much I admire his technique, how the whole space is used but the page never seems crowded. (Could he help me with my apartment?) Nothing is “just background” in his world, not the panels, not the speech balloons. Thoughts become solid; cartoonish characters become startlingly three-dimensional …you’ll just have to see it for yourself.

But what’s stuck with me about his work is what I saw that first time—it’s that he gets our lives right. He gets to what’s important, what we have in common, what we’ve been through in one moment of history or another, however different our stories are. When he’s outraged, he always shows the real and vulnerable minds who feel the outrage. It’s what his work and Doric’s share, an allergy to characters who are just talking points in disguise. Even in a work as emotionally and politically wrenching as Stuck Rubber Baby, Cruse never lets his characters become less than humans you could know, and probably do.

From Headrack to Claude is the latest collection of Cruse’s work, and it’s a wonderful set of mostly self-contained works originally published in anthologies of gay comics, from 1972’s “Gravy on Gay” to his most recent, “My Hypnotist” and “Then There Was Claude.” Some were old friends to me; others, like “Penceworth” and “The Woeful World of Winnie and Walt” were great stylistic surprises and intensely funny and disturbing.

Cruse gives some background for each of the pieces, and his introduction tells his artistic coming-out story, starting with his forbears, and sampling his earliest approaches to gay subjects. Nice to read from the artist who nudged me out.

To purchase From Headrack to Claude:

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