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Thursday, January 13, 2022

Book Review - The Life and Comics of Howard Cruse: Taking Risks in the Service of Truth by Andrew Kunka

Andrew J. Kunka. The Life and Comics of Howard Cruse: Taking Risks in the Service of Truth. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2022. 196 pp. $29.95, $69.95. <>


Reviewed by Christopher Roman

Kent State University



Critics agree that Howard Cruse is an important figure in the wider field of comics, and especially so in the history of underground and queer comics. Yet there are only a few articles devoted to Cruse's works (my quick MLA search put that number at eight, though I am sure there are more to be found in the wider world of the internet). Andrew J. Kunka's book, The Life and Comics of Howard Cruse, comes at a critical time, published two years after the 25th Anniversary Edition of Stuck Rubber Baby and three years after Cruse's death in November 2019. As Kunka writes in his preface, his plan was to have an extensive interview with Cruse published in this collection. However, Cruse had died before interviews could happen. Kunka, though, had generous support from Cruse's husband, Ed Sedarbaum, who was able to supply page scans for this collection. Kunka's ability to connect with so many people who were fans and supporters of Cruse make this collection essential to the study of his short-form comics.

            The eight critical works that I mentioned above focus on Cruse's masterpiece Stuck Rubber Baby, and rightfully so. Stuck Rubber Baby is a premier graphic novel grappling with tough issues of racism and queer life in the Civil Rights-era South. It serves as not only an important historical graphic novel, but provides insight into the intersections of black and gay Southern life pre-Stonewall. Yet, what Kunka has managed to do in his critical anthology is open up Cruse's work beyond Stuck Rubber Baby to account for Cruse's short-form work which is not as often discussed or anthologized except for his short comic "Billy Goes Out" (see, for example, Justin Hall's collection No Straight Lines [2012]). Cruse created many more comics with an impressive range of themes and styles, apparently all of which Kunka accounts for in this book.

            As Kunka mentions in his brief Introduction, short form comics do not often get critical attention, and even when collected, do not stay in print very long compared to 'graphic novels.' Cruse's collections, Wendel All Together (1985), Dancin' Nekkid with the Angels (1987) and The Other Side of Howard Cruse (2012) are all out of print. Cruse even self-published From Headrack to Claude (2009), another of his short form comics collections, in order to keep those comics circulating. Kunka's book serves as a foundation to further work on Cruse's extensive short form comics. This book fills in the missing critical background on Cruse's life and his work that display his range of creativity, innovation, and humor, as well as his connections to the nascent worlds of underground and queer comics creators.

            Chapter one is a critical biography of his life. Kunka recounts Cruse's early life in Birmingham, Alabama, and his importance to underground comics as a young cartoonist. After creating gay-themed Christmas cards, Cruse ventured out into queer comic books, a path that had been paved by lesbian comics creators in the '70s such as Mary Wings, Lee Marrs, and Roberta Gregory. He worked with Kitchen Sink Press to establish Gay Comix in September 1980. Gay Comix was profoundly influential as it not only provided a forum for queer comics creators, but also influenced future queer cartoonists, some of whom became much better known than him, such as Alison Bechdel. Cruse's push to have a forum for queer creators to focus on queer culture and relationships could be considered a breath of fresh air in an underground comix world rife with misogyny, racism, and homophobia.

            The remaining chapters are a thematic look at Cruse's work, with full page art samples (some in color). Kunka's critical commentary leads each chapter, and then he discusses the stories with historical context and more specific critical prose. Chapter two focuses on "Autobiographical Fiction/Fictional Autobiography." Cruse's approach to autobiographical comics undermined what are now traditional genre conventions as accepted in memoirs. While there may be a character named Howard in these short form comics, there is sometimes a twist into a fantastical, or humorous reveal, which questions the stories' claims to objective truth. Kunka includes such autobiographical comics in this section as "Jerry Mack," "The Guide," and "Then There Was Claude." Each of these comics plays with autobiographical genre while showcasing Cruse's array of drawing and storytelling styles.

            Chapter three focuses on work that can be classified as "Commentary and Satire." Cruse's comics regularly commented on the politics of his time. Kunka links Cruse's more overtly social and cultural commentary works to political and educational comics. In the selections provided in this chapter, Cruse addresses issues surrounding the AIDS crisis, gay activism and queer culture, the news media, and death. This section includes "Billy Goes Out," Cruse's masterclass of a short form comic, where he uses time shifts and a drawing style to seamlessly tell a story of 1980s cruising culture. Another humorous story is "Dirty Old Lovers" in which Cruse comments on the treatment of older gay men in a gay community obsessed with youth, and a media that wants to present gay men as respectable.

            Chapter four addresses Cruse's "Parody" work. Cruse's style can be thought of as cute, a derivation of the long-lasting bigfoot style. In these works he uses his "cute" style to borrow characters from early comic strips such as Lulu, Casper, and Nancy to poke humorous fun at consumer culture, the dark side of children's comics, and the sexuality hidden therein. This chapter also includes an essay Cruse wrote on the importance of parody where he likens his parody to political cartooning, but aimed at the art world.

In all of these chapters, Kunka balances narrative analysis with comics analysis, pointing out where Cruse uses panel borders unconventionally, or how his work with stippling and cross-hatching was groundbreaking. Kunka's commentary balances Cruse's storytelling with his drawing work, showing how Cruse was the complete package, a true cartoonist. Kunka's work and critical commentary is an essential read for those interested not only in Howard Cruse, but in how his work impacted a generation of artists, especially in how important Cruse was to helping create the genre of queer comics. 


A version of this review will appear in print in IJOCA 23:2.

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