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Web www.birminghamfreepress.com

April 2010

Howard Cruse
American Artist
Voice in The Wilderness

The twentieth century saw the development of a number of new art forms. Arguably the three that have contributed most to human narrative expression have been the motion picture, the video game and the comic strip. Like all new art forms it has taken time for these genres to be accepted into the canon of art history. Few question anymore whether or not the motion picture is a legitimate art form while the video game has yet to receive this inevitable elevation. The comic strip has only recently begun to be accepted by the artworld. The artists of this medium that have proven to be the most palatable to the gatekeepers of high art are unquestionably those who deal with the same kind of issues that are often addressed by more established art forms. One of the few comic strip artists that is now being recognized as a true fine artists is Howard Cruse. Cruse is a master storyteller who often deals with gay-themed, and deeply personal issues without ever losing his sense of humor or faltering in his draftsmanship.

The acceptance of the comic strip into the realm of high art has some art historians praising it as a superior means of storytelling. Particularly the graphic novel, when executed by someone with Cruse's talent, can create a narrative that is expressive beyond what can be achieve with just text. A number of treatises have been published in recent years championing this art form. As a rule they have been aimed at fans of the genre, as in the case of Scott McCloud's popular Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. But today there are also attempts to understand the comic strip as a serious vehicle of expression on par with other media long accepted as high art. Rocco Versaci wrote in his 2008 book, This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature, that, "Comic Books are a worthy subject for literary study in that they are every bit as complicated, revelatory, and relevant as more accepted types of art." Versaci believes that the graphic novel has proven itself to be similar to other narrative traditions, particularly the conventional novel. But the comic strip is also a visual art form. It holds a place somewhere between literature and art and is really a genre of its own. There is a place for the comic strip in both museums and libraries.

Cruse was able to break free from the underground tradition and managed to be accepted by more art-driven comic publications like Heavy Metal magazine, gay-oriented magazines such as The Advocate and even high art venues. In 1990 he had his work featured in Artforum International. It was a combination of his drawing skill, storytelling ability, and homosexual themes that made his work tolerable to publications that might not have taken other comic strip artists as seriously. In this way Cruse has been a major contributor in the transformation of the comic strip from pop culture to high art. McCloud states that "For much of this century the word 'comics' has had such negative connotations that many of the comics' most devoted practitioners have preferred to be known as 'illustrators,' 'commercial artists,' or, at best, 'cartoonists.'" Today the stigma associated with the genre is all but gone.

Beyond how Howard Cruse uses his medium to tell a story there is the nature of the stories he chooses to tell. The artist was open and public about his homosexuality at a time when this was far from typical. By the time they are 45, 26 percent of women have had some homosexual experience, whereas about 50 percent of men have. Though only a small percentage of these men will come to define themselves as homosexual the level of denial and dishonesty demonstrated by the marginalization of homosexuality can be troubling. Great advancements have been made in the last quarter of a century as far as the acceptance of gays into the mainstream and Howard Cruse has been a major influence on this phenomenon. The artist’s Gay Comix appealed to an audience that might not have had much interest in homosexual issues. This publication was bought by fans of comic books and underground comix in particular. People were attracted to the storytelling and artwork and not necessarily the theme. By 1995 when he published Stuck Rubber Baby homosexuality was seen as much less of a taboo. Though the main character is gay and this is instrumental to the plot of the novel the nature of Cruse’s storytelling appealed to a mainstream audience who, upon reading the work, would come to empathize with the protagonist.

From a narrative standpoint the comic strip, and particularly the graphic novel, can be seen as an important twentieth and twenty-first century art form. It involves the combination of storytelling and illustration and can express a wide range of emotions or be used to make political statements. Howard Cruse has used the medium to achieve both of these objectives. When he began his career he focused on humor with characters such as Barefootz and fell comfortably into the genre of underground comix. Even in these early days the artist was unusually open about his personal life and use of psychedelic drugs in a way that showed a rare inner courage. When he started to focus on themes of homosexuality he never hesitated to tell the truth with such an unpretentious and humorous style that his art appealed to audiences that might not have ever been exposed to what Cruse has to say. But it is also his skill as a draftsman that makes the artist so attractive to many who are simply fans of the comic strip. Talent is respected above all in the field. Howard Cruse has been instrumental in bringing a neglected art form into the realm of high art. He has also used his narrative skills to expose his readers to a segment of society that has been traditionally marginalized. Beyond the quality of the work itself these two accomplishments should forever reserve Howard Cruse a place in the canon of major American artists.

Read the entire article (156K .pdf).

© 2010 The Birmingham Free Press