Independent comics build on underground legacy of diverse voices 

Queer & There

click to enlarge HOWARD CRUSE
  • Howard Cruse
Around this time in 2017, I interviewed Emma Oosterhous, the young creator of Alphabet Soup, a webcomic that tells the true stories of LGBTQ youth. She has fans of all nationalities, ethnicities, sexual orientations and gender identities, proving the impressive reach of internet-based LGBTQ media.

Speaking with Howard Cruse just last week was a wholly different experience. Cruse, 73, has an extensive history writing and illustrating gay-themed comics, beginning in the ’70s, when censorship laws and cultural attitudes often squashed representations of LGBTQ people.

The internet has changed a lot for queer comic lovers. We can now browse curated lists of quality LGBTQ graphic novels and comic strips, which are often available to us for free, and odds are there will be at least one protagonist out there who shares whatever cross-sections of identity we relate to. But Cruse was originally encouraged to keep his identity well away from his work.

“When I was just starting out,” he says, “it was a given that, if you were gay, that would be compartmentalized in the private side of your life because you couldn’t be openly gay and have a cartooning career.”

Cruse, former editor of Gay Comix (an anthology that ran from 1980 to 1998), author of Stuck Rubber Baby (a graphic novel published in 1995) and creator of the revolutionary gay comic Wendel (which began in the 1980s and was featured heavily in The Advocate), along with colleagues like Alison Bechdel (the lesbian creator of Fun Home and Dykes to Watch Out For) helped to spearhead a genre that previously hadn’t touched on the lives and lived experiences of gay people.

Cruse began bucking the norm and creating comics that drew inspiration from his own life when he discovered the underground comics scene, made up of small publishers, zine-makers and independent newspapers. “That’s where I really felt like I fit in,” Cruse says, “because the idea there was to draw things from your heart, or uncensored, that were about things that were real to you, rather than escapism [or] fantasy.”

You couldn’t get these comics on newsstands. Rather, you’d find them in places like head shops, where censorship was the last thing on anyone’s mind. “Because the underground comics were adults-only,” Cruse says, “they were able to ignore the Comics Code Authority, and have this kind of freedom.”
That freedom gave comic artists the opportunity to publish explicitly sexual works, like some of Cruse’s own, or to address social issues. These weren’t kids’ comics, he says. On newsstands, “you couldn’t have any sex or drugs or heavy politics.” Underground comics explored all of the above.

The whole scene was intrinsically tied to the ’70s counterculture, to the social movements of the time from civil rights to gay rights. So when the war on drugs hit and the head shops closed down, Cruse says the underground comics scene faded away, and independent comics rose in their place. Though independent comics still explored controversial issues and opposed the superhero boom that had swept the mainstream, Cruse says the scene never felt quite the same.

“I think the independent comics [culture],” he says, “doesn’t see itself quite as a movement in the same way that the counterculture saw itself as a movement. But the cartoonists who really followed their creative lights in independent comics, in their own way, that was its own kind of quieter movement.”

From the outside looking in, it seems as though independent comics and small-press publishers have seen renewed energy in the realm of leveraging their art to join social movements. Zines and small-press books and graphic novels cover topics as varied and oft-controversial as their underground predecessors.

Locals can get a look at some of these new revolutionaries at DiNK this weekend, Denver’s independent comic and art expo where Cruse will be appearing on a few panels and exhibiting alongside other independent cartoonists and artists.
Kelly Shortandqueer, DiNK exhibitor coordinator, says that DiNK, now in its third year, has always had a focus on diversity. “That is,” he clarifies, “making sure that we’re continually increasing our focus on women, on people of color, on LGBTQ artists.”

There’s value in the independent press, he says, because mainstream media still doesn’t tell the variety of stories that you might see represented somewhere like DiNK. “I think that in a lot of ways, having independent comics and independent publishers really helps bring more perspective, more experiences, more reflections of everyday people to the forefront.”

In addition to Cruse’s appearances, DiNK will be hosting a variety of exhibitors and programming that speaks to a powerful era of independent comics, building on the legacy of Cruse and his ilk.

Melanie Gillman, Kris Barz Medonça, Anna Vo, Josh Trujillo and Dylan Edwards are among the queer artists who will be exhibiting, and panels will address topics from toxic masculinity to queer representation in comics to the relevance of art in a political world.

These are the very issues that underground comics addressed, and even sometimes perpetuated, so it’s encouraging and exciting to see independent comics and artists using their platform to speak. And for those of us who aren’t artists ourselves?

“I think that DiNK really brings an opportunity for people to see the ways that they can start to engage,” Shortandqueer says, “to feel encouraged to be able to create their own art.”

And, of course, our own movement.

Click here for a full Q&A about comics past and present with Howard Cruse


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