I have interviewed Steve Lafler and I’m letting that sink in. The man is a walking encyclopedia of experiences and knowledge. I do hope we can chat again sometime. For a first interview, we covered a lot of ground. I was intrigued and delighted and I’m sure you will be too with this most provocative cartoonist.
Steve Lafler is a very cool cat–and, as promised, we’re about to take a deep dive into all things Lafler. Long before Zoom interviews, I’ve been taking notes and chatting with a good many talented folks. I think we cartoonists, at least a certain subgroup, are compelled to express ourselves in numerous ways. You’ll find, for instance, that comics and journalism have been entwined since the American colonies. In Mr. Lafler’s case, he has devoted a lot of energy in two directions, the love of comics and the love of music. In my interview, I try to focus on how Lafler has lovingly included music, especially jazz, into his comics.
1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona is Lafler’s latest title and we enjoy talking about it. The subtext is pretty much in the forefront: our main character, Ramon, seems to be most happy when he gets to be Ramona. Or, if not most happy, then it’s definitely a sweet joy to dress up and be a woman for the night. That said, the comics pretty much speak for themselves. Lafler, himself, has provided a few clues over the years that he enjoys indulging in some gender-bending dressing up. One must follow their muse! I think, with 1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona, Lafler beautifully expresses that most basic and primal human need to be true to one’s self.
1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona. by Steve Lafler. Cat-Head Comics. 2020, 56pp. $9.95
Adorable Ramona is sweet down to her toes. She also happens to be a guy. But, hey, no problem there say the fellas from the Garment District. Ramon, as Ramona, is just so delightful. So, no problem. Nobody’s perfect! That’s the punchline to 1959’s Some Like it Hot, by the way. The artist and writer Steve Lafler doesn’t actually use that line. In fact, his graphic novel is completely different from what goes on in the Billy Wilder classic. That said, there are definitely some similar elements at play. And perhaps the biggest theme is one recurring in just about every Lalfer book, that of music, specifically jazz, hot jazz! Since, after all, some do indeed like it hot!
Now, Steve Lafler turns out to be a very cool cat–and we’re about to take a deep dive into all things Lafler. Well, as much as I see fit to shoe-horn into this review. We’ll save some more for an interview with Steve Lafler next week. That sounds good, no? Lafler’s latest book, 1956, features a whole tableaux of goodfella types, all of them working various middle management jobs in the Garment biz, an industry with just enough of a glimmer of glamour to be suitable for these big city gentlemen. Lafler mixes the whimsical with the gritty. His style is clean lines in the service of a loose and street smart sensibility that brings to mind such greats as the Hernandez brothers and Kim Deitch. It’s quirky, idiosyncratic, and very much alt-comics. But that only makes sense since alternative comics are very much a part of Lafler’s scene. 1956 proves to be an utter delight.
The one thing I have come to understand from reading Lafler comics is that this is one devil-may-care dude who knows how to dish it out a la bohemian. I envy the ease with which he seems to glide through life. Maybe it takes one to know one. I know it’s not all peaches and cream. That’s part of the point. It’s about making the most of what you’ve got, living by your wits, and not taking anything so seriously that it hurts– except for family. You look out for your loved ones, right? Why do I digress so? I think Lafler just puts me in a very irreverent mood.
Now, take some of his other work and you’ll start to see some patterns. You’ll see that jazz motif bebop around. You’ll see some hard luck hound dogs–or bugs. And you’ll definitely see a lot of that joie de vivre thing we all want some of. You find it all wrapped in a bow in Lafler’s BugHouse, albeit tinged with the harsh realities of life in the big city. Yes, these bugs play a lot of jazz but they’re also prone to drug addiction. Sad bittersweet bugs.
Death Plays a Mean Harmonica
A more recent Lafler work is Death Plays a Mean Harmonica. I find this to be quite a masterpiece incorporating a healthy dose of auto-bio mixed in with everything that Lafler has learned about the uncanny world of comics. Lafler takes his own family’s decade living abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico, and turns it into the misadventures of Rex and Gertie and their two young children. Lafler let’s the good times roll with plenty of magical realism which includes a skeleton who regulars meets with Lafler while he’s asleep. They philosophize and, of course, enjoy playing music together. This serves as background for the main event. It turns out that Gertie is a secret superhero by night! Lots of fun! Bravo!
For more information, including comics, illustrations, paintings, and various merchandise, be sure to visit Steve Lafler.
Graphic memoir is my speciality and I completely embrace the new graphic memoir, Spellbound, by Bishakh Som. What a wonderful book. It’s fun, inspiring and insightful in so many ways. This is the kind of work that I enjoy creating and the kind of work that gains my attention the most. This is work by an auteur cartoonist who welcomes the reader into an inner life, ultimately dropping the veil: engaging, revealing, and sharing. This is an intricate act of self-expression which the reader follows usually without any expectations on how it all turns out. What the cartoonist has to say and how the story is told becomes as important as anything else. In this case, Bishakh Som has a theme we’ve all been reading more and more about, issues of gender fluidity; and this story is inextricably linked to a personal journey, a celebration of the self and self-expression.
Anjali became a way of sorting through issues and showing the world one’s true self.
But before one stands before the world naked, a veil of sorts can help with the process. This is part of what I believe led Som to create an alter ego. As Som proceeded upon his transition from male to female, I can see where he found it a source of comfort and insight to have his female alter ego grace the page. Thus, Som created comics that feature the character of Anjali who became a way of sorting through issues but, even more important, a way of showing the world the true self.
“I’ve always been this way.”
Our story begins with Anjali quitting her job and setting off on a new adventure. This is much like Som’s own story of quitting a focused career in architecture in order to make room for a life in the graphic arts, specifically creating graphic novels. Anjali has embarked upon uncharted waters but doesn’t seem too phased. At first, the biggest challenge seems to be just keeping her cat, Ampersand, at bay. The artwork is very crisp and engaging and certainly meets the biggest demands placed upon comics: clarity and entertainment. Anjali is the perfect metaphor for the determined soul who will not be beaten down by challenging circumstances.
Anjali relaxing and having fun.
When Anjali stumbles upon a family photo album, this triggers countless memories which take her back to growing up in Ethiopia. Anjali’s parents were born in India, both of them intellectuals working for the UN. Over the course of Anjali’s first six years, she grew as fond of Ethiopian culture as she did of American pop culture. When revolution broke out, Anjali’s parents resettled in New York. This led to Anjali going to the United Nations International School and destined to a most urban and erudite life.
One generation gives way to the next.
Over the course of this graphic novel, the reader is immersed in Anjali’s journey: a life rich in exploration and searching, one that beautifully mirrors the life of Bishakh Som. It is a life we see from various vantage points, from the banal and quotidian to moments of insight and epiphany. For instance, Anjali must come to terms with her demanding and conservative parents. In the end, she is witness to their decline and, from that, she gains some wisdom. And she continues to grow with the help of some friends. For someone who prefers to avoid people, Anjali seems to find her best moments when she is around someone else. It is a lesson that Bishakh Som learned from well.
Spellbound is published by Street Noise Books. For more details, visit here.
This is a perfect time to post my interview with artist Henry Hate. There have been a number of delays along the way but, perhaps some experiences need to stew and process. It was near October of last year that I visited the Prick! tattoo shop, a home base for Henry Hate in the Shoreditch neighborhood of London. Autumn was creeping in on the streets that Jack the Ripper once lurked; now made up of boutiques and fine eateries co-existing with taverns and other mysterious structures dating back centuries. Prick! tattoo parlor fit right in.
Amy Winehouse by Henry Hate
Just as Henry Hate was rising in prominence as a tattoo artist, Amy Winehouse, early in her career, walked into Henry’s tattoo parlor and became a regular client. Well, that’s the stuff of legend. It was that sort of serendipity that can lift an artist’s life and launch them on a path to a bright future.
Trouble by Henry Hate
Henry Hate, without question, has developed into an excellent artist. That’s not the issue. I love how we both get to the heart of the matter in the video segment of our conversation. For me, I’ve always aspired to great creative heights and that’s usually some mix of journalism and art. When the opportunity arises, I want to go deep with an interview. There is absolutely an art to a good interview. It is sort of like a dance or a courtship. You need to engage the subject. A dynamic emerges. Everything going on behind the scenes culminates. In this case, I was pairing us as both artists and human beings on a journey. The result was Henry Hate speaking to a lifetime commitment to art. It’s as if being an artist is not enough. You can accept yourself but will others follow? That will remain in the background but, first and foremost, you need to give yourself over to your art.
A Work Created Under Extreme Duress by Henry Hate
Into each life, a little death must enter and a lot of self-discovery. As a youth, Henry Hate discovered, despite his family’s resistance, that he was gay and he had no one to apologize to about it.
Prick tattoo parlor.
Henry Martinez evolved into Henry Hate. Sure, the name is part illusion, facade, and brand. It is part of what you do, even if you never really change your name. You need to build up some armor when you go from art to business. “It’s a machine. Success. You’ve achieved a goal. Okay, now what? Sometimes, I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to just paint pretty clouds.”
Prick! tattoo shop, East London.
“In Los Angeles, when you say you’re a writer, you’re probably a waiter. But, here in London, someone says they’re a painter or a screenwriter, they are actually doing that,” said Hate, at one point, as we chatted about the realities of fame and fortune. Our talk turned to Amy Winehouse and how she dealt with stardom. “Amy was this London girl who suddenly had to deal with fame. It’s a machine. Success is a goal. Now, you have to keep the wheels moving. It’s a lot of pressure to put on someone when art becomes a business. It’s work now, not a love or a passion.”
“Lee McQueen and Amy both had that genuine quality about them, a shyness, unsure about their work. When you stand up and present your work, you need to wear that mask. Both of them had that vulnerability. Great artists, you don’t really know that much about them. Amy would have been happy just singing in a bar and have that pay her bills.”
Mother’s Tongue, mixed media on canvas, by Henry Hate
Informed as much by Tom of Finland as by Andy Warhol, the work of Henry Hate has charted its own path. It is bold, audacious, sly and thoughtful. It is worldly and fanciful. And, without a doubt, it is genuine.
This is work that proudly stands before you, naked or wearing a mask with sexy panache. It’s about art and it’s about life, living large while also maybe on the margins. Maybe there’s still something to prove. Or maybe it’s just time to face the world without flinching. I love the sense of play, like “Let’s Riot,” a punk young Queen Elizabeth echoing Jamie Reid’s art for the Sex Pistols 1977 single, “God Save the Queen.” Or the life-affirming “Mother’s Tongue,” with the subject defiantly showing off her stud.
As Hate says, his work is about sin and redemption. You see each character reveling and unapologetic. Why can’t a little more life fall into one’s life? Why can’t vice and salvation find a way to co-exist? These are questions that can take a lifetime to confront, let alone answer–and Henry Hate is up to the task.
Dragman by Steven Appleby. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2020. 336 pages, $28.00.
Especially today, as we continue to make huge strides, while still sometimes stumbling one step forward with one step back, it is healthy for everyone to acknowledge gender fluidity as being as natural as breathing. I’ll share this. When I was very young, I fondly recall dressing in drag a handful of times. This was back in the ’80s during my art school days. It was fun, thrilling, and even liberating. My girlfriend at the time thought I looked cuter in lipstick and pumps than she did. Anyway, life moved on and the occasion for indulging in drag became less available but one never knows. I’ve always fancied interviewing Simon Hanselmann with both of us all dolled up. We all need to loosen up, open up, and acknowledge nothing is ever really totally cut and dry. Even a conservative darling like Rudy Giuliani had a good time in drag, and this was as recently as 2000. So, with that in mind, it’s a joy and a privilege to introduce to you a new graphic novel inspired by cartoonist Steven Appleby’s own personal journey, Dragman, a story about a superhero who can fly when he wears women’s clothes.
Dragman on the case!
Now, Steven Appleby is a beloved British cartoonist, right up there with other greats like Posy Simmonds and Quentin Blake. I had quite a nice time, by the way, viewing the work of Simmonds and Blake last year at the House of Illustration in London. I’m an artist-cartoonist myself so that visit, for me, is equal to visiting Big Ben for someone else. I’d love to view Appleby originals sometime too, perhaps on a future visit. I’m not going to scrutinize the work in quite the same way as I would standing before a Rembrandt but it’s not too different either. I’m still gazing and pondering the energy. It’s that distinctive line, with its skittering quality, that is so appealing. In the case of Appleby, a cartoonist auteur, we can marvel over how the words seem to dance right along with the images. If Appleby collaborated with a writer, to be sure, we’d see a similar play too. That said, the auteur has a distinct advantage of owning the whole vision. So, for Appley, for all of us, this graphic novel provides a full-blown vision. The reader gets to enjoy a madcap adventure, all the time savoring the journey for its own sake!
Clark Kent, meet August Crimp.
As Appleby makes clear, this is not an autobiographical work, although it can’t be denied there are some similarities to Appleby and his comics alter ego, August Crimp. Both went on a particular journey in search of themselves, in pursuit of coming to terms with an attraction to dressing up as the opposite sex. What’s clear is that August Crimp, and Steven Appleby, both triumph. It’s a celebration of life. A celebration of boys dressing as girls and girls dressing as boys and anything else in between. We’re all superheroes if we just relax and let ourselves be ourselves. Dragman is a heart-felt exploration of identity while also a riveting crime mystery to boot. What more could you want from a graphic novel?
Dragman is available as of April 7, 2020. For more details, visit the family of books at Macmillan Publishers right here.
The Arab Spring began nearly a decade ago. Graphic artist Andy Warner recalls the predawn of revolution, Lebanon in 2005, in his new graphic memoir. In the span of little over a season, about five months, Warner seems to live a lifetime of experiences during his brief study abroad in Beirut at the age of 21. In his book, Warner sheds away any inhibitions and provides the reader with a confessional tale. This is Warner’s coming-of-age story amid a surreal worn-torn landscape. Anything goes. Sex. Drugs. Anything. To his credit, Warner navigates through all the rough terrain with compelling results.
As much as we might think we know about the Middle East, it’s clear that we don’t know enough. Warner is sensitive to this fact and carefully lays out people, places, and events. Simply for the sake of gaining insight into the region, this book is essential for any age. Through Warner’s adventures, including a mix of backgrounds (students, LGBTQ, foreigners and Lebanese), the reader becomes acquainted with a vibrant and multicultural Beirut. The reader gets a firsthand account of the dynamics at play in the aftermath of the assassination of a Lebanese icon, the tycoon, Rafik Hariri. He swindled billions and created luxury estates. But he also created schools, hospitals, and, perhaps most important, he provided a symbol of hope. Legends, just like memory itself, can be complicated and messy.
Page excerpt from SPRING RAIN
Warner shares as much as he can about his own memories and struggles with mental health, particularly during those intense months in Beirut filled with protests, bombings, and self-discovery. If you read only one graphic novel this year, you would do well to pick this one up. Warner proves to be a reliable and trustworthy narrator and guides the reader on many levels, including the often daunting creative process. Warner’s artwork is an appealing combination of semi-realism and cartoony. It is cartoonists like Andy Warner who rise to the occasion and live up to the potential of the comics medium. In doing so, Warner and other great cartoonists contribute to greater understanding of, and empathy for, the world at large.
What has a superhero ever really done for you? That’s a tricky question. It depends upon who you ask. First, superheroes aren’t real and are owned by corporations, at least all of the household names. It’s a cold-blooded business when you look at it from the perspective of co-creators who were not given credit or a fair share of the profits, like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko or Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster. Comic books are a mass entertainment focused on profit, right? And then there’s the perspective of thoughtful and dedicated fans, the ones who take it to heart, who even write and draw in tribute to beloved characters. Bill Schelly is among that group of fans who know, despite any ugly realities, how to harness the super powers of the likes of Superman and Spider-Man. If you believe enough, especially in yourself, all sorts of dreams can come true. Bill Schelly set out to be an author, a “writer of books,” and buoyed up by the power of fandom, achieved his wildest dreams, including a respectable fanzine while still a youth, A Sense of Wonder, all the way to a memoir of the same name that has recently been expanded, A Sense of Wonder: My Life in Comic Fandom – The Whole Story, published by North Atlantic Books. It is like the most compelling of pop culture scrapbooks come to life.
Do people still even keep scrapbooks? Thankfully, some do. Yes, even digital files count. There will always be those who are compelled to document, dig deeper, and pay it forward. In the case of Bill Schelly, it all began with a fateful train ride. The Schelly family was on a trip to visit relatives back in 1960. To help keep nine-year-old Bill preoccupied on the long ride ahead, his father bought him a comic book. But it wasn’t just any comic book. His two brothers chose regular issues of ten cents each. Bill was excited about a special issue, Giant Superman Annual #1 with its enticing cover promising numerous thrills. It cost a whole quarter. At first, his father balked but ultimately relented. Schelly’s recollection of this scene is quite moving. He goes on to describe a boy besotted by all the larger-than-life stories found in the brightly colored pages. This is the pivotal moment that set young Bill on a lifelong journey. He already knew that he wanted to be a “writer of books” and, only a few years later, he would discover his ability to draw. What really set Schelly apart was a specific interest to better understand the underpinnings of comics. As much as Schelly wanted to become just like the comic book creators he so admired, he was driven by an intellectual need to know and a compelling desire to share his findings with other enthusiasts. This led to a number of boyhood fanzines, home-made magazines with a focus on a fan’s passion. And the best iteration of this process was a fanzine he called, Sense of Wonder. He became a teenage editor and publisher with subscribers all across the country. Young Bill confidently knew that he had set the stage for big things ahead but had no clue as to what exactly he would achieve or how he would get there.
Giant Superman Annual #1
Over the years, Schelly pushed himself to evolve as a writer and, in turn, as a person. As he had done with his boyhood fanzines, he learned from his mistakes and was driven to improve. While he honored the egalitarian spirit of fandom where every fan was an equal, he also wanted to lead the way and make his distinctive mark. As he had discovered early on in life, fandom is a close-knit network of like-minded souls and, in general, fans support fans. You never knew which friend you made today might lend a hand in some unexpected way in the future. It was through the world of fandom that Schelly found his way. And it is around the age of 21 that the first version of Schelly’s book, A Sense of Wonder, ends. This new version picks up from there and unveils what lay ahead. For one thing, the reader learns how the Sense of Wonder book evolved and how it was a building block towards other books. It’s surprising, with hindsight, to discover that Schelly did not reveal being gay in the first version of his coming-of-age book. In fact, he had given Howard Cruse, one of the most notable gay cartoonists, an advance copy in hopes of getting a back cover blurb. Cruse expressed regret that Schelly wasn’t ready to come out but was more than happy to provide a blurb. It was in a later version of Sense of Wonder, when Schelly was ready, that he added some of his best writing on growing up gay. And it is this latest version that beautifully brings it all together: Schelly’s dreams, his passions, the arc of a life. In the book, the reader follows Schelly as he relentlessly strives to create his magnum opus. As a young man, he hitches his wagon to the star of silent movie comedian Harry Langdon and creates his first attempt at a biography. Later on, he tackles the life of legendary cartoonist Joe Kubert. Finally, he achieves mainstream success with quite a substantial biography of another pop culture legend, Harvey Kurtzman. But, when it is all said and done and there’s finally time to take a breath and look back, Bill Schelly’s memoir is what rises to the top, a book that shares the trials and tribulations of a man who just wanted to dream and be a “writer of books.”
Bill Schelly (1951-2019)
Sense of Wonder: My Life in Comic Fandom – The Whole Story is a 392-page trade paperback published by North Atlantic Books.
Howard Cruse, a pioneer in the LGBTQ cartooning movement and the author of Stuck Rubber Baby, an award-winning graphic novel about the intersection of race and sexuality in the South, died on Tuesday, November 26. He was 75. Howard was one of those essential artists who contributed work that touched, saved and transformed many lives. Thanks to his groundbreaking work as the founding editor of Gay Comix, which began in 1980, Howard Cruse was instrumental in getting underground comics — and later mainstream comics — to address LGBTQ issues. Take a look at the video below for a panel discussion with all the editors of Gay Comix:
A very informative obituary, compiled by Richard Goldstein and Jay Blotcher, follows, along with selected related images.
Stuck Rubber Baby, 25th anniversary edition, published by First Second Books
Pioneering Gay Cartoonist Howard Cruse Dies at 75
(WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS., Nov. 26) — Howard Cruse, a pioneer in the LGBTQ cartooning movement and the author of Stuck Rubber Baby, an award-winning graphic novel about the intersection of race and sexuality in the South, died on Tuesday, November 26. He was 75.
His husband of 40 years, Ed Sedarbaum, said that Cruse succumbed to complications from lymphoma at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, MA. Cruse, who lived in Williamstown, Ma., had been diagnosed in August.
Cruse’s masterwork, the bold graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, was published in 1995. It was based on Cruse’s interior struggles as a closeted gay man during the civil rights era of the 1960s. Widely translated, Stuck Rubber Baby has won numerous awards, including a critics prize at the Angoulême International Comics in France, the Harvey Award, Eisner Award and United Kingdom Comic Art Award for Best Graphic Album.
Stuck Rubber Baby will be reissued in a 25th anniversary edition by First Second Books in May 2020.
Howard Russell Cruse was born May 2, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, as the younger of two sons born to Clyde and Irma Cruse. The family moved to Springville when his father, a photojournalist, was ordained as a Methodist minister and assigned to Springville Methodist Church. Cruse’s creative talents were encouraged by both his parents. His first published work was a 1959 comic strip called “Calvin” in the St. Clair County Reporter. Young Cruse also had cartoon art published in the humor magazines Fooey and Sick. He was mentored through an ongoing correspondence with famed cartoonist Milton Caniff, the creator of “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon” newspaper comic strips. At age 16, Cruse was invited to visit Caniff in New York City.
Howard meets Milton Caniff in 1961 at Sardi’s in New York City
At Birmingham Southern College, Cruse became involved in the theatre program, designing sets and appearing In several productions. He wrote and directed his own play during his senior year. For the college literary magazine, Quad, Cruse satirized the conservative organization the John Birch Society. The controversial work appeared in print, but the faculty advisor insisted on running a full-page disclaimer.
After graduating from BSC in 1968, Cruse joined Birmingham’s WBMG-TV as art director and a puppeteer on “The Sergeant Jack Show.” He became romantically involved with a man, Don Higdon, for the first time. During this time, Cruse created “Tops & Button,” a cartoon panel about two squirrels, which ran daily in The Birmingham Post-Herald from 1970 to 1972. He also created the subtly subversive “Barefootz,” which debuted in the University of Alabama’s newspaper Crimson White. “Barefootz” would appear in several Birmingham-area publications during the decade, and later in underground comic books. In 1977 Cruse relocated to New York City to make cartooning his full-time profession. In 1979, he met Eddie Sedarbaum and they moved in together. The couple was married in 2004. Cruse’s career reached a personal and professional breakthrough in 1980 when he was founding editor of Gay Comix, an underground anthology for lesbian and gay cartoonists. Cruse’s own work, exploring his conflicted childhood and repressive Southern upbringing, appeared in these comic books.
Wendel comic strip
In an era before the formal passage of LGBT rights, these frank cartoon explorations of gay culture, politics, sex, and camp had a huge influence on young people in the closet. During the four years of his editorship, Cruse received letters of gratitude from readers all over the country, many who had considered suicide. During this period, Cruse did many pro bono illustrations to support fledgling LGBT organizations, as well as mentoring of young queer cartoonists. Cruse created a high-profile poster about gay male safe sex practices in 1985 for New York City’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
Cruse’s profile as a cartoonist grew with the debut of “Wendel,” a comic strip about a gay everyman, his lover, friends and family. It appeared in the national newsmagazine The Advocate from 1983 to 1989. He also contributed frequently to The Village Voice. Cruse and Sedarbaum became active in LGBT and AIDS grass-roots politics, joining the direct-action organizations ACT UP and Queer Nation. Cruse and Sedarbaum left New York City in 2003 and moved to Western Massachusetts, settling first in North Adams and then Williamstown.
Stonewall illustration for The Village Voice, circa early 1980s.
Cruse frequently appeared at comic book conventions over the decades, and was the guest of honor at academic and fan conferences, especially those addressing the subject of queer comic art. His final published comic work appeared this year in Northwest Press’s horror anthology “Theater of Terror: Revenge of the Queers.” Cruse was among LGBT cartoonists and illustrators appearing in the documentary “No Straight Lines,” scheduled for a 2020 release.
Stuck Rubber Baby
Cruse’s work has been collected in several books, among them, Barefootz Funnies (Kitchen Sink, 1975-79), Wendel (Gay Presses of New York, 1986), Dancin’ Nekkid with the Angels (St, Martin’s, Kitchen Sink, 1987) and Wendel on the Rebound (St. Martin’s Press, 1989).
In addition to his husband Ed Sedarbaum, Cruse is survived by his daughter, Kimberly Kolze Venter, and his brother, Allan Cruse.
Donations in his memory can be made to New York City’s LGBT Community Center, the Queers & Comics Conference, and Rainbow Seniors of Berkshire County.
Memorial services, open to the public, will be held in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, and New York City in the near future. Exact information will be posted on howardcruse.com/
Obituary compiled by Richard Goldstein and Jay Blotcher
Francis Bacon was certainly on my radar during my time in art school. Just as I was completing my formal training at the University of Houston, I was aware of Bacon’s continued presence and activity. And then he died. I earned my BFA the year he passed away, 1992. Yes, Francis Bacon (1909-1992) was acknowledged as a heroic figure, a painter in the great tradition of towering romantic and angst-ridden artists. But what were we as art students doing with that information? What were our professors sharing with us about him? I mostly recall the awful jokes that he was Bacon the contemporary artist and not Bacon the great philosopher. So, in a nutshell, we didn’t do much of anything with Bacon looming in the background. Maybe I did more than most. I know a lot of students were lost in their own uneducated and overindulgent worlds or absorbed with the hotshots of the recent era as we understood it, people like Francisco Clemente, David Salle, even Julian Schnabel, especially Schnabel since he’d gone to UH for a short time. And, of course, there was no internet as we know it today and, in hindsight, I damn well could have used it back then!
Second Version of Painting from 1946, Museum of Modern Art, 1971.
After 1992, life’s circumstances gave me a bit of a bum’s rush from school and out the door. I’ve been cartwheeling ever since. Not to digress too much, but I’ve come out on top in a number of ways such as having the opportunity to gaze upon this dazzling show of Francis Bacon paintings at the Pompidou Centre! From the little I could glean from glossy art magazines, art history books and a few lectures, I was aware of Bacon’s raw and tortured energy. He was a rough cut fellow, is how I would casually put it if I was attempting to introduce him to someone unfamiliar with him and his work. Bacon’s career began in the 1940s and blossomed in the next two pivotal decades. Many an art student was familiar with Bacon’s landmark painting of the screaming pope, Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953. What did it mean? Where did it come from? We mostly chalked it up as subversive. That much we knew for sure and we loved it.
Gathering among Bacon.
That brings us to this current show at the Pompidou Centre. Jennifer and I had managed to arrive just in time to settle into it with little else than an introductory pamphlet. So, there was some adjusting to do as we both gorged upon Bacon. We were certainly not alone. There was a nervy energy running throughout the crowd of people. The show had recently opened for its run of 11 September 2019 to 20 January 2020. They had all come to see Bacon! But what did it mean to them? They knew his name and they knew about the famous work and the raw energy. There was that and there was a theme attached to the show–but gathering up so many Bacons in one space was more than enough, theme or no theme. It wasn’t until I’d made the turn into another room that I sniffed out the curator’s ardor for organizing, labeling, categorizing and zealous need to impose their ownership upon another’s work. After all, Francis Bacon was first and foremost a painter. He was self-taught. He, unlike countless academics and so-called scholars, got dirty and actually did things. This is not to say that a finely-articulated analysis is not welcome from time to time but it is often best to be taken with a grain of salt. Anyway, the idea for the show is to tie Bacon’s choice of reading with his painting. That’s why this show has rooms where all you have is a book on display and an audio of someone reading.
Oedipus and the Sphinx, after Ingres, 1983.
It does make sense to link Bacon to his reading habits given the fact he was such an avid reader. He loved books. They came naturally to him as they did for many a young rebel of his time. There are a number of choices on display in this show that would have been catnip for many a young artist back then and even today. At least, one hopes young artists haven’t changed so much now that they are, on the whole, bypassing gorging upon the works of Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Jean Racine, Balzac, Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, Freud, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Proust and many others. Well, that is the formal tent under which all these Bacons have been arranged. Process that however you like.
Walking towards Bacon.
One thing that struck me about this show is how it feels like it is stretching past its own time, as if it is still pulsating, still preening upon the gallery wall space and not ready to succumb to a timeless role as a museum artifact. I mean, the work still feels “contemporary” to me. While I was an art student, we had to suffer through all the prattle from critics and tastemakers over whether or not figurative painting was dead or not. To think we were getting this kind of talk even as we’d been experiencing a bunch of interesting “new” approaches to figurative work by the likes of Eric Fischl and Jonathan Borofsky. Finally, fast forward to today, the big secret is that figurative painting will never die. It’s just too vital, too primal, too essential. I guess, seeing this show takes me back to sometime before Bacon’s death, a world where there was a Francis Bacon still making new paintings and even making definitive versions of previous work. That is what this show is about: Bacon’s last two decades of his career (from 1971 to 1992). I can feel that artist raging and creating, knowing time was running out. So, ultimately, this show is more than about books and painting. This show is about an artist taking what he’s learned about painting and setting forth with his final explorations.
Bacon was always raging and rebelling, seeking a way to be the next Picasso. He was being himself when it was against the law in England to engage in homosexual acts. It wasn’t until 1967 that sex between two adult men (21 years-old) was decriminalized in the UK. What’s a “British artist” like Bacon to do? Well, that’s easy enough, go where you are welcome: Paris, the city that is open and fluid, revels in bohemian excess, and welcomes sex in all its many flavors. It was at the Grand Palais show at the Pompidou Centre in 1971 that Bacon delivered a landmark show that earned him critical praise, and raised him to the rank of a Picasso. And the show was more about love and sex than books. You can add a variety of erudite references but, at some point, you need to acknowledge the human being writhing upon a toilet! The Grand Palais show revolved around Bacon’s lover, George Dyer, who killed himself the day before the opening. As Jonathan Jones describes in a wonderful piece in The Guardian, it was Bacon’s muse, in the form of Dyer, who made the show what it was and, with his suicide, nearly brought it all tumbling down. The new show at the Pompidou Centre, interestingly enough, covers the time after the celebrated Grand Palais show of 1971. Again, this has nothing to do with the connection of books to paintings, but it’s a nice theme to wrap around a body of work that defies the curator’s nimble touch.
KISS NUMBER 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T Crenshaw
My new favorite graphic novel is Kiss Number 8, written by Colleen AF Venable and illustrated by Ellen T. Crenshaw, published by First Second. This is a book that is about family, self-discovery and gender identity that requires that you find a nice spot to read because you won’t want to put it down. Our main character is 16-year-old Amanda. Her friends call her, Mads, which is a fitting nickname for an exuberant personality. Mads is mad about life but struggling to find her way. And growing up in a conservative religious family adds to the complications. Conventional wisdom is telling her that she should be pining over boy-next-door Adam. But her heart is telling her that she wants to be kissed by girl-next-door Cat. Our story is set in 2004 which provides a whole set of pop culture references while also giving everything a timeless quality.
Venable has a wonderful way with evoking the trials and tribulations of young souls. She was telling me about her background in playwriting and I can clearly see that ability to lift up characters and events and have them dance upon the page. It’s about knowing how to craft one scene after another and one moment from the next. Consider the opening pages: a steady sequence of panels depict Mads bumping along as she gains experience in how to kiss and, when we reach Kiss Number 8, it’s enigmatic, something we’ll come back to. Then we proceed a few more pages in and we realize there’s a whole other mystery up ahead.
Page from Kiss Number 8
Ellen T. Crenshaw and Colleen AF Venable
Crenshaw is superbly matched with Venable as her artwork is so in tune with the thoughtful and gentle quality to this work. We chatted about process and the inevitable topic of how time-consuming graphic novels can be was discussed. Well, far be it from me to dissuade Crenshaw from changing anything about her methods. Each page is utterly beautiful. She has a perfect thing going with her use of hand-drawn ink and ink wash. It is a delight to the eyes. We also chatted about how First Second appreciates the beauty of black & white comics and how it is often the best way to convey more mature themes. It certainly works in this case.
Page from Kiss Number 8
No doubt, this is a book working on many levels and is sure to engage readers from teenagers on up. If you’re looking for a good book exploring LGBTQ themes from a teen perspective, this is a wonderful read.
Page from Kiss Number 8
Kiss Number 8 has the depth of a good play and the pace of an immersive work in manga. It is a queer story that will resonate with young readers as well as any reader who loves a good coming-of-age tale. This is a 320-page trade paperback that will reward the reader upon rereading it! Lots to savor in the way of word and image! Available as of March 12th, for more details and how to purchase, go right here.