The Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Columbia University recently welcomed a new addition to its prestigious collection of comic history artifacts: the personal archives of contemporary cartoonist and graphic novelist Howard Cruse.
The collection which includes personal correspondences, audio and video interviews, as well as a selection of artwork—including samples from his seminal, and sometimes controversial, graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby—offers an intimate glimpse into the artist’s activist work in the LGBTQ community as well as his staunch defense of free speech.
A veteran of the underground comix movement, Cruse is credited as one of the first cartoonists to use his comic craft to discuss issues that impact the LGBTQ community including the AIDs epidemic, gay rights, and homophobia. Called the “father of gay comics,” Cruse not only founded and edited the underground series, Gay Comix, but would also be a pioneer in the semi-autobiographical graphic novel form creating his groundbreaking work Stuck Rubber Baby which tackles issues of racial inequality and homophobia in the American South. His strip work published in The Advocate in the 1980s further cemented Cruse’s role as a voice for the gay community.
Cruse’s activist efforts extended beyond the comics page, too. In the form of a series of essays, Cruse stood in defense of free speech taking an active role in the 1980s censorship case which involved Little Sister’s Bookstore in Vancouver, Canada and the seizure of alleged “obscene materials” by Canadian Border Service Agency. After an almost decade long legal battle, Canadian courts determined that materials seized—many of the works those depicting same sex relationships—were done so unjustly, signaling not only a victory for free speech but also the LGBTQ community.
“Cruse’s archives mesh incredibly well with many of our other collections,” said Columbia’s Adjunct Curator for Comics and Graphic Novels, Karen Green. “The papers address so many intersecting areas of study – the history of comics, the history of New York, the history of publishing. This is going to be an important collection.”
The collection which joins others like the archives of Al Jaffee, Denis Kitchen, and Chris Claremont will prove to be an invaluable resource not only for students of comics history, but also to the general public interested in learning more about Cruse as well as his fight for everyone’s right to free expression and to being themselves.
“It feels especially appropriate [that my archives are with Columbia] since the core of my cartooning life, not to mention my years as a participant in the gay liberation movement, was spent a few subway stops away from the University in New York City,” said Cruse. “I’m thrilled to have my personal correspondence and career artifacts become part of [this] amazing comics archive.”
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!