Howard Cruse, a gay underground cartoonist who mined his life in “Wendel,” a comic strip that ran for several years in The Advocate, and “Stuck Rubber Baby,” a poignant graphic novel set in the South in the 1960s, died on Nov. 26 in Pittsfield, Mass. He was 75.
His husband, Ed Sedarbaum, said the cause was lymphoma.
In the early 1980s, he was the first editor of Gay Comix — a series of occasional comic books that showcased his work and that of women like Roberta Gregory and Mary Wings— and then developed “Wendel,” an adventurous strip about a man and his lover navigating the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
The cartoonist Alison Bechdel, whose graphic memoir “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” (2006) was adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical in 2015, bought the first issue of Gay Comix at the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in Greenwich Village soon after moving to Manhattan.
“I had no career goals until I picked up that comic, and I knew at that moment what I was going to do with my life,” Ms. Bechdel said by phone. “He created a path for me and many other queer cartoonists.”
Mr. Cruse came to understand the importance of representing himself, as well as other gay men and lesbians, on comic-book pages.
“It’s tremendously empowering when you’re gay to realize that you’ve been doing it right, and it’s the bigots who are stumbling about in a fog about this subject,” he told The Village Voice, where he was an occasional contributor, in 1988.
“Stuck Rubber Baby” (1995) is the story of Toland Polk, a closeted gay man in Clayfield, Ala. — a fictionalized Birmingham — who becomes involved in civil rights demonstrations. His friends include Ginger, an activist with whom he has a child (a plot point that paralleled Mr. Cruse’s life), and Les, a black man who becomes his first gay lover.
In one chapter of the book, which is told in flashbacks, Toland recalls reporting for an Army physical after getting his draft notice and filling out the box that says “homosexual” on a questionnaire. As he and other recruits stand in their underwear, a uniformed man shouts: “Hey Sarge! We’ve got a homo here!”
Addressing the reader, Toland says, “The zest that the guys in charge brought to make sure everyone knew exactly who among us had ‘checked the box’ caught me a little by surprise.”
Not welcome in the Army — another turning point he shared with Mr. Cruse — Toland heads home, thinking about the perils of being gay in a society that does not accept him and determined to act like a heterosexual.
“I’d decided that this homo stuff had to get nipped right in the bud,” Toland says.
Reviewing the book in The Chicago Tribune, Harvey Pekar, the comic book writer known for his series “American Splendor,” called “Stuck Rubber Baby” a “compelling work of art.”
“Barren of superheroes or talking animals,” Mr. Pekar wrote, “‘Stuck Rubber Baby’ certainly isn’t standard comic book fare. The people most likely to enjoy the book will be enthusiasts of good contemporary fiction, although most of them are unused to shopping for comics.”
“Stuck Rubber Baby” won both a Harvey Award and an Eisner Award, two of the most prestigious honors in comic books.
Howard Russell Cruse was born on May 2, 1944, in Birmingham and grew up in nearby Springville. His father, Clyde, was a Methodist minister and photojournalist, and his mother, Irma (Russell) Cruse, was an executive with Southern Bell Telephone.
Howard wanted to be a syndicated cartoonist from an early age and copied the styles of artists like Al Capp, whose “Li’l Abner,” a satirical strip about a hillbilly clan, was extremely popular. During high school, he published a comic strip in a local paper and also traveled to Manhattan on a trip arranged by one of his high school teachers to meet Milton Caniff, the creator of the comic strips “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon.”
At Birmingham-Southern College, where he studied art and theater, he acted and designed sets for stage productions. He also satirized the ultraconservative John Birch Society in a four-page cartoon for the campus literary magazine.
After graduating in 1968, he joined a Birmingham television station as an art director and puppeteer and created a daily single-panel cartoon about squirrels that ran for two years in The Birmingham Post-Herald.
He worked in television and advertising for about a decade. During those years he also created “Barefootz,” an underground strip that he described on his website as being about a “a sweet guy with a huge head and enormous bare feet who hangs out with cockroaches, a horny girlfriend, a hippie artist wannabe and a weird beast of unknown origin who barfs frogs from underneath a bed.”
While Barefootz was not gay, another character, Headrack, was. But Mr. Cruse did not out him in the strip until 1976, when Headrack erupted in anger about homophobia.
“I didn’t commit to being gay myself immediately,” Mr. Cruse said this year in an interview with The Beat, a comics website, “although any sensible person would have figured that no straight person would have done that story.”
Having found his way as an openly gay voice in underground comics, Mr. Cruse accepted an offer from the publisher Denis Kitchen to edit Gay Comix.
Mr. Kitchen, who would also publish “Barefootz” as a separate comic book, said in a phone interview that Mr. Cruse demanded one thing.
“From the first issue he insisted that half the book always be by lesbians and half from gay men, even though it was more difficult then to find lesbian artists,” he said.
Mr. Cruse had moved on to “Wendel” by 1983, during the Reagan administration, which was viewed as hostile to gays and lesbians. He pitched the comic to The Advocate, then a newspaper for L.G.B.T. readers and now a magazine.
At first it was intended to be a humorous strip about the sex lives of his characters, but as the AIDS epidemic unfolded, “It became more complicated to be humorous about the cruising, one-night stand lifestyle,” he said at a festival held by the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in 2014, at which Ms. Bechdel interviewed him. “And I began to think if Wendel gets into a relationship, that would actually allow me to go into really unexplored territory.”
“Wendel” was partly a reflection on Mr. Cruse’s relationship with Mr. Sedarbaum, whom he met in 1979 and married in 2004.
“Wendel” ended in 1989, and Mr. Cruse focused on “Stuck Rubber Baby” for several years. That work found some of its inspiration in the ill-informed advice he said he once received from a therapist, who said he would discover that he was straight if he dated girls.
He followed the counsel and began a romantic relationship with a college classmate. They had a daughter who was born at a home for unwed mothers and put up for adoption as an infant.
In a biographical essay for a new edition of “Stuck Rubber Baby,” to be published next year by First Second Books, he recalled the pitch he made to Piranha Press, an imprint of DC Comics: “A closeted gay man becomes an accidental father: How could dramatic complications not ensue?” He later expanded the book’s scope to the more complex story he eventually conceived.
In addition to his husband, with whom he lived in Williamstown, Mass., Mr. Cruse is survived by his daughter, Kimberly Kolze Venter; two grandchildren; and his brother, Allan.
Ms. Venter, who is 55 and met Mr. Cruse when she was 21 and in search of her birth parents, wrote of her father on Facebook: “He left a legacy with his artwork and was a trailblazer in this time. I’m so proud of him and so blessed he was in my life.”