A Journal of the Plague Decade: On Howard Cruse’s “Wendel”

October 10, 2020   •   By Paul Morton

The Complete Wendel

Howard Cruse

Special thanks to Justin Hall and Paul Sammut for their invaluable support and advice.


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THERE IS AN AIDS canon. It includes Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Thom Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats, Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, Samuel Delany’s The Mad Man, Edmund White’s Skinned Alive, Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances, and Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors. No one work offers a definitive account. No one image is the right image. Parting Glances is about intimate and uncomfortable moments between friends and lovers, at apartment parties and dinner parties and in parks. A rock musician with AIDS, played by Steve Buscemi, sits in a stairwell and listens to a beautiful twink rhapsodize about sex and freedom. Meanwhile, Gunn’s elegies are set in hospitals, which might as well be different countries. Gunn describes the face of a friend on his deathbed: “Lids tight: nothing of his, / No tremor from within, / Played on the surfaces.”


This work is immediate. Daniel Defoe wrote A Journal of the Plague Year when he was in his 50s, a half-century after the Great Plague of London, which ended when he was just out of toddlerhood. Alessandro Manzoni wrote The Betrothed more than a century after the Great Plague of Milan had disappeared from living memory. Kushner, Gunn, and the rest are like us. They are absorbed in the present, making art while running out of time. They do not know how or if the pandemic will end.


AIDS also inspired bad plays, bad poetry, bad memoirs, bad novels, bad short stories, and bad essays that we do not remember, as well as an eardrum-lacerating Tony Award–winning musical that we remember all too well. In 1997, Edmund White told an interviewer, “I think it’s frivolous to hand out grades to these works of art that are being done. It’d be like people coming out of Auschwitz with little scrawled pictures of dead bodies. What if they’d been bad drawings? Who cares? They’re precious documents. And I feel that way about AIDS writing.”


There is also a canon of AIDS-inspired comics. It consists of safe-sex manuals, including Leonard Rifas’s AIDS News, published by the People of Color Against AIDS Network in Seattle; Kafkaesque satires like those made by the German artist Ralf König; the very Gen-X Eric Orner’s The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green; Captain Condom, a series that ran in Diseased Pariah News, a rage-humor magazine; and Jerry Mills’s Poppers, which began as a chronicle of the misadventures of a promiscuous, handsome, muscular dude, but evolved into a narrative of the pandemic. Some of this work garnered unwelcome attention. In October 1987, Jesse Helms — whose anti-gay bigotry and hysterical advocacy for children exceeded Fredric Wertham’s in zeal — held up a copy of Safer Sex Comix #8 on the floor of the United States Senate in order to protest the use of federal funds to promote homosexuality. That the comic was not in fact funded by the feds but by New York’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis didn’t matter. The Senate passed a rule that all appropriations for AIDS awareness would emphasize “abstinence from homosexual activities.”


Mainstream comics also addressed AIDS. A tragic story line ran in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury. At DC Comics, in the pages of The New Guardians, the “AIDS vampire” Hemo-Goblin gave the disease to the gay, Peruvian superhero Extraño. Marvel Comics, bless them, outed Northstar in the pages of Alpha Flight and ran an HIV story line in The Incredible Hulk, but the company’s higher-ups balked at an HIV-positive headliner. There were also two omnibus collections, one published in the United Kingdom and the other in the United States, both called Strip AIDS, which between them ran work from what looks like every single comics luminary, among them Alan Moore, Jules Feiffer, Frank Miller, and Will Eisner.


Howard Cruse, who died of cancer last year at age 75, created Wendel, a strip that ran in The Advocate between 1983 and 1989. Its titular hero is an aspiring science fiction writer who works for a third-rate magazine. He has no talent for art, but quite a lot for affection. He enjoys a monogamous relationship with the lovable if volatile Ollie, a community theater actor. Wendel, Cruse said, represented the artist’s idealistic side, Ollie his more troubled, pessimistic half. Both are technically baby boomers, but Ollie is older, and isn’t sure if Wendel can understand the pre-Stonewall world. Cruse himself had met his future husband at an activist meeting, and the strip coincided with the first decade of their relationship.


Wendel’s parents are aging lefties who accept their son without question. Ollie’s son, Farley, is cool with his father’s sexuality and his indulgence of hallucinogens. The couple is close friends with Sterno, a spastic hedonist; a lesbian couple, one radical and butch, the other femme; and another gay couple, Sawyer and Ramon, both of whom carry the now-forgotten label PWA (People With AIDS). The characters — among them the manically promiscuous, the delusional, and the unwisely self-medicated — are sympathetic. Cruse always maintained that his strip showed how much the range of human emotions applied to gays as much as straights, but the strip suggests a pre-assimilationist notion of the “gay community”: the straights in the strip are relatives — not friends — of the central characters.


Cruse’s heroes are activists, and Cruse is vicious in his depictions of those (like me) who dislike going to protests and shouting slogans. Wendel and his friends march. They quilt. They don’t try to look cool. They also obsess over their flab, go to dinner, and redefine safe sex. “Drama was high and rhetoric furious as we learned how to cry foul loudly and in large numbers,” Cruse wrote. “And when the crowds had dispersed we would trudge home to the mildew that waited to be scrubbed from our bathroom tiles.”


If this work were produced today and presented as a historical strip about the 1980s, it would, despite its nuanced characterizations and literate, unpretentious style, be a little cloying — as well as jarring for a generation that grew up on Glee and whose parents love Ellen DeGeneres. But as a chronicle of a near-apocalypse, these comics are invaluable. “Hopefully LGBT folks will never see so deadly a decade as that one again, but it nevertheless had its pleasures,” Cruse wrote. Wendel is about joy, how joy is itself radical and a means of survival when your friends and lovers suffer and die. It is a precious document, and the drawings are good.


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Wendel is not about mad rage. Cruse’s style is sweet. His humor bridges the underground comic and the ’80s sitcom. He took from Robert Crumb — who thought Cruse’s early work was too cute — and Aline Kominsky-Crumb a willingness to indulge the id, to reveal on the page the bodily needs that everyone has but dare not utter aloud. But Cruse was even more influenced by John Stanley’s Little Lulu, a favorite from his childhood. The first Wendel strip about AIDS satirizes the new landscape. Ollie and Sterno visit a bathhouse, now no longer a den of sex, but a site of restraint. “I try to look at it as spiritual discipline!” says Sterno. “My goal is to transcend orgasmic genitalism and achieve oceanic voluptuosity!” Men give each other suggestions for stimulation — “body-painting parties,” the “enema-via-computer scene” — before enjoying an orgy of mutual masturbation.


Life under AIDS is a series of negotiations. Wendel and Ollie use condoms. Within a few years, we meet Wendel’s first boyfriend, Sawyer, who is now fighting the disease. The two make peace with their past and discover a platonic bond. They remember their breakup, when Sawyer pinned a hysterical Wendel down and told him they couldn’t stay together. Wendel: “That’s the only rejection I ever got that I can masturbate to the memory of!” Cruse’s gay men love being boys. The dialogue makes a blow job as normal as a desk, and bondage as common as a kitchen table. More importantly, Cruse explores the mystery of male-male connection. Every friend is a lover and every lover a friend. All are comrades.


Gentle turns of phrase let us know how characters relate to the pandemic. Sawyer and Ramon stay with Wendel’s parents on a visit. Throughout the night, the old couple is awakened by the sound of an AZT beep. Says the mother, “Sigh! Isn’t it comforting to have youngsters sleeping in the house again?” A character in Andrew Holleran’s 2006 novel, Grief, says, “I used to think that the eighties were like a very nice dinner party with friends, except some of them were taken out and shot while the rest of us were expected to go on eating.” Wendel and his circle swallow their food. The saga’s most moving piece, however, centers on the life and death of an old acquaintance of Sawyer’s, Otis, whom he had met during a summer in Montana sometime in the 1970s.


Otis is an alcoholic, the cracked, sad man whom even castouts avoid at parties. He rambles on about George McGovern and the philharmonic. Sawyer remembers a final meeting, during which he sits with Otis at a crowded party, and the two hold hands. Cruse draws Otis’s face in extreme close-up, capturing his hunger for intimacy and his awareness that he will die without knowing love. Then Cruse draws an extreme close-up of Otis’s old hand on Sawyer’s. We tend to ennoble victims of mass death, and we forget that pandemics and genocides also take the lives of the lonely and the repugnant, the least of us who are also the most interesting. Sawyer contributes a panel to the AIDS quilt in commemoration of Otis, because no one else will. The joy in Wendel is qualified.


Cruse may be best known for Stuck Rubber Baby, an autobiographical book published in 1995 about his coming-of-age in Alabama during the Civil Rights movement. It is a rich, complex work examining the intersections of race and sexuality. But Cruse’s greatest piece was not this one foray into the graphic novel medium nor Wendel, but a sharp, devastating story he published in 1980 for the first issue of Gay Comix, a magazine he also edited.


In “Billy Goes Out,” a young man goes club-hopping. Thought bubbles at the top of each panel capture the range of impulses that inform Billy’s decisions throughout the night, among them visions of a recently deceased uncle who tells him that even though he had a lousy 38-year marriage, he still had someone to cry for him at his funeral; melancholic memories of his ex; bullying during his childhood; and a hilarious anthropomorphized version of his own phallus, with whom Billy suffers an emotionally abusive relationship. He turns down men who don’t meet his checklist and returns home at the end of the night after a twink gives him a blow job in a backroom. He dreams of a relationship with one of the night’s rejects, a nice young man with an Abraham Lincoln beard who had just wanted to talk.


A story in the 1984 issue of Gay Comix announced that Billy had died. “Sex wasn’t causing the disease, but it happened to be a great way to transmit it,” Cruse said in a 1985 interview with The Comics Journal. “[Y]ou had this situation where people who were good, loving people, people with full lives, like Billy, ordinary people who needed to be held […] these people were unlucky.” When I met Cruse in 2016, I asked him why he never made another strip with Billy. He told me that there was no way the young man could have survived. I pointed out that Billy doesn’t have high-risk sex. He just gets a blow job. Cruse told me again that there was no way Billy could have lived. I kept pushing for a different answer. He was polite, but firm. He had told the interviewer that he — like me — didn’t know a lot of people who had died of AIDS. He told him that he — also like me — lost a friend when Billy died.


Wendel is a chronicle. “Billy Goes Out” is an elegy.


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There’s a progressive myth that a radical who doesn’t change a single belief is 20 years away from becoming a reactionary. Ollie and Wendel have sex, but more often we see them enjoy the casual mores of what we might as well call a marriage. They walk around naked while brushing their teeth. The dishes pile up. They support each other through their mini-breakdowns. They visit Farley at summer camp, and Wendel tries to connect with Ollie’s devastated ex-wife, whose hysteria following divorce provides a running joke. Wendel looks forward to Dan Savage, who has been championing sexual freedom as well as his own nuclear family since the 1990s.


Savage fought for gay marriage, but he also demagogued his friends on the left during the early years of the War on Terror. When I interviewed him in 2002, he minimized the anti-gay bullying epidemic in American high schools. He has, to use his own phrase, gotten much better. I mention him here to say that I couldn’t imagine Cruse even jokingly playing the contrarian. The stakes are too high. I happen to believe that one’s sexual desires should not determine one’s politics — a gay warmonger is no worse than a straight one — but in Wendel, a happy gay life is inextricable from a distrust of the American experiment. Throughout the strip’s run, characters casually mention their genuine if not constant fear of being rounded up and sent to camps. (Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta, whose serialization coincided with Wendel’s, imagines that scenario in England.) Their political beliefs evolve throughout the strip, as do their relationships with lovers, friends, and family members. But they maintain a seriousness about what matter most. Accordingly, Cruse directs as much ire at homosexual gadflies as he does toward neo-Nazis, homophobic comedians, Bible-thumpers, and parents who disown their gay sons.


The left used to be more fun. Joylessness was for Dickensian villains like Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, and Jesse Helms. The millennial and zoomer left is miserable. We self-flagellate. We reject art that is ideologically impure. We preach intersectionality while playing the Oppression Olympics. We have developed a rigid vocabulary that hinders our evolution. We have invented essentialist definitions of identity as ridiculous if not as dangerous as those promulgated by our country’s white supremacists.


At its best, the left maintains a capacity for irony, as well as a moral center. Perhaps my nostalgia is misguided. Cruse’s work acknowledges and gently ribs his own fellow travelers’ shortcomings. And yet Wendel’s very existence suggests that, during the AIDS pandemic, the left was capable of self-criticism and self-deprecation. After Wendel and Ollie are arrested at a demonstration, Farley puts away his superhero costume. He learns that the people who fight crime aren’t always good. Introspective and wise, he also sees the limits of his elders’ activism. He has yet to see what activism can accomplish.


The 2020s are worse than the 1980s. COVID-19 will likely kill more people. The nature of the disease and the nihilistic cruelty of our leaders make traditional organizing more dangerous. The Trump administration has a pretext for what will be more expansive and deadlier population removals. The concentration camps are here. Forty-five minutes south of Seattle, where I’m writing, in Tacoma, Washington, undocumented immigrants are trapped in the GEO-owned Northwest Detention Center. The prison announced its first COVID-19 case in early May. The police department in Seattle betrayed its contempt for the citizenry when it used military-grade equipment to control the Black Lives Matter protests. A comic in the spirit of Wendel about our moment would have a different conception of community. But I hope that comic’s creator will still know how to celebrate the mediocre and find pleasure in washing dishes and overfamiliar sex. If we want to survive, we need a reason to survive.


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Paul Morton is currently at work on a book about the Zagreb school of animation, as well as a lengthy study of Jules Feiffer, “America’s first literary cartoonist.”