Review by François Peneaud
Back before he became known for a very serious work, Stuck Rubber Baby, Howard Cruse worked on this series of strips for the gay news-magazine The Advocate from 1983 to 1989 (with a one-year gap in 1985).
His cast of characters was large. The strip is named after Wendel Trupstock, a twenty-something brimming with energy and optimism – although he’s subject to occasional bouts of soul-searching over his skills as a hopeful writer. Ollie Chalmers, his lover was formerly married, and is both father of a young kid and aspirant actor. Wendel’s parents are former civil rights protesters who love seeing their son take up the torch for gay rights, and there’s Sterno, a friend of Ollie, a charming – too charming – chubby guy who seems to get enough sex for ten men. Cruse will also chronicle the lives of many others over six years.
What began as a fun and light take on gay life in a big city evolved over the years into a socially and politically aware run of stories which enabled Cruse to speak out on the same life-or-death questions real gay people had (and still have) to live with. The gay-unfriendly climate of the times played an important role in the series, as well as the reality of AIDS, but that didn’t keep the characters from finding love and camaraderie in their lives. One of the most obvious successes is the way Cruse balances the realistic aspects of the characters’ lives. These are people the reader quickly grows fond of, and Cruse’s art plays no small part in that attachment.
The most endearing characteristic of this drawing style is the perfect combination of cartoon and “realistic” art. The bodies are slightly rubbery, the faces have big, round eyes, and at the same time, these are human bodies, human faces in all their diversity. The way Cruse draws bodies is far closer to reality than a lot of superhero artists.
Don’t come expecting the same approach as Stuck Rubber Baby. Wendel is nowhere as realistic in its themes, structure, or in the way the characters behave. If Stuck Rubber Baby is Cruse’s novel, Wendel is definitely his sitcom.