The cause was complications from lymphoma, said his husband, Ed Sedarbaum.
Mr. Cruse’s work was alternately cute and cheery, with simple backgrounds and comically exaggerated character features, and dark and dense, richly textured with dots and crosshatching that took him many hours per panel.
While his style drew comparisons to such disparate artists as Dr. Seuss and Robert Crumb, his subject matter was almost entirely his own, as he became one of the first cartoonists to chronicle gay life in a recurring comic strip and then in a graphic novel.
In a career that began when homosexuality was criminalized and comics were treated as a third-class art form, Mr. Cruse was credited with paving the way for LGBTQ cartoonists such as Alison Bechdel, author of the long-running comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and with nurturing a community of artists that only recently acquired mainstream recognition, partly through Bechdel’s book “Fun Home.”
“Howard was one of the greatest cartoonists of his generation,” said cartoonist Justin Hall, a California College of the Arts professor who edited the collection “No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics,” which featured work by Mr. Cruse and is being adapted into a documentary.
“He is known as the godfather of queer comics,” he added, “not just because of his artistic talent, not just because of his pioneering works, but because of his generosity, his belief in community and his dedication to helping us all.”
The son of a photojournalist turned minister, Mr. Cruse first became known for his 1970s series “Barefootz,” which featured a friendly young man with oversized bare feet and later included a gay character. The cartoon appeared in magazines and in anthologies by publisher Denis Kitchen, who in 1979 invited Mr. Cruse to edit what became Gay Comix, released with the tagline, “Lesbians and Gay Men Put It on Paper!”
Mr. Cruse had not yet come out in print when he was approached by Kitchen. But he had immersed himself in the gay liberation movement, spurred by the Stonewall riots in Manhattan — an event he witnessed by chance in 1969, after taking LSD at a Tiny Tim concert in Central Park and taxiing down to Greenwich Village.
The Gay Comix project felt like “a good way to come out professionally in a way that doesn’t seem like I’m confessing to some deep, dark secret,” Mr. Cruse recently told the Beat, a comics website. “I felt that visibility was very important at that time,” he added, “because there was a lot of anti-gay stuff in the late ’70s and early ’80s, so I challenged cartoonists to join me in doing this book.”
Mr. Cruse edited the first four issues of Gay Comix, which debuted in 1980 and featured cartoonists including Robert Triptow and Trina Robbins, aiming to present stories that showed gay men and lesbians as true-to-life characters rather than caricatures. He later handed off editing duties to focus on his 1980s comic strip “Wendel,” about a gay writer and his partner during the Reagan years.
Appearing in the LGBTQ magazine the Advocate, the strip “was the first time the intimate life of a gay couple had been shown in a serious way,” said Hall. It also touched on issues including AIDS and gay bashing, which Mr. Cruse said he endured in 1973 when he was attacked in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park.
“Almost all of my comic strips, one way or another, are my life seen through a prism — not necessarily the details of it but my emotional observations of it,” he once told the Advocate.
Mr. Cruse returned to his youth in Alabama with “Stuck Rubber Baby” (1995), a 210-page, semiautobiographical graphic novel about a young white man, Toland Polk, exploring his sexuality in the fictional town of Clayfield.
Less humorous than Mr. Cruse’s earlier work, the book interwove civil rights demonstrations, a lynching and the aftermath of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. It also drew on a pivotal event in Mr. Cruse’s early life, when he and a girlfriend, Pam Montanaro, had a child who was put up for adoption. Mr. Cruse, who said he was still coming to terms with his sexuality, attributed the birth to a faulty prophylactic, which gave the book its title.
“Barren of superheroes or talking animals, ‘Stuck Rubber Baby’ certainly isn’t standard comic book fare,” wrote comics author Harvey Pekar, reviewing the book for the Chicago Tribune. “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. But those who do seek out ‘Stuck Rubber Baby’ are in for an edifying experience.”
The book received Eisner and Harvey awards, two of the highest honors in comics, and featured an introduction from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, who had provided Mr. Cruse with some financial support during the writing process.
But it soon fell out of print and faded in the comics world before being reissued in 2010 with an introduction by Bechdel. A 25th-anniversary edition will be published next year by First Second Books.
“More than anything else,” Mr. Cruse told the Atlanta Constitution after its original release, “this is a book people can live with and revisit and find new subtleties in, find issues that are contemporary even though the story happened 30 years ago. It’s about issues I care a lot about: Is this country going to be a generous country or a mean-spirited country? This is very much on my mind these days.”
Howard Russell Cruse was born in Birmingham on May 2, 1944, and raised in nearby Springville, where his father preached at a Methodist church. His mother was a homemaker who later worked at the telephone company Southern Bell.
As a boy, Mr. Cruse created theatrical shows and fell in love with the Sunday funnies, drawing his own cartoons about Landie Lucker, “the super elf.” His crayons and pencils were soon replaced by a Rapidograph drawing pen, a present from his father, and by 15, he was publishing his own comic strip in the county newspaper.
Mr. Cruse attended the Indian Springs boarding school but credited his formative education to the Famous Artists School, a correspondence course that helped him develop his cartooning skills, and to letters he exchanged with Milton Caniff, creator of the Steve Canyon and Terry and the Pirates comic strips.
For a time, he also pursued a career in drama; After graduating from Birmingham-Southern College in 1968 he joined WBMG-TV in Birmingham as an art director and a children’s-show puppeteer. He later enrolled in a playwriting program at Pennsylvania State University, only to drop out and move to New York City in 1977. He had realized, his husband said, that “you can do a comic strip like a play, and you don’t have to worry about actors or buying props.”
Mr. Cruse had by then created “Barefootz,” which debuted in 1971 in the University of Alabama student newspaper. In a whimsical origin story on his website, he wrote that the character emerged out of an acid trip one night, when he suddenly saw “all the suffering peoples of the world, amassed before me on an acrid desert of kitty litter” — and then heard a booming voice from the heavens say, “What they all need is a good chuckle, boy!”
He later did illustration for publications including the Village Voice and Playboy, and he volunteered with gay rights organizations alongside his partner of 40 years, Sedarbaum, who ran unsuccessfully for New York state senate in 1998. They settled in Williamstown, Mass., and married in 2004 after same-sex marriage was legalized in the state.
In addition to his husband, survivors include his daughter, Kimberly Kolze Venter of Roswell, Ga., with whom he reconnected before publishing “Stuck Rubber Baby”; a brother; and two grandchildren.
“I’m interested in the undercurrents of life, the ways that people relate to each other, whether they’re gay or straight; the way they love each other and betray each other,” Mr. Cruse told the Village Voice in 1988. “These are the things that make all narrative art resonate. I would like to create characters that will resonate a century from now, even to people who are not living in a gay subculture or under the gun of bigotry.”
Asked “what would have to happen to make that so,” he replied: “People would have to learn how to think for themselves.”