Stuck Rubber Baby

Stuck Rubber Baby

Stuck Rubber Baby tackles two of the most challenging struggles America has faced over the past half-century: equal rights regardless of race and regardless of sexual orientation.

Like author Howard Cruse, Toland Polk is a white boy growing up in Alabama during the 1960s, and this novel covers his coming of age during the civil rights movement. As he observes and experiences the fear and justice of that time, he also comes to accept that he’s gay, sending him through a personal revolution that mirrors the forced readjustments of his time.

Toland narrates the book in flashback, telling us how he came to be who he is. The opening page surrounds his older face with two telling images of the period we’re going to be immersed in: The first is a smiling Jack and Jackie Kennedy on the lawn of the White House, the symbol of that decade as Camelot. The second shows a burning bus behind protesters holding signs that read “Keep Dixie White”.

As a Southerner, I cringe to realize that this kind of baseless hatred is what people often think of my regional background. Sadly, I can’t say they’re unjustified, given the historical reality (shockingly yet necessarily shown here) and the continuing present bigotry against gays many want to institutionalize into state policy. It’s part of the odd blend of attitudes that make up the uniquely Southern state of mind, another example of which is Toland starting the book by discussing the dead bodies he remembers.

Stuck Rubber Baby

That’s an unsurprising subject of conversation; euphemisms may surround the circumstances of the departures, but Southerners will still talk about them as part of their history. It’s similar to an early conversation Toland recalls talking about how Negros should be respected even though they’re more like animals than white people are. Those kinds of contradictory rules hem Toland in, and he doesn’t grow up until he’s forced to begin questioning them. It’s the personal as political, as key events in Toland’s life symbolize bigger debates.

The stimuli that force his awakening are both internal and external. Personally, he tries to force himself to be not gay, dating girls and ignoring desires he’s been taught are evil. At the same time, he’s coming to know “those types of people”. Through friends of friends, he meets black church leaders, out homosexuals, drag queens, musicians, and political activists. It’s a lot harder to accept the stereotypes you’ve always been handed when you know the people talked about as individuals and you’re forced to mourn their unnecessary deaths.

Cruse’s style results in fleshy, solid people with presence. They all slightly resemble each other (especially around the chin), reminding us of the brotherhood of the human race, yet the details make them all distinctly themselves. His detailed crosshatching makes my wrist hurt just thinking about what it took to complete these pages, but the result is wonderfully detailed and three-dimensional.

The term “graphic novel” is currently trendy. It’s often used to mean “comics in book format”, many of which are collections of serialized tales or groups of stories assembled to make a certain page count. In contrast, Stuck Rubber Baby is truly a novel told through the unique combination of words and pictures that makes the comics medium so fascinating. Its scope is astounding, its wide variety of characters memorable, and its events thought-provoking. Cruse set out on an impressive journey, aiming to capture powerful images from a time that still shapes American politics and culture today. He grandly succeeds with a work that the reader won’t be able to simply set aside when done. Stuck Rubber Baby stays with you.

It won the Best Graphic Album Eisner in 1996. At his website, Howard Cruse details the four-year process of creating the book. The Comics Journal named it one of the 100 Best Comics of the Century. Sequential Tart interviewed Cruse for the book’s 10th anniversary.

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