Stuck Rubber Baby 25th Anniversary Edition
Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby, I have no doubt, has changed lives. It changed mine.
It’s the semi-autobiographical story of Toland Polk, a young man hiding from his homosexuality in the southern US in the 1960s, as the civil rights movement becomes more important. Toland is raised by well-meaning racists, but he hangs out with people more on the fringes, dating a politicized folk singer and going to parties with a gay former sailor and a drag queen and people of color.
Cruse’s uniquely detailed style outlines faces in a form of pointillism for shading. It puts focus on the people he’s portraying, and their choices and feelings, exactly what the story needs.
Although he refuses for a long time to acknowledge his own truth, simply existing with these people makes a statement during segregated times, sometimes a dangerous one. This story, with its authenticity and sense of place, brings home the challenges of facing the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the era and region. Toland is someone who is afraid to take a stand, whether personally or politically, but can’t live with the established culture either.
I reviewed it over a decade ago, in an edition that was originally published by the Paradox Press imprint of DC Comics. (It later appeared under the Vertigo label in 2010.) Now it has been reprinted, 25 years later, by First Second, a more comfortable home. I’m glad to see a “proper” (book) publisher division put this out, because it will reach a much wider audience, particularly these days.
This new, 25th anniversary edition includes a “making of” by Cruse on how the book came to be, information on his life and artistry, an updated introduction by Alison Bechdel (originally written in 2009), and tributes from Howard’s husband and daughter. I’m sorry Cruse won’t get to see it, since he passed away late last year.
I had the pleasure of attending a reading of the book upon its original release at Borders Books in Philadelphia in late 1995. I went mostly to see how one did an author’s reading of a graphic novel — Cruse used slides of key panels and pages while reading the character dialogue. It’s a memory that’s stuck with me, because Stuck Rubber Baby was clearly an important book, one that would reach far beyond the usual comic market at the time. It was a key marker in my personal understanding of what could be done with the comic medium, and the power of personal stories to change minds and grow understanding.