19 April 2015
Before 1995, Howard Cruse was best known as an underground comix artist, first coming to prominence with Barefootz in the 1970s, with his editorship of Gay Comix in the early 1980s, and then hitting a real stride with the Wendel comics in The Advocate throughout the '80s. Wendel ended in 1989, though, and Cruse began a major new project, his first graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, released by the DC Comics imprint Paradox Press. It gained notice and won awards, but never had the breakout success of something like Maus, Persepolis, or Fun Home, though I would argue that it is at least close to equal in merit.
Stuck Rubber Baby is a true graphic novel — unlike many other books that get that label, it was not conceived in pieces or published serially; it was always intended to be a long, unified narrative. It tells the story of a man named Toland Polk, mostly through his memories of growing up in Alabama during the early 1960s as a white guy who doesn't really know what he wants from the world or his life, coming to grips both with the civil rights movement and his own homosexuality. Partly in an attempt to try to cure his gay desires, he ends up in a relationship with a fiery college student, activist, and singer named Ginger, and she becomes pregnant. Meanwhile, protests against segregation and racism are growing more and more ferocious, and the white establishment fights back, with tragic, horrifying results. Throughout it all, Toland meets queer characters of various races and ages, and finally decides both that political action is necessary and that he can't pretend to be heterosexual any longer. This primary story is framed as the memories of Toland thirty years later, apparently in a stable relationship with a man, living a solidly bourgeois urban gay life, but still haunted by the past. Other characters' stories and fates are woven through Toland's memories, creating a complex view of this past and his remembering of it.
I've had a weird relationship with Stuck Rubber Baby over the course of its lifetime: I looked through it when it was first published and decided it wasn't for me; I read the whole book sometimes in the early 2000's and liked it but didn't really engage with it; I recently read it very carefully and closely, which led to something like awe. (The last time I had as powerful a reading experience was when I read J.M. Ledgard's Submergence over a year ago.)