Comics We Love: Howard Cruse’s ‘Stuck Rubber Baby’ in Print Again At Last
As a medium, comics outmatches prose and film with its ability to simultaneously display thick, information-packed scenes while still allowing creators to maintain absolute control over each and every subtlety. Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby harnessed a symphony of discordant subtleties when DC Comics first published the book under its Paradox Press imprint in 1995, and all of the pain, humor and vivid characters are still alive and well in the new paperback edition published in June by Vertigo.
Cruse's tale of homosexual identity in the Kennedy-era 1960s American South may not be a memoir, but the inner turmoil, visceral cruelty and web of relationships that unfold in Stuck Rubber Baby bring his small, fictional town of Clayfield to life during a time when race relations and the nation's future were anything but simple.
The characters in Stuck Rubber Baby look like burly descendants of Al Capp's Li'l Abner cast, clothed in Cruse's nuanced stippling and cross-hatching for dramatic effect and texture. Ultimately, the story builds from main character Toland Polk's youth, as he reflects on images of dead bodies and homosexuality from his past. The events of his life go on introduce new friends and changes that challenge him to be more honest and open about where he stands and how he feels about bigotry.
A frigid, unresponsive local police force acts as a blockade to justice, rather than enforcing the law when victims are black or gay. As Toland crawls toward the point of publicly speaking out, as well as being honest about who he is, the intimidation he feels is just as potent as the support he receives from friends and loved ones.
That's where this book becomes something transcendent in the world of graphic novels and comics. Cruse tells his story with chunky, masculine figures while portraying the fragility of life in a world where masked Ku Klux Klan execution squads roam the night freely, pulling innocent people from their homes and turning them into public warnings.
The bigotry of the American South in the 1960s has been depicted time and again, but Stuck Rubber Baby gets inside of the human experience like few other works you'll find as a document about growing up gay during that period. It's a book for comics lovers and an honest look at an individual in a world of complicated human beings.