A review a day: <i>Stuck Rubber Baby</i>

I suppose I should have read this 15 years ago, but I took a while. So sue me. Now, it's been re-released, and I read it this time! Yay, me!

Stuck Rubber Baby is Howard Cruse's masterpiece from 1995. Now, Vertigo has spruced it up a bit and thrown a $24.99 price tag on it. It's, you know, kind of worth it.

Stuck Rubber Baby isn't perfect, but it's a good read. Cruse sets it in early 1960s Alabama, in a fictional town called Clayfield. His main character, Toland Polk, tells the story in flashback, with very occasional panels of him in the present. Cruse's setting is excellent, actually - it makes Stuck Rubber Baby far more than a "coming-out" book, as Cruse mixes homosexual awakening with the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and illuminates both the similarities and differences between them. Toland himself is an example of the most obvious difference - he can hide his sexual orientation, and does so for much of the book.

Many of the characters, obviously, aren't so lucky.

Cruse never pushes an agenda on us, which is another nice factor of the book. Toland, for the most part, is relatively passive (Alison Bechdel is rather hard on him in her introduction; I don't think he's as "disengaged" as she does), trying to live his life without too much conflict (which is why I think Bechdel is a bit hard on him - who really actively seeks out conflict in their lives?), but he can't escape what's going on. He figures out rather early that he's gay, but he battles against for a long time, even hooking up with a girl, Ginger, and convincing himself that he's in love with her. It's a mark of how much his self-loathing is ingrained in him that he has sex with Ginger after he tells her he's gay - he's still trying to overcome it, and it's interesting that Ginger herself, as progressive as she is (and she's far more than he is), can still have sex with him, as if she's hoping to convert him. Toland takes a very long way to realizing who he is and how to embrace that, and it's a traumatic event that forces him to take the final step. Cruse does a wonderful job showing how difficult it is for Toland to accept who he is, as even liberals in the early Sixties had some problems with it. It's not like Toland doesn't have examples of "out" homosexuals - he becomes friends with several gay men during the course of the book, and while they live in a shadow world, they don't hide who they are. Cruse gives us several different examples of how the gay men in the book deal with their worlds and how those who know them deal with them, and it's very well done.

Cruse delves deeply into the Civil Rights movement as well, and one of the more interesting things about the comic is that the two different groups don't necessarily get along with each other. For the most part, of course, they're allies, but there are a few examples of one group being homophobic and the other group being racist. The casual racism of even the more liberal whites is interesting, as well. Toland's sister, Melanie, is a kind-hearted woman who accepts Toland's orientation rather easily, and while she's not overtly racist, she expresses the casual racism you often see when people are raised in the culture. Cruse never allows the characters to become stereotypes, and that elevates the book. Each person does things that are admirable and not so admirable, and each of them has to learn something about themselves to move forward. For some, like Melanie's husband Orley, the learning process goes to the extreme.

For others, it's more subtle, but Cruse does a very nice job building to certain events that forces people to make choices. Toland's coming out is a tremendous moment, because he finally understands what the risk is and what others have sacrificed, and he can't hide from that anymore. It is, of course, precipitated by the tragic event I alluded to above, but the tragedy is not only what happens to the victim but why Toland is left alone. In that moment, Toland realizes he can't shield himself from the world, and he stands up for himself. Cruse, interestingly, makes Toland's commitment - such as it is, as he's still fairly passive - to the cause of black people stronger than his commitment to gay rights early on in the book. Toland can hide who he is, so he does. He thinks he can change who he is, while black people can't. It's a very interesting way of showing that people can be heroic in one aspect of their lives - again, Toland isn't actively heroic, but he still stands up for the rights of those who have none - but cowardly in others. Cruse does this throughout the book with many characters, and it makes them far more human than if they simply made up their minds about something and never wavered again.

The one part of the book that doesn't work is whence comes the name of the book - namely, Toland and Ginger's baby. It feels tacked on, as if Cruse felt like piling one more problem on the kids. There's an element of unreality to it, too - Toland and Ginger have sex once, and Ginger gets pregnant. Melanie even comments on the unfairness of it all, as she has been trying to get pregnant for years. I'm not stupid (well, not about this) - I know you can get pregnant from having sex one time, but I also know a lot of factors go into getting pregnant, and it feels a bit unlikely that it would happen in this way. Then, the pregnancy doesn't seem to have much impact on Toland's life once Ginger makes it clear she's not going to marry him.

The kid is put up for adoption, and her existence doesn't seem to affect Toland all that much. He grows up for many other reasons, and the presence of his pregnant "girlfriend" feels like the least effective of them. It's a bit of a misstep in the midst of a very strong book.

This is an extremely dense book, and that's where Cruse's art really shines. It's astonishingly intricate, featuring dozens of finely delineated characters, and Cruse never skimps on the details. He probably cross-hatched himself blind while doing this book, as he gives each character various shadings depending on the light and time of day. He immerses us in the world of the early 1960s, nailing not only the cars and buildings but the hair styles and clothing of the time. He breaks panel borders when it suits him, shifts from rigid page construction to more funky designs based on the subject matter, and even does some cool experimental stuff, such as showing Toland's skull crack open when he has a nightmare. Cruse's particular tic is that he gives everyone extremely rounded chins, but that's a minor thing in the midst of such gorgeous work. He does a marvelous job showing differences in ages and even skin tones among the many black characters. Much like the storytelling, the art shows people being people - sometimes Cruse makes them unbearably beautiful, and other times their faces become twisted and ugly in anger. It's extremely impressive how Cruse manages to make all these characters unique, so that we never lose track of anyone even though the book is stuffed with characters.

With the minor exception of Ginger's pregnancy, Cruse does a wonderful job showing a young man's journey through a devastating period in his life and how he comes to term with who he is.

I haven't even gotten into the many, many subplots, as other characters grow and change as well, from Ginger to Melanie to her husband to the reverend's son to Toland's friends Mavis and Riley to Sammy, the young gay man Toland becomes close to but can't come out to. All of these people change throughout the book, and it's far too detailed to get into. Cruse gives us these characters to highlight how different it is for everyone when they need to make choices - for Sammy, it's easier to be gay than confront his bigoted father. The reverend's wife, who once sang jazz but no longer performs, tells Toland why late in the book, and she sums up the book's themes very well, but what's great about her speech is that Cruse has reached it organically, so it doesn't feel polemical. We accept it because we've come so far with the characters and are willing to learn along with them.

I don't know why I never read Stuck Rubber Baby back when it first came out; I heard of it not too long after it was published but never saw it in a comics shoppe or even in a book store, and over the years I just never got around to getting it. I'm glad Vertigo has republished it, because it's an excellent comic that deserves a bigger audience. If you're narrow-minded, you can think it's about a gay man coming out of the closet or about the Civil Rights movement. The genius of it is that Cruse makes it about figuring out what you stand for and doing so, and that's a universal impulse. Even if you're not gay.

Tomorrow: The Xeric Award? What the crap is that?

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