At some point in the last few months I stumbled across a list of the best graphic novels of all time. Most of the listed were works with which I had some familiarity, but one near the top, Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby, was completely unknown to me. So when I came across it recently, I picked it up to see what I had been missing.
Stuck Rubber Baby is an extraordinarily rich and complex tapestry of characters deftly woven into the fabric of a specific time and place: a mid-sized community in the Deep South during the Civil Rights era of the mid 1960s. The story primarily unfolds in the fictional town of Clayfield. Its downtown, suburbs, and small college serve to place it in any number of Southern towns, though Cruse being from Birmingham would imply that as an appropriate stand in. The main characters are far from what we would call typical Southerners, yet they are every bit a part of the South. It is refreshing to see the community of a Southern town painted in shades of grey rather than the usual formula of citizens being either bigots or those who fight against bigotry. The real world is a lot more complicated than that, and Cruse brings that complexity through into his characters.
The novel is narrated by and centers on Toland Polk, a young man who can’t seem to make up his mind. The narration is told from the future, probably around the time of publication (1995). Toland appears at the outset and then throughout, mimicking in many ways the narrative style of Harvey Pekar. I wasn’t surprised to see Cruse refer to Pekar as a major supporter and influence in the book’s acknowledgments. The story itself begins with a fragmented look at Toland's childhood, which comes to a dramatic close when his parents die suddenly in a car crash caused by a drunk driver. While he seems to authentically mourn their loss, he does not appear to be traumatized by it. He is shown to be close to his older sister, Melanie, who marries a fairly typical conservative and religious southern man.
Following this brief introduction, the story shifts to the time frame within which it stays for the remainder of the novel. His closest friends at that time are Riley Wheeler and his girl, Mavis, who together form a modern, liberal couple that is just shy of being too-good-to-be-true. After Riley returns from his stint in the armed forces, Toland moves in with them. But, before this happens, he meets Sammy Noone, a gay man fresh out of the Navy, and Ginger Raines, a free thinking coed from Ohio. While newly enlightened Toland struggles to overcome the inherent racism in his upbringing, he also must deal with the homosexual feelings that he hopes are just a phase.
Cruse uses the struggles of the Civil Rights movement to explain the struggles of being a gay man in a homophobic society quite well. The novel is full of entertaining secondary characters drawn from both communities. While Toland’s own struggles can seem trivial compared to the lynchings happening elsewhere, the very real danger that is present for many in the gay community in this place and time are quite real and the comparison in apt.
Toland’s story is not all that different from any coming of age tale, where a young man finds out who he is. Yet his path is full of mistakes and his inability to be truthful with himself over much more than just his sexuality. Through these flaws and failures, Cruse never loses empathy for him, and as a result we do not either.
This is not to say that Cruse’s novel is without flaws. Through much of the book, the town of Clayfield seems to fluctuate in size, seeming to be a small town where everyone knows everyone to a large enough town that it can support a very large yet semi-closeted gay community. With this, issues arise as to how Toland becomes so quickly a part of the Civil Rights world, able to call at any time on the leader of the movement for advice. There also seems to be a shocking lack of national media on the scenes of some of this violence; I am no expert, but it seems that even in the mid 1960s, if a black children’s chorus were bombed it would be national news. The art can also be a little distracting, with Cruse’s overuse of crosshatching making it initially difficult to determine the race of certain characters, quite important in a novel with such themes.
It isn’t difficult to see why Stuck Rubber Baby is considered one of the best graphic novels. It does something different with the form than is the norm, and some of Cruse’s layouts are better than typical. The novel works on several levels as well, something that many graphic novels fail to do. In presenting the human cost both on Toland and those around him as he searches for an identity he can live with, Cruse has crafted a tale that shows the real value of the individual, whether black or white, gay or straight.