Stuck Rubber Baby
Written & Illustrated by Howard Cruse
Published by DC/Vertigo
It’s somewhat a shame that Stuck Rubber Baby, high on the short list of most literarily ambitious (and successful) comics of all time, hasn’t gone through four times as many printings as it has. Nevertheless, here we are, with a new edition, marking the fifteenth anniversary of SRB’s original publication. In case you’re wondering, it holds up very well.
Stuck Rubber Baby was, from the start, a book out of time, with events simultaneously disconnected from it times, and themes deeply embedded into its culture. The novel charts the life of Toland Polk, a young man coming to grips with his own homosexuality while the American South struggles to accept the civil rights movement of the 1960s. So the book’s plot is explicitly a thing of the past, yet the (unfortunately) timeless aspect of bigotry prevents it from becoming irrelevant. In truth, given the recent struggles for gay marriage and public acceptance, Stuck Rubber Baby’s message remains highly integrated into today’s society.
Cruse succeeds by delving deep into Toland’s confusion, digging up as many facets of the character as possible. Toland himself has trouble accepting homosexuality, believing for a time that homosexuals cannot love as deeply as heterosexuals. Cruse displays an amazing ability to find the brittle humanity in all of his characters. Reverend Pepper, the sage civil rights leader, needs a quiet moment to himself in the hospital stairwell when everybody wants his leadership. Toland’s best friend doesn’t always agree with the movements’ actions, and even Toland’s bigoted brother-in-law isn’t without compassion.
The book’s emotional core is in Toland’s friendship and relationship with folk singer Ginger Raines. Two characters filled with compassion for the cause, yet simultaneously absorbed in their own lives and problems, Toland and Ginger manage to complete one another without even fitting together. Cruse’s sensitive handling of their emotional ordeals showcases a deep understanding of the subtle and self-involved factors that drive all of humanity’s needs. The heart often comes into conflict with itself, wanting one thing for oneself while hoping for a conflicting outcome for others. Toland and Ginger reside at that intersection, and Cruse explores the full range of their hopes for themselves, their relationship and their role in the civil rights movement.
Despite being somewhat stiff, the artwork – gray-toned and chock-full of cross-hatched details – achieves a highly evocative standard. Each character displays a full emotional range, mixing moments of joy and tenderness into equal measure with anger and despair, and Cruse’s dynamic layouts carry the narrative’s grounding in memory perfectly. Moreover, the hand-lettering enables the author to capture the dynamics of each character’s voice, the rise and fall of their pitch, the aggression or despondence. This level of craft isn’t found in many comics, but when it’s used well, lettering remains one of comics’ best storytelling tools.
If you already own it, this new edition doesn’t add anything to the experience, aside from a pleasant Allison Bechdel-penned introduction, but if you haven’t read Stuck Rubber Baby, you need to buy this book. Today. Alongside the (far too few) great literary comics, Maus, Fun Home, even Watchmen, Stuck Rubber Baby remains the oft-neglected stepchild, and it deserves far better. The book is just as good, perhaps better, than any comic you’ve ever read.