By Dennis Drabelle
Saturday, August 21, 2010; C03
STUCK RUBBER BABY
By Howard Cruse
Vertigo. 210 pp. $24.99
When I was growing up, there were essentially two kinds of comic books: the funny and the horrific. The graphic novel had not been invented yet, and few if any artist-writers would have considered panels full of drawn figures and speech balloons as vehicles for putting characters through ordeals like fighting against bigotry or coming out of the closet. If anyone had been crazy enough to invest time and energy in producing something like "Stuck Rubber Baby," Howard Cruse's long, complex, meticulously drawn account of racism and homophobia in a town that looks a lot like Birmingham, Ala., in the 1960s, he would have restricted its circulation to a small group of friends.
All that had changed by the 1990s, when "Stuck Rubber Baby" was first published, but even then it had birth pangs. Cruse, who is best known for his gay comic strip "Wendel," explains that his own high standards were almost his undoing. When he started out, he recalls, he thought the book would take him two years to complete. He adds tersely, "It took four." To keep going -- to keep producing the densely shaded, profusely dotted drawings that give depth to his settings and flesh tones to his characters (that last is an important feature, given the subject matter) -- Cruse had to find a source of funding. Several friends, including playwright Tony Kushner and novelist Armistead Maupin, agreed to buy pieces of the art intended for the book "at higher than market value and in advance of its even being drawn." Thanks to that infusion of cash, Cruse was able to finish the book, which won him a pair of international awards.
His protagonist is Toland Polk, a college-age white guy who rarely sets off anyone's gaydar. This can be an asset in that time and place: While swishier friends get taunted and beaten up by rednecks, Toland rolls right along. On the other hand, it's easy for him to fool himself into thinking his attraction to men is just a phase, and in doing so he not only retards his own development but makes his girlfriend miserable. (To assert his "manhood," he gets her pregnant after the condom he has carried around for years proves inadequate to its task -- hence the book's title.)
At the same time, local black citizens are losing patience with the Jim Crow South. The book's two threads entwine at a local bar where just about everyone is welcome -- whites, blacks, gays, straights -- but which is also a favorite stop for rednecks wielding baseball bats. The action climaxes with a hanging, the aftereffects of which Cruse conveys on a harrowing two-page spread in which a much older Toland looks back on the event with a horror he can't forget -- so traumatized that his head splits into sections.
If occasionally "Stuck Rubber Baby" seems almost too ambitious for its own good, we should keep in mind what it commemorates. There wasn't a lot of subtlety to the heroism and villainy of the civil rights era in the South, and for that reason comic-strip art may be especially well suited to evoking it. "Stuck Rubber Baby" makes for a gripping way to revisit those lurid days.
Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.