Review: Stuck Rubber Baby

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Stuck Rubber Baby
by Howard Cruse

★★★★½

2010 (originally published 1995) • 210 pages • Vertigo

The backlash against Selma has taken many forms—witness those irate thinkpieces (gag) and the whitest Oscar race in decades (double gag). All for a film daring to not only ignore the White Savior complex, but actively reject it by focusing on the work of a black community. As if there’s such a difference in the liberties taken with countless period films featuring white casts! I can’t comment further, as I haven’t seen Selma. I want to, obviously. As the New England winter digs its claws in before March, it’s harder and harder to get me out of the apartment and into a movie theater.

As a rejection of the White Savior complex, Stuck Rubber Baby is, of course, no Selma—its protagonist is the young, closeted, and white Toland Polk living in a Birmingham, Alabama analogue called Clayfield during the sixties. Through his determined-to-be-straight involvement with Ginger, a progressive college student, he gets swept up into the civil rights movement. But the always hesitant Toland is hardly a hero: his involvement is scattered, although dedicated. In fact, there’s no real heroes here—people who do more than others, certainly, but mostly just people, trying to do the best they can. (It’s got that slice of life approach in common with Alison Bechdel’s work. Bechdel provides the introduction here.)

When Mabel, a beloved elderly black woman, is set upon by a police dog at a peaceful sit-in, she hits it in the face with her brick-laden purse. The fallout is tense: the Reverend Harland Pepper, the leader of the civil rights movement in Clayfield, explains to Toland that what she’s done is against the pacifist protests they lead, but the subtextual desire to protect Mabel—a woman terrified of dogs—from the anti-civil rights police. Toland takes advantage of nuance and swears to Reverend Pepper that he did not see a brick in Mabel’s purse.

Describing Toland as hesitant, I think, can give off the wrong impression: he’s not neurotic, merely earnest, good-hearted, and slow to action. When Toland receives his draft notice, he dutifully goes off to the recruitment center. And he equally dutifully marks that he is homosexual on his intake form, because a glance at another recruit reminds him of all his childhood “tendencies” and he wouldn’t want to lie to Uncle Sam. Toland, especially the older Toland who is telling us this story, is warm, wry, and endearing.

But he’s also part of the problem. Glen Weldon at NPR points out that Toland’s slowness of action is exactly the kind of thing that allows evil to exist in this world. While Toland is nowhere as bad as his brother-in-law (or even his father, who owns thousands of thought-provoking books but never actually read any of them), whose distaste for black folk, queer folk, and anything untoward is rooted in a very real fear of eternal damnation, he still prioritizes himself over the world around him. After confessing to Ginger that he thinks he’s gay (but can beat it) after their aborted first sexual encounter, he nonetheless envisions a future for them that ignores Ginger’s devotion to political justice and her music. His friendship with Sammy, a flamboyantly and openly gay man, is thwarted by his inability to accept himself as who he is—and it’s this, the older Toland thinks, that led to the graphic novel’s terrifying climax.

Violence is, of course, no stranger to Stuck Rubber Baby—it even opens up with the young Toland discovering a photo of Emmett Till with his head smashed in that terrifies him. Violence circles closer and closer to Toland as the ramifications of challenging the system are felt, from the small concessions that have to be hatefully made just to survive to the acts of violence perpetuated by the town around them supposedly so full of good Christian people. Stuck Rubber Baby gets closer to that atmosphere than anything else I’ve read, which makes me immediately want to assign it to every high school history class. (It won’t fly now. But maybe in the future…)

Howard Cruse’s incredibly detailed, cross-hatched art can take some getting used to, especially if you tend more towards Marvel and DC than indie graphic novels. (Although DC did publish Stuck Rubber Baby through the Paradox Press imprint.) But it ends up carrying the atmosphere of the novel, capturing both glaring day, dreamy twilight, and the twisting insides of Toland’s mind as his world inexorably changes.

Stuck Rubber Baby was out of print for quite some time—I came across an out-of-print copy when it came through the Tattered Cover. It’s back in print, mercifully, and I’m very pleased that it is. It’s a tender, unique, and complex thing that more people should be exposed to.

I rented this book from the public library.

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