Stuck Rubber Baby: Coming of age in the Jim Crow South

Stuck Rubber Baby (25th Anniversary Edition)
By Howard Cruse
First Second, 2020

Stuck Rubber Baby is a ground-breaking graphic novel, a coming-of-age story set in the Jim Crow era of the southern United States.

Author Howard Cruse came to prominence in the 1970s underground comix scene with Barefootz, and created the pioneering gay-themed comic Wendel, that skewered then-President Ronald Reagan’s response to HIV in the 1980s.

The main character, Toland Polk, loosely based on Cruse, tells the story — in flashback — of his youth in the fictional town of Clayfield, modelled on Montgomery, Alabama. After his parents die suddenly in a car accident, Toland loses direction and starts work at a petrol station. He befriends Sammy Noone, who takes him to the Melody Motel, a local haunt for beatniks, civil rights activists and performers that is welcoming to homosexuals.

Toland is appalled by the racism and segregation of the South and is gradually drawn into the civil rights movement, at the same time as he grows into his own identity as a gay man. He meets Ginger Raines, an activist folk singer, and begins dating her in an ultimately failed attempt to go straight.

Toland isn't someone presented as a militant activist driven by a burning passion for change, but as an ordinary person moved by conscience and circumstance into action. Key events of the civil rights struggle during the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson presidencies occur in the narrative: the murder of Emmett Till, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the Freedom Summer Murders, and the March on Washington.

Of interest to contemporary audiences, is the contrast between today's identity politics and the unified front of the 60's civil rights and gay liberation movement. Toland finds more acceptance of his homosexuality among his African-American friends than he does among white folk.

Cruse's artwork is extraordinarily detailed with extensive crosshatching creating endless shades of gray to maximum expressive effect. It's not surprising to see how these 210 pages took four years to draw. This 25th anniversary edition comes with a new introduction by Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home.

Stuck Rubber Baby is a powerful story of one person's growth to enlightenment within a turbulent period of social upheaval.

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