The Graphic Novel We Need Today Came to Us Decades Ago

An appreciation of Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby

It was sad enough to hear that gay cartoonist, author and activist Howard Cruise had died last Tuesday. Sadder still that it happened over the holiday week, which meant that his obituary over at The Comics Journal was only published this Monday, one day after World AIDS Day. This isn’t a criticism, just a depressing observation. The Journal was the one comics periodical that gave Cruse great attention when his seminal work Stuck Rubber Baby was released in 1995. Now even tribute pieces such as this one feel too late and too short in advancing the momentum for the upcoming 25th anniversary re-release of Cruse’s book in 2020 from First Second Books. When this semi-autobiographical story of a closeted gay white male in the midst of the civil rights movement was first published, there were exactly as many American graphic novels like it as there were graphic novels of Jewish mice being led to genocide by Nazi cats. Today there are a far greater number of openly LGBTQ voices in comics and media all over; but in today’s scary and politically supercharged world, new readers can be better informed about today’s uneasy political climate with Cruse’s story, which is sadly proving timeless.

In the book we follow the life of Toland Polk as he grows up in America’s deep south. He is forced to grow up fast as he simultaneously deals with the death of his parents, the racial tension in his hometown, and his identity as a gay male. He does his best to suppress that last part of his life. As a result of his secrecy, he is able to walk among his hometown’s progressive residents while keeping one foot in the old south via his sister Melanie and her bigoted husband Orley.

To paraphrase an infamous figure, there are…people…on both sides. The book never stops reminding you that even the “good people” have both their good intentions and their blind spots to what’s happening in the world. Toland’s sister especially tries to hold on to the expectations of her town. She ends up painfully overcompensating, but not as much as her brother does in his own facade.

During this time in the sixties, there is no feasible middle ground. It’s basic human rights for all against the white supremacist mentality of blood and soil. Amidst this, Toland’s life is in partially self-inflicted chaos due to his secrecy, neutrality and constantly trying to fit in. While it’s clear he fits in more with Clayfield’s more progressive residents and students, he strives to blend in with Clayfield’s racist and homophobic mainstream. He works at a whites-only gas station and spends most of his time perusing the student activist Ginger in the hopes he can complete his transformation to normalcy by making her his girlfriend. Toland is in so much personal upheaval that it hurts those close to him, including his involuntary lifeline Ginger. Both his actions non-actions have harmful consequences throughout the story.

That’s not to say Toland doesn’t also suffer his own hell. In the eyes of the prejudiced townsfolk, he’s still guilty by association and abused as such. When Ginger leaves town after being thrown out of school for her activism, Toland attempts to date another woman, bringing her among a volatile mix of his family and friends. The aftermath is painful and surely reminiscent of a lot of people’s recent experiences. Just as Toland does in Stuck Rubber Baby, Americans today are once again dealing with their friends and loved ones’ willingness to embrace hateful conspiracies just to protect their worldviews.

So how was Thanksgiving with your family?

Cruse masterfully moves in and out of important historical events, never letting the main character’s experiences overshadow their importance. Toland is the story’s protagonist, but he does not become the story’s hero. In fact, his self-absorption is on full display when he goes to Washington DC (where he witnesses Martin Luther King, Jr. give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech) just to try and get back with Ginger. His selfish anger over not being the center of her attention is very palpable (surely familiar to some) due to Cruse’s skillful storytelling.

After much trial and error and following tragedy, Toland chooses his side and accepts the truth about himself. He has an implied “coming out” moment by story’s end, though those words are never uttered. In fact, less than five words are shared with the reader regarding what he said. Cruse masterfully minimizes Toland’s struggle, enabling his character arc without diminishing the greater pains and struggles of the black and/or gay supporting characters in Clayfield, all of whom get to shine in this densely told but easy to follow story.

As in real life, there are no heroic comeuppances for any Stuck Rubber Baby’s racist or homophobic antagonists. Not even for Orley. True, his intolerance finally becomes intolerable to his wife, and he leaves as a pariah (encouraging to think that this could have happened years before recent events). But even then, his horrible actions and pathetic attempt at redemption is all too human and exhausting. Not to mention too familiar for Toland, who finally assumes responsibility for his own behavior.

Revisiting Stuck Rubber Baby over two decades later invites new interpretations. None could be called uplifting. The cover graphic at the top of this article is from to book’s 2010 reprint. Looking at the figures on new cover evokes ideas of hanging bodies, a gathering of potential strange fruit. From a 2019 perspective, even the book’s final scenes with Toland and his male partner settling in at home after being out in the snow seem less idyllic and more the calm before another, more violent storm approaches. Orley’s actions almost mimic today’s internet trolls perfectly. It’s gratifying to make that connection, until you realize that internet trolls engage in hateful psychological warfare because today’s laws and society’s modern standards don’t permit them the impunity to do more. And what happens if America takes even more steps back in that regard?

Stuck Rubber Baby was an award winner, and it solidified Cruse as a cartoonist’s cartoonist. Despite that, the book never became a cultural mainstream darling. The same held truer the world of mainstream comics. DC Comics originally published the book under both their Paradox Press and Vertigo imprints, both of which no longer exist. It was disappointing to hear in later years that Cruse had no similar grand followup in the works at all, but it was understandable given the time and resources it had taken just to create the one. Stuck Rubber Baby in fact took many years to create and cost him much financially.

In fellow cartoonist Stephen Bissette’s self-published Tyrant comic, he reprinted part of a letter of recommendation to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation on Cruse’s behalf. “The mainstream comic-book industry has traditionally been a periodical-driven and genre-fixated industry…Creators like Howard Cruse who choose to create focused, single-volume graphic novels are trapped in a limbo neither the comic book nor book industry seems able to accommodate at this time. “

In 2019, the comic book industry in many respects seems even less willing and/or able to accommodate a book like Stuck Rubber Baby. As far as mainstream comics like Marvel and DC go, any attempts to diversify and be more inclusive seem more in service to keep their intellectual properties more viable in the hopes that any potential movies attached to them will be more profitable. This fills the wallets of everyone involved (except the comic creators) but undermines real comics work revolving around real human beings and events. As cynical as this thinking may seem, it’s hard to see Marvel’s 2012 hype package for the gay wedding of one of their superhero characters coming out around the same time as the release of lesbian cartoonist Allison Bechdel’s intensely personal graphic memoir Are You My Mother? and not hypothesize foul play.

Though Cruse in his afterward asserted Stuck Rubber Baby as a work of fiction and not autobiography, he put enough reality into it for a reader of today to immediately relate to. Between the extreme reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement, the attacks on LGBTQ rights, and the rise in hate speech around the world, what better time to revisit the story of a confused person who finds it impossible to stay neutral on a moving train set for a collision?

Stuck Rubber Baby could be one of the more important works to reintroduce to a new generation once it is republished during the presidential election next year. Cruse’s book may even start a discourse that helps a lot of people better understand and cope through these tumultuous times. A larger, more receptive audience to the book and its lessons would be a well-deserved footnote to Cruse’s already impressive legacy.

Poet for Hire. Link to buy my new book, The Collapsed Bookshelf, available via my website:

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