Stuck Rubber Baby
by Howard Cruse (DC Comics, 2000)

Howard Cruse's lovingly told, beautifully illustrated 1995 masterpiece was re-issued a few years back, in a better format and with a higher price tag that is absolutely worth it. This is one of those graphic novels that's so full of detail and so emotionally rich that it's hard for a review to do it full justice. Stuck Rubber Baby has often been compared favorably to Maus. It's the same sort of epoch-spanning, time-capsule sort of narrative of a point in history that is almost unimaginable to us today.

SRB, while work of fiction, is nonetheless a millennial tale that captures the mood of a very turbulent period in American history. It's as much a tribute to the people of that time and the values they stood for, as it is a compelling narrative of a fascinating group of characters whose lives intertwined in the most interesting ways.

Set in 1960s in Clayfield, Alabama, narrator Tolland Polk tells the story of his life in flashbacks, with occasional shots of him in the present. Caught up in the burgeoning fury of the civil rights movement, torn up by his attraction toward men, Tolland attempts to make his way in life as peacefully as possible, trying to ignore his sexuality while avoiding the growing clamor all around him. But the fight for civil rights was about much more than desegregation. It was about the struggle to define oneself as a person and attaining equal treatment in the eyes of fellow human beings, not just equal treatment under the law. To try and slide by such an upheaval without noticing it or being noticed was next to impossible. The plot flows back and forth between Tolland's internal strife and the manner in which the civil rights movement touches the lives of everyone he knows, with the issues of race and sexuality constantly overlapping one another.

It feels at times that Cruse was perhaps trying to take on too many issues at once. The material is not only emotionally dense but somewhat confusing in ways that are a touch melodramatic. Homophobia, racism and misogyny share the same wellsprings but taking them on all at once can be overwhelming. Still, the emotions the story evokes are well worth any bumps in the road.

The artwork is as powerful as the story, again with the same sort of density that makes you have to sort of look twice to see all the detail in every crowded panel, but its range of expression is pure genius, particularly in the use of pointillism.

I'd recommend this for anyone regardless of race, sexuality, gender, religion or anything else. It's an emotionally searing tour-de-force but well worth the read.

review by
Mary Harvey

3 September 2011

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