Reviewed by John Glover, Reference Librarian for the Humanities
Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby is a tour de force among graphic novels, regarded by many comics scholars and aficionados as an instant classic. The story follows Toland Polk, a young white man growing up and coming to terms with his homosexuality in southern Alabama during the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. Along the way we meet his friends and family and other members of the town where he was born, each with their own story to tell.
Cruse’s storytelling is sure and restrained, and Toland’s journey is neither caricature nor pity party: he’s a young man with flaws, and you get to see him at his best and his worst. Cruse’s art is a fine example of mature draftsmanship -- reminiscent of R. Crumb’s crosshatching or Thomas Ott’s finely detailed scratchboard style. At the same time, the characters have a rounded, cartoonish quality that’s both amusing and disturbing, which in some way softens the blow when Toland witnesses horrible events, from beatings to knifings to lynchings.
Gay Liberation and the struggle for LGBT rights runs parallel in many respects to the history of the struggle for civil rights for people of all races. Cruse shows this in many ways, from the direct parallels between all the unrest of the 1960s and the gay rights struggles that followed directly on their heels. It's impossible to say when and how gay rights might have developed with the Civil Rights Movement, but as it is, the one owes a great debt to the examples of passion and pride set by the great black leaders of the 1960s, from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Malcolm X.