The first image we see in Howard Cruse’s 1995 Stuck Rubber Baby is of a smiling John and Jacqueline Kennedy walking arm in arm. It sets the book in what Cruse’s main character, Toland Polk, calls “Kennedytime”, that happy precipice upon which the US teetered between the end of the ’50s and the whirlwind of assassinations and demonstrations of the ’60s. These things are sign posts, easy summaries of the era that are well-worn in story and art. It’s easy to feel at home in that era whether you lived through it or not because the battles fought and the lessons learned then still reverberate through nearly every aspect of American society. Images of JFK, smiling and alive, are shorthand for Americans both as consumers and creators of culture, but it’s not a lazy storytelling. It’s evocative. Keeping a reader is the real work, and Cruse does it immediately.
Stuck Rubber Baby is the story of Toland Polk, a young man growing up during “Kennedytime” in the American south, and his struggle coming to terms with his homosexuality. Toland is not the stock character of a bigot who sees the light, but neither is he an outspoken activist. His parents raised him to never call an African American “nigger”, but his father believes it’s been proven that “the negro brain” is inferior to a white man’s. These contradictions define much of Toland’s early childhood, including his relationship with the son of his family’s black handyman who Toland is allowed to play with but can’t bring into the house.
Toland’s father also tells his son to “respect the colored man”, a lesson Toland takes to heart. As he grows he finds himself reluctantly a part of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement in his town of Clayfield, a fictional city in the South. His circle includes Sammy Noone, the homosexual organist of an integrationist Episcopalian church, Ginger Raines, a college folk singer in the vein of Joan Baez and a charismatic preacher named Reverend Harland Pepper. Toland tells the story from the present, reflecting on the fear and denial that defines his life throughout the story.
Cruse parallels Toland’s fight to hold back his homosexuality with the fight to maintain Clayfield’s, and by extension the entire South’s, tradition of institutional racism. The change both in the political environment and Toland’s personal life are slow going, but of course there’s no denying them. Though the story is not autobiographical, Cruse incorporated his own experiences growing up in Birmingham into the work, making the stories Toland tells all the more believable. There’s the boy he fooled around with at summer camp, a closeted bank president who was found murdered and a school nurse that was ridiculed because of her masculine appearance.
These stories are told in one panel but they leap off the page in such a way that they feel like each fill their own book. The stories feel so real they seem to originate in the reader’s brain rather than the author’s imagination.
Toland’s denial of his true self is taken to such an extreme he begins a relationship with Ginger. Through this relationship he begins attending regular meetings of the Biracial Equality League and demonstrations throughout town, despite his pledge of not being political. The couple’s relationship is of course complicated by Toland’s sexuality. After Ginger becomes pregnant Toland both proposes marriage and admits the truth to her, including the details of a sexual encounter he had with Reverend Pepper’s son, Les. It’s this encounter with Les that begins Toland’s gradual acceptance of himself. Les tells him, “Martin Luther King himself could walk up an’ say to me, ‘Les, you gotta quit bein’ gay’ an’ I’d say to him, ‘Sure thing, Dr. King — just as soon as you quit being Negro!’”
Cruse’s finely detailed cross-hatching give subtle shading to people and places throughout the book, evoking color and character with just a few lines. In one scene, at an integrated gay bar called the Rhombus, the patrons are tipped off by a flashing red light that the police are about to arrive. Everyone on the dance floor changes from homosexual to heterosexual dance partners. In a few silent panels the police assess the crowd, looking them up and down.
Cruse depicts one of the policemen with his hat brim casting a shadow over his eyes as he walks through the crowd. The cop glances to his left and his features seem to grow in depth and girth. His face is fat with deep, dark lines creasing his flesh. It’s a haunting image for what it says about that environment, the “it can’t happen here” idea of brutal enforcers sweeping in at night to round up the “undesirables”. The cops come “to keep the queers nervous” says Mabel, piano player at the Rhombus and Reverend Pepper’s church. Cruse evokes decades of these tactics with this one haunting panel.
Fictional accounts of long, diverse and emotionally stirring events like the Civil Rights movement are too often dumped into convenient packages designed to tug on our heart strings and give finality to things which can never truly end. We see an older, out Toland throughout the book with his partner and 15 years ago the sea change in American culture from the ’60s to the ’90s was evident. Still, Cruse never suggests the battles against racism and homophobia were won or even that they ever could be. To do that would betray the wonderfully rich and complex characters he obviously cares so much about.
After Ginger is expelled from school for her involvement with the Civil Rights movement, she and Toland split up. They meet again at the March on Washington at which Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Ginger is prepared to return to school in Clayfield, but doing so means she will have to hide her involvement with the movement. Toland wonders if she likes pushing people’s buttons. “I don’t know if I’ve got it in me to be the person I’d really like to be,” she says as they dip their feet in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. These simple words are at the heart of every page of Stuck Rubber Baby, not simply as a statement, but as a question — for Toland, for Ginger, for all of us.