||[Apr. 5th, 2010|01:40 pm]
100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)
#34 STUCK RUBBER BABY – Howard Cruse
“Gettin’ Clayfield to integrate is like gettin’ a turtle to walk on its hind legs...”
Howard Cruse grew up in Alabama as a preacher’s son, which presumably made it especially difficult coming to terms with the fact that he’s gay. Stuck Rubber Baby is Cruse’s fictionalised account of someone going through a similar experience; his protagonist, Toland Polk, lives in the imaginary deep South town of Clayfield, which is experiencing the tail-end of racial segregation while Toland’s denial leads him to segregate his own feelings.
Set in the period between the Cuban Missile Crisis and JFK’s assassination, Stuck Rubber Baby mirrors a personal search for acceptance with one going on in the wider world. In the after-hours Clayfield jazz club Alleysax, gays and blacks are equally welcome, and Toland – trying to ‘cure’ himself by dating a female folk singer – is exposed to a thriving world that’s been hidden to him in his suburban family home. He narrates the story from a distance of years, a can of beer casually held in one hand and his boyfriend fussing in the background as he describes the way he almost accidentally got caught up in the civil rights movement. This distance and its promise of an ultimately happy ending for him at least, removes some of the trauma from the events – there’s something oddly jaunty about the way it deals with death – but the grief remains. A picture of the car wreck that killed Toland’s parents is juxtaposed with a conversation he had with his sister about their parents’ retirement schemes. Hovering over the image of death is the caption, “So much for that plan, Mama!” The characters feel the shock, but we only infer the sadness.
Cruse’s artwork is simple, his people almost all given uniform jutting chins and the backgrounds heavily shadowed in cross-hatching. The black and white is well-suited to the story of segregation, as are the wealth of evocative small details. As Toland talks about wrestling with the yardman’s boy in his youth, his thatched, barb-wire eyebrow arches with more self-awareness than he had at the time, reconciling his past with his present with help from the healing power of hindsight.