Jan 102008
The two or three of you that have perused my link section have probably come across the oddly-named Ray Bradbury’s Love-Camel, Eric’s teamblog about pop culture. In a moment of insanity, he invited me to cross-post my own economy-priced cultural musings, and I’ve decided to do so until the comments get too mean or he returns to his senses.

As it turns out, my first post for rblc is actually inspired by Eric’s post yesterday about Blankets, which reminded me of one of my favorite graphic novels, and so even though it was a little early for me to hit it on the decadal rotation I went home last night and re-read Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse. Although it’s a work of fiction, Cruse admits that it is heavily influenced by his time in Birmingham in the sixties, and this shows through in much of the plot and also in some of the characters. The inspiration for Sutton Chopper, for instance, will be immediately obvious to anyone who remembers any part of their Black History Month lessons. But Stuck Rubber Baby is not about the Civil Rights Movement, except to the degree that the characters’ reactions to it help define their relationships with each other. This story is about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality in an extraordinary and difficult time, and the mistakes he and others make in the course of that effort.

This isn’t a subject that everyone wants to read about, and I’ll forgive you if it turns you off, while warning you that you are missing out on a wonderful story. On the other hand, both civil rights and gay coming-of-age are hardly topics lightly served by literature; it’s tempting to dismiss this book (if you haven’t read it) as a retread of overdone themes. Yet Cruse manages to avoid the all-too-easy trap of populating this kind of story with saints and sinners. Despite the enormous cast, almost every character who appears on more than one page comes across as realistically mixed. You will find something to criticize in every protagonist (especially the main character), and also something to like, or at least a basis for forgiveness, in the villains. The saintly black preacher unleashes a sarcastic, acid tongue, and the obese bigot who commits one of the book’s worst acts comes across as genuinely remorseful and ashamed at the end.

The black-and-white art reflects this sensibility. The characters are highly detailed, and the lines used to draw them are very curvy. This style allows Cruse to create very expressive faces, and yet at the same time it seems to highlight physical imperfections. These characters are not supermen, nor are they ostentatiously ugly. They simply seem real—not in the trivial way one associates with photorealistic artwork, but rather the deeper reality of memory and emotion. Even the sexual content works, a rare example of art avoiding pitfalls I have mentioned before.

Who knows how much of this tale is drawn from Cruse’s experience and how much is entirely made up? The strength of Stuck Rubber Baby is that you simply can’t tell. This story, though it is fiction, feels real, almost frighteningly so. It has no perfect heroes, no perfect villains, and the last page holds no happy ending… only the impression that someone else’s memories, with all their joy and sorrow, have been made your own.

  One Response to “"You may have left me before / but you can’t leave me behind."”

  1. Michael, your blog entry about my book was pointed out to me this afternoon. I very much appreciate your generous assessment and the fact that you gave my graphic novel such a close reading. Authors love that kind of attention! Many thanks.

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