Stuck Rubber Baby: Being Gay in the 1960s South

I don't really like the term "graphic novel," as i feel that so few works that are labeled that way actually qualify--a lot of the comics that get that title are actually collections of a long-running series, therefore calling them "novels" is stretching it. Those that are have a tendency to be biographical or autobiographical in nature, so therefore designating them as "novels" is again problematic.

But "Stuck Rubber Baby," written and drawn by Howard Cruse, is legitimately a novel in graphic form, and it is an excellent piece of work, portraying a familiar historical period from an interesting perspective.

Toland Polk is a white Southerner in his mid-twenties in the early sixties. Unlike many of their fellow whites, Toland and his friends are firm integrationists: heavily involved in trying to bring about racial justice in their small city of Clayfield. Through the movement,Toland meets a passionate college student, Ginger, whom he falls tenderly in love with. However, Toland has a secret: he's actually gay.

The rest of the story revolves around Toland's struggles to come out of the closet and admit what he is, all the while getting more and more involved in both the local civil rights movement and the local gay community (all the while protesting that he is straight, of course). It's a fascinating read, all in all.

The characters are all great. Toland's significantly more conservative sister (and her even more right-wing husband) provide an interesting contrast to Toland's incredibly liberal group of friends, as they are portrayed as decent people (Toland's sister especially) who very much do not agree with our heroes. Another member of Toland's social circle, a musician named Sammy, is meanwhile an interesting contrast to Toland himself, as Sammy is openly and flamboyantly gay. Sammy's self confidence in who he is is a poignant counterpoint to Toland's self-doubt, whilst the horrible treatment he endures at various points in the story show why Toland is still in the closet.

Finally, there's Ginger, perhaps the most interesting character in the story. Toland legitimately loves her, and it is more than implied that she loves him back, but as the story goes on it becomes increasingly apparent that the two are horrible mismatched: Toland is very self-centered, whilst Ginger sacrifices herself to the movement to a fault. Toland is incredibly attached to Clayfield, while Ginger (originally from Akron, Ohio) is expecting to go elsewhere to start a musical career. Finally, even though the two are legitimately attracted to one another, it simultaneously becomes increasingly clear that Toland is very much gay and that it isn't going to change, and his denial of this hurts both of them. It is perhaps the most nuanced take on this subject I think I may have ever seen.

The subject matter of this story is also very interesting. We hear quite a bit about black civil rights activists, but rarely of their white allies. This novel shows clearly why this pack of young white people, all of whom but Ginger were raised in a climate of endemic and unquestioned racism, would go against everything they had been taught and fight for social justice. And just in case you're worrying that this story cuts the blacks out, black characters make up a large part of the cast, and much of the story revolves around the actions of its black characters.

Finally, this story is interesting in its depiction of the gay community of the South in the 60s, long before Stonewall. It is interesting how it shows how the black and gay communities intersect (the son of the local black preacher is a fixture in Clayfield's two gay clubs, for instance), and how open it is to the public, while simultaneously how dangerous outside attention is to local gays. You rarely hear about the experiences of gay people until after Stonewall, and this was a great glimpse into that life.

All in all, a great graphic novel. Pick it up if you happen to see it, you won't regret it.

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