For the past couple weeks I’ve been reading Stuck Rubber Baby, by acclaimed author/illustrator Howard Cruse. Stuck Rubber Baby was originally published in 1995 on DC Comics‘s Paradox Press imprint, but the version I read was a 2010 reissue on Vertigo, featuring an introduction by Allison Bechdel (who wrote & illustrated the very excellent Fun Home, among others).
What is a “Stuck Rubber Baby”? That I cannot tell you, because it would be kind of a big spoiler. So if you must know you’re just going to have to pick up the book and find out. So, about that book…
Stuck Rubber Baby is the fictional tale of Toland Polk, a young white man coming of age in the segregated American South of the 60’s. This memoir-style tale is narrated by a middle-aged Toland as he takes us on a journey back in time to his youth in the invented-but-all-too-familiar town of Clayfield, a Southern community being rocked by the social upheaval of what Toland calls “Kennedy time”. Toland and his circle of progressive friend find themselves wrestling with racism, the civil rights movement, the communist threat, and homophobia – all while Toland is coming to terms with his own homosexuality. While not an autobiography, Howard Cruse points out in the acknowledgements the similarities between our protagonist’s story and his own, the author having grown up as a gay man in Birmingham, Alabama in the early 60’s.
Although the subject matter is overflowing with potential for a riveting story, this was not an easy read – for several reasons. One of my main complaints about the story is that it seemed to take forever to really get moving. The first half of the book sort of trots along without ever feeling like it’s going anywhere or building towards something. The reader is steadily led through a series of episodes as the characters are slowly developed. I’m not going to lie – several times during the first half I felt legitimately bored, and even considered straight up quitting.
Aggravating the slow start is the fact that Cruse’s writing is extremely verbose. Events, feelings, and character motivations are explained to a fault. Personally, I prefer to figure some of this stuff out on my own – that’s what sucks you in and makes a good story fun, right? But here, even the dialogue between characters feels overcooked, and reads as very scripted. You start to notice that every character in every panel has their own little line to deliver. Maybe that’s just Cruse’s style of writing, but the fact is if you heard these lines being spoken on a TV show, you would laugh and change the channel. It just doesn’t feel very natural.
That being said, there are a few moments and details that feel so genuine that you suspect that Cruse could not have simply invented them – and those moments go a long way towards adding an air of authenticity to Toland’s tale. One example that springs to mind is when the elderly Ms. Mabel entertains Toland and his friends (in the midst of massive race demonstration) with the story of how as a young woman she would make a cock-eyed face and pretend to be developmentally disabled to get away with sitting in the front of the bus. Cruse interviewed a lot of people and gathered a lot of first-hand accounts in researching this book, and I suspect that this anecdote is an example of real life informing art. A smart move on his part, in my opinion.
I don’t care how many comic books you’ve read – you will be impressed (and possibly horrified) at the effort that Howard Cruse must have expended in drawing this book. Cruse works exclusively in black ink, and he must have gone through a barrel of it here. The level of detail is truly staggering. Virtually every inch of every page is richly shaded with stippling and cross-hatching. There are no shortcuts taken here – no clicks of the paint bucket tool or washes of watercolor, and no quickly outlined surfaces. If the story calls for a gray sky, then Cruse is going to make it gray – and he’s going to do it with a million miniscule pen strokes.
While I give Cruse a lot of credit for the sheer enormity of his artistic accomplishment, I’m not going to lie – I’m not a huge fan of his style. Stuck Rubber Baby’s pages are so choked with detail that the book ends up feeling very claustrophobic. Contributing to that effect is the fact that Cruse frames his panels so tightly that everything ends up in the foreground, jostling and fighting for the attention of your eye. It actually feels like the characters are pushing against each other, competing to squeeze into the frame. The result is a strain on your eyes as they are drawn everywhere and nowhere at once. This goes on page after page, creating a pervading feeling of tension throughout the book, even during parts of the story that are light and humorous.
My second criticism is more subjective, but I’m also not crazy about the way Cruse renders his characters – specifically, the proportions that he applies to them. The author has a curious and unique style when rendering his characters’ heads – he gives everyone a grotesquely oversized jaw and chin, above which sits a relatively shrunken face with an upturned nose. This is a of course a stylistic choice on Cruse’s part. Some people might like it, but I found it slightly disturbing.
Another more legitimate complaint is that the characters’ faces often don’t look the same from panel to panel. As humans, we are highly sensitive to faces. The subtlest variation in spacing and proportion between eyes, nose, mouth, etc. basically results in a completely new identity. When a character’s face is constantly changing it’s very jarring, and I think it actually stands in the way of you “getting to know” and identify with that character. I have tremendous respect for illustrators who can draw a face from many different angles and keep it instantly recognizable. That’s got to be tremendously difficult. I’m afraid Mr. Cruse falls a bit short in that department, and in my opinion the book suffers for it.
I’m really pretty conflicted about this book. I want to really like it and give it a high rating, because I think Howard Cruse is trying to do something meaningful and important here. But I can’t get over the fact that during the period that I was reading Stuck Rubber Baby, I usually wasn’t super excited to pick it up. However, by the end it gets pretty good, and there was a definite feeling of satisfaction upon completing it.
So now we’ve come to the matter of reducing Stuck Rubber Baby to a simple number. This is the first time I’ve gotten this far without having any idea what the score will be. Ok – I’m giving Stuck Rubber Baby a 6 out of 10 for a decent story and impressive art, which is unfortunately hindered by a slow start and some awkward stylistic choices.