GRAPHIC NOVELS TAKE another big step forward with the publication of "Stuck Rubber Baby," Howard Cruse's novel about growing up in the South of the early '60s.
If there's any justice, this book will receive the same kind of serious consideration accorded Art Spiegelman's "Maus." There should no longer be any doubt that telling stories with words and pictures can be as serious and thoughtful as telling them with only words.
Like the book's main character, Toland Polk, Cruse grew up in the South and came of age during the civil rights struggle. The external plot is fictional, but Toland's internal journey is largely Cruse's.
The older, wiser Toland who narrates the story has come to terms with his sexual identity, as has Cruse, the founding editor of "Gay Comics."
While Toland's struggle to define himself is a large part of the book, it is also about various forms of bigotry, both subtle and overt. In an early scene, Toland's father tells him never to use a particular racial epithet. But he also says, "colored folks are closer to the animal state than we are," and "White people's brains are more developed. It's been scientifically proven."
In an environment where his father's attitudes about race pass for enlightened, it's amazing that Toland grows up considering blacks as equals. But he is not involved, at first, at helping them be treated that way.
When he attends the big march on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, a caption says, "I'd feel more pleased with myself it I could claim that it was pure social conscience that got my ass out to the Lincoln Memorial that summer . . . but in reality it was my attempts to court the affections of Ginger Raines that nudged me onto the unexpected roads I ended up traveling."
If you're confused about why a gay man was trying so hard to court a woman, so is Toland. Many gay teen-agers go through a period of trying to "make themselves straight."
In Toland's case, it is complicated by genuine feelings of affection for Ginger. But it's clear that although the love Toland feels for Ginger is real, it's not the kind of love shared between two people whose hearts are entertwined.
It is through Ginger, though, that Toland experiences his most important growth. Not only does she get him involved in the civil rights movement, she helps him see outside himself. Although basically a decent person, the Toland of the early part of the book is self-absorbed and self-centered.
At one point, during an argument, Ginger tells him "Everything that goes on inside of me doesn't have to do with you!" Being able to go beyond yourself is a major theme of the book.
Don't think you have to be gay to enjoy this book. A gay reader would probably find profound personal resonances that I did not, but it is not a "gay" book any more than "Maus" is a "Jewish" book or "Native Son" is a "black" book. It is a GOOD book, and that's what's important.
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