"Looking back, I didn't see all that many dead bodies when I was a kid growing up down south. But the ones I saw stuck in my mind."

So begins Stuck Rubber Baby, a labyrinthine graphic novel first published in 1995 (Printed and reprinted under various DC imprints). Howard Cruse tells the occasionally autobiographical tale of Toland Polk, who looks back from midlife. The younger Toland cautiously pokes his way into the Civil Rights Movement, while struggling with his own battle for rights and identity. He's gay, though he will try for years to convince himself otherwise. His 1960s world does not extend a welcoming hand to queer folk.

The plot takes numerous turns as Toland interacts with a small army of characters. We see the intersections and conflicts between different oppressed groups. Toland lives for a time with his sister and her husband, a dedicated bigot. He pursues friendships (and sometimes more) with Lester, the gay son of a southern Black preacher, Gillian, an activist / folksinger, Sammy, a queer church organist, and many others. He finds himself in semi-closeted spaces, filled with people leading vibrant but uneasy double lives. Characters lose jobs, university placements, and lives for expressing their opinions. Cruse fills-- occasionally clutters-- his panels with credible dialogue and Southern Gothic shadows.

Like Robert Crumb, Cruse's art evolved from an earlier style that was alternatively cute or "underground," to something quite detailed and unnervingly real. The death of one character, in particular, will hang with the reader forever.

Stuck Rubber Baby won the Eisner, Harvey, and UK Comic Art Awards for Best Graphic Novel and, some years later, translations took awards in France and Germany. Its initial sales were, however, modest, and only over time has it achieved wider status as a literary and artistic accomplishment.

300 words

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