Queer & Civil Rights Still Stand Out in Stuck Rubber Baby

Howard Cruse, often referred to as the “godfather of Queer Comics,” was working on the 25th anniversary edition of his groundbreaking graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby when he passed away last November from lymphoma. Stuck Rubber Baby is based on Cruse’s own experiences as a young gay man growing up in the Jim Crow South, and the graphic novel addresses homophobia and racism in a way that is still all too relevant today. First Second plans to publish the new edition in July to mark the anniversary and return this critical work to print.

The anniversary edition will feature new material from Cruse, who was working on it right up until a week before his death. It will also contain contributions from friends, loved ones, and admirers. Cruse’s husband wrote a touching piece about how they met and fell in love, the importance of their activism in their relationship. Alison Bechdel, who credits Cruse as the reason she decided to make comics, has provided a new forward. For fans of the original graphic novel, these pieces will add depths to a story that they love, and for new readers it will provide context to an important story that needs to be read.

Stuck Rubber Baby is regularly regarded as a canonical work in Queer Comics, as it follows a young man struggling with his sexuality. Its relevance extends beyond sexuality, as Glen Weldon wrote for NPR, the importance of Stuck Rubber Baby as a graphic novel includes its unflinching look at civil rights.

[The main character] isn’t a hero. He’s not noble. His strongest conviction is to protect himself, and to that end he says and does stupid, hurtful things. He’s perpetually conflicted and confused and passive. In other words, he’s a portrait that doesn’t often get painted, in accounts of that time and place. Because, for much of the book, he’s one of the good men who do nothing, who allow evil to exist.

Yes, eventually he does step up, but in a halting, achingly human way. Cruse is blisteringly honest, here, about our capacity for dithering self-involvement in the face of a giant societal evil.

Because make no mistake, the Klan is an evil straight out of the pulpiest superhero comic — they even wear masks — but Cruse spends much, much more ink depicting the casual, reflexive racism that pervades the town, that spills out of the mouths of otherwise “good” characters.

That review was 10 years ago, and those words still cut very deeply today. Even further back, shortly after Stuck Rubber Baby was published, Cruse said in an interview,

More than anything else, this is a book people can live with and revisit and find new subtleties in, find issues that are contemporary even though the story happened 30 years ago. It’s about issues I care a lot about: Is this country going to be a generous country or a mean-spirited country? This is very much on my mind these days.

It is mind-blowing that 25 years ago Cruse recognized that a story he had been processing for 30 years was still important, and now we look back at that and see it’s even more critical. Stuck Rubber Baby is a graphic novel 55 years in the making, one that raises questions we are still struggling with today. Which is what Cruse would have wanted. At its core Stuck Rubber Baby is a story that teaches us — just because we haven’t gotten something right yet, doesn’t mean we can’t get it right now.

Check out a 10 page preview of the 25th Anniversary edition Stuck Rubber Baby from Publishers Weekly.

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