Howard Cruse’s STUCK RUBBER BABY (First Second, $24.99), a graphic novel about racial violence and gay subculture in the South of the early 1960s, is immediately fascinating — and disturbing. The first page offers, on either side of the title, an image of the Kennedys, and a racist Southern protest (“Race Mixers Go Back North”). The narrator-protagonist, Toland Polk — whose adult face looms large as a backdrop, and whose gaze meets our own — then recalls the dead bodies he saw that had “stuck” in his mind as a kid. The second page takes up the 1955 picture, published in Jet, of the murdered Emmett Till in his coffin — a “gross” image a friend shows Toland, which “permanently blew a fuse” for him.
“Stuck Rubber Baby” calls attention to the scale of systemic, endemic racism — from the horror of lynching, a devastating, recurring event in the book, to Jim Crow to the ingrained bigotry of ostensibly well-meaning white families like Toland’s. From the outset it also interrogates the very act of seeing, and specifically the visibility, and invisibility, of Black death. It is aware of its own ability as a book of images to show and to withhold.
It’s hard not to feel as though Cruse, who died last fall at the age of 75, was inspired by the horrific deaths and videos of a George Floyd or a Rayshard Brooks. But “Stuck Rubber Baby” first appeared in 1995, and this new, timely hardcover marks its 25th anniversary. If it is a time capsule of 1960s American culture, it shows just how much has changed, and just how much hasn’t.
The son of a Methodist minister, Cruse grew up in Alabama, and the “Clayfield” featured here is a thinly disguised Birmingham; the story, while fictional, pulls from history and Cruse’s own experiences. Its key coordinates — spaces in which readers find, together, both Black and white, queer and queer-friendly characters — include a Black motel, an underground gay bar and an integrated jazz club; they are based on real-life establishments. Like Toland, Cruse was a closeted young man who wound up accidentally fathering a baby with a woman. Eventually, he became one of the pioneers of queer comics. The founding editor, in 1980, of the major underground anthology series Gay Comix, and then creator of “Wendel,” a witty strip in The Advocate during the Reagan years, Cruse led the way for younger cartoonists to craft textured work about queer lives.
Of Cruse’s influence, the “Fun Home” creator Alison Bechdel told me: “I loved that he was so good — he was so technically good at what he did, but he still did queer stuff. That he would bring that talent into the subculture was very moving to me.” “Stuck Rubber Baby” is heavily and precisely crosshatched; all characters’ faces take shape and expression through minutely detailed shading in addition to line work. The careful, deliberate effect rhymes with Cruse’s attention to somber realities. But his characters, with their big faces and jutting jawlines, can also have a bulky quality that smacks of the rubbery bodies populating underground comics of the 1960s and ’70s.
Cruse’s distinctive visual idiom builds an absorbing world featuring a rich intergenerational ensemble of characters. While Toland, a gas-station attendant, dates Ginger Raines, a white civil rights activist, he’s dazzled by the handsome and accomplished Les Pepper, the gay Black son of local celebrities — a community minister and a famed singer — and increasingly aware of his desire and his shortcomings. The Rev. Harland Pepper, who infrequently but sometimes by necessity crosses over into the culturally scandalous haunts of his son, has to respond to crisis after crisis, including the fight over Black citizens’ right to use a public park and the murder of children in the bombing of the Melody Hotel, a frequent site for political organizing. “Stuck Rubber Baby” chronicles both the crushing pervasiveness of discrimination and brutality in the Jim Crow, pre-Stonewall South, and also myriad forms of mourning and resistance.
Bishakh Som’s SPELLBOUND: A Graphic Memoir (Street Noise, $18.99), another L.G.B.T.Q. narrative, is more modest in scope, but its structure is experimental. Som, a trans woman, depicts herself as Bishakh Som only briefly at the beginning and end: “Loath to draw myself … I substituted Anjali, a cisgender Bengali-American woman in place of yours truly in these recollections. I realize, in retrospect, that I had resorted to this substitution for another reason.” Often quite funny, “Spellbound” is charming when it recounts, in colorful panels with black line art, Anjali’s goth-obsessed childhood, “old school” Indian family and romance troubles. But it lags in the diaristic present tense — too many daily inventories of meals. The layers of identity and story in this memoir, however, and Som’s fluid approach to representing the self, feel impressively easy, unbelabored.
If “Stuck Rubber Baby,” for all its resonance, is located in the past, and “Spellbound” creates a continuously evolving present tense, Cristy C. Road’s lavish, bilingual NEXT WORLD TAROT (Silver Sprocket, $50) envisions the future — “a world based on radical redefinitions of love and social justice.” It’s of the moment, keyed to transformative rage and care. Nominally, it is a tarot deck — Road has made smaller, portable versions — but a beautifully produced art book is the ideal format for her prodigious artistic talent. The Spanish and English text, although often evocative in its details (the nine of swords “smokes capri menthols under a chrome umbrella to blow in the face of despair”), feels beside the point next to Road’s sumptuous, full-color portraits of mostly Black and brown characters, differently abled, old and young, often gender nonbinary (descriptions alternately refer to “she,” “he” or “they”).
Road gives bodies that have been historically devalued central space as the movers of forces and fortunes. Her characters are meticulously visually articulated, with detailed hairstyles, outfits, tattoos, and often situated in fantastical landscapes; they pose cross-legged on cars and in gardens, create music, read books, gaze out windows, ride horses, clutch purses and torches and knives. The king of cups’ throne is her wheelchair, on which is balanced a mug of tea. “Next World Tarot” testifies to the need to imagine the future and the political power that comes from that imagining.