Thursday, May 17, 2007

100 Great Pages: Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby, page 131

Eleventh of a series of posts about 100 great comics pages.
Links to: an introduction to the series; an index of posts by creator; an index of posts by title.

Howard Cruse's extraordinary Stuck Rubber Baby is one of my very favorite graphic novels. In fact, I've written about it at length before, describing my experiences teaching it in an undergraduate seminar (on historical fiction) here at Cornell. But of course that's not going to stop me from including it in this series (which will produce a very different sort of post, after all).

Stuck Rubber Baby is semi-autobiographical, but if you read Cruse's long and richly interesting web site about the process of writing it, you'll see that the "semi" is very much warranted: it's grounded in his experiences but it isn't a narrative of those experiences: it's very much fiction.

Stuck Rubber Baby might be reasonably described as a coming-out novel. The basic arc of the story is the gradual realization by Toland Park (Cruse's protagonist) that he's gay -- or, more accurately, his coming to accept this fact about himself as true and immutable. It's set at a time -- the early 1960's, "Kennedytime", as Cruse calls it -- when attitudes towards gays was almost unimaginably far from what they are today: jumping that gap, feeling the differences down in your bones, is one of the hardest tasks in thinking historically -- and one of the reasons that I find historical fiction valuable as a teaching tool (and one of the reasons I taught Stuck Rubber Baby specifically). Cruse invokes the social, psychological, and personal complexities extremely well (and -- insofar as I can judge a period about a decade before my birth, which I know only second-hand through study -- accurately).

But there are more historical complexities at work in Stuck Rubber Baby than simply the distance traveled by gay and lesbian citizens in the intervening decades. Stuck Rubber Baby takes place in a fictionalized version of Birmingham, Alabama -- a city that was the focus point of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 (from SCLC's campaign there that spring to the KKK's terrorist bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church that September). Toland Park -- like Cruse -- is white; but for this very reason his perspective on the movement is a fascinating one.* Toland is sympathetic but clueless: well-intentioned, but not someone whose normal tendency would be to get deeply involved.

(It occurs to me that I may be making Stuck Rubber Baby sound dull, if all this talk of historical settings and psychistoriocial who-dads and so forth sound that way to you. Fear not! Unless you're in my class, no one will make you notice: the book is a gripping tale -- a "page turner" as Amanda Marcotte recently put it -- that will educate you without you noticing it at all. Unless, of course, you care to pay attention. (Nor is it at all preachy; its politics come out simply through its story, and are richly integrated into the complexities of real people's lives.))

The richness of the historical setting is one of the reasons I adore this book; the other is the richness of the characters. Cruse's characters are marvelously complex, flawed, likeable, fully human people. (I keep wanting to say they're "well-drawn", which is true, but means something different when talking about a graphic novel.) At least a dozen of his characters are fully realized individuals; many of the secondary characters are vivid as well. These characters are black and white, straight and gay, male and female, active in the movement, sympathetic but detached, and even fairly hostile. Historical fiction works by embodying the complexities of history in the equally complex but very differently textured realities of individual lives: and that's why Stuck Rubber Baby works so well.

And Cruse can also really lay out a page.

Stuck Rubber Baby's pages are crowded: Cruse's book is filled with pages with twelve or more panels, all with lots of words. "Decompression" this is not. But Cruse makes them work, because his sense of balance and pacing and design are all so good. Many of his pages are -- "merely", if "merely" is the word -- extremely good: clear, compelling pages which draw the reader along, laying out the story in the clear, unobtrusive way of clear prose: like untinted glass, you don't notice the artistry because you're so busy looking at what's through the window. But some of his pages show a bit more extravagant flair: and, yeah, you guessed it, those are some of my favorites.**

Page 131 is almost two-thirds of the way through the graphic novel. (It doesn't spoil any of the major surprises in the book, although I will spoil a fairly minor one.) On this page, Toland Park is looking for Anna Dellyne and, having told she was at the hospital, goes to find her. (Anna is tangentially involved in a personal problem of Toland's, but I won't say any more so as not to spoil it -- you don't need to know any more for this page, anyway.) Anna Dellyne is the wife of Revered Harland Pepper, who is the leader of the movement in the book's fictional city of Clayfield. (You could say he was sort of a Martin Luther King character -- except that simply betrays the fact that our culture has far too simple a memory of the Civil Rights Movement: there were a larger number of preachers involved in the Movement, of whom Dr. King was only the most famous.***) Anna Dellyne is a famous former blues singer (in the Billie Holiday mode) who doesn't sing any more: she gave up singing in public when she married and quit her career. Hence Toland's surprise when he gets to the hospital room (one of the characters in the book was injured in the bombing that is the book's fictional equivalent of the real-life terrorist attack on the 16th St. Baptist Church) and hears her singing to the unconscious Shiloh Reed:

(Click for larger version)

It's worth noting that this page contains much of what makes Stuck Rubber Baby so wonderful (in the way that a steak contains cow, of course: it's just a bit of it, sliced away from the rest of it so that it's hard to recognize, but still: easier to serve). The historical events of the Civil Rights Movement are here, in their fictionalized form: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was a major event in the movement's history, and here we see -- in the wounded, unconscious body of Shiloh Reed -- the price that the Movement required, whose sheer pain and horror is too often downplayed in our current sanitized memory of it. At the same time, this is very much a page about Toland: he's a dreamy figure, given to longings he can't quite identify (or is simply afraid to), and his fantasy of having been back at one of Anna Dellyne's performances is very much in character.

The most obvious feature of this page -- that is, obvious when looking at it, and looking for it: like many obvious solutions, it was (I suspect) devilishly hard to actually think up; and like many of comics' fictive devices, easy to assimilate almost unconsciously if you're not paying attention -- are the forms of the panels. Cruse draws Toland's fantasy images in circular panels -- well, almost circular: their actually sort of spirals, with each having a pair of little tails flowing counter-clockwise. I don't know if this shape has a name, or why Cruse chose it over plain ovals -- although the tails do effectively capture the movement and flow of the music (much as the lettering does, see below) in a way that simple curves would not: they'd set it off from the other panels, but they wouldn't help it seem to flow. I presume that's what they're for.

But the curve of the shape serves the other purpose: to visually set off the imaginative scenario from the real one. As I said, if you're not looking for it, you might barely notice it, but it will still serve to mark off the fantasy from reality in a clarifying way. Notice that Cruse goes so far as to make the little panel of Toland and the nurses in the middle of the second tier rectangular, so as to strictly adhere to the distinction. Further, while the image of Anna Dellyne in the lower left bursts out of her panel, the actual panel itself remains circular: look at the shape of the panel around the horn player's head, continuing the tails from the previous tier (this time going clockwise though -- presumably just for design purposes); look also at the shape of the panel at the very bottom of the page, next to Anna Dellyne's shoulder: again, curved. (Even Dellyne's head fits this pattern, although it does go beyond the normal boundaries, since her hair itself is drawn as sort of a curve.)

Let's stick with the curve theme for the moment, and notice the other curved shapes on this page: the lettering of the lyrics that Anna Dellyne's singing. This is most obviously true on the second tier, where they run around the outside of the two curved panels, each its own semi-circle. (And how perfect to have them outside the panels, by the way! If they were in the fantasy panels, their reality in the hospital room would be lost; if they were in just the hospital panels, we wouldn't sense them in the fantasy. By drawing them on the white page between the panels (along with the "note" emanata signifying singing) Cruse manages to have them wrap through both the real and the imaginary seamlessly.) But of course the singing in the third tier, and in the first tier are curved too: in fact, look at the latter closely: even the second half of the words ("your soul is under lock and key") are curved -- in a wave shape for the third line -- and although it's subtle, it's very definitely there.

This curving of lettering is a device that Cruse uses sparingly but deftly throughout the book. In addition to singing, he uses it to signify emotionally distressing memory (p. 63, another page I considered writing on) and for some of the lines of Sammy -- an openly gay man -- when he's being self-consciously fabulous (e.g. page 41: y'all are with Sammy Noone, you might as well be here with royalty: the final word is in a lovely upward arc.) Cruse is not a flashy letterer the way that Eisner or Sim are; but he uses this particular device well. Here, it helps capture the feel of music in static, silent words. It's a wonderful touch.

While I'm on the subject, I should note the lyrics themselves:
You may try forgetting me
But you will not succeed.
Your soul is under lock and key,
And it will not be freed.
You'll always be a part of me,
Forever in the heart of me.
You may have left me before
But you can't leave me behind.
These lyrics were written by Cruse himself; this was true not only because he would need to quote too much of them to fall within fair use limits, but also because, as he said, "I needed them to convey thoughts specifically related to the subtexts of the scenes that featured them." So we definitely should look at the lyrics. The themes here apply to all sorts of different aspects of this page and this novel. The entire work is narrated by Toland as a much older man, so the most obvious meaning of the words is Toland's relationship to his past: it'll always be a part of him; he can't leave it behind. (This meaning is, in fact, explicitly drawn out towards the end of the book.) It equally applies to Anna Dellyne's past, of course: she may not be a nightclub singer any more, she may not perform save to sick friends and eavesdropping nurses, but that past is part of her, and she can't leave it behind.

But that only scratches the surface, of course. You can read the lyrics in so many ways. They speak about Toland's sexuality: he can try forgetting it, but he will not succeed: he is gay, not straight, whatever dreams of "curing" himself he may be hanging onto. Then there's the Civil Rights Movement -- how many ways do the lyrics apply to that! Anna Dellyne is singing at the bedside of a man gravely injured in the terrorist violence that opposed the movement; but is the implication that the dark racism that produced such violence will always be a part of our past -- or that the heroism that confronted and overcame it will be? Is it about the Movement and its triumphant place in our past? Or is it about the place of African Americans in the United States, that they are integral to the meaning and culture of this country however much some white Americans have wanted to (in the not only evil but historically imbecilic phrase from the time, quoted in the book) "Keep Dixie White"? The indelibility of the past, the inability to change the fundamental truths about who one is -- these apply both to Toland as an individual and to America as a nation, and the lyrics here are about both.

They're also beautiful, marvelous lyrics, I think. Someone should make them into an actual song.****

Let's return to the issue of the visuals of the page. One thing you can see here is Cruse's amazing, painstaking hatching that he uses on every page. He uses this sort of hatching to richly color the skin of all his characters -- not only black, but white as well, in a way that more accurately conveys the realities of rich, multiple skin tones. (I owe this point to Alison Bechdel, who discusses it in her book The Indelible Alison Bechdel. (More on Bechdel when I get around to doing an entry in this series about a page from her work!)) You can't quite see the way he uses it on white characters all that well on this particular page -- but look at Toland's neck in the first panel. It's a good device, to keep from falling into the trap of only "coloring" black characters (as in Franklin in Charles Schultz's Peanuts.)†

And of course the hatching isn't used only on skin: look at the shadows on the wall sin the third panel, or the bed clothes or Anna Dellyne's dress in the same image. Look at the Ceiling and floor in the bottom tier once Toland goes back out to the waiting room. That extremely labor-intensive use of hatching to create shadow, shade and shape is part of what make's Cruse's art in this book work so well (and part of what makes his style so distinctive).

Another masterful panel is the panel between the two central circular ones, with Toland listening from the doorway along with the various nurses. There is so much to like about this panel. First, there's Cruse's use of the doorframe (you can see it in context in panel three on tier one) as a panel border. This both makes the panel's integration into its tier work better -- it helps it not look artificial superimposed on the other panels -- but, in fact, it makes the entire middle tier feel like the room: the doorway is set in a wall, just as it is in panel three, which makes the rest of the tier the room itself; Toland is looking into the room and seeing his imagined image. Second, Cruse's choice to present the nurses here in silhouette is masterful. It's not that he's hesitant to draw them -- we see them quite clearly in the first three panels of the page -- but here it helps emphasize that Toland is off in his own world, with nothing between him and the music. Cruse couldn't show Toland alone -- it wouldn't fit the scene, where he is in fact crowding behind others at the door -- but this helps us capture his emotional state in which he sees past them to commune with the song. Third, the fact that the panel doesn't end but fades out -- something that Cruse's hatching is especially well-suited to do -- helps the atmosphere of timeless enjoyment saturate even this return to the "real" world: it's not bounded, physically, and that affects how we read it.

Finally, the last brilliant touch in this panel is the smoke snaking across it, originating from the first circular panel and leading us into the third. Obviously the smoke is not "really" there: it's part of Toland's imagined scene. But it helps connect the imagined scenes to the small interjection of reality. It creates a thread tying together (almost as if it were the music itself) the three panels (particularly with the smoke's continuation (or it's new smoke perhaps, who cares) in panel three, making it look as if it is just running behind Anna Dellyne in that panel. Without this smoke, this inset panel might well look odd and out of place; with it, it is tied tightly into the scene.

Let's look at that fantasy scene another minute -- in particular the second of the two circular panels on the middle tier. The man sitting in the bottom front is Shiloh: healed, well, dressed in a suit. Behind him is Toland -- also in a suit ("conservative clothes" as Cruse calls them (in a different context) on page 33). And then, beside Toland, is a woman. It's not his girlfriend; it doesn't look anything like her. We don't know for sure that she's with Toland rather than just sitting beside him. But Toland's fantasies (as we see elsewhere in the book) are intimately tied up with his fantasy that he might become straight. And while another character in another book might imagine being in an nightclub as a freeing experience -- releasing him from society's restrictions, allowing him to experience his sexuality freely and without guilt -- so that the phrase "what kind of a different life would I have been living..." would have referred to his having been openly gay, I think the meaning here is clearly the opposite. Toland is using the fantasy of having been back in Harlem to indulge in a fantasy of himself as straight: the woman in his imagined scene is, I think, with him -- not clingy with him; Toland isn't, in fact, straight so why would he imagine that? But she's a part of his self-denial, right in front of us, on the page.

I like how the fantasy begins in images before it begins in words -- in fact at a moment when the words are explicitly denying it: "it wasn't like she was on a stage" the narration says, as Toland is seeing (and we are seeing) her already on a stage, with a microphone.

Returning to the issue of panel shapes, look at the three panels on the right-hand side of the bottom tier. They increase slowly in size: the first panel, as Toland waits for a timeless period (as Scott McCloud notes in Understanding Comics, silent panels often have a "timeless" feel to them), then Anna Dellyne shows up. The increase in size goes along with a change in his mood: the small size is associated with the sense of being lost in wonder (given that it's the same size as the that middle tier panel), hence his disconnection with reality: as the panel size increases, as we see more clearly (and the panels begin to resemble the "normal" sized panels elsewhere in the book) Toland is drawn back into the complex, even sordid, world of his ordinary life. Cruse may well have made the panels those shapes simply to fit in with the drawing on the left, and to make room for the middle panel up top; but it still has this effect just the same. (And who knows? He might have meant it to. Trying to read an author, or an artist's, mind is well-known to be folly; this is why.)

I also like the transition from the fantasy to the scene in the waiting room. The use of the large close-up, with its bleed off the page, culminates Toland's absorbtion in the music: he is wholly taken by it, there is no defined end... and then rather than showing him leave, Cruse simply jumps to his waiting by himself in the room. (I called that panel timeless a moment a go, and in some ways it is... but if you look closely you can actually see Anna Dellyne in it, just a silhouette, but clearly her, and moving towards Toland, which makes the panel slightly less timeless (although, again, that feel is still there) and also ties it in with the previous moment.)

And while I can't quite express why this page -- full as it is -- still works as a whole: balanced, clear, one might easily read it quickly, absorbed in the story, hardly noticing the artistry.

This page is a quiet moment in an eventful work: between the lives of Toland and his friends, and the historic events that are their backdrop and which filter in and out of the narrative,†† there's a lot going on in this book. In fact, one of the few genuine criticisms that my students raised, and that I sort of agreed with, is that they would have liked the work to be longer: several plot thread, particularly involving minor characters are closed rather quickly, and it'd be nice to see some of their fates work out at greater length. Cruse was pressed for space in its construction: he had agreed on 200 pages, got an extension to 210, but was still working within tight limits. So why not cut this page? In terms of "plot" Toland could just as well have caught up with Anna Dellyne and began their conversation without this interlude.

Much of the answer -- perhaps all of the answer -- is that it is thematically important: the themes of self-realization, of hiding versus being open about who you are, of the genuine and painful cost of resistance -- all of these are important to the work and more than justify its inclusion. But it also serves as a quiet, personal moment: a moment of beauty -- for the characters, and for us -- in the midst of larger issues of struggle and identity and power. Cruse takes his time here, and as I hope I have showed puts a lot of work and thought into its careful construction. It is the elegance of its small moments, as much as the sweep of its grander themes, that make this book as extraordinary as it is. If page 131 wasn't this good, Stuck Rubber Baby wouldn't be half the work that it is; but it is this good -- and so is the rest of it. I couldn't recommend it more highly.

Post Script: Oh, and the title "Stuck Rubber Baby"? It's one of those titles (the other example I always think of is Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49") that make absolutely no sense until you get to the point of the novel which clarifies them... after which they seem so self-evident that you can't quite recapture how strange they are. Believe me, it makes perfect sense. If you don't see it now... read the book. You won't believe you missed it.

Update: A shout-out to Howard Cruse, who links to this post on his own blog. He includes a link to the page for Stuck Rubber Baby -- a good idea, I should probably do that myself in this series. It also reminded me that Cruse has this teaser on his site, which is a nice little introduction to the book.

* As I've mentioned before, the perspective of whites on the Civil Rights Movement is getting more study from historians these days -- a good thing, I think (but then I would think that: it's close to my own area of study). If you're interested in historians' works, two books I'd recommend are Jason Sokol's There Goes My Everything (full disclosure: I've met Jason, and we're friendly) and Kevin Kruse's White Flight (a somewhat more specialized study, but equally interesting). Still, fiction is often the best way to learn -- and Cruse's book, too, is a marvelous place to start.

** Actually, the page I'm talking about isn't quite in my top five, say, because many of the most spectacular pages come around central plot points I'm reluctant to spoil. So while I (obviously) like the page I chose a lot, there are some still more spectacular ones that I might have otherwise written about. (If you've read the book, you'll know at least some of the ones I mean -- look especially at chapters 19, 21 and 22.)

*** Go watch the Blackside documentary television series Eyes on the Prize sometime -- you should anyway: it's one of the finest things ever to appear on television, a superb history of the Civil Rights Movement, both historically important and also simply gripping on a narrative level; and now that it is finally available on DVD, it should be easier to actually see -- and you'll see a huge number of ministers (largely from SCLC) interviewed -- Rev. Andrew Young, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rev. C. T. Vivian, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, etc., etc. They all played important roles. So did a lot of other people. It not only does history a disservice to remember the Movement as equivalent to King, it does progressive reform a disservice too, since it encourages us to wait for Leaders to Lead, when that is a gross distortion of how change has happened in the past.

**** Incidentally, on the above-cited page, Cruse also says that "For those lyrics... no actual tunes exist (yet)". I can't say for sure, but this seems to imply that he'd be open to the idea of someone writing music for them. Any blues musicians out there, take note!

† No disrespect to the extraordinary artist Charles Schultz intended.

†† This is a dual effect. In part, Cruse shows that (as the Old Masters know of suffering), history takes place "while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along". But he also shows it affecting lives -- not only in the big, obvious ways -- now African Americans and gay or lesbian citizens can lead freer lives than before -- but in the small, multiple ways: people altering their life this way or that (getting a job or loosing one; moving somewhere or leaving it) around its currents.


Richard said...

A thoughtful and really well written piece on one of my favourite graphic novels. Thanks very much.

Your choices so far are refreshingly diverse. I'll be with you all the way on this one!

Matt Brady said...

Very very nice. This is one of the books on my ever-growing "to read" list, and you might have bumped it up a few notches.