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June 10, 2010

Book Notes - Howard Cruse ("Stuck Rubber Baby")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Lately I have begun trying to put together a list of my favorite graphic novels. Choosing among the hundreds I have read is a daunting task, but six or seven consistently top my list, and Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby is always one of them.

Set in the deep south in the 1960's, Stuck Rubber Baby explores themes of racial and sexual preference prejudice, and skillfully weaves one man's coming of age story into a bigger tale about the social injustices of the times and the civil rights movement.

This 15th anniversary edition features a new cover and an introduction by Alison Bechdel.

In her introduction to the new edition of the book, Alison Bechdel wrote:

"In this book, Howard Cruse explores the structures of racism and homophobia with a complexity that resonates in his astonishingly intricate drawings. Reading Stuck Rubber Baby is an acutely sensuous experience, from its powerful visuals to the virtually audible jazz lyrics and freedom songs that weave in and out of the narrative. With unflinching honesty and meticulous craft, Cruse brings the confusion and exhilaration of social upheaval to vivid life."

In his own words, here is Howard Cruse's Book Notes music playlist for his graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby:

When I began drawing Stuck Rubber Baby I worried that readers might not believe enough in my characters' respective realities to care what happened to them. They were only inked lines on paper, after all, and I was all too aware that my strengths as an artist did not include a mastery of realistically proportioned human anatomy. Nobody was going to be tricked by my drawings into thinking that my panel frames were windows through which the struggles of actual human beings were being observed. Would readers be willing, I fretted, to invest their emotions in my characters' complex inner struggles and the murky moral issues surrounding them?

Here's the pep talk I would give myself when doubts arose. My story could work, I told myself, as long as it unfolded not on the paper's surface but within my readers' imaginations. In our imaginations everyone is three-dimensional even if they're weird. In our imaginations people who've never existed are still made of flesh and blood by default. In our imaginations life is awash in sensations and textures that mimic those in the real world, even when what we're imagining is preposterous. Dreams, however crazy, are believable while we're dreaming them.

So my goal was to evoke as much as possible the textures of life as it was lived down south in the early Sixties, which is the place and time in which Stuck Rubber Baby's story happens and the place and time when I myself came of age. That way my readers own memories would be triggered, coaxing those readers by sheer familiarity to let my drawing be springboards into the realer worlds inside their heads. My job would then become manageable: as long as I provided the right cues, my readers would feel the right feelings.

That was my working plan, anyway.

(It's pertinent to remember, of course, that when I began drawing Stuck Rubber Baby in 1991 the Sixties weren't as distant as they are today. A major slice of my potential readership in the 1990s would presumably harbor personal memories of Peter Paul and Mary singing at the March on Washington—via news coverage if those readers weren't present on the Mall themselves. That's less true today. History does keep receding, however handier it would be for authors if it didn't.)

But back to the strategies that were in my mind while I was drawing the book. The memory cues I came up with were of many sorts, but here in this blog the focus is on music. Most people's lives come with built-in soundtracks, whether or not those people pay much attention to them. As components of our soundtracks, songs are more memorable than, say, stray car-horn honks. So I made lots of use of the songs my protagonist, Toland Polk, would most likely have heard in the Sixties and beforehand. I gambled that most of my readers would have memories of those same songs and would allow themselves to be transported back to the days when those songs were most in the air.

You can't quote entire song lyrics in a book, unless they're old enough to be in the public domain, without either seeking permission or violating Copyright Law. But you can quote brief snippets, and snippets of song lyrics are what you'll find threading their way through Stuck Rubber Baby from beginning to end. For readers over, say, fifty, the songs evoked by those snippets are likely to be as much a part of their own personal soundtracks as they were of Toland's. But even younger readers are likely to have heard at least some of these songs on golden-oldie radio stations or in documentaries about the fervent era in America when obliterating the South's "tradition" of legally enforced racial segregation was a priority for anyone who valued social justice.

But what of those young readers who, even in the mid-1990s, had never encountered those old-timey songs? For them my song fragments would come with no melodies, and no remembered emotions, attached. Would seeing the words "Walk right in, sit right down" splayed across the sky with music notes bouncing around them leave those readers cold?

I had no way of knowing for sure. But maybe I lessened the risk by making sure my lyric fragments weren't chosen randomly. In some way or other the phrases that floated around my comic-book panels reinforced the emotions then in play. If a reader had never heard a particular song, he or she could just make up a tune to go with it. It would be participatory art in action!

That was my theory, anyway, and so far no one who's too young to remember the Sixties has complained to me about lyrics leaving him or her baffled. This has even been true about the three lyrics in the book to which no memories at all will be attached, those lyrics being for songs that have never existed.

But more about that later. Here's my list.

"You Better Shop Around" — recorded in 1960 by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

This song is on the turntable as my closeted protagonist Toland steps into a raucous party at the Melody Motel that is destined to change his life. The Melody is a "Negro motel," to be specific, a center of integrationist activism in my fictional city of Clayfield. Toland has been challenged by his new friend Sammy Noone to sample Clayfield's "seedy underbelly" where he'll meet "beatniks, anarchists, homosexuals, Negroes, vegetarians, drunks and poets." This party is his first step in that direction.

A popular selection on jukeboxes at the time, the Smokey Robinson song— particularly when played at a high decibel level—is perfect for losing oneself in revelry and opening oneself to unfamiliar experiences. Just what Toland needs.

"The Fox" — a popular folk song recorded by Odetta in 1957 (and by many others as well.)

In Toland's day (and in my own youth) it was common at parties where "folkies" were present for one of more partiers to pick up any guitars within reach and begin singing, as Toland's girlfriend-to-be Ginger and her comrade-in-activism Shiloh did at the Melody Motel party. It's possible that as many people first experienced folk tunes like "The Fox" at such spontaneous hootenannies as listened to them sung professionally on vinyl.

"All The Pretty Little Horses" — a folk lullaby also recorded by Odetta in 1957 and soon thereafter by Joan Baez.

Toland's new girlfriend Ginger chooses this song as her audition piece for a coffeehouse gig in Atlanta. The song is soothing and beautiful but not so dynamic as to hijack the attention of chattering patrons. While Ginger never gets hired, the drive to Atlanta and back that she shares with Toland provides additional time for them to bond.

"Hey There" — a song from the 1954 Broadway musical Pajama Game, composed by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and recorded that same year by Sammy Davis Jr.

This song was never a favorite of mine. Maybe I heard it a few times too often on TV's Your Hit Parade, a show I watched religiously despite the endless repetitions of songs that refused to quit being popular. Whatever my feelings about it, "Hey There" would be a likely choice for Mabel's piano-bar performances at the Rhombus, a gay bar Toland visits while pretending to be merely a "straight tourist" checking out more underbelly sites. For sure "Hey There"'s languid melodic line would blend effortlessly into the bar's background noises.

"Since There Was You" — written by Meredith Willson for The Music Man.

Personally I'd rather hear Mabel do Music Man's "Trouble in River City" at the Rhombus, but that's just me. And "Trouble" would probably have distracted the patrons from their cruising, I've gotta admit. Anyway, the character of Mabel is inspired by my fond memories of the grandmotherly black woman who provided live entertainment on Saturday nights at the Fire Pit, Birmingham's main gay bar, when I was first coming out. She showed her versatility by switching gears the following mornings to serve as the organist for Sunday services at a prominent African American church across town. I could easily imagine hearing that woman serenading her Fire Pit fans with either "Hey There" or "Till There Was You," so I put ‘em both in the book.

"Union Maid" (or "I'm Stickin' With the Union") — a Woody Guthrie song that Ginger performed with Shiloh at union rallies.

It took guts for a black man to sing duets with a white woman in support of unionization in the rural South back then, but Ginger and Shiloh were fearless.

"Oh Freedom" — a folk song recorded by Odetta in 1956 and later sung by Joan Baez at the 1963 March on Washington.

Yes, there were professional recordings of this, but I mainly knew it and the other freedom songs that Toland hears while nervously participating in the Russell Park sit-in ("Stayed on Freedom"; "We Shall Not Be Moved"; "Which Side Are You On?"; etc.) from hearing them sung by amateurs. These songs of protest were staples at civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, and elsewhere, the beauty of their renditions enhanced by the presence in the crowds of choir members from African American churches. The most atmospheric way to experience songs such as these is to chase down the great PBS mini-series Eyes on the Prize. (Hint: Netflix has it.)

"It's All in the Game" — a song whose words were written in 1951 by Carl Sigman and set to an existing tune that was composed in 1911 by Charles Dawes (who later served as Calvin Coolidge's vice-president, to cite an irrelevant but interesting factoid). Tommy Edwards recorded the Sigman's song, as did Nat King Cole.

By 1963 "All in the Game" had become a solid pop standard. It would surely have been part of Mabel's Rhombus repertory, since its mournful resignation about the sadness that comes with love was such a good fit for the homosexual culture as we experienced it down south (and probably elsewhere) in the years before Stonewall.

"If I Had a Hammer" — written by Pete Seeger

If was sung by Peter Paul and Mary at the real March on Washington, so of course it gets sung at mine.

"Que Sera Sera" — The Oscar-winning song written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans was first sung by Doris Day in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much.

This song's opening lyric ("When I was just a little girl I asked my mother, ‘What will I be?'…") gained an extra dimension when lip-synced by a drag performer for gay bar patrons, including the one who responded by yelling, "She'd shit a brick if she knew, Esmereldus!" I worried that I might be stretching the limits of the Copyright Law's Fair Use exception by quoting that long a phrase; on the other hand, if I clipped the lyric before the child's question "What will I be?" got asked, the point of using the lyric in this context would be lost. I ran my concern by the lawyers at DC Comics. They didn't think I had crossed the Fair-Use line.

"We Shall Overcome" — a song whose long history goes back to the Civil War and winds with mutating lyrics through the Depression-era labor movement before evolving, with the help of Pete Seeger, into the hymn of resolve that served as the Civil Rights Movement's unforgettable anthem.

By the time it was sung at the March on Washington "We Shall Overcome" had attained an almost sacred status in the movement, which is why Toland was too shamed by his own lack of courage to join others in singing it at the funeral of the children murdered at the Melody Motel. Experiences like this forced Toland to take fresh looks at the flaws in his character that up until then he had been successfully denying.

"Walk Right In" — a high-spirited pop song written by Gus Cannon in 1929 and covered by the Rooftop Singers in 1963.

This is an apt car-radio pop song for Sammy Noone to be relishing as he and his friends drive to Ridgeline to "walk right in" on Sammy's estranged father to demand respect coupled with practical assistance.

"Our Day Will Come" — a song of optimism by Garson and Hilliard that was recorded in 1963 by both Ruby and the Romantics and Billy Fury.

Sammy is almost giddy with confidence that he has succeeded in his daring mission as he drives back home from Ridgefield. The fact that his confidence is misplaced doesn't lessen the ebullience of the moment.

"One Vacant Chair" — an 1862 Civil War song about loss, credited to Henry F. Washburn and George F. Root.

This is a painfully appropriate song to be sung at a fallen comrade's memorial service. An extra overlay of sadness is added because Toland watches from a distance as Ginger sings it, all the while sensing that he is losing her.

And finally, there are the songs I spoke of earlier: the ones that don't really exist. Let me explain.

In three instances I needed songs that expressed themes specific to particular moments in the story. Even had I been able to somehow unearth existing songs that expressed the themes I was looking for, I would not have been able to quote them at the length required without violating Copyright Law. So in these three instances I wrote my own lyrics to order, leaving it to readers imagine their tunes.

Two of the songs grew out of Anna Dellyne Pepper's past as a professional jazz singer. I listened to a lot of Billie Holiday records to get myself in the mood to write their words. They are:

"Secret in the Air"

It could be about anyone's suspicions that his or her trust in a relationship may be unwarranted, or about a more generalized uneasiness that things may not be what they seem. Words like these would be especially threatening to someone like Toland, who had a very large secret to hide.

"Can't Leave Me Behind"

This one is about the unbreakable link that exists between one's past history and the present-day person that history has created.

My third imaginary song is:

"Love of a Lifetime"

These words are a frank and yearning acknowledgment that passion can be powerful, even when its lifespan is brief. Les Pepper quite deliberately plays this song on the Alleysax jukebox as a challenge to Toland, whose closet door he wants to pry open.

In my mind "Love of a Lifetime" is country-and-western, but you're welcome to mentally compose a tune in whatever style pleases you.

Howard Cruse and Stuck Rubber Baby links:

the author's website
the author's blog
Wikipedia entry for the author
Wikipedia entry for the book

Beek's Books review
The Comics Get Serious Review
Comics Should Be Good review
Comics Worth Reading review
Prism Comics review
Steve's Reads review

Attempts essay about page 131 of the book
BV Blog interview with the author
Carnal Nation interview with the author
Publishers Weekly interview with the author
Queer Sighted interview with the author
Reverse Direction interview with the author
True/Slant interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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