When pioneering gay cartoonist Howard Cruse died last November, he was working on a new edition of his acclaimed queer/civil rights graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby. The book will be published by First Second Books in July in celebration of the title's 25th anniversary.
After his death, First Second Books forged ahead to fulfill Cruse’s goal of seeing the landmark LGBTQ work back in print. The publication of the new edition comes at a time when the work’s powerful examination of American racial hatred alongside homophobic bigotry couldn’t be more timely. A 10-page excerpt from the new edition is available here.
Originally published in 1995 by DC, Stuck Rubber Baby is set in the in the fictional southern town of Clayfield, a stand-in for Birmingham, Ala. The book tells the story of Toland Polk, a young white queer man struggling to accept his sexuality in a town that is as viciously homophobic as it is brutally racist. Based in-part on Cruse’s life and experiences as a gay man growing up in the Jim Crow South, the book is also the story of Polk’s family and friends as well as his complex relationships—queer and straight—with the African-American community, in a pioneering graphic novel hailed for its historical importance alongside its creative achievement.
The new edition includes an introduction by acclaimed cartoonist and MacArthur “genius” fellow Alison Bechdel, as well as a trove of reference materials and an afterword and a biography written by Cruse. Bechdel writes: “The formal virtuosity of Stuck Rubber Baby, its ambitious historic sweep, its rich characters, its unflinching look at sex, race, violence, hate, and love, make it an immersive, truly novelistic reading experience in a way that’s still uncommon for graphic narrative to achieve.”
PW spoke to the book’s editor Robyn Chapman, and designer Kirk Benshoff, about their experience working on the book.
Publishers Weekly: How did First Second end up publishing this edition?
Chapman: I first encountered the book in the 1990s when I was in art school, and I fell in love with it. That was the first printing from DC from Paradox Press. Howard was complaining about it on Facebook. I had met him when I worked at the Center for Cartoon Studies and he was a visiting artist. And he said on Facebook, ’It's a real shame that I can't get Stuck Rubber Baby back into print.' I sent him a message saying, 'Hey, I work at for First Second. I'm really interested in this book.’
How did you approach creating this new edition?
Chapman: They required that it be printed larger than the original edition. The artwork itself was quite large and very detailed and they wanted a bigger page size to be able to really look at it. So we did that. I always wanted it to be a special edition that would have extra content. The way I thought about it was like DVD extras. I love those and I wanted to do that for this book. But once Howard died the book changed. It became a different book.
Benshoff: From the beginning, this was always something that I knew is going to be a very special project not only to Howard but everybody who's always read the book. it was definitely shrouded with respect and admiration for the book.
How involved was Cruse in the creation of the new material?
Chapman: Howard wrote most of the back matter, he brought in a new afterword, he wrote a very detailed biography of himself. And then he wrote the "Making Of" the book section, provided all that material like early sketches, rare photographs, that sort of thing. He was providing pretty much all of that content. He was very involved really up to almost a week before he died. He was even writing some of the back matter material from his hospital bed before he got too sick.
Benshoff: I covet my emails with him because they were just so lovely and everything was just there — a nice conversation where you would just run things by him and he would give his honest feedback.
When Stuck Rubber Baby was first published in 1995, it was very different from Howard's previous work—among them the 1980s humor strip Wendel and editing the Gay Comix anthology—and it was released at a time when queer-themed comics were rare in the mainstream. Do you think the world was ready for it?
Chapman: To be honest, I'm blown away that Stuck Rubber Baby emerged as this really successful, classic work of graphic literature that was so different than anything Howard had done before. I loved Wendel a lot. But this was really a leveling up of Howard's. At the time Stuck Rubber Baby was published, DC really gave him a lot of artistic freedom to tell his own story. They were pretty hands-off, which is not how I think they were used to doing business. So we owe a lot to them. They did great work with this book when it first came out. It's always been really critically acclaimed, but I don't think it’s had the market penetration of some of the other classic graphic novels that we think of like Maus or Persepolis have had.
How were you able to make this edition more personal and reflective of the creator behind it?
Chapman: One thing that’s special is some of the extra material. Some of that came about after Howard's death. Like I said, it became a different book after he died and it really struck everybody so hard. We knew he was sick, but no one thought he was going to take a turn like that. We thought, well, maybe this will affect his touring schedule. We didn't realize he wouldn't see the book in print again, which breaks our heart.
It's not a memorial book, but to some degree, we are honoring him in a special way. For me, the two things that really did that were good pieces written by his husband, Ed Sedarbaum, and his daughter Kim Venter. They make me cry when I read them. His husband Eddie wrote such a beautiful piece, something so touching about Howard, how he met Howard, how they fell in love, and how activism was this thread that ran through their life.
And Howard's daughter's letter at the end brought the story full circle. The book is built around the plot concept that this closeted gay man accidentally gets his girlfriend pregnant. That's based on a real thing that happened to Howard. There's a real woman [and daughter] in the world behind that character and that's her story. So seeing a picture of the daughter as a real human being and hearing her words, and hearing how kind she is and how special the relationship she had with Howard was, I just thought that was an extra dimension to the book. When we got those two pieces, I felt like okay, now the book's done.