More than any other single cartoonist, R. Crumb helped inspire and popularize the adult comic book. While not the earliest “comix” artist, Crumb quickly became the most famous, successful, sought-after, prolific, and the most persistent “comix” illustrator and commentator of his generation. Even more, while the work of other “underground” cartoonists of the 1960s and 1970s focused largely on social satire, the drug culture, or subjective visions of their hallucinatory experiences, Crumb also explored his own fears and grievances, his various neuroses and often bizarre sexual obsessions, openly revealing himself as masochist, misogynist, sadist, or fetishist. Using either children’s comic books’ traditional “funny animal” or “bigfoot” (big feet, big noses, little heads) drawing styles, as well as realistically detailed panels on occasion, he came to represent in the public mind what was either celebrated in or deplored about the “Counterculture.”
Young adult readers enjoyed his outrageousness or nonsequiturs, psychologists plumbed his neuroses for “Jungian archetypes,” and academics would study his work as courses in popular culture and comic arts gradually attained respectability. He had hoped that his work would “loosen the medium, encouraging artists to do more personal stories, and to see the value in retaining the rights to their own work.” The impact and notice paid to his comics would indeed provide inspiration for two generations of “alternative” cartoonists; a special 1988 issue of Blab magazine attested to that, as well as Patrick Rosenkranz’s history. One reviewer of his 1998 retrospective R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book praised him as “an unparalleled craftsman, social critic, sexual obsessive, blues freak, fly-on-the-wall of the 60s, and perhaps the most potent cultural curmudgeon since H. L. Mencken.” Another student of his work declared him to be “a sort of pop Socrates.” Rather than Socrates, Crumb has often seemed a pop Diogenes, stalking naked through his cultural world, holding a lamp to it when not staring into his own mirror.
Crumb has always been ambivalent about this praise, referring at least once to his “pissant little fame.” The self-mocking cover of his Art Book has one of his typically zaftig dancers exclaiming it “Original!,” “Singular!,” and “Ground Breaking!,” while in the background his alter ego, “Mr. Natural,” thinks it “big, pretentious, expensive.” A sketchbook drawing from the late 1980s shows Crumb in bed, facing movie cameras and lights, complaining: “I’m nauseous.” And a photo still from Zwigoff ’s documentary of Crumb’s life and work shows him grinning inanely as he points a pistol toward his head. Crumb has alternated between pride in all the recognition and feeling harassed by it, candor about his troubled life and feelings, regrets about such candor, and yet assertion that he must tell all. Especially in those scenes in the documentary with his mother and brothers, Crumb stares vacantly ahead, seemingly embarrassed yet defiant about the childhood trauma that shaped him and his art.
Robert Crumb was born on August 30, 1943, in Philadelphia, but his dysfunctional family moved about a lot. His father, Charles Sr., a 20-year marine veteran, was dour, rigid, and censorious. He never understood or warmed to his sons, whom he considered wimps. Charles Jr. (born 1942) would grow up a recluse on antidepressants, who killed himself just after the film was made; Maxon (born 1944) became a panhandler living in a fleabag hotel and meditating on a bed of nails. His mother, Beatrice Hall, was addicted to amphetamines and subject to rages. Robert was the third child of five: Carol (born 1940) and Charles were elder, Sandra (born 1946) and Maxon younger. (His sisters, perhaps scarred in their own ways, refused to participate in the documentary.) The family were Catholic but left the Church when Robert was 16. After high school, when Robert left for Cleveland to work for a greeting card company, his father gave him $40 and a one-way ticket of farewell. Crumb’s first marriage, in 1964 to Dana Morgan, was one of separations and reconciliations until their final divorce in 1977. They had one son, Jesse (1965), who would not figure prominently in Crumb’s life. His second marriage, in 1978, was to fellow cartoonist Aline Kominsky and remains a stable relationship. They have a daughter, Sophie, born 1981, also now a cartoonist, and the only person Crumb admits he deeply loves.
Crumb was already drawing as a child, creating comics and a fanzine with Charles while still a teen, and from 1962 to 1967 did piecework for Harvey Kurtzman’s Help!, as well as designing greeting cards. He and Dana had begun using LSD in 1965 (it was still legal); he would continue “dropping acid” until 1973. After wandering about, and having an acid epiphany in Chicago one day, he suddenly left wife and son for San Francisco early in 1967. He already had created an ensemble of eccentric cartoon characters that he had designed while stoned and, in a two-month creative jag, produced solo the first two issues of Zap, his pioneering, self-printed comic book.
Crumb lived in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco among the hippies, along with Dana and Jesse, but he never felt himself one of them, other than sharing an appetite for drugs and promiscuous sex. Many episodes of his “Fritz the Cat” series would satirize Counterculture leaders as self-important poseurs, phrase-mongers, and what a later generation would call “slackers.” But Crumb quickly became a phenomenon to them, five other cartoonists soon joined him at Zap, and Crumb himself was asked to do covers or features nationwide for the plethora of comic book titles that followed in the wake of its success. No inaugural issue of an “underground” seemed complete without his work. Traveling to do them brought Crumb the sexual perquisites of celebrity status but also aided smaller, regional publishers. Since Zap was closed to newcomers, it brought other cartoonists into collaboration with Crumb.
“Comix” historian Patrick Rosenkranz has suggested that Crumb’s notoriety and ubiquity arose from the nose-thumbing nature of his stories: “the psychotic manifestation of some grimy part of the United States’ collective unconscious.” This “grimy part” must have included transgressive sexual behavior: Crumb and his collaborators set out to shock or titillate readers. Early issues of Zap contained sadistic couplings and mutilations; Crumb’s particular contributions included masturbation, incest, leg and foot fetishism, interracial couplings, and even bestiality, all portrayed in attractive colors and with guileless brio. During the following decade, Crumb was impressively prolific, at one point publishing 320 pages over a two-year period, and between 50 and 80 yearly on average. Despite the government crackdown on drug paraphernalia shops, the main distributor of “comix,” in the mid-1970s, the impact of this creative period and his ubiquity would expand tremendously, when presented less confrontationally, the hitherto “taboo” themes, that adult comics would continue to explore; Crumb thus became the “Johnny Appleseed” of erotic fantasy.
In “Fritz the Cat” and in many other stories, Crumb used animals as had Aesop to comment on human manners and morals, but generally he cartooned people, all of whom struck a chord and/or antagonized some readers. For example, “Lenore Goldberg” was a feminist caricature, a “violent femme,” especially when she exposed self-lacerating male foot-fetishists. “Angelfood McSpade” was a jive-talking stereotype of oversexed, put-upon African American women. “Whiteman” may have reflected his memories of his uptight father and all those who represented “The Establishment” to 1960s youth. But probably his best known creation was “Mr. Natural,” a cranky guru cum social critic who resembled a character from Gene Ahern’s old newspaper strip “The Squirrel Cage.” “Mr. Natural” and straight man “Flakey Foont,” another alter ego, enabled Crumb to engage in philosophical dialogue, to comment on what he saw as self-righteous idiocies in American culture, and to represent the divided nature of Crumb’s personality. Reader interest in “Mr. Natural” has persisted long after the “Counterculture” ended and Zap began to appear only irregularly; in 2010 a collection of his stories was reprinted.
After a brief hiatus, Crumb created a second magazine, Weirdo, which ran from 1981 to 1993. While Zap had been open only to a half dozen artists, Weirdo was designed to give exposure to young experimental cartoonists well out of the mainstream. Crumb edited the first 9 issues, younger generation cartoonist Peter Bagge the next 8, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb the final 11. Crumb enjoyed a new creative spark in the magazine, which in turn renewed media interest in him; in 1985 the BBC did a documentary about his work, and he appeared in an issue of People in 1987. His subject matter was now broadened and his artwork exhibited more fully his ability to employ realistic “high art” techniques as well as the “cartoony.” He had more space to publish longer, more embellished stories, while continuing to indulge in his self-loathing recriminations. There were lengthy autobiographical anecdotes as well as expressions of concern about entering middle age. He introduced model “Mode O’Day,” whose adventures critiqued superficial Yuppie culture, but also added elements of the fantastic, including talking animals. Issues of Weirdo now aired his increasingly outspoken hostility about contemporary politics and attitudes in Reagan’s United States. In 1989, he and Aline became expatriates, settling in France. And in their final, special issue, in the summer of 1993, Crumb took one last satiric swing at the United States, full of derogatory racial and ethnic stereotypes and slurs, describing national degeneracy, and predicting a Christian fundamentalist rapture during a nuclear apocalypse!
But Weirdo also embraced pure playfulness and reflected Crumb’s abiding and devoted love for old jazz and blues music and musicians. Here his drawings were not quite realistic, but far from the earlier “Bigfoot” treatment of Blacks that some had called racist. He helped create a rediscovery of interest in their careers. Increasingly, he was asked to illustrate others’ stories, for example, in Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor and a collection of short works by Kafka, in which he showed off his mastery of expressionist cubism as well as meticulous hatching and cross-hatching draftsmanship.
Interest in Crumb and his art continues. Besides the Zwigoff documentary, the Art Book, and a series of collections begun by Fantagraphic Press, intending to reprint all of his past work, even his correspondence, there have been a number of recent touring exhibitions of both older and more recent drawings and paintings. Nor has he retired, finding new areas to explore. In 2009, after five years’ work, Crumb published The Book of Genesis Illustrated, announcing grandiloquently that “all 50 chapters” were included. His Genesis should impress readers with his ability to individualize each personality within that crowded pantheon of patriarchs and matriarchs, as well as anger others by his vision of an anthropomorphic God. The hand-lettered preface, in which he describes his research and proclaims his respect for the text, may also come as a revelation of his serious side.
However, as Francoise Mouly has observed, “Crumb has always held on to the contradictory parts of his own personality, from which he can never escape.” In one classic “mea culpa” confrontation/confession, he addressed feminists furious at his misogynistic and sadistic portrayal of women, beginning by apologizing, then justifying the necessity to vent his fantasies no matter the cost, and finally exploding in a tirade of insult and obscenity in Big Ass Comics 2 in August 1971. In the 2010 reprint, “Mr. Natural” hectors “Foont” about the seriousness of life, but in the end panel “Foont” returns to masturbating. And on the back cover, when asked in another episode by his exasperated foil: “Are you out of your mind?” “Mr. Natural” answers: “Well, yes and no.” Such candor has helped encourage two generations of artists to reveal their own autobiographical traumas, from “clueless” family backgrounds, to incest and child molestation, to sexual hang-ups, neurotic masturbation of all kinds, and embarrassing difficulties with human relationships. Adult comics have never been the same since R. Crumb.
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