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Classic Comics Cavalcade: R. Crumb: Conversations

A column article, Classic Comics Cavalcade by: Eric Hoffman

R. Crumb's elevated position within comics history now seems assured. He has taken his place among the giants of the medium: his name and style are as recognizable as Winsor McKay, E.C. Segar, Charles Schulz, Carl Barks or Walt Kelly. Indeed, he is perhaps, along with Jack Kirby, the most notable comic artist of the baby boom generation, and just as his contemporary Bob Dylan did with popular music during that same era, R. Crumb lent comics a sophistication and maturity, and social import, then largely absent from the medium; there is the music industry pre- and post-Dylan, and the comics industry before and after Crumb. Moreover, just as Dylan lives forever in the shadow of his legendary music he wrote and performed in his early 20s, a period from roughly 1963 to 1967, so Crumb is nearly always regarded within the context of the work he created during 1967 to 1977, a similarly brief yet prolific output.  

The interviews collected in R. Crumb: Conversations span from 1968 to 2002; of the 18 interviews collected here, seven of them cover the period in which Crumb was at his most culturally significant and productive, publishing several comics year, including Zap, Snatch, Head Comics, Big Ass Comics, Despair, UneedaHomegrown Funnies and  Mr. Natural.  During this time, Crumb produced much of his best-known work, including his Mr. Natural strips, “Joe Blow,” a deeply unsettling satire of incest, and his Angelfood McSpade strips, an unflinching satire of racism.

Much of Crumb's early work first appeared in the underground comix distributed in head shops in and around San Francisco and other cities and college towns in the late '60s. Then (and now), Crumb's work was unlike anything else in comics.  Naturally, such forward-thinking material was ahead of its time.  Almost from the start, Crumb was misunderstood by his audience: he was viewed as a pornographer, a racist, a misogynist - such characters as Angelfood McSpade and Devil Girl in particular struck a nerve; this was after all the civil rights and feminist era –a bad time for a satirist and humorist.

These early interviews illustrate Crumb's discomfort over his association with the Hippie movement. In many ways, Crumb, born in 1944, was always an outsider. His father was a Marine who struggled with his awkward, decidedly nonmilitary-minded children. Throughout Crumb's childhood, the family bounced around from the Midwest to the East Coast. As a result, the Crumb children never had the opportunity to form any lasting bounds outside the family – this ostracism, and their skinny, nerdish appearances, arguably crippled them socially. Robert and his brothers Charles and Max instead found solace in comic books, in particular the work of Carl Barks and Walt Kelly; Felix the Cat was also an early favorite. Robert and Charles began drawing their own comics at the age of six, and during the 1950s, the Crumb brother is produced an abundance of completed comics, mainly funny animal material with titles like Funny Friends and Brombo the Panda (1981 reworking is pictured below).

After graduating high school in 1962, Crumb moved to Cleveland where he found work doing color separations for the American Greeting Card Company, but later graduated to illustrating greeting cards. For the next four years, Crumb produced hundreds of gag cards for the company's Hi-Brow card department, yet he soon tired of the work. Married in 1964, Crumb and his wife Dana moved to Europe for a time but soon returned to Cleveland.  He found some freelance work doing illustrations – including some early Fritz the Cat stories - for the magazine Cavalier. The turning point came in 1965 when Crumb first ingested LSD; it was during this period that he invented the number of his most well-known characters, including Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont, Shuman the Human, the Snoids, and Devil Girl, in addition to some of his most notorious short stories. He also developed an interest in early American folk music, another important discovery.

In January 1967, , after overhearing two people discussing moving to San Francisco, Crumb left for that city without telling Dana. He quickly positioned himself in the Haight-Ashbury area and made a number of key associations with other artists and publishers. Later in ‘67, Crumb returned to Cleveland, then moved again to New York City in an attempt to find freelance work.  He began creating comics for the East Village Other, then began drawing the stories eventually published in Zap #0. When that artwork disappeared (it was published later when Photostats were found), Crumb drew some more, and after its publication, Crumb distributed Zap out of a baby carriage on the streets of San Francisco.

His rise to fame was meteoric. Yet fame came – as it nearly always does – with a price. After the publication of a Fritz the Cat collection by a major New York publisher (Ballantine), the material attracted Hollywood.  Ralph Bakshi, a young Terrytoons animator, sought the rights to make a feature film. In numerous interviews, Crumb, clearly ticked off, discusses Bakshi's incessant and boorish attempts at securing the rights from Crumb. Not wanting to deal with it, Crumb avoided Bakshi and as a result, the filmmaker obtained power of attorney from Dana - in the end, Crumb received $10,000. Not surprisingly, he hated the movie. Crumb's success also attracted lawyers; seeing a mint to be made in royalties, a lawyer convinced Crumb to go after those using his “Keep On Truckin'” artwork without permission.

 By 1972, Crumb began his long withdrawal from the soon-to-be-defunct underground comic scene, possibly as part of an attempt to distance himself from Bakshi's movie, forming a folk music band, the Cheap Suit Serenaders. In March 1973, a judge ruled that the phrase “Keep On Truckin'” is in the public domain, and the royalty money began to dry up. Adding insult to injury, in 1977 the IRS notified Crumb that he owed $28,000 in back taxes; apparently, his lawyer neglected to pay taxes on the royalties. Financial troubles stifled Crumb's creativity from 1978 until 1981. He produced very little new artwork during this time, aside from some important contributions to fellow Clevelander Harvey Pekar's self-published American Splendor.

Luckily, a Crumb renaissance was soon to follow.  His new magazine Weirdo began appearing in 1982; by 1993, 28 issues in all were published. Moreover, a critical naissance attending the comics medium began to pay much attention to Crumb's legacy. Fantagraphics began publishing The Complete Crumb Comics in 1987; sketchbooks were published and profiles began appearing in Newsweek and Time magazine (Time art critic Robert Hughes once famously described Crumb as “the Bruegel of the last half of the 20th century”). Crumb placed strips in the New Yorker and found himself the subject of a BBC documentary. His artwork started to be displayed in numerous museums and galleries, including the New York Museum of Modern Art. He illustrated a book on Kafka and was the subject of a feature-length documentary directed by his friend and fellow Cheap Suit Serenader Terry Zwigoff. More new comics appeared in the 1990s, including Dirty Laundry and Self-Loathing Comics with his second wife, the cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb (whom he married in 1978, shortly after finalizing his divorce with Dana).

As of late, there has been a surfeit of career retrospectives, including The Sweeter Side of Crumb, Drawn Together (comprised of collaborations with Kominsky-Crumb), My Troubles with Women (a personal favorite), R. Crumb Draws the Blues, R. Crumb's America, The Weirdo Years, The Complete Record Cover Collection,  and, most importantly, more recent work from the Sketchbooks (albeit in an insanely overpriced edition), and surprisingly, an adaptation of the Book of Genesis. 

In the midst of this flurry of publications, a “coffee table art book” also appeared; its title indicative of the sort of ironic stance Crumb took toward his own critical appreciation, a  kind of suspiciousness, as though it's difficult for him to take seriously the critical lauds. As many of the interviews collected in R. Crumb: Conversations attest, Crumb has always remained wary of the critical attention given his work. Part of this incredulity stems from Crumb's distrust concerning the sincerity of an audience that has long misunderstood him. Moreover, Crumb has long been outspoken of his dislike for much of American pop culture during the mass media age; indeed, though much of his best work is a satire of modern popular culture, readers never quite caught on that he was in essence making fun of them, be they hip or square. Those humorless feminists in particular have never appreciated his unpacking of gender roles, nor do the well-intentioned liberals comprehend his satires of racism (his 1993 “When the Niggers Take over America,” was particularly incendiary).

 

It is perhaps understandable, then, that Crumb never quite gelled to his newfound cultural legitimacy. The interviews collected in this book show an artist whose work and interests seem to occupy their own orbit. Crumb found it difficult to fit in with the modern world, which he finds phony and insincere, pre-fabricated and self-conscious.  His interest in American folk music from the 1920s and 1930s is indicative his obsession with sincerity and authenticity, the same authenticity that  is indeed the impetus behind much of Crumb's satire and which give his comics its frisson.

While much of the counterculture may have caught up with Crumb's brand of subversiveness - and indeed that subversiveness eventually became mainstream, such that an episode of The Simpsons or a Saturday Night Live sketch is in a sense is the bastard child of Crumb and Mad Magazine - because of its absurdism, Crumb's work continues to occupy a sort of liminal space in American culture; it's not so much ahead of its time as it is outside of time. This is the secret behind its staying power: while much of the product of the 1960s counterculture now seems woefully dated, Crumbs '60s output, like Dylan's, still possesses an energy that seems as fresh today as it did then. And while we are still waiting for an authoritative biography of Crumb - and when that appears, it will undoubtedly illuminate what is a fascinating and multifaceted career - until that time, books like R. Crumb Conversations (or the excellent R. Crumb Handbook from 2005) do an excellent job of providing a detailed, as-it-happened, running commentary on the twists and turns of R. Crumb's career. While the interviews, perspectives, and sophistication change from interview to interview (an unavoidable pitfall of an expansive interview collection), Crumb remains surprisingly consistent. He seems to have formed a worldview early on and kept with it. Indeed, his personality on display here and most fascinatingly in the documentary Crumb, are all pieces of the same puzzle.  


Eric Hoffman is the author of Oppen: A Narrative, a major new biography of American poet George Oppen. Together with Dominick Grace he has edited three volumes of the Conversations with Comic Artists series: Dave Sim: ConversationsChester Brown: Conversations and the forthcoming Seth: Conversations. In 2012, he edited a critically acclaimed book of essays on Sim and Gerhard's CerebusCerebus the Barbarian Messiah: Essays on the Epic Graphic Satire of Dave Sim and Gerhard.

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