Mr. Natural

The typical Crumb flavor—wild, sardonic, and exuberant—is exemplified by a little picture story reprinted in the Handbook, entitled “The Adventures of R. Crumb Himself.” It shows the hero going for a walk downtown, coming across the National School of Hard Knocks. He enters the establishment, gets kicked by a mother superior, beaten by a policeman, stomped on by a professor, and just as the nun is about to chop off his penis with an axe, he chops off her head instead. Buying a bomb from a sinister man in a dark ally, Crumb then blows up the School of Hard Knocks and enrolls in a different place called the National School of Hard Knockers, a nubile girl on each arm, his penis hardening, mouth drooling: “So I’m a male chauvinist pig…. Nobody’s perfect…R. Crumb—“

Crumb comics are often very funny, inventive, full of dark fantasies, aggression, and a certain degree of tenderness. Does this make him “the Brueghel of the last half of the twentieth century,” as Robert Hughes, the art critic, claims? Paul Morris, of the Paul Morris Gallery in New York, also includes Louise Bourgeois in a list of artists whose works, in his view, “have a relationship” with Crumb’s. These comparisons show how much the barriers between so-called fine art and popular art have come down. The best of the comic strips are now shown on museum and gallery walls. As I write this article, the work of nine American cartoonists, including Crumb, is on display at the Pratt Gallery in New York. And Crumb has had shows in several European museums.

Hughes sees affinities between Crumb and Brueghel because Crumb “gives you that tremendous kind of impaction of lusting, suffering, crazed humanity in all sorts of desired gargoyle-like allegorical forms.” Probably so. But then so does Bosch, or Goya, or Picasso, or, for that matter, the Marx Brothers. Although it is good that a critic of fine art recognizes a master of comics, the comparison doesn’t quite explain the eccentric nature of Crumb’s talent.

Crumb himself, though highly aware of artistic traditions, does not make the same claims for himself. In fact, he slyly lampoons them. Perhaps in response to Hughes, he drew a picture of himself in a seventeenth-century painter’s smock, gazing at a distinctly twentieth-century urban American skyline, saying: “Broigul I ain’t…let’s face it….” At the end of The R. Crumb Handbook is another self-portrait of the artist, looking more than a little crazed, pen poised over paper, and a glass of something at hand. It is entitled: “R. Crumb’s Universe of Art.” On the right is a list called “Fine Art!” and on the left are “Cartoonists” and “Illustrators.” Among the cartoonists/illustrators are Harvey Kurtzman, Wallace Wood, Thomas Nast, Crumb’s brother Charles, and Crumb’s wife, Aline Kaminski Crumb. The fine artists include Bosch, Rembrandt, Rubens, Goya, Daumier, Hogarth, James Gillray, Van Gogh, Edward Hopper, and George …

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