Great claims have been made for the art of Robert Crumb, creator of Mr. Natural, Angelfood McSpade, Devil Girl, Fritz the Cat, and the Snoid, among other comic masterpieces. Crumb’s Zap Comix is a cultural landmark of the 1960s, as much as the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “Keep on Truckin’,” the title of a series of drawings of strutting men in oversized shoes, like stoned dancers in a great nationwide cakewalk, became a catchphrase of the hippy era, immortalized in a song by the Grateful Dead. It was so overused that Crumb himself grew heartily sick of it.
Perhaps the greatest, and by now best-known, cartoon character in Crumb’s rich oeuvre is R. Crumb himself, a little mustachioed figure in a tweed jacket and glasses with a rampant penis, playing the banjo, or jumping on large athletic women in tight jeans, or getting beaten up, or masturbating over his own cartoons. R. Crumb, the comic figure, is not quite Mr. Everyman. Rather, he is the artist as loser, the sensitive nerd, who feels humiliated by the handsome bullies who are dumb and cruel but get the girls, while he can only dream about them. That is, until R. Crumb becomes a famous cartoonist and can suddenly do whatever he likes with the “gurls,” which is usually something rather drastic, like slamming them face-down on the floor and riding them like a jockey.
R. Crumb, the comic character, has been immortalized in plays (R. Crumb Comix Show), a feature film (American Splendor), and a variety of zany merchandise, such as buttons, bumper stickers, T-shirts, and coffee mugs. And the real Robert Crumb came splendidly alive in Terry Zwigoff’s brilliant documentary Crumb. In fact, R. Crumb the man and R. Crumb the character are hard to tell apart for those who don’t know the man personally, and perhaps even then….
All this and more is recorded in The R. Crumb Handbook, a compilation prepared by the artist and Peter Poplaski of Crumb’s comics, drawings, photographs, and autobiographical notes. Not quite an anthology, or a memoir, it is one more fragmentary addition to the legendary status of R. Crumb, the most famous American comic artist of the twentieth century. It even includes a CD of Crumb playing his beloved banjo with various jazz groups, ranging from the early R. Crumb and His Keep-On-Truckin’ Orchestra to the Crumb Family.
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…
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