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 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?1 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 Grosz.
Crumb greatly admires all these people. He has said so on many occasions. But the selection is interesting. It is not immediately clear where he would place himself. Perhaps in both categories. Or maybe such groupings are arbitrary anyway, but then, why bother making them? Cartoonists like Kurtzman and Nast, not to mention his own brother, Charles, are often mentioned by Crumb as major influences on his work. Then so are Hogarth and Gillray. George Grosz, too, regarded Hogarth as a model. He once told the diplomat and art collector Harry Kessler that he wanted to be “the German Hogarth.” Kessler wrote that Grosz loathed abstract painting and “the pointlessness of painting as practised so far.” Art for art’s sake didn’t interest him. He wanted art to be didactic, active, political, like Hogarth or religious art, a function “lost in the nineteenth century.”2
I’m not sure what Crumb would make of this. But his graffiti-like cartoons of animal greed and cruel lust in twentieth-century America are closer in spirit to George Grosz than any other artist I can think of. Like Grosz, Crumb is a born satirist, who brandishes his pencil like a stiletto. But he is funnier than the German artist, and wackier. Grosz was quite a pornographer himself, who shared Crumb’s love of sturdy female posteriors. And like Crumb, the artist himself usually played the main part in his pictorial fantasies. But none of Grosz’s pictures shows quite the same high spirits of Crumb, the triumphant nerd conquering those hordes of willing Amazons. Grosz wallowed in obscenity; erotic pleasure came with a certain amount of disgust; one may indeed have fed the other. In comparison, Crumb’s orgies look almost innocent.
Probably neither “fine art” nor “illustration” is an apt description for the type of art in which both Grosz and Crumb excelled. And there is nothing wrong with that. Such classifications are for critics, not artists. But the artist can make it a problem when, flattered by admirers, or stung by critics, or just out of boredom, he tries too hard to become a “fine artist.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson was a photographic genius, but nothing more than a skillful draftsman. Yet he gave up the former to pursue the latter. Grosz’s venomous drawings of Weimar Berlin are unforgettable. His pretty watercolor pictures of New York are not. Yet there he was—not entirely by choice, it’s true—a mediocre fine artist in the United States. R. Crumb now lives in the south of France, by all accounts, including his own, a contented family man, far away from the urban blight of the US that enraged and inspired him.
He still draws cartoons of his personal quirks and anxieties, and pictures of things he enjoys: athletic girls, old-time jazz and blues players, his wife, Aline, dinners with family and friends. Like Robert Hughes, he disdains much of what passes for fine art in the market today. Interviewed by Hughes at the New York Public Library in April 2005, Crumb expressed his annoyance about an Andy Warhol silkscreen going for a fortune, while he spends hours, even days, slaving to get a drawing just right.3 It also irritates him that he is still stuck with the reputation of “a Sixties man.” He regards the work of that period as “too sloppy,” and wishes he had spent more time on his draftsmanship.
And yet, perhaps those “sloppy” cartoons, dashed off in a haze of dope and LSD, to be printed in cheap underground papers (Zap, Snatch, Big Ass Comics, The East Village Other), were his best work. Some artists can produce great work from their own heads, whatever the time and place. Most cartoonists and illustrators need a subject, or a milieu to inspire them. Crumb, to be at his creative peak, may have needed the edge of 1960s America, just as Grosz needed the rich brutality of Weimar Berlin. There is no shame in this. Crumb is undoubtedly a great artist. The question is what made him so great.
One of three sons and two daughters of a taciturn Marine sergeant prone to sudden acts of violence (he smashed Crumb’s collarbone when the boy was only five) and a devout Catholic mother on amphetamines, Crumb grew up around military bases in Philadelphia and Oceanside, California, and later in Milford, Delaware. His parents, in his words, had “never cracked a book.” Fine arts museums were unheard of. Crumb, like his brothers, soaked up the TV and comics culture of the 1950s: Howdy Doody, Donald Duck, Roy Rogers, Little Lulu, and the like. While on LSD, in the 1960s, Crumb thought of his mind as “a garbage receptacle of mass media images and input. I spent my whole childhood absorbing so much crap that my personality and mind are saturated with it. God only knows if that affects you physically!”
Millions of Americans were exposed to the same things. Most of them went on to lead unremarkable lives. The Crumb brothers became very strange indeed. Charles, the eldest, was a precocious author of comic strips, who pressed his younger brother into following the same obsession. As an adult, Charles barely ever left the family house, didn’t bother to wash, got seriously depressed, and finally killed himself. Max, the youngest, has lived in a San Francisco flophouse for more than two decades, where he impales himself on beds of nails and draws pictures of naked young girls. Robert is the only one who made it, in a more or less conventional sense.
His artistic gift was clear early on, even though his high school art teachers failed to see the point of the home-made comics he produced with Charles, full of bosomy female vampires. In 1962, Robert left for Cleveland, Ohio, where he found work drawing cute anniversary cards for American Greetings. It was a respectable nine-to-five job, with a strict dress code. He married a local girl. A housing loan could be arranged through the parents-in-law. In 1967, he realized that it was all a mistake, and made for San Francisco, inspired, like so many of his age, by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. And besides: “I wanted to fuck a lot of girls, and in fact, ultimately, I got my share.”
Although Crumb took LSD and spoke the lingo of Haight-Ashbury, he was, on the surface, far from being a typical Sixties man. As far as he was concerned, rock and roll lost its interest as soon as middle-class white kids began to play it. All those doodling guitar solos of acid rock stars were unbearable to him. Crumb much preferred old blues and jazz, and became a voracious collector of 78 rpm records. In dress, too, Crumb was not quite a man of his time. While others wore kaftans and beads, Crumb stuck to dapper jackets, porkpie hats, and slacks, like a jazzman of the 1950s. If there is one mood, apart from lust, that defines Crumb’s work, it is nostalgia. But in fact this was also very much a feature of 1960s culture. So perhaps he was more a man of his time than he seemed.
A great deal of rock music of the 1960s and early 1970s was soaked in nostalgia for a pre-industrial, or at least pre-plastic-fantastic, Americana. There was, in an age of extraordinary mass-produced affluence, a deep longing for the handmade, the artisanal, the simple good life. “Plastic” was a general term of abuse for anything in the modern world that was deemed to be hateful: suburban mod coms, TV personalities, and so on. Country rockers, folk singers, tie-dye weavers, and other enthusiasts of the organic and the “real” imitated the styles of an earlier, rougher, more rustic or proletarian culture. Bob Dylan, in his first steps to stardom, pretended to be a hobo. The Rolling Stones, nice suburban English boys all, pretended to be Edwardian rakes, or black men from the Deep South. Crumb adopted the comic style of pre-war funny papers.
Like Bob Dylan, however, he transformed the style of a bygone era into something rather different and personal. Both artists reworked popular, even proletarian arts, and came up with something that could be played at Carnegie Hall or pinned on the walls of a fine arts museum. This was not because they felt superior to the popular artists whom they admired. Crumb certainly didn’t use the techniques of a fine artist. On the contrary, it was more that, like Dylan, he used a popular idiom to express feelings and ideas normally reserved for more sophisticated forms, such as poetry or the novel. Sexuality, autobiography, and political rage were not things that comic book artists dealt with before Crumb came along.
One exception, possibly, was Harvey Kurtzman, creator of Mad magazine, whom Crumb idolized. Kurtzman broke the mold of heroic war pictures with Two-Fisted Tales, his comic strip about the horrors of the Korean War. And there was a lot of soft-core sex in his Little Anny Fanny cartoons for Playboy magazine. But these, done in cooperation with such cartoonists as Will Elder, were not nearly as personal as Crumb’s work, or as bold.
Crumb used comics in the way certain art photographers used photos, as a kind of confessional journal of his own life, especially his erotic life. In a sense, his medium is richer in possibilities, for although a photographer can express his or her feelings in pictures, it is very difficult to express an inner life. We know from the photographs of Nan Goldin, say, what her friends look like, how they loved, and how some died. We know about her own love life. We get the pictures of her milieu. What we don’t get to see are her most intimate anxieties and fantasies.
Like the anxieties and fantasies of most people, Crumb’s aren’t always pretty. As is doubtless true of many men, his sexual desires contain a great deal of aggression, even perversity. Maybe the urge to jump on the back of Amazons in tight jeans and ride them like horses is somewhat specialized, but no more so than many urges of l’homme moyen sensuel. Crumb is certainly not alone in raging against his slavery to sexual desire, as well as celebrating it, or against the female sex that tempts, torments, and delights him. Nor is he immune to racial prejudice, or misanthropy, or pet hatreds, not least of himself.
In The Many Faces of R. Crumb, an autobiographical comic published in 1972, the self-mocking artist goes through a variety of changes: “Crumb the long-suffering patient artist-saint,” or “Crumb the cruel, calculating, cold-hearted fascist creep,” or “Crumb the misanthropic, reclusive crank,” or “media superstar, monumental egotist and self-centered SOB,” or “sex-crazed fiend and pervert,” and so on. Until in the last picture, he gives us a melancholy wave from his desk, a pen in his left hand, a half-finished comic strip in front of him: “The enigmatic, elusive man of mystery. Who is this Crumb?—It all depends on the mood I’m in!!”
It is possible that Crumb’s comic character appeals mostly to fellow nerds, and that, as John Leonard put it in these pages, “pop nostalgia clings like a kudzu weed to everyone who ever grew up feeling alien-freaky—i.e., all of us who somehow knew we were born to die uncool.”4 But I think that is too narrow a view. All comic characters, from Don Quixote to Charlie Chaplin to Woody Allen, are losers of a kind. One reason we love them is that it is always comforting to know there are people worse off than we are. But also because there is a loser in all of us. It’s just that few people have the courage or genius to turn their least attractive features into art.
To call Crumb a misogynist or a racist is to miss the point of his cartoons. By exposing violent impulses in himself and the society around him, he does not advocate or glorify violence. A man can be a perfectly decent human being and still harbor all kinds of feelings and thoughts that would not pass scrutiny. To be civilized is to keep such instincts under control. Crumb simply shows that he, and by extension all of us, are made of many parts, some of them not so nice. “I was just being a punk,” he said about his work in the 1960s, “putting down on paper all these messy parts of the culture we internalize and keep quiet about.” Here, too, George Grosz comes to mind. As his pornographic drawings show quite clearly, Grosz was as lecherous as the porcine plutocrats he satirized so savagely. But his best work, of the 1920s, also reveals what happens when our basest instincts become political. That is when civilization breaks down. I think it was Jean Genet who once said that Nazi Germany didn’t interest him, because sadism was no longer subversive, but had been institutionalized.
The danger of turning your life into an artistic chronicle is that success can lead to mannerism. What was once a refreshing kind of honesty becomes a shtick, repeated over and over, becoming slicker and slicker, losing all spontaneity along the way. This, to his credit, has not quite happened to Crumb. As soon as his public image hardened into celebrity, he moved to the relative obscurity of the south of France. His newer work, including his self-mocking cartoons about being exhibited in museums, is still personal and honest, but it has lost a certain edge. Crumb himself observed that “most cartoonists have about a ten-year run of inspiration or creativity.”
Like a certain kind of romantic poet, the confessional artist as an angry young man can burn himself out quickly. In the case of Crumb, it is not just that he has found bourgeois comfort with his wife, Aline. He may be striving too hard for a kind of respectability, trying to shake off his role as a punk. One of his mature works is an illustrated introduction to the stories of Franz Kafka, reissued in 2004 as R. Crumb’s Kafka.5 One can see why Crumb would be a natural artist to illustrate Kafka, the nerdish, neurotic artist par excellence. For a Catholic army brat, Crumb seems to have a remarkable affinity with Jews—he married two Jewish women. Aline, herself a considerable cartoonist, is usually depicted as a lewd version of Barbra Streisand.
Yet the connection with Kafka doesn’t really come off. Crumb is too respectful of Kafka, perhaps, or maybe a cartoon version of Kafka was not a good idea anyway. Although much more sophisticated, the book still seems too much like those Illustrated Classics that many people of my generation, including myself, were discouraged from reading by parents who worried about our literacy. Crumb’s comic drawing simply doesn’t match Kafka’s literary style. The book does them both a disservice.
Nor am I sure that pinning pages from Zap Comix onto a museum wall is the best way to show off Crumb’s work. Instead of elevating his art by tearing it out of the comic book and putting it in a museum, it somehow diminishes it. Crumb recognizes this. He told Robert Hughes that his drawings were “done for print…the finished thing is the printed thing.” Crumb is at his least interesting when he forgets this. His pen portraits of women and family life are funny and well executed. They are just not as interesting as the rougher, wilder comics.
Of course, one has to be careful with this line of criticism, lest one sound like Philip Larkin complaining that black American jazz musicians lost their primitive appeal when Miles Davis and Charlie Parker started experimenting with bebop and cool jazz. It is not that genres have to be strictly separated, or that photographers or jazz musicians or cartoonists cannot produce great works of art. Nor is it a matter of crude ranking. A great cartoon or photograph is far superior to a mediocre oil painting, just as Paul McCartney’s pop songs are vastly better than his Liverpool Oratorio. Crossing boundaries of genre only works if the new departure matches the artist’s particular talent. Davis and Parker weren’t Dixieland musicians trying to be pretentious; they did what they were good at.
Crumb deserves great credit for daring to experiment, for trying different things. His later work—the portraits, the illustrated Kafka, the pictures of his domestic life—cannot simply be dismissed as the doodling of a tired old man. He never stopped trying to stretch the boundaries of the cartoonist’s art, formally as well as in content. But he is not a great draftsman, and the content of his most recent work is not as surprising and powerful as it once was. Sometimes, as his beloved blues recordings so amply show, artists produce the best results when they draw strength from the limits of the forms they have chosen.
April 6, 2006
Hughes said this in Terry Zwigoff’s documentary Crumb. ↩
Count Harry Kessler, The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan, 1918–1937 (Grove, 1999), p. 64. ↩
The transcript from the “Live at the NYPL” program is available at www .nypl.org. ↩
It is written by David Zane Mairowitz, and published by ibooks. ↩