The Life and Times of R. Crumb: Comments from Contemporaries, edited by Monte Beauchamp
Let us consider Chris Ware’s contribution to The Life and Times of R. Crumb: Comments from Contemporaries (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998), included among the “Accolades and Reflections on the Controversial R. Crumb,” on the back cover of the book:
I can think of no one more unqualified to say anything about Robert Crumb’s artwork than myself. In fact, it’s useless for most cartoonists of my generation to do so; without him, there wouldn’t be any cartoonists of my generation.
–Chris Ware, The Acme Novelty Library
Maybe he’s right. But we should expect Ware’s self-deprecating comments, in particular when mentioning them in the context of Crumb’s impact on cartooning. Were there no Crumb, certainly the next generation of cartoonists would have looked very different. In fact, were there no crumb, even the cartoonists of Crumb’s generation would have looked very different. Crumb’s “contemporaries” profiled in Beauchamp’s collection include cartoonists, publishers, editors, writers, filmmakers, and others. Below is a list of all the contributors to The Life and Times of R. Crumb, in order of their appearance.
- Matt Groenig (Cartoonist: The Simpsons, Life in Hell)
- Terry Gilliam (Film Director: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Brazil, 12 Monkeys)
- Josh Alan Friedman (Writer: Tales of Times Square, Warts and All)
- Don Donahue (Underground Comix Publisher: Zap, Mr. Natural)
- Jay Lynch (Underground Cartoonist: Bijou Funnies)
- Will Eisner (Cartoonist: The Spirit)
- Spain Rodriguez (Underground Cartoonist: Zap)
- Paul Krassner (Writer: The Realist, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Playboy)
- Jaxon (Underground Cartoonist: Skull, Slow Death, Comanche Moon)
- Robert Armstrong (Musician: The Cheap Suit Serenaders)
- Trina Robbins (Underground Cartoonist: Wimmen’s Comix, Wet Satin)
- The Reverend Ivan Stang (Writer: The Book of the SubGenius, High Weirdness by Mail)
- Jim Woodring (Cartoonist: The Whole Earth Catalog, Frank, Heavy Metal, Jim)
- Al Goldstein (Publisher: Screw Magazine)
- John Thompson (Underground Cartoonist: The Berkeley Barb, Eternal Comics)
- Alan Moore (Watchmen, From Hell, Swamp Thing)
- Drew Friedman (Cartoonist: Howard Stern’s Miss America, The New York Times, Spy)
- Steven Heller (Senior Art Director: New York Times Magazine)
- Daniel Clowes (Cartoonist: Eightball, Ghost World)
- George Hansen (Underground Cartoonist: Choice Meats, Let’s Not’N Say We Did Funnies)
- Charles Alverson (Assistant Editor: Help! Magazine)
- Joel Beck (Underground Cartoonist: Snarf, Lenny of Laredo, Banzai)
- Roger Ebert (Film Critic)
- Charles Plymell (Zap’s First Publisher)
- Eric Sack (Underground Art Collector)
- Kim Deitch (Underground Cartoonist: The East Village Other, Arcade, Raw, Zero Zero)
- Dana Crumb (First Wife of Robert Crumb)
- Tom Veitch (Underground Comix Writer: Deviant Slice, Legion of Charlies)
- Bill Griffith (Underground Cartoonist: Zippy the Pinhead, Arcade, Young Lust)
- George Paulus (Record Producer: The Pretty Things, Big Mojo, El Dorados)
- Mark Landman (Illustrator/Cartoonist: Wired, Time, Mondo 2000, Heavy Metal)
- Frank Stack (Underground Cartoonist: The Adventures of Jesus, Feelgood Funnies)
- Ralph Steadman (Illustrator: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Alice in Wonderland)
- S. Clay Wilson (Underground Cartoonist: Zap, The Checkered Demon)
- Marc Trujillo (Painter/Composer: Hackett Freedman Gallery, El Mariachi)
- Justin Green (Underground Cartoonist: Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary)
- Richard Sala (Illustrator/Cartoonist: MTV’s Liquid Television, Raw, Esquire, Playboy)
- John Pound (Cartoonist/Illustrator: Garbage Pail Kids)
- Jay Kinney (Cartoonist/Editor: Anarchy Comics, Young Lust, Occult Laff-Parade)
- Mary Fleener (Cartoonist: Weirdo, Slutburger, Twisted Sisters, Life of the Party)
- Dame Darcy (Cartoonist: Meatcake)
- Robert Storr (Artist, Critic, and Curator: The Museum of Modern Art)
- Doug Allen (The New Yorker, Steven)
- Peter Kuper (Cartoonist: The New York Times, Details, Rolling Stone)
- Ray Zone (Publisher/Writer: The 3-D Zone)
- Jim Jarmusch (Filmmaker: Dead Man, Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law)
In the first line of the foreword to The Life and Times of R. Crumb, cartoonist Matt Groenig sums up what it means to be a closet Crumb fan trying to lead a normal (?) adult life: “When I was a kid I had to hide my R. Crumb comics from my parents. Now I’m a parent, and I have to hide my R. Crumb comics from my kids.” So this is perhaps the most pithy statement that could be applied to Crumb’s work. However, many more contributions also found their way into this book, the best of which (in my opinion) have been included below.
Criticising the Critics
Below is an excerpt from The Life and Times of R. Crumb: Comments from Contemporaries, which frames important questions about the worth of the critical review. “Jabber,” “suspicion of all such analytical exercises,” and “futility of criticism/adulation” indeed. At least Jaxon’s conclusion is that “it is possible to intellectualize about comics and still retain the primal bliss.”
Jaxon (Underground Cartoonist: Skull, Slow Death, Comanche Moon)
The reader should always remember that the comix work being discussed speaks for itself. Thus, other than providing a little background, historians (even the artists themselves) can’t help a lot by commenting on the whys and wherefores of various creations. Often such jabber only distracts from the personal meaning that these books had for each of us during our first encounter with them…This is the risk we run in dissecting such things, whether in the spirit of rational inquiry, homage rendering, or just plain muckraking. Since we humans are incapable of “leaving it alone,” whatever “it” may be, the topic of comix cannot escape similar scrutiny. I want to express my genuine suspicion of all such analytical exercises before adding more crud. Happily, nothing I’ve ever read about Joe Kubert has ever dimmed the flash that his comic, Tor, beamed at my juvenile brain back in that 1950s Texas drugstore, so I trust that it is possible to intellectualize about comics and still retain the primal bliss.
Before getting sidetracked on this ramble about the futility of criticism/adulation (after all, what’s done is done’ why bother with it?), I was going to try and remember exactly how my brain cells became so befuddled, or, to be precise, how I got mixed up in a crazy business like drawing and producing comic books instead of working in a bank, selling insurance or practicing mortuary science. But it’s not easy—at this stage of terminal mind rot—to recall all the waves that gently slapped against my small boat, driving it ever so imperceptibly toward the swirling maelstrom (26-27).
Through reading one testimonial after another about the impact that Crumb had on the individuals who contributed to this book, it finally started to sink in just how much Zap comix was truly a revolutionary publication back in the day. Justin Green describes how Zap has come to overshadow so many of the other contributions to the comix movement, which are equally important to its history. For an in-depth overview of these additional works, the best place to start is probably Patrick Rosenkranz’ Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution, 1963-1975.
Justin Green (Underground Cartoonist: Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary)
Luckily for Zap, its name got to be a generic term for the movement it spearheaded. To the uninitiated, all titles were called “Zap” comics. The Zap artists became the established orthodoxy of renegade cartooning. Within a very diverse field of talent, they commanded an elite niche. In other words, they got a lot more than the going page rate. They were a bit older than the rest of the cartoonists, too. In terms of artistic skill and business savvy, the gap of a few years was critical.
In the future, any historian wanting to do a glossing over of the heyday of underground comix will have a ready-made leitmotif in the word Zap. As the years go by, that repeated emphasis on Zap will overshadow the dozens of other titles that can legitimately claim to be first-rate (158).
One interesting pattern arising from reading all the positive accounts of Crumb’s influence is just how much idolatry is lathered on Crumb. There is so much high praise for him, in fact, that the more negative treatments of Crumb stand out among all the others, in particular in light of his brutal and readily shared self-honesty regarding his obsessions and neuroses. Take, for example, the treatment of Crumb’s influence by veteran wimmen’s comix creator and chronicler, Trina Robbins:
Trina Robbins (Underground Cartoonist: Wimmen’s Comix, Wet Satin)
I’d been living in Los Angeles before I moved to New York and I returned there to visit friends. While I was there, I took a side trip to San Francisco and was met at the airport by some friends who were aware that I was into underground comic strips and knew that I would react as I did when they did what they did, which was to hand me a copy of Zap #1 without saying a single word. And I reacted as they knew I would—it utterly blew my mind! For the first time, I realized the possibilities. One didn’t have to be restricted to drawing strips for underground newspapers; you could actually do an entire comic book! I can’t begin to describe what a revelation this was to me; probably a lot like what discovering Jesus is to “born-again” Christians. In a way, knowing that I could do a comic book was very much like being “born again” (40).
…My insistence about his hostility to women simply got me into a lot of trouble with the then-underground comix establishment. To these guys, Crumb was sacrosanct, and criticizing him was a sin that earned me ostracism.
I remember an interview with Crumb, written by a guy I new…that appeared in EVO in which Crumb mentions that I accuse him of hostility to women in his work. The interviewer defends Crumb by saying, “Sure you’re hostile, but you’re just putting yourself in the role of a little boy and all little boys are hostile to women.” And Crumb replies, “No, I’m not pretending to be a little boy. I’m just me—twenty-six years old—and I am hostile to women!”
I guess the worst of it to me is that Crumb became such a culture hero that his comics told everybody else that it was okay to draw this heavily misogynistic stuff. The phenomenon of the underground comix of the seventies, so full of hatred toward women, rape, degradation, murder and torture, I really believe can be attributed to Crumb having made this kind of work stylish.
And then, weirdest of all, is People magazine coming out with an article on Crumb in 1985 about how cute his Keep On Truckin’, Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, and maybe a naughty naked tit are. But it’s like, these people haven’t really looked a Crumb’s work because there’s no awareness of the really hideous things he drew; of Jumpin’ Jack Flash fucking a mound of dead hippie chicks; of Angelfood McSpade being screwed while her head is submerged in a toilet bowl; of the chicken woman’s head being cut off by the Cute Little Bearzy Wearzies; of Forky O’Donnell stabbing his girlfriend to death with a fork and showing the body to his friend, who in turn says, “Let’s fuck it!”
Ironically, just as R. Crumb was responsible for the birth of the underground comic book, I believe he was responsible for its death. Because he was such a culture hero, his comics became the major inspiration for eager new would-be underground cartoonists who adopted his style, complete with the rampant misogyny, often doing him one better. Soon the stands were loaded down with underground comix that featured graphic rape scenes and every other degration toward women that the writers/artists could think of. Entrails, usually female, were scattered over the landscape in a phenomenon of violence to women that I believe has never been equalled in any other medium. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) these wanna-bes lacked Crumb’s talent, so the stands were loaded down with badly drawn misogyny. The work of some of these people, such as Rory Hayes, was so bad that it was a novelty for a while, but there really is just so much of that stuff that people can take and the comic-reading public soon reached its limit.
I certainly grant Crumb a tip of the hat for getting the underground comix movement started. I’m just sorry that he took a wrong turn in Albuquerque (41-42).
This excerpt characterizes Crumb in terms of the disconnect that he had with his reading audience:
The Reverend Ivan Stang (Writer, The Book of the SubGenius, High Weirdness by Mail)
The most astounding thing I learned about Crumb, during personal meetings, was how ignorant he was of his own audience. He was at a comics convention in Dallas; we sat together at dinner. He kind of whispered to me, “All these nerdy little guys with glasses!! Are these people the ones who’ve been buying my stuff all these years??” He was actually surprised. I said, “Well, yeah, of course! Haven’t you ever been to comic book convention?” “no,” he replied. I was floored. This was in goddam 1984, for god’s sake!! He was appalled to discover the nerdy quality of his fans. “Look who’s taking, Crumb! You’re a nerdy looking guy with glasses; I am, too! Most of ‘em are nerdy geeks, but you can’t second-guess what these people are really like, any better than they can guess what you or I are really like!” That was a weird experience. I can offer no theory to explain this particular hold in Crumb’s knowledge. I mention it only for history’s sake. Surely he must’ve known that most of his readers were Foonts, not Naturals! Yet, I swear, he really seemed to expect his fans to be normal or something. It was very strange (51).
Crumb’s satirical edge has always served as a mirror reflecting back on the counterculture of the 1960’s and the 1970’s. This is reflected in Jim Woodring’s contributions on Crumb:
Jim Woodring (Cartoonist: The Whole Earth Catalog, Frank, Heavy Metal, Jim)
When I was a teenager and the first Zaps were coming out, me and my cartooning pals would gnash our teeth in envy over his work. As a cartoonist he had every virtue we desired for ourselves: his style was fully developed, original, familiar, relaxed, versatile and brilliant, and it was unreservedly praised by art-conscious adults. He himself was, by all accounts, self-deprecating and down-to-earth, an appealing a hip misfit who turned down Playboy’s slavering advances on the grounds of artistic integrity (that really got me). My pals and I knew that if we were going to make our marks as cartoonists we had a long hard road ahead of us, whereas Crumb was obviously a natural whose drawing ability was innate and whose path seemed not only straight but greased.
And was he aware? Did he truly see? Eeyow! During the late sixties it was as if the cosmos had dispatched him to the scene of our crime to record and reflect it for us. At that time, you may recall, tribalism had been introduced into our nontribal culture and there had arisen a hybrid—the Hippie. Crumb was poised to capture and distill their brief flowing and the beginning of their multigenerational decline. In those days, the unbelievably apt images in his comics glowed like charged filaments. We laughed hysterically, we stoned ones, laughed helplessly in wonder at the fantastic consciousness on display in his work (54).
John Thompson speaks for the lost hippies who watched their world crash and burn as the Summer of Love proved impossible to sustain:
John Thompson (Underground Cartoonist: The Berkeley Barb, Eternal Comics)
Depression is a horrible disease that strikes thousands of people in their early twenties each year. Professionally untreated, my disease was a personal agony that just sucked me in deeper. For lots of creative young people, 1967 offered “the Summer of Love” in the Haight; 1968 offered “the Summer of Turmoil” in the Haight and in Berkeley. Like so many others at that time, I wasn’t just suffering severe “male mood cycles,” I was suffering a myriad of symptoms of profound depression.
The year 1968 was one of great turmoil. Instead of being consumed by it, Crumb transmuted his own conflicts into his early Zaps. It’s important to remember that only the first Zap was a product of 1967’s “Summer of Love” and all that buoyant optimism. Crumb’s later work was a product of the troubled and disappointing year that followed—and he spoke to the issues of those times often grotesque and disturbing ways. Late 1968 and early 1969 were difficult times for Crumb and the other underground cartoonists, and those difficulties had a profound effect on their work (68).
A year later (Crumb) introduced me to Terry Zwigoff, who seemed morosely self-obsessed that morning. I could only wonder why Bob was spending time with someone who on first impression seemed a talentless loser. His camaraderie with Terry seemed unexplainable. A quarter century later, Terry’s film about Crumb would reach an audience vaster than anyone ever expected. Bob’s brightness shined from every scene in the well-edited documentary, with no hint of the darkest side I had glimpsed when I first met Terry. Yet even within Bob’s gloomiest and most nightmarish days, he never abused himself, his talent, or anyone else.
Thirty years later, I certainly don’t look back nostalgically on 1968 as the “good old days” in the wild and crazy Haight-Ashbury. Instead, I remember them as very hard times, yet times in which the underground cartoonists were very productive and had a lot to say that was relevant (69).
And lastly, Jay Kinney comments on Crumb’s contribution to confessional comics.
Jay Kinney (Cartoonist/Editor: Anarchy Comics, Young Lust, Occult Laff-Parade)
(Crumb) also pioneered the use of the comics medium as a personal confessional, where the artist bares all for his unseen audience. Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary and Art Spiegelman’s Maus may represent the most fully realized instances of such soul bearing, but year in, year out, no one has been more honest (and ironically amusing) about his neuroses and eccentricities than Crumb—with the possible exception of his wife, Aline!
Last but not least, Crumb set the standard for draftsmanship in comix, and I am hard pressed to name anyone who has topped him in fluid line work or range of styles. Crumb made drawing look easy and fun—an illusion which sustained me for a number of years before I decided it was actually a labor intensive grind. But Crumb draws on, as effortlessly and beautifully as ever.
Of course, no genius is perfect, and Crumb has, at times, been his own worst enemy. As a magazine publisher, I would hesitate to give him a cover assignment unless I was prepared to accept a design from him which seemed guaranteed to kill newsstand sales. Art which springs from his own enthusiasms and motivations can be exquisite, but catch him in a contrary mood (or make him an offer that he can’t refuse) and Lord knows what you’ll get. Crumb is fully capable of taking the worst stereotypes and pushing them to such an extreme that they implode into ridiculousness. However, that can be a joke that not everyone gets and it has earned him his fair share of censure over the years.
All in all, The Life and Times of R. Crumb: Comments from Contemporaries was an interesting, insightful, and pleasant read. The one necessary omission, due to the book’s publication in 1998, is any commentary on Crumb’s later work, in particular The Book of Genesis. There are twelve pages in the middle of the book that reproduce “Comix and Illustrations” by Crumb, including samples of his cartoon work, assorted comix covers, Crumb’s exquisite “Heroes of the Blues,” “Early Jazz Greats,” “Pioneers of Country Music,” and “Les as du musette” portraits, and album covers.