Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Saturday, March 26, 2005

Robert Crumb, comic artist with a Steve quote

March 19, 2005, Saturday
Art Pg. 003
A cartoonist's striptease Robert Crumb's hilarious, self-lacerating autobiography leaves the reader caught between a laugh and a hard place

The R Crumb Handbook by Robert Crumb and Peter Poplaski
432pp, MQ Publications, pounds 14.99
T pounds 12.99 (plus pounds 2.25 p&p) 0870 1557222

Portrait of the artist: Crumb's self-mocking response to Robert Hughes's silly comparison of him to Breughel

There is a difference between the skinny, bedraggled Robert Crumb as he appears in his own comic strips and the good-looking, quietly dressed man in photographs.

In the photos, Crumb is seen smiling at his striking (in both senses of the word, it seems) wife Aline, chatting with friends, receiving awards or strolling in the street. He usually looks amused about something. With his intelligent face, expressive eyes and grizzled beard, he could be a successful academic.

In the drawings, the crumpled man looks as though he can hardly stand up -- in fact, sometimes he can't, because he is blown away by a giant female, or his head has exploded in a psychedelic nightmare. In the strips, he encounters terrible loneliness and disappointment. Persecuted by guilt and shame, and raging against the injustice of what he is doomed to endure, he whimpers with self-pity, or turns aggressive and abuses the reader, reaching out even from the confines of the frame.

On paper, the goggle-eyed Crumb makes weird and outrageous sexual advances to compliant, if startled, young women. Bizarre erotic females with beaked heads or gigantic hairy bodies attack or succumb to him, or both. His other heroes, such as Mr Natural, Flakey Foont, Fritz the Cat or Angelfood McSpade, star in strips in which marvellous, impossible events seem ordinary, as they do in dreams.

Reading The R Crumb Handbook, you often find yourself held in a strange place, caught -- perfectly balanced -- between a laugh and a groan. He plays with your emotions, moving from whingeing to hilarity, and from disgust to celebration, so fast that you have no time to adjust your responses.

His subject is himself. This book is two autobiographies in one volume. The first is contained in the reproduction of examples of his life's work, 50-odd years of illustrations and comic strips. The second is in the text, which is a pensive going over of it all by the now middle-aged artist. Each of the two autobiographies has a different tone. The older voice is less energetic, more melancholy and not so frantic. Nostalgia has crept in, and something like acceptance of, if not contentment with, the hand he has been dealt. The tenderness with which he speaks of his daughter adds a new note to his repertoire.

But time has not deflected him from his tireless examination of himself. Neither has his contempt and despair for his own country been mellowed by his move to France, where he now lives.

We all have things about ourselves that we dread being discovered. We can even kid ourselves for most of the time that these horrors do not exist. But Crumb is fascinated by his own appalling weaknesses and desires, and he does not stop publicly mulling over them. He has perfected a jujitsu defence against his own doubts and self-loathing by displaying everything that goes on in his head. It is a very strong position. No one can accuse him of anything that he has not already admitted to. He has seized control of his own charge-sheet.

You need a ton of courage to try this manoeuvre and a ton of talent to bring it off. Crumb has both. His success is magnificent. He broke away from his stifling, mad family; he survived the loss of his overbearing and gifted older brother; he became rich and famous and married; and he didn't sell out to movies or high-paying journals.

It was not he alone who has benefited from his diligence and bravery. We are also beneficiaries. Through his wonderfully drawn and written confessions comes creeping deep understanding of weakness and of fear and unexpectedly, there also comes reassurance: you are not alone. Whatever awful place you go to in your mind, you'll probably find Crumb has passed that way before. You'll also find he's been to one or two places you've never even heard of - for instance, the compulsion that afflicts him to jump on to the backs of powerful young women in the street, before becoming even more intimate with them.

Crumb is amazed by, and a little contemptuous of, the avalanche of attention he is now attracting from journals, museums and art galleries. But there are good reasons for this acclaim. His work from the 1960s and 1970s now has an irresistible nostalgic charm: it has the power to evoke the flavour of a lost time, when hippies and drugs and flower-power captured San Francisco.

There are other reasons why we salute him. Long before he matured into the cultural giant he is today, his huge talent was recognised instantly by the Newton of modern American comic strips, the late Harvey Kurtzman, the genius behind Mad Magazine and many other journals. Kurtzman published and wrote for Crumb's gods, the artists Will Elder, Jack Davis and Wallace Wood. Crumb was hired to do backgrounds on strips, but Kurtzman quickly saw that he was too talented to be anyone's assistant and advised him to concentrate on his own eccentric work. Crumb gracefully acknowledges his debt to these men and to others, including his brother Charles. In return, many line up to express their debt to him. Steve Martin says, "Crumb taught me how to walk," referring to Crumb's famous "Keep On Truckin'-" drawing. Robert Hughes writes, "I think that Crumb, basically he is the Breughel of the last half of the 20th century." This is just silly, and Crumb knows it. He publishes Hughes's remark, but accompanies it with the self-portrait above.

Crumb was admired by Harvey Kurtzman. It can't get better than that for a comic-strip artist.


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