Still Truckin'

The most astonishing fact in "Crumb," Terry Zwigoff's 1994 documentary about the underground comic book artist Robert Crumb, was that Crumb was the closest thing to normal in his own family. And that's saying something, because by his own admission, Crumb is one odd character. For the past four decades, since his first successes in the countercultural underground "comix" of the 1960s, Crumb has made strange and hilarious art out of his own neuroses. Insecure and paranoid, obsessed with sex in general and women with big behinds in particular, mad for music recorded before World War II, Crumb has never been afraid to draw and write about his own foibles and fantasies. What's noteworthy about his efforts is that he manages to draw his viewers in, he makes us keep turning pages. He shocks us, but he makes us laugh. He repels us, but he makes us realize that we're just as much a part of this sleazy, baggy-pants world he's drawing as he is. And if he reads this, he'll probably throw up. Crumb never met a compliment he couldn't distrust.

In the closing chapter of a new book about his life's work, "The R. Crumb Handbook" (MQ Publications), he writes, "As a matter of survival I've created the anti-hero alter-ego, a guy in an ill-fitting suit--part homunculus and part clown. Yep, that's me alright ... I could never relate to heroes. I have no interest in drawing heroic characters. It's not my thing, man. I'm more inclined toward the sordid underbelly of life." It goes on like that for another couple of pages, but you get the idea. Not a happy guy, our R. What's left out of this description, though, is the drawing, and that's the key to it all. Whatever else he is, Crumb is a first-rate draftsman and a highly original stylist.

It's startling when you finally realize it, but no one drew like Crumb before he did. Now he's so copied (not well) that you think his style has been around forever. But in fact he sort of compiled it a piece at a time: the arrows and lettering look lifted from those cheesy ads in the back of comic books; the pen-and-ink drawing borrowed from old rotogravure engraving. His characters have those "planet of the rubber people" physiques from the Sunday funnies. And while his nearly obsessive crosshatching adds detail and shadow and depth, the final effect is that of a stitched together world with its own kind of built-in shakiness. It could all fly apart in an instant. In Zwigoff's film, the art critic Robert Hughes compares Crumb to Brueghel and Goya, and this is not just heavy-breathing nonsense. Like those old masters, Crumb stares unblinkingly at the crimes of humanity, then translates what he sees and feels into visual images that make us want to look at it his way. Crumb, of course, thinks all this is baloney.

Crumb began his career drawing for a greeting card company in the Midwest. It was not a good fit, and he soon found himself on the West Coast, caught up in the world of underground comics and poster art that thrived in San Francisco. Crumb, though, was no hippie. He heaped scorn on the Summer of Love and Woodstock Nation. And he soon discovered that you could ridicule people and they would love you for it. Or you could if you dumped on yourself as hard as you dumped on others. The villains in Crumb's work have always been authority figures--bullies, cops, teachers, bosses. Everyone else is a victim. But everyone, good or bad, is funny. The problem with reacting to Crumb's work is not deciding whether to laugh or cry, but how to do both at once.

Crumb began his career drawing for a greeting card company in the Midwest. It was not a good fit, and he soon found himself on the West Coast, caught up in the world of underground comics and poster art that thrived in San Francisco. Crumb, though, was no hippie. He heaped scorn on the Summer of Love and Woodstock Nation. And he soon discovered that you could ridicule people and they would love you for it. Or you could if you dumped on yourself as hard as you dumped on others. The villains in Crumb's work have always been authority figures--bullies, cops, teachers, bosses. Everyone else is a victim. But everyone, good or bad, is funny. The problem with reacting to Crumb's work is not deciding whether to laugh or cry, but how to do both at once.

Crumb created the Keep On Truckin' character with the big foot, didn't copyright it and someone else got rich. He kept drawing, and he's never stopped. Posters, comic books, record jackets--he once put out an album of drawings he'd done on restaurant tablecloths and napkins. He's so prolific that you wonder if he doesn't draw in his sleep. Put another way, this is the work of a man who never seems to sleep. He may not love the foibles of his fellow humans, but he certainly does love to draw them and he never takes his eye off his subject. He's a satirist with stamina. Sometime in the last decade he and his wife (also a cartoonist) relocated to the south of France. He might have gone soft and lived the good life. He didn't. As the work near the end of this pictorial biography shows, he's lost none of his edge. His work is as fresh and bitter and funny as ever.

"The R. Crumb Handbook," the most recent in a series of biographies of such luminaries as Elvis, Marilyn and Jackie O., was put together by Peter Poplaski with Crumb offering occasional comments. There is also an accompanying CD of music by Crumb and his various musical groups--the Cheap Suit Serenaders, Les Primitifs du Futur, et al. The music itself poses no threat to the string bands from the '20s and '30s Crumb adores (here's a bet that this inveterate collector of 78s doesn't even own a CD player). But the joy and verve which it's played hints that inside the ornery artist who's playing these tunes lurks a joyous and unironic spirit: R. Crumb, musical softie.

But mostly the "Handbook" is pictures, a visual life as drawn by its subject. Maybe a better title would be "The Life and Times of ...," since a lot of the strips and pictures are about the world as Crumb sees it. Which is say, weird and repulsive, visually compelling and frequently profound. It kicks off with one of Crumb's signature works, "A Short History of America," a set of 12 panels that focuses on the same spot through two or three centuries, starting with bucolic woods and finishing up as a squalid commercial strip. You could quit there and you'd have your money's worth, but then you'd miss Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont, Angelfood McSpade and all the other wonderfully degenerate spawn of this artist's fevered imagination. It's not a pretty sight, this world a la Crumb, but something about it keeps you coming back for another look. He may be a crank, but he's our crank.

Join the Discussion