“The instant I realized I was an outcast I became a critic, and I’ve been disgusted with American culture from the time I was a kid,” says R. Crumb, the underground cartoonist who bequeathed the definitive acidhead mantra to the late ‘60s: “Keep on truckin’.”
“I started out by rejecting all the things that the people who rejected me liked, then over the years I developed a deeper analysis of these things.”
Many who have followed Robert Crumb’s work since he launched the underground comics scene in the psychedelic ‘60s with the seminal publication “Zap Comix” agree that the 44-year-old artist is an uncommonly thoughtful observer of the passing parade. Hailed by art critic Robert Hughes as “an American Hogarth,” Crumb brings intelligence and autobiographical candor to the form, in strips that spoof the inhibitions of middle-class America as they explore politics, sex and history.
Crumb, whose cartoons currently are published in the quarterly magazines Weirdo and Hup, is afflicted with a compulsion to confess, and in his work he invites the reader into his psyche. In real life, however, the notoriously reclusive artist prefers to interact with his fellow man from a distance. Though Crumb experienced-- endured is how he would describe it--a period of high-profile celebrityhood when he burst onto the scene, he has since removed himself from the media compost pile to the point that many who know of his work wonder: Whatever happened to R. Crumb?
Well, for one thing, he surfaced in Hollywood last year. The virulent dislike of mass media that surfaces in nearly every strip he draws didn’t stop him from having a go-round with the film industry. Considering that Crumb probably hasn’t sat through a mainstream Hollywood feature in years, it’s surprising that he applied himself to the task of writing a script; that this defiant iconoclast didn’t get too far in Hollywood is less of a surprise.
“Me and a friend of mine, Terry Zwigoff, wrote this script and took it to Hollywood and pitched it to different studios,” he recalls, “and while the studio people seemed to find me an amusing character, the script was way too offbeat for the Hollywood machine. It’s based on a comic I did years ago about this wimpy guy who falls in love with a female sasquatch (huge, hairy creatures said to live in the mountains of North America), and gets abducted in the woods. It’s a humorous, sex, burlesque story and it’s pretty weird. I wasn’t too good at selling it either--I kept saying the wrong things to these studio people.
“I remember one night I was at this industry-type dinner party and in the course of the dinner table conversation I commented that to be a real, sincere artist in America is to be a loser in society. All these wealthy industry types really seemed to take offense at that,” he says with a laugh. “So, nothing’s happened with the script, but that doesn’t break my heart because I’d rather just do comics. If I manage to turn out three issues of Hup a year, I’m completely happy.”
Mostly, these days, you find Crumb at his picturesque home in this rural town west of Sacramento. The visitor is pleasantly surprised to find he’s not quite the curmudgeon or the drooling pervert that he depicts himself to be in his work.
“I draw myself to look grotesque because if I drew myself better looking, people would say, ‘Gee, he doesn’t look as good as he thinks he does,’ ” he says, laughing. “This way, they say, ‘Oh, you look much better than your drawings!’ ”
Crumb’s appearance may be a surprise, but the way he lives is exactly as one might expect. Crumb’s detractors often accuse him of being overly enamored with the past, and the house which he shares with his wife of 12 years, cartoonist Aline Kominsky Crumb, and their 7-year-old daughter, Sophie, is a virtual museum of Americana. Heated with a wood-burning stove, Crumb’s home is a colorful preserve of vintage quilts, antique toys, kitsch souvenirs and folk art. An obsessive purist when it comes to music, Crumb listens only to old 78s of early blues, hillbilly and dance band music, and his collection of scratchy records occupies an honored spot in the house.
Crumb’s idyllic country home is diametrically opposed to the environment he grew up in, which he describes as “bleak, ‘50s tract-house America.” Born in Philadelphia, one of five children of a career Marine officer, Crumb drew his first comic, “Diffy in Shacktown,” at the age of 7 and continued to escape into the world of cartoons throughout what he calls a miserable childhood.
“My family was completely crazy,” he recalls. “I had a very rootless upbringing, and we moved around a lot because my father was in the Marines. My mother had personal problems all through the ‘50s and ‘60s, and my parents fought constantly.
A painfully thin young man who spent his high school years minus his two front teeth after a bully knocked them out with a rock, Crumb toyed with the idea of suicide throughout his adolescence, while sinking ever deeper into the alienation that continues to fuel his creative drive. “As a teen-ager, there was no place where I fit in at all,” he recalls. “I saw no hope of ever connecting with anything.”
Crumb detected the glimmerings of hope when he discovered Mad magazine, a leading voice of dissent during its golden period of the ‘50s.
“Mad regurgitated 1950s America in an incredibly brilliant way and was a big inspiration to me,” recalls Crumb, who had committed himself to a career as a cartoonist by the time he was 16.
It’s easy to see Mad’s influence on Crumb’s work; the presence of his other artist hero, 16th-Century Flemish genre painter Pieter Bruegel, is a bit more subtle but is definitely there. . . . Crumb is, in a sense, a genre artist.
“What amazes me about Bruegel is that it’s impossible to find his ego in his work,” Crumb enthuses. “He created such a dispassionate reflection of the world around him, but at the same time, he was caught up in the attitudes of his time. To me, he’s the perfect painter.”
Despite his admiration for practitioners of fine art such as Bruegel, German Expressionists Otto Dix and Max Beckmann and for English caricaturists George Cruikshank and James Gillray, Crumb opted for a career in popular art, a career that began in 1962 when he moved to Cleveland and landed a job designing greeting cards for American Greetings Corp.
In 1964, Crumb married his first wife, Dana Morgan, and the following year ingested his first tab of LSD--a substance that was to play a big role in his life for the next eight years. In 1967 he moved to San Francisco--the center of the hipsters’ universe at the time--and was launched on the burst of creativity that established his career. In short order he completed the first issue of Zap, introduced his most popular characters, Fritz the Cat and capitalistic guru Mr. Natural, and left his brand on the hippie movement with his graphic haiku, “Keep on truckin’.” The quality and quantity of work he produced over the next four years won him a devoted following that constitutes the core of his audience today.
“I’ll never be able to shake that Mr. ‘60s crap,” he grumbles, “and it’s really annoying that ‘Keep on truckin’ is seen as my trademark. Imagine being branded with something you casually threw out in April, 1967, that somehow catches the popular imagination and follows you to your grave. I can see ‘Keep on truckin’ engraved on my tombstone.”
Crumb’s work of the late ‘60s made him famous, but it didn’t make him rich. In fact, he lived on welfare into the early ‘70s, and the popularity of the work left him tangled in a web of legal and financial troubles that plagued him until 1982. In 1970, he sold the rights to Fritz the Cat, which wound up being made into a film he despised, and in 1973 his Zap No. 4 edition was declared obscene in several courts across the country. He says he was bilked out of the copyright to “Keep on truckin’, " which was declared public domain in 1976, the same year that the IRS hit him with a bill for $30,000 in back taxes.
“I was naive and got caught up in the backwash of the ‘60s,” he recalls. “I was a kid and all I wanted was to do the work. I wasn’t interested in dealing with money, so I attracted a lot of fast-talking people eager to deal with it for me. Most artists I know who are good at negotiating are not very good artists.”
Depressed and even more suspicious of his fellow man, Crumb began the retreat from the limelight that has led to the hermitic existence he currently maintains. In 1972, he formed a musical trio, the Keep On Truckin’ Orchestra (rechristened the Cheap Suit Serenaders the following year), and the group recorded two albums and toured extensively in 1975-76. That experience permanently soured Crumb on celebrityhood, and he quit the group in 1977.
“People who want to be famous don’t know what they’re getting into. Once I got famous I saw a side of humanity I’d never seen before. People who don’t even know your work want to glom onto you just because you’re famous. It’s a nauseating aspect of human nature that people worship power--that’s one of things about mankind that I find truly reprehensible.”
Considering that Crumb distrusts the media and only ventures outside his door when it’s absolutely necessary, one wonders what shapes his sense of what is going on in the culture.
“All you have to do is walk into a supermarket to know what’s going on in this country,” he comments. “If you train yourself to observe what’s going on around you and look closely at the details of everyday life, it’s all there. As to what I see going on right now, America has become a very frightening country, and if you think about it too much you just get sick.”
Crumb’s concern about the bigotry, pollution, illiteracy and corruption that he feels are poisoning this country is mirrored in his Expressionist depiction of America as a country in the process of decay, a corroded, withered and gnarled place.
While Crumb insists that he’s not a political cartoonist, he does admit to feeling a kinship with William Hogarth and Thomas Nast, and that lineage is readily apparent in his work. More remarkable than Crumb’s political consciousness, however, is his range. Speaking in the vernacular of the common man and tempering the serious themes in his work with frequent references to his libido, he spoofs egocentric artistic Angst in “The Snoid Goes Bohemian,” debates the Buddhist philosophy of detachment in “Those Cute, Adorable Little Bearzy Wearzys,” and tours 17th-Century London in “Boswell’s London Journal,” based on James Boswell’s classic literary work of the same name. He takes on born-again Christianity in “Jesus People U.S.A. Interviews R. Crumb,” offers a scholarly exposition on sexual deviance in “Psychopathia Sexualis” and picks through the wreckage of his own tormented sexual history in countless strips.
Though Crumb is free to spend as much time as he chooses at the drawing table, he claims to be incapable of maintaining a work schedule, and he confesses: “I go through long periods of agonizing over what I’m doing, and I’ve never been a facile draftsman--I always have to struggle to figure out how to draw things.
Asked how he perceives his work evolving, he replies “for starters, I dropped the early characters--I have a contrary streak that won’t allow me to feed people what they want. Beyond that, the work has become more serious and directly autobiographical. As I get more distance on my life, I’m able to recount my experiences in a deeper way.
“Something that hasn’t changed is the fact that sex is still the main recurring theme in my work. The subject fascinates me even more than it did when I was 18 because it’s acquired a depth it didn’t have then. The collective myths that connote sexual ecstasy are deep things that have everything to do with the society you grow up in and the entire history of the human race.
“In a way, my work is evolving in a way that’s out of sync with the culture,” he adds. “You could get away with a lot more in the early ‘70s, when people were interested in experimental, sexually crazy stuff. People are afraid of those things now, and most people don’t like the work I do now nearly as much as the stuff from the late ‘60s, when my work contained the optimism of that time. I’m not so alienated from the culture that my work doesn’t reflect the collective consciousness of the period, and many people find the work I’m doing now extremely dark.
“But I never worry about how the work will be received because I’m not interested in a mainstream audience. I don’t want to be the guy who caters to people and makes them feel comfortable about their lives--not that I sit down to draw and think ‘now let’s see how uncomfortable I can make people.’ But I’ve found that if you do something that’s straight from where you live, it’s not gonna be mainstream. It just doesn’t work that way. My work is full of sweating, nervous uneasiness, which is a big part of me and everybody else. Most people don’t want to see that though because it reminds them of inadequate parts of themselves.”