R. (for Robert) Crumb did for cartooning what the late Hunter S. Thompson did for journalism: shooting it full of mind-altering subsances (not to mention the raunchiest sex seen in comics either before or since) and, especially in his later work, placing himself front and centre as protagonist. From the underground comics of the late Sixties to his current status as a sixty-something grandmaster of comic-book art, Crumb has become exactly what he never wanted to be: a ‘cultural icon.’ And if that thought fills him with horror, imagine how his current elevated status affects the more strait-laced members of the arts establishment.
Myths and legends, only some of which were self-created, surround Crumb. One such, fervently denied, was that in his early days in San Francisco, he briefly resided in the boarding house at 710 Ashbury which later became the Grateful Dead’s communal home. Another is that he fled San Francisco for New York after his first wife attempted to kill him by dropping thirty sleeping pills into his soup. Yet another, not denied at all, is that he has a truly enormous penis.
Even his surname seems somehow significant, if not altogether appropriate: the word ‘crumb’ implies something small, insignificant, a discarded and worthless fragment. The first name is generally abbreviated, not to a cosy diminutive like ‘Bob’ (let alone ‘Bobby’), but to an enigmatic, reticent, vaguely archaic initial.
He has been a reluctant celebrity for the best part of four decades, routinely rejecting offers to supply album cover art for The Rolling Stones, star in an ‘Absolut Crumb’ ad campaign, guest-host Saturday Night Live or be portrayed by Jim Carrey in a big-budget movie. Crumb is obsessive about his privacy: yet, equally routinely, he has been featuring himself as the principal character in his own strips, often in a hideously unflattering light, for most of his career. What he doesn’t reveal in his comics, he may well spill in his increasingly rare interviews: he once admitted to having experienced his first ejaculation at the age of fifteen, whilst wrestling with his younger sister.
He is as mistrustful of big business and American capitalism as he is of the cult of celebrity. His first great creation, Fritz The Cat, became the subject of an X-rated animation feature (which he hated) after his first wife signed away the rights while he was out of town. He lost the rights to his iconic Keep On Truckin’ graphic — and became liable for a fortune in back taxes — after a stoned hippie publisher indavertently lapsed his copyright, and Columbia Records even managed to ‘lose’ the original artwork for his celebrated sleeve design for Janis Joplin’s first major-label album Cheap Thrills. Even becoming a recluse did not diminish his fame. Now 62, he may not be the most famous cartoonist in the world, the wealthiest, or the most widely published. He is, however, probably the best.
A self-taught draughtsman of staggering virtuosity, his work has crossed the line between cartooning and illustration so often that, for all practical purposes, it no longer exists. His early work combined psychedelic surrealism at its furthest-out with grimy street realism and satires of goofy hippiedom, all drawn in a style derived, seemingly effortlessly, from MAD magazine, funny-animal comics and the classic newspaper strips of the Twenties and Thirties. More recent Crumbiana juxtaposes scabrous fantasies of dominating and humiliating heroically-thewed muscle-babes — sex in Crumb’s art is a messy business: as squelchy, sweaty, hairy and veiny as the real thing, and never far away from his big-butt fetish — with an ongoing autobiography written and drawn in collaboration with his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb and far more serious classicist illustration, including the artwork for Kafka For Beginners, biographical strips telling the life-stories of blues and jazz greats like Charley Patton and Jelly Roll Morton, and even episodes from Boswell’s life of Dr Johnson.
A former greetings-card artist from Philadelphia by way of Cleveland and Chicago, his life was forever altered in 1965 by his first experience of LSD. By 1967, he had made his way to San Francisco and rapidly established himself in the forefront of a new generation of guerilla cartoonists which also included Gilbert Shelton, Spain Rodriguez, Kim Deitch and S. Clay Wilson. His first solo comics, which he originally street-sold, made him the hero of the head-shops: characters like Mr Natural, Flakey Foont, Angelfood McSpade and Fritz The Cat became hippie totems. Celebrated graphics like the three bopping figures from his Keep On Truckin’ one-pager graced countless T-shirts and posters.
But simply characterising R. Crumb as the greatest of the Underground cartoonists of the late Sixties is both to understate his achievement by several light-years, and to ignore the uniquely personal work he has created since he ended his psychedelic phase — both in terms of style and chemical intake — in the early Seventies. Crumb represents the cartoonist as both folk hero and folk devil, attracting in equal measure admiration for his craftsmanship and creativity and odium for the sexual fetishism which has formed an increasingly dominant strand in his work over the past three-and-a-half decades.
On the one hand, Crumb is an international cultural treasure, exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, profiled in BBC documentaries and a feted documentary feature film and, next month, the subject of a major tribute season at the National Film Theatre, a prestigious exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, a sale at Bonhams and even a special T-shirt designed by Stella McCartney.
Also waiting in the wings is The R. Crumb Handbook, a giant 440-page hardback of both old and new drawings and cartoons, plus photographs, a CD of his music and freshly unearthed material from his personal archives, claiming to be ‘the most comprehensive presentation to date of the life, trials and ideas of one of the most influential artists of the last 40 years.’ Crumb originals are so highly prized that he was able to finance his 1991 relocation to France by selling half a dozen of his old sketchbooks, and even a doodle on a restaurant placemat can fetch as much as $5000.