On the other, he has been vilified by feminists, pursued by censors, confiscated by HM Customs and accused of racism even by old friends and colleagues like Art Spiegelman. One strip, When The Niggers Take Over America, intended by its author as a bitter satire on American racism, walked such a fine ironic line that it was reprinted as propaganda by the American Nazi Party. “It shows how dopey they are,” commented the artist. “It was a joke on them and they don’t even get it. They are so caught up in their own nonsense that they don’t see the absurdity …”
Nowhere was this dichotomy between hero and pariah more clearly exemplified than in the 1995 controversy which erupted over his 1990 collection, My Trouble With Women. As Tony Bennett of Knockabout Comics, Crumb’s UK publisher and distributor since the late Eighties, recalls, “My Troubles with Women was widely reviewed and sold well in high street bookshops such as Waterstone’s. We later made a co-edition with Last Gasp of San Francisco, and when our stocks were exhausted we imported copies from Last Gasp. The high spot of my year is the French Comics Festival in Angouleme where the art of comics is celebrated by 200,000 visitors, covered by 300 journalists and attracts 10 hours of TV. In 1995 the French Minister of Culture (M. Toutbon) visited our stand, which featured Crumb and My Troubles with Women, and shook hands, saying he was pleased to see British exhibitors and Crumb there. On that same day a fundamentalist Christian Customs Officer was seizing the copies we had imported at Heathrow Airport, copies of a book that had been freely on sale in the UK for some years previously. Despite my arguments to this effect, Customs insisted on taking us to court a year later. We won the court case with the help of expert witnesses and a good barrister and Customs not only got their wrists slapped for being silly but also had to pay all our costs. We later received a nice letter from Customs head office outlining which sex acts we could or could not show in comics.”
In Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary Crumb, art critic Robert Hughes appears comparing Crumb to Bruegel. Hughes has also cited Hogarth and Goya as Crumb precursors, but in pop-cultural terms, we could just as profitably compare Crumb to Frank Zappa and Woody Allen. Like the former, he is a hippie hero who despised hippies, and whose art is for some forever tainted by deep-seated misogyny and a leering, prurient attitude towards the sleazy side of sexuality. (Plus Crumb, like Zappa in his final years, has allowed his trademark moustache to be subsumed into that flowing, patriarchal white beard).
And like the latter, he frequently portrays himself in his work as a slavering, goddess-chasing geek: bespectacled, weak-chinned and wracked with equal measures of lust and guilt. Also like Allen, he is both a fervent collector and a gifted amateur performer of notionally archaic vernacular music. Allen has, for decades, played clarinet in a New Orleans jazz ensemble. Similarly, prior to his relocation to France, Crumb sang and played assorted instruments including banjo in the Cheap Suit Serenaders, specialising in Twenties and Thirties pop, blues, country and jazz. Indeed, his friend and cinematic biographer Terry Zwigoff is himself a former Serenader. In his new location, he now performs bal musette, French folky stuff and his beloved blues in Les Primitifs Du Future, playing ukelele and banjo alongside two accordions, two guitars, a drummer and what Tony Bennett describes as “an attractive female musical saw player.”
Plus ca change. Crumb may have turned down the Stones, but in 1968 he was happy to do the business for San Francisco stalwarts Big Brother & The Holding Company’s album Cheap Thrills: partly because he and the band had a common homebase and fanbase, partly because he and the band’s vocalist Janis Joplin shared a profound and abiding love for Bessie Smith and other classic blueswomen of the Twenties and Thirties, but also because Joplin physically matched the template of the archetypal Crumb Babe: thrusting of nipple, bounteous of butt and wild of tresses. According to Joplin biographer Ellis Amburn, Crumb’s reaction to the band’s approach was, “Yeah, I’ll do your album cover, but the only thing is, when I meet Janis, I want to be able to pinch her tit.” Months later, he did indeed encounter Joplin and, true to his word, he did just that. Joplin’s response was to coo, “Oh, honey!” The next time they met, at a comics show in Berkeley the following year, she snogged him passionately for the benefit of assembled photographers.
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Robert Crumb was born in Philadelphia in 1943, the middle child of five. His father, Charles Crumb, was a career Marine, a martinet not averse to physically chastising recalcitrant offspring: when Robert was five, one of his father’s rages resulted in Crumb The Elder breaking Robert’s collarbone. Robert’s mother was addicted to amphetamines, and the eldest son, Charles Jr, was eager to inherit his namesake father’s alpha-male role. He was, however, a comic-book obsessive who started his younger sibling on wehat was to become his ultimate career path. Charles Jr drew his first comic when he was eight and Robert five; the following year both brothers worked on Chuck And Bob Comics: at nine years old, Robert produced his first solo comic, Brombo The Panda.
The summer of ’62 found Crumb relocating to Cleveland and working for the American Greetings Corporation, first as a colour separator and then as an artist. He had already formed a preference for older forms of popular music, and at a record sale commenced a lifelong friendship with a fellow collector, ‘Cleveland’s last beatnik’ Harvey Pekar. In later years, Pekar, inspired by Crumb’s success, started producing his own comic, the autobiographical American Splendor. Undeterred by the fact that he couldn’t draw, Pekar cajoled various artists, including Crumb, into illustrating his strips. Subsequently collected into book form, they became underground classics despite having barely broken even on original publication, and were recently adapted into an award-winning movie in which Crumb is portrayed by James Urbaniak.
It was also in Cleveland that Crumb married his first wife, Dana — literally the first woman he’d ever slept with — and discovered LSD. “The barrier betwixt the conscious and the subconscious was broken open somehow,” he later wrote. “A grotesque kaleidoscope, a tawdry carnival of dissociated images kept sputtering to the surface. These jerky animated cartoons in my mind were not beautiful or spiritual. Pretty disturbing … and what a boon to my art! It was during this fuzzy period that I recorded in my sketchbook all the main characters I would be using in my comics for the next ten years … it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, like a religious vision that changes someone’s life, but in my case it was the psychotic manifestation of some grimy part of America’s collective unconscious.”
After having “figured out a way to put the stoned experience into a series of cartoon panels,” it should come as no surprise either that Crumb eventually found his way to San Francisco, but that he should become the freak cartoonist par excellence, even eclipsing Gilbert Shelton, creator of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Shelton also now lives in France, though he moved there several years before Crumb). His lovable stoners — the missing link between the Three Stooges and Cheech & Chong — are as abiding and iconic a creation as any of Crumb’s, yet Shelton’s work entirely lacks the darkness in Crumb’s.