It wasn’t until 1994, when Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb documentary, financed by Crumb admirer David Lynch, was released, that some of the sources of that darkness were finally revealed. After much persuasion, Zwigoff was able to take his cameras to the frowsy Philadelphis abode shared by Crumb’s mother and his brother Charles, the latter heavily medicated for schizophrenia and having barely left the house since the end of high school. The youngest brother, Max, a convicted sex offender, was seen in his rundown hotel room practicing yoga: Crumb’s two sisters flatly refused to appear in the movie at all. The year after he was filmed, Charles Jr committed suicide.
The general reaction was something like: jeez, if you think Crumb’s screwed up, wait ’til you see his family. He’s the sane one! Crumb himself later commented, “It’s a good movie. It completely ruined my life, but it’s a good movie!” One reason that Crumb later grew a beard and swapped his trademark fedoras for a beret was that the movie had rendered him too recognisable.
But one surprise the movie had to offer was the sight of Crumb himself, recorded by a camera rather than his own Rapidograph. In acute contrast to the hunched grotesque of his cartoon self-portraits, the real Crumb was … if not precisely good-looking, then at least striking. Tall and gawky in his dapper-gone-to-seed Thirties threads, he cut an unexpectedly engaging figure.
Nowadays, the Crumbs are as unlikely a happy family as the Osbournes or the Zappas. Jesse, Crumb’s son by his his first wife, runs the Crumb family website. Sophie, his daughter by Aline Kominsky (the marriage, and their collaborative comics, are still going strong after thirty years) creates her own comics and art. And the weird sex is more likely to emerge in the older sketchbook material published alongside his regular finished art and stories than in his current work.
And those few people who meet the Real Crumb are generally likely to report was a nice guy he is. And why shouldn’t he be? “After reading your comics,” a young Chicago journalist once told him, “I thought you’d be some kind of monster.” Crumb replied, “Well, ya see, I foist all that on the public, so it’s easy for me to be a nice guy in real life.”
Independent On Sunday, 2005