Father of underground comics goes uptown
By RON TODT Associated Press Writer
Article Launched: 10/26/2008
PHILADELPHIA As a lonely teenager, Robert Crumb vowed to use his
artistic talent to become famous to take revenge on those who had
But it was a tour through the drug-laced San Francisco of the 1960s
that brought him fame as the father of underground comics. His
satiric, surreal and sometimes sexually explicit images helped
illustrate the emerging counterculture and chronicled what he has
called the "seamy side of America's subconscious."
Compared to Brueghel and Goya and denounced as a pornographic
misogynist, Crumb finds his work popping up these days in fine art
museums throughout the world. Now the 65-year-old artist is having a
homecoming of sorts in Philadelphia in "R. Crumb's Underground," a
career-spanning exhibition of more than 100 works, on view at the
University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art through Dec. 7.
"It was just a matter of the art world actually catching up to him,"
said Todd Hignite, editor of Comic Art Magazine, who curated the show
for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco last year.
"He's been so influential not only to practically every cartoonist
following in his wake, but a lot of gallery artists are really
influenced by him as well."
The exhibition traces Crumb's trip from the psychedelic '60s to
recent collaborations with his wife, fellow cartoonist Aline
Kominsky-Crumb. Included are familiar images such as Fritz the Cat
and the "Keep on Truckin'" line of men with giant shoes strutting
across the landscape. But the exhibit also features comics Crumb drew
as a boy and offbeat efforts such as faces painted on spools and a
life-size contorted "Devil Girl" statue.
Other strips explore his own insecurities and obsessions, including a
fondness for strong, large-rumped women. Still others careen far past
political incorrectness, using ethnic stereotypes, sex and violence
to satirize the dark side of idealized American culture.
Born here on Aug. 30, 1943, Crumb began drawing at the urging of his
comic-obsessed brother, Charles. He moved to Cleveland as an adult
and worked as a commercial illustrator, drawing greeting cards.
In 1965, Crumb started experimenting with LSD, which immediately
helped him create some of his best-known characters. In January 1967,
he hitched a ride to San Francisco just in time for the full
flowering of the hippie movement. His images echoing old-time cartoon
styles, first in Philadelphia's Yarrowstalks and later in his own Zap
Comix, helped define the underground comic stew of sex- and
drug-themed surrealism and antiestablishment sentiment.
Flower Power faded, but Crumb kept working, steadily publishing in
such magazines as Weirdo and Self-Loathing Comics. He also
illustrated many of Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor" accounts of
his mundane life in Cleveland, which were adapted for film in 2003.
Art critic Robert Hughes has called Crumb "the Brueghel of the last
half of the 20th century," casting him in a tradition of graphic arts
as social protest and seeing elements of Goya in his grotesqueness.
"Crumb's material comes out of a deep sense of the absurdity of human
life," Hughes said in "Crumb," a 1994 documentary. "At a certain
psychic level, there aren't any heroes, villains or heroines. Even
the victims are comic."
Others decry his satiric stereotypical portrayals of black
characters, and feminist writers have seen pornography and hostility
toward women. Former Mother Jones editor Diedre English has called
Crumb's work the product of an "arrested juvenile vision."
That such criticism came early is evidenced by a 1971 strip, "A Word
With You Feminist Women," in which Crumb acknowledges the brutality
against women in some of his comics but says he is portraying and not
advocating it. The strip, however, devolves into a rant in which he
tells his detractors that he will draw whatever he pleases. Another
commentary shows him throttling a comely TV interviewer who started
to psychoanalyze his work.
In 2005's "The R. Crumb Handbook," the artist said his black
characters "are not about black people but are more about pushing
these 'uncool' stereotypes in readers' faces, so suddenly they have
to deal with a very tacky part of our human nature." He acknowledged,
however, being occasionally embarrassed looking back on some of the work.
"That imagery is offensive, and it's imagery that exists in the
culture, and he's trying to get beneath that imagery ... and see what
sort of mind-set created that imagery," Hignite said. "Nothing he
does is ever done for superficial shock value; it's always part of a
larger project to get at the heart of what this is about in America."
Crumb, who declined to be interviewed, is as hard on himself as on
others, appearing frequently in his strips as a neurotic, sexually
obsessed misanthrope. A self-portrait in the exhibition shows him
with hair standing on end, eyes bulging, teeth bared in a grimace,
holding a sign saying, "My true inner self."
In some ways, his association with the '60s was something of a
mismatch. For example, he never had any use for rock music; he
collected early blues and jazz records since boyhood and played banjo
in such bands as the 1920s-style Cheap Suit Serenaders. The
exhibition includes a set of 36 watercolor trading cards of early
jazz greats and a biographical comic of Delta blues singer Charley Patton.
As many in the era pursued spiritual enlightenment, one of Crumb's
most famous characters was ornery, white-bearded guru-cum-rake Mr.
Natural, whose path to bliss seemed to involve more sex than contemplation.
Deep suspicion of commercial culture is one of the counterculture
values Crump retains, even if it involves his work. He turned down an
offer to do a Rolling Stones album coveralthough he did the "Cheap
Thrills" cover of Janis Joplin's Big Brother and the Holding
Companyand so hated the movie version of his "Fritz the Cat" that he
killed off the character.
But Crumb's disaffection appears to go beyond politics or culture to
mere existence. In a 2005 essay called "The Litany of Hate," he
unloads on civilization, organized religion, governments, the human
psyche and even the processes of maintaining the body and creating new life.
"I am constantly disgusted by reality, horrified and afraid. I cling
desperately to the few things that give me some solace, that make me
feel good," he writes. "For me to be human is, for the most part, to
hate what I am. When I suddenly realize I am one of them, I want to
scream in horror."
"That's what his art comes out of, dealing with his negativity," Hignite said.
But an occasional note of optimism emerges, as in his love for
old-time music and in a 1988 epilogue to 1979's "Short History of
America," which shows the transformation of a pastoral landscape to
urban bleakness. Of three possible futures depicted, one is an
eco-disaster, but the others are a futuristic 'techno-fix' ("the FUN
future") with flying vehicles whizzing by, and the other an
"ecotopian" forest with cyclists, domes and tree houses.
Crumb views his recent acceptance by the art establishment with a
typically jaundiced eye, saying he has been "kicked upstairs" more as
a matter of economics than aesthetics.
"I think he knows where his work fits in ... and I don't think he
needs any validation from anybody," Hignite said. "He really just
cares about doing the work."
Crumb's latest effort might surprise some of his counterculture-era
admirers. The artist, who now lives in the south of France, is
finishing up a long-term project illustrating the book of Genesis. He
told Time Magazine in 2005 that the biblical book was "full of all
kinds of crazy, weird things that will really surprise people."
On the Net:
Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania:
Official R. Crumb site: http://www.crumbproducts.com/
In a Temple of High Art, the Lowbrow Work Of R. Crumb Certainly Rises
to the Occasion
By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 26, 2008; Page M06
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. -- I don't know if the comic book is the lowest
form of art, but it's way down there.
This is central to its charm.
The comic that's worth remembering isn't fancy-schmancy. It's quick
and coarse and cheap. It doesn't seek admission to the higher realms
of art. It's closer to the pits.
Ah, the pits! Ah, the nostalgia! "The Vault of Horror" and "Tales
From the Crypt," two favorites of my childhood, were deliciously
disgusting. Those pulpy-paper booklets published by EC Comics were so
dank with rotting monsters (this was part of their attractiveness),
and so appalled my righteous parents (this was another), that I had
to keep them hidden, buried, under the mattress -- which brings me to
The old reprobate himself -- he of Mr. Natural, Zap Comix and
Meatball, and don't forget "Keep on Truckin' " -- is shamelessly
exhibiting 50 years of his comics at the University of Pennsylvania's
Institute of Contemporary Art.
The war upon the cute mounted in the '60s by the counterculture's
comics was a multi-front offense. The cartoonists who produced them
-- S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton, Skip Williamson and others --
then seemed a sort of army, a scraggly one for sure, and Crumb was
the lewd leader of those stoned and savage warriors, commanding from
the front, Rapidograph in hand.
So many heroes met in comic books are muscular and handsome. Crumb
isn't. He's scrawny and geeky. He is not nice. Still, his drawing is
implacable, and his skills are undeniable (he's the captain of the
crosshatchers, perhaps the best since Thomas Nast). His museum
retrospective, precisely as intended, soaks you in a hose-pipe jet of
gags and hideosities, old-timey yearnings, nerdy sexuality and
His exhibition in his birthplace, the city of brotherly love -- of
which he doesn't have much -- is titled "R. Crumb's Underground,"
which sounds exactly right. Underground is where you put the cesspits
and the secrets. The now-abandoned underground of counterculture fun,
of hairiness and head shops and San Francisco dreamin', of sex and
pot and rock-and-roll (or in Crumb's case, early blues), is where his
comic-corrosive vision first burst into view.
Its outrageousness is stunning. Most of us (and I include the hippest
and the freest) have walls around our thoughts, imagination
boundaries, established in our heads. Crumb dissolved his with LSD.
He breaks ours with his drawings. Few goaders of his period -- not
William S. Burroughs of "Naked Lunch," or savage Lenny Bruce, or
"Fear and Loathing's" Hunter S. Thompson -- were as assiduous as he
at liquefying decencies.
America is chockablock with rude people who draw comics, and most are
pretty awful. In some ways Crumb is awful, too, but he is also
excellent -- excellent at lettering and onrushing narrative, at
baseball caps and street clothes. He's also very good at telephone
poles; no one draws the wires that sag across the shoddy backways of
America more poignantly.
Measured by celebrity, by scholarly attention and by the quantity of
stuff that, erupting from his id, pours straight through his pen,
Crumb's the best we've got.
So the art world now agrees. Crumb has won them over. And he's come
at them from below.
Other artists more high-minded (Walt Disney, Roy Lichtenstein, even
Andy Warhol) sought to elevate the comics, but Crumb did no such
thing. The man is not high-minded. He went the other way. Down and
down, deeper and deeper, down under good manners, underneath
propriety and way below the belt.
The boot fetishes, the juvenile horniness ("I look, I see, I lust"),
the alienated bitterness, the decaying Catholic guilt -- one
encounters his effusions with odd, appalling glee. R. Crumb has a
troubled soul, which isn't rare in art. He also has within him a
large amount of funniness, which in the higher realms of art (one
does not laugh in church) is very rare indeed.
The brash big-footed beings encountered in his comics -- Flakey Foont
and Whiteman ("I've tried! God knows I've tried!"), Mr. Snoid and
Meatball, and the grossest of the gurus, bearded Mr. Natural, "the
man from Afghanistan" -- are aspects of the man himself. They
clambered from his depths. And then spread out through the world. His
"Keep on Truckin' " was at one time near-ubiquitous. Posters beyond
counting showed its shuffling male chorus line, as did car decals and
little paper squares of blotter LSD. And lots of us took notice.
Steve Martin, for example, said that "Keep on Truckin' " taught him
how to walk.
Crumb's art tends to get misread. True, he moved to San Francisco in
the psychedelic heyday of the Fillmore and the Dead, and sold his
comics on the Haight, but R. Crumb was no hippie. "I couldn't dress
like them," he has said. "I couldn't go dancing in the park, and I
couldn't stand the music."
Nor was he a lefty. In the bygone days of hippiedom, much
counterculture art, in America at least, leaned toward the
progressive, but Crumb's did no such thing. His Angelfood McSpade
savaged racial harmony. His "Lenore Goldberg and Her Girl Commandos"
did the same to women's liberation. He never wore the headband. Crumb
preferred the fedora. Had the man no shame? Nope, none at all. Crumb
just kept on drawin' and kept on diggin', down past the eight-pagers,
and the stick-figure graffiti, down as far as he could go.
And what did it get him? I'll tell you what it got him. It got him a
house in France, and perhaps a score of scholarly publications (not
by him, but about him), and shows around the world, and a memorable
movie ("Crumb" by Terry Zwigoff, in 1994) all about his life.
If you think that Crumb himself is weird, you should see his family.
His father was a tyrant, his mother was on speed, his brother Charles
a recluse, a depressive and a suicide. At one piercing moment in
Zwigoff's documentary, the artist's younger brother, Maxon, who is
living all alone in a San Francisco flophouse, pulls his bed-of-nails
out from underneath his bed.
And yet R. Crumb has prospered. His art has been displayed in a slew
of exhibitions in legitimate museums. (Crumb, who's 65, first
exhibited in Washington at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in
1969.) He has a gig at the New Yorker. His work attracts collectors.
In the highest, most demanding circles of the art world, no
contemporary cartoonist has had more success than he.
Once upon a time, all images were art. Not anymore. Now the art world
is a precious place, rigorously defended, and cartoonists aren't
admitted. A Nixon drawn by Herblock or a Churchill drawn by David
Low, a "Pogo" by Walt Kelly or a "Krazy Kat" by George Herriman, much
less a checkered demon by S. Clay Wilson, or, God forbid, a Disney
cel -- such images are seldom seen in shows of master drawings. The
art world has its boundaries. But somehow Crumb got in.
After being dunked in his show in Philadelphia, you begin to see the
reasons. Crumb's art is transgressive, and the art world loves
transgression. Crumb shocks his toughest viewers, and the art world
longs for shock. Crumb's drawing is superior, there is little doubt
of that, and his art is full of references -- to Mutt and Jeff, to
Kilroy and Walt Disney, and to Classic Comics, too. Also, one might
argue, it extends a great tradition: See how it takes you back
through Daumier and through Goya all the way to Giotto, whose famous
fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel (Padua, Italy, circa 1305) is as
graphic and sequential as a strip cartoon.
And although Crumb creates comics, his are never cute. The art world
gags on cuteness. Also, let's admit it, the art world thrives on
fame. And R. Crumb is a star.
It isn't just the movie, or the many exhibitions, or the coffee-table
books. Crumb's complex myopic stoop-shouldered persona -- his
obsession with big legs, his banjo-picking geekiness, his high school
days in Delaware (especially playing footsie with luscious Jeanette
Bates in their American history class), his early work in greeting
cards, his travels through the Rust Belt, his marriage to Aline, his
revulsion at pretension, his collection of 78s, his admiration for
the songs of Charley Patton and the blues of Bukka White -- all of
this, and more of him, pours out of his art.
When you look into Crumb's comics he is there, in person. "Y'know,"
the artist wrote in 2002, "I'm probably one of the few, maybe the
only human on this planet with no secrets. My deepest, bizarrest
thoughts and fantasies are known by millions of people! Between my
comics and published sketchbooks and the 'Crumb' documentary, and
various published interviews and articles about me, there's not a
corner or cranny of my life and psyche that hasn't been publicly
explored, put on display, held up for ridicule, for laughs, to ogle
at, as an example, as a freak show, or just out of my own
narcissistic compulsion to exhibit myself, like when Lyndon Johnson
pulled up his shirttail and showed his scar."
Flakey Foont and Mr. Snoid, the big-legged women with vulture heads,
the outrages, the orgies and instructive Mr. Natural -- all are
facets of the man.
Do they make you feel all icky? Do they fill you with revulsion,
expose your inner creepiness or elicit your guffaws?
"Remember, it's only lines on paper, folks!" -- or so says R. Crumb.
R. Crumb's Underground includes more than 100 objects. Organized in
San Francisco by Todd Hignite for the Yerba Buena Center for the
Arts, it will remain in Philadelphia at the University of
Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St.,
through Dec. 7. For information call 215-898-7108. The ICA is open
from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and from 11 a.m. to 5
p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is free.