The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book

To acknowledge Robert Crumb’s 70th birthday today, I’m hauling the following 1998 review out of mothballs.


Watching Deconstructing Harry recently, I realized that Woody Allen had come as close as anyone to putting the sensibility of R. Crumb onto the screen — certainly unintentionally, but the similarities are striking. All the Crumb trademarks are there in Allen’s film: the self-loathing so extreme it crosses the line into narcissism; the obsession with women as fetish objects; the compulsion to spew one’s demons out through one’s art; the indifference to the pain this spewing might cause others. The resemblance is even physical; with their milquetoast features and Coke-bottle glasses, they could be brothers.

Allen’s and Crumb’s career arcs intersect neatly — both men started out with cartoonish humor and gradually got deeper and darker — though I don’t believe that Crumb would be a Woody fan, or vice versa. (They’re too alike in the wrong ways.) But Allen, by virtue of writing, directing, and acting in movies (not to mention the Soon-Yi thing), is much more a household name than Crumb, who remains a titan among comics artists and fans but — even after the brilliant 1995 documentary about him — still isn’t nearly as recognized as he should be.

Many of you know Crumb even if you don’t know Crumb: He’s the one who did the “Keep On Truckin” logo you saw everywhere in the ’70s, and he created Fritz the Cat, appropriated in 1972 by Ralph Bakshi for the notorious X-rated animated feature of the same name. Both Fritz and the Truckin’ logo make appearances in The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book, a gorgeous new 250-page retrospective of the life and work of America’s greatest living cartoonist. (Not entirely accurate: born in Philadelphia, the disenchanted Crumb moved to France in 1991.)

Packaged by Kitchen Sink (a longtime underground-comix publisher) for Little, Brown, this collection serves as a crash course in Crumb’s work. (Only with a cartoonist as insanely prolific as Crumb could a 250-page book be a tiny sampling.) Editor/art director Peter Poplaski has done a respectful job, colorizing Crumb’s b&w pages in subtle hues that generally don’t drown his intricate cross-hatching. Despite its title, this is too nice a volume (and too pricey: $40) to leave on a coffee table at the mercy of nachos and soda-can condensation rings. The second description fits better: it’s an art book.

Aided by a sort of narration by Crumb (who contributes hand-written pages of autobiographical anecdotes), the book flips through 40 years of Crumb’s life as an artist, from his homemade comics done with brother Charles (one of the two we met in the documentary) to his psychedelic phase in the ’60s to his France sketchbooks. One theme remains constant: the need to escape reality, and then to define and mirror it, through fantasy — first cheerful and childlike, then progressively sexual and nihilistic. He’s done wonderful pieces on popular music through the ages and biographical strips about blues legends, but his scabrous, uncensored material about sex and women is what’s usually remembered.

Crumb has never been a friend to feminists. His attitude is quite well summed up in this rant from a 1970 strip: “Would you like me to stop venting my rage on paper? Is that what you’d like me to do, all you self-righteous, indignant females? All you poor persecuted downtrodden booshwah cunts? … Well, listen, you dumb-assed broads, I’m gonna draw what I fucking well please to draw, and if you don’t like it, FUCK YOU!!” This rant shows a fine writer at work (it’s almost poetic in its slow-burn rhythm); it also shows maybe not the best human being. His art resolves this duality — he’s an alchemist making gold out of venom.

Even though he’s been married for two decades to Aline Kominsky (herself a cartoonist who is, if anything, even more self-loathing than Crumb) and has a daughter with her, Crumb’s ambivalence about women is still obvious. The book highlights his infamous Devil Girl, the character that appeared in his infamous strip shown in Crumb (she loses her head and the “hero,” Flakey Foont, finds her more attractive without it). We see that strip here, plus a life-size sculpture of her, and I couldn’t help noticing her eerie resemblance to Aline.

Okay, if he’s sick and sexist, why is he important? I could say that his work offers an unblinking view of sickness and sexism from the inside, but that would diminish it (just as it would diminish Dostoyevsky). Crumb gives his id free rein, following any lead, no matter how dark or repulsive, no matter how bad it makes him look. This in itself doesn’t equal art, but Crumb’s work has the added benefit of being funny — often appallingly funny, but still. And he has a Swiftian eye for the telling satirical detail. He nails Joe Sixpacks as ruthlessly as he skewers upper-middle-class intellectuals. He drags everyone down into the shit, and he makes sure that he doesn’t get away clean, either. (He’s a little better-looking than his uglified self-portraits would indicate.)

Perhaps the best testament to Crumb’s power is this: When we got a copy of the book at our library, our custodian — a 60-year-old guy who usually favors only books about World War II and had almost certainly never heard of Crumb — sat in the break room with his nose buried in the book for an hour. Now, explicit sexual material only makes up about ten small panels and three full-page illustrations in the 250-page book. So it can’t just be the dirty stuff that kept him busy for an hour. I think the sex might have caught his eye, but he kept reading to see what other stuff this bizarre character had done. As The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book proves, Crumb has done a lot of other stuff indeed.

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