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Monsieur Naturel 

R. Crumb in France

Wednesday, Apr 29 1998

It’s a dirty job, and no one has to do it.

It’s one o’clock on a rainy afternoon, and I’m standing on a bridge staring at the wet ramparts of a medieval village in the south of France, wondering what I’m doing here. Back in L.A., where this scheme was cooked up, coming down here seemed like good idea. Now it seems like a less good idea. In fact, it seems like the kind of foolhardy, expensive, misconceived and spectacularly bad idea that would occur only to a freelance writer desperate to cover the cost of his winter vacation . . .

Someone is crossing the bridge. He’s wearing shorts, sandals and a bright-red soccer shirt, and it’s hard to tell if he’s running, limping, hopping or walking. I’m about to call out, "Excusez-moi, Monsieur, où est la Rue Miette?" but at the last moment I hold back. Something about the guy seems a little off.

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I go back to staring at the village. In there, somewhere, is the comic-strip artist R. Crumb. In fact, he may be watching me through binoculars right now. Tourist season is five months off, and the people who live here probably don’t spend their lunch hours standing around staring at their own village in the rain. There’s no doubt about it: I stick out.

I first got the idea of coming down to Cache-le-Dessinateur when, three years after first seeing Terry Zwigoff’s film Crumb, I watched it again on video. There was Crumb, acid-warped chronicler of the ’60s, creator of Fritz the Cat and Devil Girl and Mr. Natural, ranting about America, about rock music and advertising and corporations, pointing at homeless people sleeping in doorways and announcing, at the end of it, that he’d had all he could take and was packing up to live in France — a country he credited with being "slightly less evil" than his own. What, I wondered, did he think of France now?

The movie, of course, was a huge success, so watching it again on video, I thought it odd that I hadn’t read any articles about Crumb’s new life as an expatriate. Or perhaps it wasn’t odd. On the phone in California, Zwigoff informed me that only one journalist he knew of had gone down to Crumb’s village, and suffered a nervous breakdown in the process. If the real-life Crumb was anything like the one in the movie, this seemed perfectly plausible. Maybe word had gotten around. In any case, I already knew that I was unlikely to get a very warm welcome from Mr. Keep On Truckin’ — assuming I got a welcome at all.

"You’re right . . .," Crumb wrote to me three weeks earlier, in reply to my somewhat pessimistic request for an interview,

‘Being written about’ doesn’t appeal to me very much . . . I’ve had my fill of it . . . I hate the L.A. Weekly . . . What do I like, you might ask . . . Not much . . . I like to walk in the woods . . . I like old music . . . Women with big rear ends . . . That’s about it . . . I guess you can surmise from this that my answer is ‘NO.’

I thought I saw an opening in this. In the first place, I was surprised that Crumb had bothered to reply to my letter at all, let alone read the articles I’d sent him. I was even more surprised to see that he had written to me on a post card featuring one of his own drawings (a naked woman smoking a cigarette in front of a table with a carafe of wine and a baguette on it). There was nothing condescending about Crumb’s response. The answer was no, but it was about as personable and interesting a no as you could hope for. The question was, how to get him to say yes.

I decided to write to Crumb again, inventing, for my purposes, a sadistic editor who was ordering me to go down to the village whether I liked it or not. And since I badly needed the money — that part was true, anyway — I was going along with it and would be arriving in about two weeks. Furthermore, I told him, since I would be traveling in the interim, it would not be possible to reach me by mail . . .

The business about the editor seemed a transparent ploy, and I was sure Crumb would see through it in a second. Still, Crumb always took the side of the underdog. If I could paint myself as a victim, perhaps . . .

And now I find myself standing outside Crumb’s door. I ring the bell. After 30 seconds I hear footsteps and the door opens. Looking rather glamorous and French in black pants and a pearl-gray crushed-velvet top, Aline Kominsky-Crumb — whom I recognize from the film — is standing on the other side of it.

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