Looking at the photograph of the young Robert Crumb, together with three of his neatly dressed siblings, at Disneyland in 1955, I thought to myself, “What a sweet bunch of kids!” (On closer inspection, they appeared to be frowning, but still…) Reproduced in The R. Crumb Handbook, this sepia-tinged slice of 1950s Americana embodies something about the USA that the ornery cartoonist, who is prone to fits of nostalgia, appears to love. (“Disneyland,” he gushes, “was a truly magical place. The rides were like a fantastic dream come true.”) Nonetheless, 10 years later he joyfully laid waste to the Disney worldview with a series of amazingly imaginative, convulsively obscene and satirical cartoons that helped define the underground culture of the 1960s.
Almost 40 years after such riveting creations as Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, Whiteman and Angelfood McSpade sprang fully formed from his drug-addled skull, Crumb is now in his second decade of cultural canonization. The process began in 1994 with Terry Zwigoff’s wrenching documentary, Crumb, in which the former art critic for Time, Robert Hughes, compared him to Bruegel. It continued with The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book in 1997, and now gathers steam with The R. Crumb Handbook, in which multiple selections of Crumb’s work are interspersed with his reflections on sex, death, the media, art-world phonies, 1950s America, the hippie era and the decline of just about everything. For Crumb, a born curmudgeon, the rot set in early.
“As a kid growing up in the 1950s I became acutely aware of the changes taking place in American culture and I must say I didn’t much like it,” he tells co-author/amanuensis Peter Poplaski at the beginning of the first chapter. “I witnessed the debasement of architecture, and I could see a decline in the quality of things like comic books and toys, things made for kids. Old things seemed to have more life, more substance, more humanity in them.”
Like Bob Dylan, another ’60s counterculture hero now climbing higher and higher in the establishment firmament, and to some extent Woody Allen, Crumb always had mixed feelings about modernity and even about the decade whose culture he brought to blazing fruition. Like Allen, he preferred the popular music of the 1920s to that of his own era, and like Dylan he had some decidedly reactionary tendencies, expressing a longing for an earlier, pre-corporate America.
Though he has now been invited into it, Crumb sees the world of contemporary “high” art, from the abstract expressionists on, as almost entirely spurious, an international con job populated with wall-to-wall charlatans and hacks. In what appears to be a nod to Tom Wolfe’s immortal takedown of the 1970s New York art scene, The Painted Word, one Crumb drawing included in the Handbook shows a sculpture of a woman’s legs with a lengthy “Explanation” pinned to the gallery wall.
Crumb loathes pretension, and part of his genius lies in the way he breaks down the barrier between reader and writer. The constant asides and self-deprecating jokes in his comics make you feel as if you’re part of the game, in on the joke, wise to the secret of his success. In Crumb’s hands, the comic strip is inherently democratic, the very opposite of the cold, snooty, poisonously aloof contemporary art-world experience. Even his obsession with ruggedly powerful girls with mighty derrières is as far from the slim Madison Avenue ideal as you can get, a twisted sexual mix of ghetto and hicksville.
“People are always telling me, ‘I sure wish I had your talent, but I can’t even draw a straight line!’ ” he notes in one cartoon. “This is just so much utter nonsense! NOBODY can draw a straight line, and any person who tells you he can is a liar, a cheat, and a fraud!!” In another (a poster for a museum show in Germany), we see Crumb folded up in an armchair, holding a cup of steaming coffee. “Yeah, but is it ART?” queries a giant thought-balloon above his head, referring to the poster. “You tell ME, I don’t know . . .” comes the reply in a smaller word-bubble from the worried-looking artist.
The answer to the art question seems to be an ever more resounding affirmative. And Crumb himself continues to grow in stature. Though he has spent years depicting himself on paper as a craven misfit, a wrinkled, perverted beanpole barely able to get through the day unscathed, the real Crumb is a far more self-assured character than his ink-and-paper alter ego suggests. Recently he appeared for a public “conversation” with Robert Hughes at the New York Public Library, and though looking more or less his age (62), he cut a surprisingly elegant figure. Quick-witted and articulate, he often made the art critic look blustery and pointlessly verbose in comparison.
The audience loved him, of course. (“Bush has his Christian fundamentalists, I have these pathetic nerds,” he joked about his heavily male fan base.) However severe his personal demons may have been, he seems to have worked through them with enviable success. If he hadn’t made it as a cartoonist, he said, “I’d be drawing these big butts on a prison wall, or in an asylum, but I’m better now. Being famous helps.” Living in France, as Crumb has for years now, also seems to help, and it’s a shame that none of the fantastically detailed drawings he has made of his adopted village made it into this book.
As the paucity of cartoons from the last few years in the Handbook suggests, contentment has made Crumb less prolific. Still, there is a moving strip at the end, “The Heartbreak of the Old Cartoonist,” in which he appears as an extremely old man vainly trying to come up with an idea for yet another cartoon. With just a few expertly deployed strokes of his pen, he eloquently captures the gaunt, hollowed-out look of a man approaching death. The geriatric posture, the vanished mental energy, the vacant gaze. It’s scarily convincing.
“Hoboy! It’s tough tryin’ to be funny all the time . . . It used to come so easy!” he muses at the outset, hunched over at his desk. He decides to read the newspaper, The Daily Bull (Crumb has always had an invigorating disdain for news; another of his “newspapers” is called, wonderfully, The Daily Sludge) in the hope of getting an idea, but everything he reads about — the falling stock market, bioterrorism, missile-defense talks — only serves to depress him further. He nods off for a while, and wakes up in confusion after an “embarrassingly Freudian” sex dream. (He may be too old for the act itself, but the dreams continue eternally.) He has a cup of coffee with his only slightly less aged wife, who suggests he should take “Dr. Rosen’s advice” and go in “for that colon test.” Then he’s back at his desk, still staring blankly at the blank page, hoping to come up with something new. “Oh well, alright, I’ll just rework one of my old bits . . . see if I can give it a fresh slant . . . Cartooning is a young man’s game,” he concludes wearily.
But there’s a brief, uplifting coda. Turning the page, we see the words “OH BEAR ME AWAY ON YOUR SNOWY WHITE WINGS” as Crumb is summoned by one final strappingly buxom maiden, only this one being an angel of death, the Grim Reaper, in fact, albeit in delightful guise. “Your time has come, Mister! Hop on, I’ll take you right out the window,” she tells him cheerily. And so she does. On the next page, we see the skeletal cartoonist, spindly legs wrapped around that firm posterior, clutching his hat as the smiling angel flies him above the neghborhood houses and trees.
“Where are we going?” he asks a trifle plaintively.
“Oh don’t worry!” she says. “You’re going to love it!”
Having given us so many searing images of hell over the years, from bad LSD trips
to nightmarish cityscapes, it’s fitting that Crumb should have finally provided
us with an intimation of heaven. When the time comes, who wouldn’t want to be
borne away like that?
THE R. CRUMB HANDBOOK | By R. CRUMB and PETER POPLASKI
| MQ Publications | 437 pages | $25 hardcover