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"Kitchee-koo, you bastards!"
August 30, 2013 1:35 AM   Subscribe

70 years ago today in Philadelphia, PA, a weirdo was born. He grew up in a spectacularly dysfunctional family, angry, alienated and beset by bizarre sexual compulsions, mostly involving girls with giant butts. But following those early years of bitter struggle, he became a celebrated cartoonist, musician and misanthrope whose controversial, hilarious (and just as often despairing) art transformed funnybooks and American society. His name is R. Crumb.

His pioneering "underground comix", featuring characters like Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat, made him an unlikely counterculture hero in the 1960s. But he was never really at home with the idealistic hippies, and in the 1970s and 80s his work took on a more scathing, confessional tone as his draftsmanship became increasingly meticulous. Crumb found a whole new audience in 1995, following the release of Terry Zwigoff's revelatory, award-winning documentary, Crumb. Crumb reacted to his newfound fame with predictable disdain, and fled to the South of France, where has lived ever since.

While it's been many years since Crumb was regularly producing new comic books, he has still been quite active. In 2009 he published his longest work to date, a surprisingly straightforward adaptation of Genesis. More recently he has been indulging his love of old-timey music, performing with the East River String Band, becoming a semi-regular guest on the John's Old-Time Radio Show podcast, and even starring as a lovelorn geek in one of the band's music videos.

And yeah, he's the Keep on Truckin' guy. He'd rather not talk about it.
posted by Ursula Hitler (45 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite

 
Where is Honeybunch Kaminsky in this,our hour of need?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:13 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Amazing that "spectacularly dysfunctional" fails to describe it accurately by half, but it's true. That documentary still gives me the shivers, and I saw it when it first came out however many years ago.

Great post...
posted by nevercalm at 3:11 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Great post! If I may be so bold as to add a link: Here's a great interview with Crumb regarding record collecting. It's long and it's pretty magnificent. (The interviewer is celebrated saxophone player Mats Gustafsson, by the way.)
posted by soundofsuburbia at 3:47 AM on August 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think he'd already fled to the south of France (and who wouldn't, if you could) when the documentary was made.

I'm actually relieved to hear that Robert Crumb is only 70. He's always seemed like an old man to me; I think even in the 60s he would have seemed like an old man.
posted by Flashman at 3:53 AM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


l remember seeing Crumb in the theater as a high school student, it was mind blowing.

Also, the show Raising Hope has its little R. Crumb homage in a tee shirt that Jimmy regularly wears.
posted by Literaryhero at 3:54 AM on August 30, 2013


I never saw Crumb, so that "family" link is the first time I've actually seen/heard Crumb himself. What an amazing voice.
posted by DU at 4:07 AM on August 30, 2013


a weirdo was born

After watching Crumb, I'm still not sure if it was nature or nurture (or alien space rays) that created the Crumbs, but there was definitely something freaky going on in that household.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 4:40 AM on August 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


I see his father was a "Combat Illustrator" which is probably not quite as dangerous as it sounds.
posted by DU at 4:52 AM on August 30, 2013


It's not entirely possible to explain the degree to which Robert Crumb's comics inspired me and influenced me and guided my thinking as a young man. Suffice to say that they did, and that his art will always be an important part of my psyche.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:11 AM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Watching that documentary was a little like watching Eraserhead if it was a documentary.
posted by localroger at 5:14 AM on August 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


Happy 70th, R.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:15 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I see his father was a "Combat Illustrator" which is probably not quite as dangerous as it sounds.

"Alright, Crumb, I want you to go over the top and get me a watercolor pastel of the enemy position! The lives of this whole platoon depend on your imaginative use of color and composition!"
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:17 AM on August 30, 2013 [13 favorites]


He's always seemed like an old man to me

Yeah, he seems like he was born 50.

One of the big influences on my comics reading career was when a high school friend showed me his hand-me-down undergrounds in the late seventies. I'd already seen some comics that subverted the standard-issue superhero paradigm while technically remaining in it--Kirby's 70s Marvel work in particular--and also seen dirty (and frequently deliberately offensive) single-panel cartoons in porn magazines, but Crumb's work combined the two in a way that directly instructed me in how much of what I'd taken for granted in The Way Comics Were was an artificial and restricting self-imposed regime. I still stuck to superhero power-fantasy books--I was, after all, an American male teen--but I also started picking up stuff such as Love and Rockets and Neat Stuff.

And then, eventually, I saw the movie, and found out that the weirdest aspects of comics' Grand Weirdo's life happened off the page. Still mean to get my hands on my own copy of that.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:18 AM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


That documentary still gives me the shivers

For me, Crumb was divided into three phases:

1) Huh. Crumb is not nearly as horrible as I thought he was.
2) Holy crap! Crumb is way worse than I ever imagined.
3) With that family, he's actually pretty well adjusted (although I still would never want to meet him).
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:34 AM on August 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


He's always seemed like an old man to me

Yeah, he seems like he was born 50.


So, you calling 50 "old"?

Get the flying fuck off my lawn.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:45 AM on August 30, 2013 [17 favorites]


His personal feelings notwithstanding, I will always associate Mr. Natural and "Keep On Truckin'" with the 60s.
posted by tommasz at 5:52 AM on August 30, 2013


So, you calling 50 "old"?

To be fair, 50 is pretty old for a baby.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:54 AM on August 30, 2013 [30 favorites]


I know Robert Crumb's favorite hobby is watching Venus & Serena Williams play tennis on tv!
posted by dope_feeny at 6:08 AM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


See also: the wonderful recordings of R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders.
posted by usonian at 6:17 AM on August 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


He's like a reverse Benjamin Button where the baby just gets older...
posted by Artw at 6:40 AM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


See also: the wonderful recordings of R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders.

His portraits of jazz and blues singers are amazing.
posted by Artw at 6:41 AM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Let us not forget all the great work he did with Harvey Pekar and American Splendor.

...and, (an actor playing) Crumb appears in the fantastic American Splendor movie which starred Paul Giamatti.
posted by hearthpig at 6:41 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hey, I turn 50 next year, and one of the first things I'm going to do is get my AARP card. Discount at the local buffet on Tuesdays, beeyotches!
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:49 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


As a kid I used to intently study his crosshatching and try to imitate it.
posted by Artw at 6:53 AM on August 30, 2013


His portraits of jazz and blues singers are amazing.

Yes, they're fabulous, because he truly loved the music, and knew a lot about the history of it. It should be noted that he did a set of country and old time musicians and bands too, which is also great.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:00 AM on August 30, 2013


Discount at the local buffet on Tuesdays, beeyotches!

Heh! Yeah, I get a nice discount at certain movie theaters here in Tokyo, which is a good thing indeed!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:01 AM on August 30, 2013


> I think he'd already fled to the south of France (and who wouldn't, if you could) when the documentary was made.

Yeah, I recall an interview with him in the Comics Journal in which he mentions having either bought a house in southern France from the proceeds of selling a couple sketchbooks or swapping a couple sketchbooks for a house. I can't recall which. This must have happened no later than 1994-ish, because I'd stopped getting Comics Journal regularly by then.

And now on checking Wikipedia, apparently he moved in 1993, while Zwigoff's Crumb hit the theaters in 1994. The move might have been precipitated by the attention he was getting due to the filmmaking, but he'd already relocated before the public had a look at him.
posted by ardgedee at 7:41 AM on August 30, 2013


Crumb was the best artist the era produced, but not a great writer. Justin Green was the other way around.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:14 AM on August 30, 2013


I never bothered to learn much about Crumb's personal life and dirty laundry, not even when reading through his work, since it's easy to skip over his self portraits (or at least not read what's beyond those self portraits).

His over-the-top warts-and-all method for drawing people has this way of evoking sympathy for anyone he draws, and that's really what's most worthy about him.
posted by ocschwar at 8:21 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


crumb was a big name and is a good artist and reading his comics was fun and sometimes instructive, but i have become increasingly weirded out over the years how his hella racist/sexist/anti-Semitic stuff seems to get a pass from a certain generation of comic heads because, you know, Crumb! complicated, troubled guy, interesting, complicated, problematic work.

also ha ha yeah suck it crumbo keep on truckin was YOU
posted by beefetish at 8:29 AM on August 30, 2013


I think Crumb is a good writer, but inconsistent... His best stuff tends to be personal and confessional, even if the confessions are being channeled through imaginary characters.

Then again, his weakest work also tends to be his comics that are autobiographical or didactic.

His unsung genius is as an editor, though: I sometimes think that the run of Weirdo comics displayed better skill at finding and nurturing talent than Spiegelman displayed while publishing Raw, for example... Weirdo had more interest in the visceral art of storytelling and more energy at finding new voices and perspectives.
posted by ardgedee at 8:32 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


his hella racist/sexist/anti-Semitic stuff

I've always been under the strong impression that all of that stuff is the product of an artist involved in the pursuit of exorcising society's demons. He's an artist engaged in social commentary, in the same way, I believe, as, say, Randy Newman when he writes a song like "Rednecks" or "Short People" and the like. I don't think Crumb himself is a racist or a sexist or an anti-Semite. I think his art has, throughout the years, pointed toward those ills, but not endorsed them.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:51 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Crumb's "racism" is basically on a par with Patti Smith's racism. That is: it's the racism of a white person who thinks they're doing somebody some good by ironically and sarcastically parroting society's more violent bigotry in mocking tones with the intention of making fun of it. The chief example of this is his "When the N*****S take over AMERICA!" comic.

These people think they're making a statement about how awful racism is and doing some kind of liberating thing, but the trouble is that they don't realize that parroting racism in almost any context is a bad idea, even if you're doing so to mock it. Crumb's comic there regularly appears unironically on white power sites, for obvious reasons. Cf. his other comic, "When the GODDAMN JEWS take over AMERICA!"

His portraits of black personages generally seem to be loving, and I think he meant nothing but the best even by these outwardly outrageous examples. Still, their problematic nature should be obvious by now, I think.
posted by koeselitz at 9:19 AM on August 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


(His putative sexism is, of course, a separate issue.)
posted by koeselitz at 9:23 AM on August 30, 2013


koeselitz i think that's a huge part of it but there's also a distinct weirdness to his love for old-timey stuff. i don't know.

also as someone who is at least by the Man's standards a lady it gets harder by the year to read crumb's stuff wherein he objectifies the fuck out of women all over the place even though, you know, he's tortured about it and it messes with him and stuff, because at the end of the day he's still doing the same tedious, hateful shit i get to deal with from society at large

which really sucks because he's a really good artist, like, really good, really influential, and i really wish that there was a critical mass of comic heads who were invested in examining the -ist stuff in his output - not condemning and not defending but examining why this super influential and super popular hippie cool guy artist also draws really grotesque caricatures of women and minorities that are dehumanizing and discomfiting, and why nobody seems to want to engage with that. especially since crumb is such a passionate collector of old blues music predominantly done by black people! it's really weird!!

also his philip k dick story was so cool, when he started using way more ink in his panels and it was so stunning and wonderful to see on the page.
posted by beefetish at 9:34 AM on August 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


Nice post. I've always liked Crumb's artwork, despite the obvious problems with some of his depictions of women and people of color. Regarding the latter, his "Heroes of the Blues" trading cards always seemed to me to be a genuine expression of appreciation & fandom.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 9:46 AM on August 30, 2013


I've always blamed Crumb for my tastes.
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 12:24 PM on August 30, 2013


I've always blamed Crumb (and Tom Waits) for my decision to dress like it's 1945 and sport a handlebar moustache (I know he doesn't himself have a handlebar--it's the spirit of it, see!). His line in Crumb about the "jive bullshit" people in our era looking like walking advertisements really struck a chord with me. Although now maybe I'm just a walking advertisement for some real lulu barkers and striders...
posted by Rykey at 1:56 PM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I have strong mixed feelings about him. I came across my dad's hidden Crumb comics when I was nine or so, and it was possibly the worst introduction that a little girl can have to human sexuality in print. Because of Crumb, I got a strong early impression that sex is cruel, ridiculous and pathetic. That is not, however, entirely incorrect, so there is that to be said for him. Besides, his serious artwork commands respect.

I know Robert Crumb's favorite hobby is watching Venus & Serena Williams play tennis on tv!


That is a. very likely and b. a gross thing to say. (Has he said that? I bet he'd say that.)
posted by Countess Elena at 2:51 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anything bad you can say about Crumb, he's probably said himself, and illustrated it with exquisite, anxious cross-strokes. Especially in the '60s and '70s, his thing was to put whatever was in his head onto the page. A lot of it was ugly, but that was pretty much the point, not to hide it or filter it or make it acceptable to other people.

On women... well, in modern terms, it's evident that he has a B/d fetish, and growing up as a nerd in the '50s, with a Marine father and fantasies like that, it's not hard to see how he ended up kinda fucked up. It's pretty clear that his actual politics are left-wing and he's had a pretty successful marriage for 35 years. That is, he's not a real sexist like Dave Sim; he just has a pretty weird id and he's put it all down on paper.
posted by zompist at 3:15 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Good lord, koeselitz, that page that hosts the "Jew" cartoon is quite the weird anti-Semitic rabbit hole.
posted by infinitywaltz at 7:12 PM on August 30, 2013


These people think they're making a statement about how awful racism is and doing some kind of liberating thing, but the trouble is that they don't realize that parroting racism in almost any context is a bad idea, even if you're doing so to mock it.

I really oughtta know better, because koestelitz is a thoughtful and valued commentator here who will probably proceed to shoot me right the hell down, but jeez... yeah, it's a good thing we *finally* live in enlightened times! When we know how to actually talk about racism and have therefore practically solved it!

Hey, wait a minute... that "When the N*****S take over AMERICA!" is copyrighted 1993, I hadn't realized that the dark ages (uh-oh, maybe I should rephrase that) were so recent. And it also says right on it "another counter-productive comic by R. Crumb." So... maybe... "pin the 'ist' on the artist" isn't exactly a new game in town?

I dunno. Probably woulda let it go if you hadn't dragged Patii Smith into it- that's a great song, even if I can't sing along to it. And yeah, Crumb acknowledging that his work can be problematic doesn't automatically make it less so. But the apparent sense of moral superiority being flung around here seems kinda problematic itself, to me.
posted by hap_hazard at 7:20 PM on August 30, 2013


"I don't want to get drawn into defending how I can be a feminist and still love R. Crumb. That feels like a false issue. His work isn't about women, it's about him. If we were all as undeluded about ourselves as he is, the world would be a better place." - Bechdel Test creator Alison Bechdel, in an interview with Trina Robbins.

As for the racial stuff, it's complicated and thorny as hell, which Crumb would freely acknowledge. But I think it's worth noting that you will probably not find a more passionate or knowledgeable blues fan alive, and he's been happily married to a Jewish woman since 1978. Crumb has said, over and over again, that the racist imagery makes him uncomfortable too, and that's exactly why he uses it. He doesn't want to repress anything. It's not just about shock comedy, he wants us to acknowledge and deal with this crap. He wants to pick at all the creepy, taboo stuff in society, and in his own brain. That means racism and misogyny and brutality and shit and all kinds of ugly stuff we want to pretend isn't surrounding us every day.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 12:26 AM on August 31, 2013


it's the racism of a white person who thinks they're doing somebody some good by ironically and sarcastically parroting society's more violent bigotry in mocking tones with the intention of making fun of it.

No, I think Crumb doesn't give a fuck about this; those strips are just him working out his own demons. There's nothing ironic about these comics, crude as they are they are the bog standard racial fears any white man of his age and background grew up with in America. Whether or not Crumb himself is racist is irrelevant, he still has those background fears; drawing them is how he tries to get rid of them, just more fuel for his narcissism and neuroticism. It's not meant to be a political gesture.

Doesn't mean those strips are racist, or much of his work isn't sexist, especially out of context, but it's still all about him and his hangups and the effects they have on other people are never a concern to him.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:38 AM on August 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have quoted R. Crumb for decades.

"Mr. Natural, what does it all mean?"

"It don't mean shit."
posted by Repack Rider at 7:41 AM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


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