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The sublime Robert Crumb

The sublime Robert Crumb

The controversial cartoonist is a cult favourite, with Alan Moore and Steve Martin among his many fans. As he confronts the smartphone era, his wit is still as sharp as his pen

The controversial cartoonist is a cult favourite, with Alan Moore and Steve Martin among his many fans. As he confronts the smartphone era, his wit is still as sharp as his pen

Nicholas Barber | July 21st 2016

Interviewing Alan Moore recently, I asked the creator of “Watchmen”, “V For Vendetta” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” which comics writers and artists he admired. First on his list: “The sublime Robert Crumb, who is one of the gems of the medium. He’s somebody who has managed to keep doing brilliant and inspiring work, who has never got tired, who has never got lazy. He’s fantastic.”

Crumb, 72, is synonymous with the underground American comics – or “comix” – of the 1960s and 1970s. Born into a Catholic family in Philadelphia, he began working as a greetings card illustrator when he was still in his teens, but moved to San Francisco in 1967 to concentrate on satirical, heavily cross-hatched art. The style he developed was a mix of E.C. Segar (“Popeye”) and George Herriman (“Krazy Kat”), with liberal doses of LSD.

As associated as he is with the swinging sixties, Crumb has had a cult following ever since, and was propelled to new heights of celebrity by Terry Zwigoff’s critically adored documentary, “Crumb” (1994). Now living in the south of France with his wife and fellow cartoonist Aline Kominsky, he doesn’t just publish comics. His pictures will set you back at least £20,000 in galleries, and he has published three issues of Art & Beauty, a journal which consists almost entirely of realistic full-page sketches of curvaceous women copied from photographs (above). 

There is an element of parody to Art & Beauty. By accompanying his erotic tableaux with highfalutin captions and quotations from the old masters, Crumb is pastiching those pornographic magazines that pretend that they are teaching aspiring painters about light and shade. But, as with all of Crumb’s work, Art & Beauty is fundamentally sincere. The three issues – which have now been collected into one hardback volume – are a document of his obsessions, take them or leave them.

“Cheap Thrills” by Big Brother and the Holding Company (1968)

According to Rolling Stone magazine, “Cheap Thrills” by Big Brother and the Holding Company has the ninth greatest front cover of any album in rock’n’roll history. What makes that ranking even more impressive is that Crumb’s psychedelic 17-panel comic strip was supposed to go on the back cover, but the band’s lead singer, Janis Joplin, liked it so much that it was promoted. The Haight-Ashbury answer to a polyptych altarpiece, the cover features Joplin herself as one of Crumb’s trademark odalisques, while the other pictures showcase his LSD-inspired surrealism. In the download era, we will never see its joyous like again. The irony is that a common Crumb theme is the decline of popular culture since the 1940s. His own favourite music is jazz, blues and country from the 1920s and 1930s, as played on his own banjo and his vast collection of 78s.

“Keep on Truckin’” (1968)

In the first issue of San Francisco’s underground Zap Comix, Crumb drew a throwaway five-panel strip comprising nothing but various men, with feet the size of rubber dinghies, walking down a city street. But the laidback images were reproduced, without his permission, on endless T-shirts and badges, causing him severe tax problems, but turning him into a counter-cultural star. Always ambivalent about mainstream success, Crumb has said that “Keep On Truckin’” was “the curse of my life”, but America saw it differently. “Crumb taught me how to walk,” wrote Steve Martin. “One look at his famous ‘Keep On Truckin’’ drawing, with its exaggerated profiles of three [actually more than three] characters strutting, and I realize that some of my own exaggerated body movements on stage in the late 1970s can be traced back to Crumb.”

Angelfood McSpade (1968)

Crumb’s most controversial creation is Angelfood McSpade, who was introduced in issue two of Zap Comix. Either a racist caricature or a parody of a racist caricature, depending on your point of view, Angelfood is a perpetually grinning African tribeswoman who wears a palm-leaf skirt and almost nothing else, and is only too happy to be used and abused as a sex object. But the joke is on western male attitudes: Angelfood is so dangerously alluring that civilisation would collapse if white men were allowed to go near her. Crumb’s reasoning? “I didn’t invent anything,” he said in 1976. “It’s all there in the culture; it’s not a big mystery. I just combine my personal experience with classic cartoon stereotypes.” At any rate, there is no doubt that Crumb loves early 20th-century cartoon iconography almost as much as he loves tall, muscular women with buttocks like basketballs.

“The Adventures of R. Crumb Himself” (1973)

Crumb made his name in the 1960s with Angelfood McSpade, Fritz the Cat, Mr Natural and other characters, but his best work since then has been autobiographical. He portrays himself as a slump-shouldered, sex-obsessed runt in bottle-bottom glasses – a Catholic cousin of Woody Allen and Larry David. “Misogynist,” he asks. “Nah ... I hate everybody equally!” The influence of Crumb’s autobiographical comics is incalculable, not least on his friend Harvey Pekar (subject of the film “American Splendor”), but no one has matched his willingness to visualise his darkest fantasies and frustrations. The way he gets away with it is by rendering the most explicit scenarios with friendly, old-fashioned goofiness, as if he were storyboarding an X-rated Disney cartoon.

“Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763” (1981) 

In issue three of Weirdo magazine, Crumb wrote and drew a superb five-page strip based on “Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763”. Many years before he found fame as Dr Johnson’s biographer, the young James Boswell is seen roving around the capital, having philosophical debates with the wits of the day, before sneaking off to romance actresses and pick up prostitutes. It’s easy to see why Boswell’s priapic confessions spoke to Crumb, but, beyond the candid sex, the strip also demonstrates just how much he has in common with the cartoonists of the 1700s. His style is amazingly similar to the Boswell caricatures that Thomas Rowlandson drew in 1786, and he acknowledges his debt to William Hogarth by putting a print from “A Rake’s Progress” on Boswell’s bedroom wall.

“Selfies”, Art & Beauty no.3 (2015)

Crumb constantly bemoans the horrific crassness of contemporary life.  The rot set in, he believes, during the industrial revolution. But in the third issue of Art & Beauty, there is a picture of his wife Aline lounging with her Apple laptop; there are several pictures of women gazing at their phones; and there are even a few drawings of women who have taken selfies and then emailed them to his website. 

It’s quite touching that the septuagenarian Crumb has made his peace with “the technical miracles of the age we live in”, even if it’s only because those miracles allow him to gawp at Amazonian women.

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