“You must thank the gods for art, those of us who have been fortunate enough to stumble onto this means of venting our craziness, our meanness, our towering disgust . . . “ —R. Crumb
I once read of a movie theater manager in Seoul, South Korea, who discovered that the running time of The Sound of Music was too long – so he cut out all of the songs. I had a similar impulse after browsing through Monte Beauchamp’s The Life and Times of R. Crumb. However, my immediate reaction was to trash all of the smug commentary from Crumb’s “contemporaries” that makes up 90 percent of the book’s contents and rip out the midsection, which includes a couple of vintage drawings from Crumb’s storied career.
The book’s slick front cover, with its Drew Friedman illustration of Crumb strumming a mandolin, fooled me. And the back cover contains quotes about Crumb from Joe Coleman and George Carlin, but neither of them appears within the text itself. What the reader is left with are a bunch of excruciatingly boring essays that barely scratch the surface of Crumb’s life and work. Since Crumb is an intensely private man, most of these artists end up writing a quick vignette concerning a meeting with Crumb on a street corner and throughout the rest of the essay they drone on in nausea-inducing detail about their own work and life. It all amounts to little more than hero worship with precious few insights about Crumb himself.
Ironically, the best essays come from the most unlikely sources, including one from Al Goldstein, legendary publisher of Screw magazine. “Crumb reminds me of the antiwar book, Johnny Got His Gun, the hero of which was a quadriplegic, just a stump of a man, nothing more than a mind attached to a failing body . . . He’s a walking mental institution”, writes Goldstein. I also enjoyed the piece by underground cartoonist Trina Robbins, who has the courage to call Crumb on his obvious misogynistic sentiments. “It’s weird to me how willing people are to overlook the hideous darkness in Crumb’s work”, writes Robbins.
If you would really like a glimpse of the strange and disturbing world of R. Crumb, I suggest that you forget the book and go rent Terry Zwigoff’s brilliant 1995 documentary, Crumb. As the film opens, Crumb, complete with his trademark cheap suit, thick glasses and porkpie hat, sits cross-legged on the floor, listening pensively to a scratchy blues record from his extensive and rare 78-rpm album collection. We soon learn that “bizarre” and “dysfunctional” don’t even come close to describing Crumb’s family. Crumb himself describes his childhood as “grim.” He grew up in the “projects” of Philadelphia with his two brothers, Charles and Maxon, and two sisters (who refused to be interviewed for the film). Their father was an “overbearing tyrant” and “sadistic bully,” while their mother was strung out most of the day on amphetamines. “My father was a rigid, gung-ho type who had a hard-ass attitude to life,” said Crumb. “All three of his sons ended up to be wimpy, nerdy weirdos. He wanted at least one of us to end up as a Marine. He always wore a fixed smile, which I later learned was a sign of deep depression.”
The three brothers escaped into a fantasy world of comic books. “It was Charles who started the whole comic thing”, said Crumb. “He was totally obsessed.” Charles became fixated on the filmed version of Treasure Island and strolled around town dressed like Long John Silver. “He was much cleverer and funnier than I was,” admits Crumb. However, it becomes obvious that Charles was never equipped to deal with the real world. “Teachers hated him; kids hated him,” said Crumb.
Crumb admits that he was attracted to Bug Bunny as a child and later became fixated on Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. His first sexual memory is of hanging out in his mother’s closet and humping a pair of her cowboy boots, while singing “Jesus loves me, yes I know . . . “Needless to say, he didn’t get a single date during high school. “I was kind and sensitive, while the girls were all going for the mean and aggressive types”, said Crumb. “So I became a shadow. I spent most of my time looking for old-time records in the black section of town.” Blues records from such legends as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Barbecue Bob, Jaybird Coleman, Buddy Boy Hawkins and Furry Lewis revealed a “love for humanity, the best part of the soul of common people.”
After high school, Crumb took a bleak job at American Greeting Cards before entering the radical world of underground comic books. He puts an end to the rumors that he hung out with the Grateful Dead during the ’60s. “I never had anything to do with those guys”, he said. “I hated their music. I went to some of their concerts and fell asleep.” Crumb did make frequent trips to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, looking “to get some of that free love action,” but without any success. It was obvious he didn’t fit in and most of the hippies thought he was a narcotics agent. “Crumb, what’s the matter, don’t you like girls?” Janis Joplin once asked him.
It was during this period that Crumb created his most popular work such as Keep on Truckin’ (which caused him “nothing but headaches”), Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat, which was made into a cartoon that “embarrassed me for the rest of my life,” he reveals. He finally got revenge on Fritz in a later comic by having a female ostrich stab him in the head with an icepick. Crumb’s LSD-inspired comics during the ’60s truly captured the seamy side of America’s subconscious.
The documentary reveals a wealth of humorous and disturbing details of Crumb’s life and art. Here’s a glimpse:
• After 30 years, Crumb still draws portraits of girls he had crushes on in high school, including a “cross-eyed farm girl who wore homemade clothes to school . . . A funky girl who had body odor and hairy legs.”
• One of Crumb’s ex-girlfriends claims he was not at all interested in conventional sex, but enjoyed “piggyback rides,” “wrestling” and “sitting on my shoe.”
• Alice, Crumb’s second wife, says that her parents thought he was a “retard” upon first meeting the artist.
• Crumb reveals that he has “never been in love with a woman” and that he is a “compulsive masturbator.”
• At a seedy comic book store, Crumb browses through a copy of something called Puke and Explode, but refuses to acknowledge his influence on this new generation of underground artists.
• During a photo shoot for Juggs magazine, Crumb hams it up with a bevy of busty beauties.
• Crumb and his son, Jesse, compare drawings of women from the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum.
However, the most memorable scenes in the film revolve around Crumb’s visits to his brothers, both of whom have artistic talent but have been trapped by their insanity, a condition that Crumb has somehow managed to escape. Charles is a recluse who has lived at home with his mother since he graduated from high school. Blankets cover all of the windows and tattered paperbacks line the walls. Charles sits in his pajamas all day in a dark upstairs bedroom, taking antidepressants, contemplating suicide (once he tried to kill himself by downing a bottle of furniture polish) and rereading novels from old Victorian writers “because there’s nothing else to do.” According to Crumb, Charles’ drawings began to show “increasing alienation” during his late teens and then the drawings disappeared completely, replaced by pages and pages of rambling, incoherent text. His last comic drawings were of “psychotic bunny rabbits.” During a rare moment of candor, Charles reveals that he has always suffered from an “excessive degree of narcissism,” which eventually led to homicidal tendencies. Jealous of Crumb’s success, Charles was overcome with a desire to go down to the basement, get an ax and bash Crumb’s skull with it. We discover later that Charles took his own life with an overdose of medication a year after the interview was filmed. Meanwhile, Crumb’s mother spends the day watching TV, doing crossword puzzles and “being pursued by invisible enemies,” according to Crumb. “Weird blankets on the wall, cats pissing all over the carpet, it looks like the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” said Crumb.
Maxon, who suffers from epileptic seizures, lives in a cheap apartment in San Francisco. When he is not out begging on the streets, Maxon spends his day painting Picasso-like artwork, sitting on nails and running cloth through his intestines. His paintings include one of Van Gogh shooting himself in a cornfield and another of a girl with a metallic brasserie. In a later interview, Zwigoff said he didn’t even “touch the surface on Max” in the film, a disturbing thought indeed.
Although he doesn’t seem to care one way or the other, Crumb has gained a level of mainstream acceptance during the nineties. Robert Hughes, the stuffy art critic for Time magazine, calls Crumb “the Bruegel of the last half of the twentieth century.” However, the documentary makes it clear that Crumb is totally uninterested in money; he has simply used art as a vehicle to avoid falling in his brothers’ footsteps. “People now don’t have any concept that there was ever a culture outside of this thing that was created to make money,” Crumb said. “Whatever is the biggest, latest thing, they’re into it. You get disgusted after a while at humanity.”
As the film closes, Crumb and his family prepare to move from their humble bungalow in Winters, California, to a remote village in southern France. Further isolation, yes, but still clinging precariously to his sanity.