I first remember hearing the name Robert Crumb in late high school. It was 2003, and I’d gone to see the Harvey Pekar biopic American Splendor. At the time, I was unfamiliar with Crumb – a thin, gawky man in a straw boater and Coke-bottle glasses who shared Pekar’s love of old records and offered to illustrate his comic scripts. I thought Pekar (played in the film by Paul Giamatti) must’ve been a much more important comic book artist than Crumb (James Urbaniak). Still, the glimpses of Crumb’s art in the movie seemed eerily familiar to me. There was a manic, congested quality to the line, a queasy vibe that seemed to leap straight from his page to my brain. It reminded me of the weird SBS cartoons I used to watch as a kid after my parents had gone to bed.
Over the years my interest in comics grew, and I began to notice Crumb’s name and work more regularly. I read some of his strips and saw his name in articles. I knew that I found his art weirdly compelling, and that he was somehow involved with the underground ‘comix’ movement that developed in the US in the late sixties, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that I really understood Crumb’s significance.
He’s only the most consequential Anglographic cartoonist currently living. Only a guy who changed the entire trajectory of comics, then spent forty-odd years building up a prodigious body of works by turns lauded and reviled. It’s fair to say I had slightly misread the balance of power between Pekar and Crumb.
Which is why I was so depressed to learn that a half-baked report in The Sunday Telegraph had frightened the notoriously reclusive Crumb into cancelling a planned appearance at Sydney’s Graphic Festival. The Tele‘s low-rent claptrap has been pretty thoroughly critiqued elsewhere (Crumb’s own response can be found here) but I will say that I was particularly infuriated by the article’s refusal to admit Crumb’s importance to comics – viz., its implicit refusal to take comics seriously. The article’s original headline was ‘Cult genius or filthy weirdo’, and it went on to describe Crumb as ‘a “seminal” cult comic cartoonist’ (note the inverted commas), one who is ‘regarded by fans as a genius’. Subtext: Crumb is not a seminal cartoonist or a genius.
These implications are nonsensical. It’s difficult to argue with Crumb’s, yes, seminal influence on the medium. He wasn’t the very first underground cartoonist (and he was heavily influenced by Harvey Kurtzman’s proto-underground Mad and Help! magazines), but his Zap Comix #1 – released in 1968 – was the match that lit the comix tinderbox, energising a legion of like-minded cartoonists to join the movement. Crumb’s unashamedly offensive, grotesque and politically charged strips struck a chord with recently radicalised American (and British) youth – and it didn’t hurt Crumb’s popularity that he was one of the most talented artists around. As Watchmen and From Hell creator Alan Moore writes in The Life and Times of R. Crumb: Comments from Contemporaries, the power of Crumb’s early work comes from ‘this balancing act between a sense of line that would have charmed the most hard-nosed redneck, and ideas capable of startling the most extreme radical.’
Though it lasted less than a decade, the underground movement changed comics forever. It demolished the notion that comics were only for kids, or that they could only deal with juvenile subject matter. Chris Ware has written (in Comments from Contemporaries) that ‘without [Crumb], there wouldn’t be any cartoonists of my generation.’ Presumably, Crumb will always be best-known as the creator of Zap; however, he has remained industrious in the thirty-five years since the comix movement waned. His progressively more reflective and autobiographical work has appeared in Arcade, RAW, Weirdo, Mineshaft and several collected editions (a good overview can be found here); he has also illustrated record covers, card sets of early jazz and blues greats, and most recently published a faithful comic version of the Book of Genesis. The sheer size of Crumb’s catalogue – and the consistent excellence of his work, both formally and conceptually – has cemented his place in the comics canon.
There’s no denying much of his work is transgressive and confronting. He seems to possess no ability to censor himself, and strips like ‘Joe Blow’, ‘A Bitchin’ Bod’ or ‘Mr. Natural and Big Baby’ are difficult to read and difficult to admire. Several commentators regard this work as nothing more than violent, misogynistic pornography. It should be obvious that Crumb’s work is not for kids, and that not everybody will have a taste for it. Crumb himself has questioned the merit of some of his more scatological work.
Still, there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Crumb’s controversial work diminishes neither his artistic gifts nor his importance in the history of comics – and indeed, his eternal willingness to plumb the darkest reaches of his psyche, and to acknowledge and reflect upon the disturbing nature of what turns up is fundamental to his artistic vitality. Any person with a serious interest in comics, it seems to me, should make themselves at least passingly familiar with Crumb’s work. And while I’m disappointed to think that he may never visit these shores, I can console myself with the knowledge that my own exploration of the charismatic, nauseating terrain of Crumb’s psyche has only just begun.
Yoshua Wakeham is a creative writing student. His thoughts about comics, films and writing sometimes end up on his Twitter feed and his Google+ profile.