Slightly distracted yesterday afternoon, I found myself thumbing through the books on my drawing table. They’re a pretty oddball mix of oddballs that usually help get my brain working. Some B. Kliban was there (B. Kliban is always there), some Ralph Steadman, as well as a book of illustrations by the great Arthur Rackham. Nobody could draw a set of bony knuckles quite like Rackham. Well, I say nobody but there’s perhaps one person…
It’s not often that you remember when you first discovered a favourite writer or artist. For me, the exception to that rule is R. Crumb. I discovered Crumb on the 13th February, 1987 when the BBC aired the documentary, ‘The Confessions of Robert Crumb‘, as part of its Arena series.
A quick glance as my bootlegged copy of that now rare treat reminds me why I was hooked. Crumb fascinated me on a deep level I didn’t really understand at the time. He was a pure bred creature of the counter-culture but expressed himself in a way that was counter to that prevailing counter culture. He wasn’t the long-haired bohemian with a nice line of patter for the ladies. He was unfashionably radical: the thin, less-than-avuncular self-confessed weirdo who played the mandolin. He was Ron Mael but with a dip pen and Rotring.
Yet I didn’t immediately succumb to Crumb’s charm or lack thereof. For years afterwards, I’d see ‘The Robert Crumb Handbook’ in shops and I’d pick it up, want to buy it, but wasn’t sure I knew why I wanted to own it. I suppose I was back then still under the influence of a secondary school system that had taught me that I couldn’t draw, shouldn’t try to appreciate art, and that those of us born in the working classes were born to do one thing and one thing only. And that was grim, dark, unrelenting work involving lathes, drills and hammers. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that I was confused why I found his pictures so appealing, when their subject matter made me feel so uncomfortable. This wasn’t another Steve Dikto or Gil Kane, whose illustrations of perfect people never interested me. This was an illustrator who emphasised the spots, the pimples, the rolls of fat, the gnarly knuckles. He was the Philip Larkin of illustration. And like Larkin, a poet I struggled to understand because he poeticised the world I knew too well, Crumb was always lurking deep in my mind as somebody whose work drew me in.
I couldn’t fathom why I was interested in this man who obsessed about committing gross indecencies to these Amazonian women with large thighs and big butts. Yet Crumb is like that. He challenges you to like him. It’s a familiar pose and one that I suppose I’m immediately drawn towards. In a world full of people it is supposedly easy to like, I prefer a challenge. My world outlook lies somewhere between the twin evils prevalent on Twitter: the self-congratulatory pleasantries of the middle-aged women’s book club and the hate-fuelled spleen of unfulfilled office workers one demotion away from a shooting spree. Crumb is somewhere in that grey area of hating, doubting, struggling, but somehow finding certain forms of solace which make life worth enduring.
I now have a pretty good collection of Crumb’s comics and books, though hardly complete. I’d need the income of a Silicon Valley pioneer to fill in all the gaps and there are plenty of gaps. If Crumb is nothing else, he’s certainly prolific.
The best introduction to his work is Terry Zwigoff’s excellent and disturbing 1994 documentary, ‘Crumb‘, but, in essence, I suppose Crumb’s career splits broadly into two periods. Crumb himself has suggested that things changed the moment he stopped taking drugs. The work from his early LSD fuelled years is widely considered his best and his Zap Comix are populated by the characters for which he’s most widely known, Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural and Flakey Foont. The sex is also more prevalent and off-putting, such as the strip ‘Joe Blow’ which manages to lampoon both the sexual mores of 1950s America and the bohemian attitudes of the counter culture that R. Crumb was supposedly a champion. It’s probably amounts to confessing that I’m not a true-Crumb fan when I say that I find his earlier career less interesting that his career post-drugs. Crumb himself has said that in the following decades he lacked the same inspiration (something he also attributes to growing older) but I think this is to downplay Crumb’s real achievements. It’s in the later work that he becomes the cartoonist for the postmodern age, especially in his Weirdo comics where the character of ‘R. Crumb’ becomes more of a staple: blurring the divisions between the actor and the artist, the narrative and the autobiography. Personally, I find the Hup comics to be a Crumb highpoint, eschewing many of the elements that made him a darling of the flower power generation, to which he probably didn’t ideologically belong.
There’s something more guided about his later career which makes it more valuable. Crumb attributes his characteristic drawing style to his discovering the work of the great American illustrator, Thomas Nast, at an early age but, I think, it’s in his later work where he reveals a more self-conscious and serious approach to technique. From the early strips where the dominant colour was white, the pages deepen in hue. The eye is encouraged to wallow in densely inked detail in work such as Psychopathia Sexualis (Weirdo 13), Bosell’s London Journal (Weirdo 03), and Nausea (Hup 03). It’s as if his penmanship found a new level, especially when illustrating to the work of others. He certainly wouldn’t be the first artist to produce some of their best work when limited by outside forces — a problem of the anything goes school of art is that it has no conventions to breaks. Crumb’s sex fantasies were always a crowd pleaser for those that like that sort of thing but his work is best when laced deeper insights. It’s most evident when he’s illustrating the words of Harvey Pekar or Charles Bukowski, but at its best when he providing his own commentary, usually to his autobiography.
Perhaps it’s this that led him to choose his strangest project of all. ‘R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis’ is a work of a stubborn, irascible genius that’s still delights in playing off his angels against his demons. Filled with the statuesque figures of the Amazonian women that have become his trademark, Genesis is a loyal depiction of the Good Book, leaving it to the reader to make any judgement about the deeper moral relevance of the Bible to a modern society. And that, I suppose, is the essential part of loving Crumb’s work. It’s almost Puritan in its interests, looking inward to the soul of the person making judgements, misjudgements, and choosing whatever path they find works for them through their corporeal days.
And, I suppose, that is how I see Crumb: as a satirist deeply engrained in the Protestant (despite his Catholic upbringing) tradition that gave us Jonathan Swift, whose ‘Lady’s Dressing Room‘ would have provided Crumb with his most perfect material, as Swift deconstructs the very elements of a lady’s beauty:
A Glass that can to Sight disclose,
The smallest Worm in Celia‘s Nose,
And faithfully direct her Nail
To squeeze it out from Head to Tail;