Who’s afraid of Robert Crumb?

Posted on May 11, 2005

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By Susan Tomaselli

Film critic Pauline Kael once said that “the first prerogative of an artist in any medium is to make a fool of himself”. Holy fool Robert Crumb, probably best known in this country for his illustrations for Bukowski’s books, is enjoying a not-so-much revival, but rather a rebirth, what with the T-shirt designed for Stella McCartney, the exhibition in a trendy Whitechapel gallery (“Galleries are selling the original art for all the cake eaters!”) and this, an introduction to R. Crumb for those who don’t know better, a truncated version of the exhibition catalogue, a with a CD of his bango-pickin’ music thrown in for good measure.

Often misunderstood, Crumb has been called many a thing over the years, including a misogynist and a racist, and while he is neither, it is understandable why people may not get Crumb. His humour is gross and liable to provoke outrage – he proclaims on the frontcover, “I’m not here to be polite!”, but on the back, reminds us “it’s only lines on paper, folks!”.

“Bless me father for I have sinned. I have drawn pornographic comics and I have foisted my perversions on the unsuspecting public.”

Initially a hero of counter-culture comix art (‘Keep on Trucking’, the laid-back walk guy), his haunted, bulging-eyed, scar-faced American citizens, his long-bearded patriarchs, his melting-mouthed druggies, his self-loathing self-portraits alienated many. Semen is inked squirting from a woman’s nostrils, but, as Crumb saw it, it was “the only way out of ‘America’s Best Loved Hippy Cartoonist’.”

Regarded a genius by Steve Martin (“We are all Robert Crumb caricatures”) and Alex Garland, Crumb is described as “the Brueghel of the 20th Century” by art critic Robert Hughes. Not a neutral observer of public events, he makes his feelings for what’s being depicted quite plain, and those feelings are essentially lust. ‘Fritz the Cat’ and ‘Mr Natural’ are throbbing with horniness, his cartoons aching to do something naughty to the meaty thighs of the fat-bottomed girls with erect nipples he adores. Media-shy Crumb only agreed to an interview with Getting It magazine, on the condition they supplied a female contortionist, “suitable for riding piggyback”, whose limbs he was allowed to bend while answering the questions. Well, if you’re going to be put out, that’s the way to do it.

The text of the handbook is a transcript of interviews conducted by fellow cartoonist Peter Poplaski, and Crumb presents himself as a depressive, horny schmuck, railing against Disney yet nostalgic for a long-lost America. While fans may feel slighted that there is not enough from the ‘Weirdo’ series, almost nothing from the ‘Self-Loathing Comics’, and too little from ‘Fritz the Cat’, the handbook does include the odd unpublished sketch and a wealth of photographs, and there is plenty in the 400-odd pages to influence a new generation.

The R Crumb Handbook by R Crumb and Peter Poplaski
MQ Publications Ltd
432 Pages

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Posted in: Reading