R. CRUMB: Conversations

Buy this book from Amazon.comEdited by D. K. Holm
University Press of Mississippi ($20)

by Todd Robert Petersen

R. Crumb: Conversations is the latest in the University Press of Mississippi's Conversations with Comic Artists series, which has featured such luminaries as Charles Schultz (Peanuts), Carl Barks (Donald Duck), and Milton Caniff (Steve Canyon). That a university press is backing this project testifies to the official acceptance of underground comix bad boy Robert Crumb into polite conversation. Furthermore, Crumb's inclusion among this traditional crowd indicates a new level of popular acceptance and legitimization, one aided by films such as American Splendor (2003) and Crumb (1994). These films have exalted not only the underground comix movement itself but their idiosyncratic godfathers as well, bringing them in all their tenacious weirdness to a whole new audience of people who have never once set foot in a head shop.

Crumb, like Bob Dylan, is a reluctant counterculture prophet, and in these at times rascally interviews, he gives the distinct impression that he had little in common with the people who claimed him as their guru and scoured his work for insight, inspiration, and even revelation. On more than one occasion, Crumb tells of hanging out at love-ins around Haight-Ashbury during the late '60s and early '70s only to find himself feeling entirely alienated: "I'd go to these love-ins and stand there and watch all this shit go on; I never really felt like I was part of it. It was like I was a reporter from another planet." During a 1984 interview, Crumb confesses that he used to "fall asleep at those light-show concerts in San Francisco." Nevertheless Crumb credits his LSD binges as the force that changed the direction of his work forever, resulting in landmark characters such as Fritz the Cat, Flakey Foont, Mr. Natural, and Angelfood McSpade. So, while the drugs, sex, obsessions, and controversy incite a certain prurient fascination, these topics soon bore Crumb (and the reader) and he leads us to weightier pastures.

What this book ultimately reveals is a multi-dimensional, deeper, and more pensive Crumb. He is, of course, no fool—conscious of his appearance in words as well as images. When an interviewer remarks that Crumb is nowhere near as ugly as he makes himself out to be in his comics, Crumb replies, "I draw myself to look grotesque because if I drew myself better-looking, people would say, 'Gee he doesn't look as good as he thinks he does.' This way, they say, 'Oh, you look much better than your drawings!'" We always get the Crumb Crumb wants us to see, but here, it seems, he wants us to see something beyond his street-level obsessions, which is the primary virtue of this book.

Since the original pieces were never intended to find a home in a single, collected work, they don't really flow together. In fact, much of this book is repetitious—not to the point of tedium, but at least to the point of making it more pleasurable to read in snatches. A straight run-through would be as overwhelming as eating an entire box of Ding-Dongs in one sitting. Nevertheless, the repetition ultimately reveals much about Crumb's foibles and philosophies. He mellows over the years (as we all must), but a few central issues stick around: his love of old 78s, his distaste for the destruction of regional cultures in America since the '20s, and his sadness over the economic co-option of the underground and of art in general. On these subjects Crumb seems less like a misogynist with embarrassing sexual hang-ups and more like a cross between a Marxist literary critic and an economic pundit on CNN.

Crumb's insights into the business of comix and counterculture are complex. As one would expect from a collection that spans 38 years, there are variations in his take on, for example, the animator Ralph Bakshi's attempts to secure the rights to Fritz the Cat; however, he is surprisingly consistent in his feelings on why he didn't put up a fight when his then-wife Dana used her power of attorney to sign the rights over in 1970. Similarly, how Crumb lost the rights to "Keep on Truckin'," arguably his most famous work, is just as compelling. We learn that despite Crumb's claims to be indifferent to money, the copyright battles with piracy of that design left him $28,000 in dutch to the IRS, resulting in a grand charity effort from the likes of fellow cartoonists Jules Feiffer and Milton Caniff. Through all this trouble, Crumb argues that above-ground operations "automatically get involved in power" and always will co-opt artists. The clarity with which he expresses himself in this regard is concrete and level-headed.

What's great is when things are prosperous and . . . fairly comfortable, things blossom creatively and more people get a chance to create. With hard times, people get squeezed out, or have a hard time. Their creative potential is limited.

Crumb is equally articulate in his discussion of the media takeover of the second half of the 20th century through radio, causing the wholesale destruction of local cultures, which he felt were richer and more artistically interesting. Then turning it back on himself, Crumb said in 1972, "I couldn't handle all the power mass media bestows on you. I don't think anyone should have that kind of power." The problem is that in the intervening 30 years, Crumb has gained that kind of power. The sale of six of his sketchbooks, for example, bought him a house in France.

Beyond the necessary repetition, the only real fault in this book is the design, which is lackluster and doesn't feature nearly enough of Crumb's artwork. Otherwise this is a fascinating look at an intriguing figure in popular culture—one who is proving himself, step by step, to be a man for the ages.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005