Fear and self-loathing in Hicksville, USA

For years Robert Crumb’s comic strips have been poking about in the darkest recesses of the American dream. Eddie Gibb assesses the work of this controversial artist, now the subject of a feature-length documentary film.

here’s a scene in Wayne '5 World when ultra-nerd sidekick Garth admits to finding Bugs Bunny’s lady rabbit act arousing. It’s a joke about a generation of kids growing up so far removed from reality that their formative sexual experiences are drawn from television, comics and video games.

But Garth wasn’t the only one with a cartoon bunny fixation. When American comic artist Robert Crumb was five the same age that he suffered a busted collarbone at the hands of his bullying father he used to carry a magazine cutout of Bugs everywhere. This picture. the cartoonist remembers. was a guaranteed turn- on. until it was destroyed by his mother’s attempt to iron the crumpled scrap of paper flat. After that. Crumb turned his attention to B- movie character Sheena. Queen of the Jungle and a fast-developing shoe fetish.

The story is told in Crumb, a feature-length documentary about the artist’s life. to illustrate how. from a very young age. the cartoonist had retreated into a fantasy world of pen and ink. The idea that this was a sexual experience. rather than just an infant’s obsession, may have been added retrospectively to bolster the myth of Crumb‘s famously dysfunctional attitude to sex. But even if the story has been exaggerated. who else but Crumb would say a thing like that against himself?

It’s over 30 years since Crumb’s first cartoon was published. It was an early version of one of his most famous characters, Fritz the Cat, a libidinous feline that Crumb killed off some years later in protest at a disastrous attempt to animate the cartoon strip.

After taking LSD for the first time in 1965, Crumb moved to San Francisco where he was immediately adopted as the house cartoonist for the counter-culture in the hippy hang-out of Haight-Ashbury, satirising middle American ignorance and corporate greed. Though his liberal-hating tendencies kept him in the role of outsider that he developed during his high school days. Crumb gained some degree of personal popularity for the first time in his life. Meanwhile his dark and brilliantly drawn comic strips published through the late-60s in Zap Camix developed a huge cult following.

In this country his work was freely plagiarised by ()3 magazine in the 605 (the infamous Rupert the Bear strip which was the subject of an obscenity trial was ripped off from a Crumb cartoon). while his distinctive graphic style has been a major influence on a generation of cartoonists ranging from Steve Bell of The Guardian to The Simpsons creator Matt Crumb by Crumb Grocning'

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12 The List 30 Jun-13 Jul 1995