‘He freed up the comic book form which had previously been about dark or slapstick heroes to accommodate more personal, harrowing stories.’ says Paul Gravett. who is trying to set up a permanent National Museum of Cartoon Art in London. ‘By putting himself in the frame. and not in a particularly flattering way. he was the first comic artist to successfully make the push for an autobiographical style. Crumb
wasn’t afraid to confront the dangerous side of
his imagination.’ By depicting himself as a weird and deeply misanthropic character in his cartoon strips.
Crumb seems to make the hate-filled content of
some of his more extreme work more acceptable. He has always defended his most uncomfortable work. such as the story called ‘When the Goddamn Jews Take Over America’ and a Mr Natural strip featuring a headless woman used as a sex toy. by saying he’s just being honest about his innermost fears.
Crumb accepts that much of his work is based on a hostility towards women and the film’s central thesis is that many of his hang-ups are the result of retarded sexual development. ‘I think it’s gone over the line into something
‘I do this stuff, and then I’m horrified and embarrassed when I see it. Maybe I shouldn’t be allowed to do it, maybe I should be locked up and my pencils taken away from me.’
which is just Crumb producing pornography,’ says feministjournalist Deidre English. ‘lt’s part of an arrested juvenile vision which is an omnipresent theme in his work.’ Crumb admits that he frequently masturbates while drawing his pneumatic. domineering female characters.
‘I do this stuff, and then I’m horrified and embarrassed when l see it.’ he says in the film. ‘I look at the paper. and I say. “Oh my God”. but somehow I can’t stop doing it. Maybe l shouldn’t be allowed to do it. maybe I should be locked up and my pencils taken away from me.’ (British Customs officials seem to think so after recently seizing a consignment of Crumb anthologies. A court case will be heard this summer to decide whether two panels depicting fellatio are indecent.)
Crumb’s refusal to explain his work as anything more than the product of the sub- conscious mind is typical of his reluctance to take responsibility for its effect on readers. It is also what makes him such a fascinating artist. though perhaps not the ‘Brueghel of the last half of the 20th century’ as Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes gushingly suggests. But to Crumb’s credit he refuses to hide behind the shroud of ‘irony’ that many of today’s younger schlockmeisters use to justify their gratuitously violent comics.
Crumb director Terry Zwigoff is a long time friend of the comic artist — they share a love of 203 jazz and both avidly collect 78s by Jelly- Roll Morton and King Oliver. (Crumb says that listening to music is ‘one of the few times I have a love for humanity‘.) Zwigoff”s documentary feature is the result of a six-year struggle to get the project off the ground. His belief in the movie paid off with a Grand Jury Prize at that hippest and most alternative of film festivals — Sundance.
Crumb is a notoriously reclusive man who
hides from the world behind the geek uniform of
milk bottle glasses. sandals (worn with socks. naturally) and shapeless flannel trousers which
hang perfectly at half mast. The charicatures of
himself which crop up frequently in his cartoon strips barely need to exaggerate this studied awkwardness. Since the film’s release. Crumb has sought to become anonymous again by moving to France where he has reportedly grown a beard and switched his trademark trilby hat fora more Gallic beret. There’s no doubt that such an ardent people-watcher as Crumb knows exactly how to manipulate his image. ‘He likes the idea of being eccentric.’ says Zwigoff.
But if the nerdy clothes are a contrivance. there’s no doubt the man inside has a genuinely bizarre outlook that dwells on the bigoted. small-minded hatred he identifies as a defining aspect of America’s collective psyche. Zwigoff”s film is essentially a journey into
Crumb’s own subconscious. using a kind of
rudimentary Freudian psychoanalysis to find the roots of his creativity in childhood.
Zwigoff became determined to make the movie after meeting Crumb’s two brothers Max
ROBERT CRUMB FEATURE
and Charles. who share Robert’s artistic talent and a textbook full of neuroses: by comparison Robert’s mental health is in good shape. Max is a talented painter who spends two hours of every day meditating on a bed of nails. while a heavily medicated Charles hardly left his mother’s house in twenty years. Shortly after the film was completed. Charles committed suicide.
ln childhood. the three brothers shared a fascination with comics. retreating from their warring parents into a fantasy world they drew themselves. As the eldest. Charles was the lead cartoonist and self-appointed president of their imaginary company. the Animaltown Publishing Co. Zwigoff suggests that while the three brothers shared both talent and the potential for serious mental breakdown. only Robert saved himself from madness by a form of comic strip therapy.
‘Robert conquered these problems he’s had,’ says Zwigoff. ‘His brothers were great artists but only he has succeeded. In the end I think I wound up raising more questions than l answered about how much this talent is genetic. I think there was a genetic talent passed on through the family and with that gift comes a risk that if it isn‘t channelled in the right way it can cause all sorts of problems.’
The Crumb of Zwigoff’s movie is hard to like. The director says to some extent be regrets having dwelt on Crumb’s darker side and feels be perhaps over-compensated for their close friendship. It was a friendship that at one point looked as if it might be destroyed by the film. as Crumb became increasingly horrified at the prospect of his private life becoming public property.
And Crumb certainly contains intimate revelations. As he fiirts outrageously with a former girlfriend. Robert Crumb admits that he’s never loved a woman. including presumably his present wife. In the film it’s this kind of casual cruelty that shines through. ‘He can be this very sweet milk-and-cookies guy.’ says Zwigoff. ’but at the same time he can be a sadistic son of a bitch.’ The milk and cookies don’t feature much in his comic strips. however. L]
Crumb opens on Friday 30 June. See Screen Test (page 25 ) for review. Roberi Crumb anthologies are available from forbidden Planet or direct
from the UK publisher Knoekabou! Comics on
0/8] 969 2945.
Robert Crumb; admlts to a hostlllty to women
The List 30 Jun-l3 Jul 199513