ROBERT CRUMB (R. Crumb) (1943-) is the most prominent member of the "underground
comix" movement. His comics
are distinctive for their cross-hatched artistry, idiosyncratic
story-telling and uncompromising subject matter. He has increasingly
achieved recognition in the high-brow fine art world, a status
denied even famous fellow artists who labor in the traditionally
low-brow cartooning profession. His life has been thoroughly
documented, both by ample numbers of his own no-holds-barred
autobiographical comics and in several documentaries, including
the award-winning Crumb by Terry Zwigoff.
As a boy in Milford DE and Philadelphia
he spent countless hours creating home made comic books, initially
under considerable pressure from his domineering older cartoonist
brother Charles. At a certain point in his teens Robert
surpassed his brother's skill level, an event that permanently
scarred Charles' psyche. An avid and early comic book reader,
Robert was heavily influenced by the work of Harvey
Kurtzman (creator of MAD), particularly
Humbug, a short-lived experimental satire publication
(1957-58) that he pored over. Crumb has said that seeing the
Will Elder/Jack Davis cover of Humbug #2 "changed
By 1964 Crumb was good enough for Kurtzman's
latest satire magazine, Help!, contributing early
"Fritz the Cat" pages, and a stark documentary cartoon
view of the streets of Harlem. Impressed, Kurtzman sent the 21
year-old Robert and his new bride Dana on an unlikely honeymoon
assignment to Bulgaria, resulting in grim images of the backward
Soviet satellite. Crumb was in the process of moving to New York
to become Kurtzman's new Assistant Editor (replacing future Monty
Python member and film director Terry Gilliam) when Help!
folded in 1965.
Kurtzman helped Crumb land odd jobs drawing
trading cards and promotional material for Woody Gelman's
Nostalgia Press, but he had no further practical work for
Crumb, having committed to a a long run on "Little
Annie Fanny" for Playboy. Crumb settled in
at American Greeting Cards in Cleveland, cranking out cute illustrations
for the mass market. One day in 1966 he walked away from his
job and impulsively accepted a ride to San Francisco. There,
caught up in the burgeoning counter culture, he began using LSD.
His drawing style and subject matter were permanently affected
by the mind-altering drug. In 1967 he created Zap
Comix, personally selling copies out of a baby carriage
in the Haight-Ashbury district during the fabled "Summer
of Love." The "underground" comic book became
a cult hit, leading to two solo Zap sequels before Crumb
characteristically began sharing the title's content and royalties
with other Bay area artists. Though he did not regard himself
to be a "hippie," he nonetheless created such '60s
and '70s icons such as Mr. Natural, Flakey
Foont, Fritz the Cat, Mr.
Snoid and the ubiquitous big-foot image Keep-on-Truckin'.
Though Zap was successfully published
by Berkeley's Print Mint, Crumb was acutely aware of his
pre-eminence in the quickly mushrooming underground comix genre
and was determined to spread his influence around. He provided
titles like Big Ass, Motor City and Mr. Natural
#1-2 to San Francisco's new Rip-Off Press, one of whose
founders was Gilbert Shelton, another early
contributor to Kurtzman's Help! In 1970 Crumb visited
Kitchen in Milwaukee WI and gave him Home Grown
Funnies ---the all-time best-selling comic for his
Sink Press --and later XYZ Comics,
Natural No. 3 and others. Crumb also provided material
to Last Gasp, the final addition to the underground comic
book industry's "Big Four" of publishing houses.
Robert Crumb also created iconic posters such as Tommy
Toilet, a fixture in student and hipster bathrooms everywhere;
the inspirational Mr. Natural Does the Dishes; and the
Short History of America, in which a single plot of virgin
American landscape steadily metamorphoses from a bucolic crossroad
to an ugly modern street corner.
His boxed card sets, notably Heroes
of the Blues, Jazz Greats, Pioneers of Country
Music and R. Crumb Trading Cards have also
achieved renown. The music sets, containing loving portraits
and mini-histories of the leading pioneers in each music genre,
helped Crumb cross over from cartoon aficionados to music fans.
Crumb is also an accomplished musician in his own right and an
inveterate collector of vintage 78 rpm records. His first recorded
tunes were in fact released in the even-then long-obsolete 78
rpm format. Ordinary
Records, a division of Krupp
Comic Works (Kitchen Sink Press) issued R. Crumb
& His Keep-on-Truckin' Orchestra on a 78 rpm ten-inch
jacketed disc in 1973. Later, as the Cheap Suit Serenaders,
Crumb and his band (including cartoonist Robert
Armstrong) issued three standard speed record albums
(now on CD) for Yazoo Records.
In recent years his work has been collected
in ongoing multiple volumes of The Complete Crumb (Fantagraphics).
Books about Crumb have been published, such as The Life
and Times of R. Crumb (KSP/St. Martin's Press)
and even his most obscure commercial and private work has been
collected in Odds & Ends (Oog & Blik/Bloomsbury).
A definitive career overview with chapter intros by the artist,
was co-published by Kitchen
Sink Press and Little, Brown in 1997. Recent works
include Mystic Funnies, a second volume of Waiting
For Food and Mr.
Natural Postcard Book. At this stage his
career transcends the comics world. Crumb's original drawings
command increasingly respectable prices in serious galleries,
his art has graced the cover of Art Forum and his
work is quietly being acquired by leading art museums (who probably
prefer not to advertise the fact at this point in time). Robert
Crumb lives with his wife Aline
Kominsky-Crumb in southern France.
All Text © Denis