Dennis Kitchen, Kitchen Sink Press, KSP

 R. Crumb Bio

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 his life."

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 Denis Kitchen in Milwaukee WI and gave him Home Grown Funnies ---the all-time best-selling comic for his Kitchen Sink Press --and later XYZ Comics, Snoid, Mr. 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 sublime A 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 Kitchen

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