For four decades, Robert Crumb has shocked, entertained, titillated and challenged the imaginations (and the inhibitions) of comics fans the world over. In truth, alternative comics as we know them today might never have come about without R. Crumb’s influence — the acknowledged “Father” of the underground comics could also be considered the “Grandfather” of alternative comics.
Crumb’s earliest cartoons were inspired more by the work of Carl Barks and Walt Kelly than the superhero comics enjoying their first wave of popularity at the time of Crumb’s childhood in the late ’40s. The man who once admitted to being “sexually aroused by Bugs Bunny” at the age of 5 began honing his skills drawing his own versions of “funny animal” comics with his brothers, Max and Charles. These early efforts included the first incarnation of Fritz the Cat — after whom, years later, the concept of “funny animals” would never be the same.
In his teens, Crumb came to realize the incompatibility between the values espoused by his parents’ generation (and most of his peers) and his own. His admitted inability to “fit in” would enable him to develop the ability to question concepts such as conformity, normalcy — and sexuality. Meanwhile, his taste in sex objects graduated from Bugs Bunny to Sheena of the Jungle and “playing footsie” with female classmates ... who would remain unattainable for the young Robert throughout his high school years.
After graduating from high school, Crumb moved to Cleveland, where he was hired by American Greetings, his first exposure to “corporate” life. As a greeting card artist, he was instructed to render his drawing as harmlessly “cute” as possible — something that would spill over into his later underground work, but with startling results. At this time, he met, and soon after, married, “the first girl (he) could get along with,” Dana Morgan.
Although to all outward appearances, Crumb seemed well and truly integrated into the “normal” existence that he had shunned as a teenager, he became more disillusioned with “the system” and the general dreariness of the 9-to-5 life. This began to change with Crumb’s introduction to LSD in the mid-’60s. In Crumb’s words, the psychedelic experience was “...indescribable, but afterward, you no longer feel a member of this accepted version of reality.” Apparently, the version of reality Crumb had begrudgingly accepted until this point suddenly became unacceptable, as in January of 1967, after talking with some friends in a Cleveland bar, he decided to drop everything — literally — and join them on their journey to San Francisco.
The “Summer of Love” did seem to live up to its much-romanticized reputation for R. Crumb — at least for a while. The gentle anarchy of Haight-Ashbury combined with his experiments with hallucinogens caused Crumb’s talent to blossom in ways not even he could have imagined. With his inhibitions not so much relaxed as demolished, Crumb felt himself free to create the cartoon universe that would redefine the art of comics forever.
In the years 1967-1971, odd little magazines that certainly looked like the average, normal, all-American comic book began to appear in the kind of shops frequented by denizens of the “counterculture.” With ZAP Comics #1, the underground comic book was officially born. It would be followed by titles like Despair, Big Ass, Motor City Comics and Mr. Natural, and Robert Crumb would be, for the first time in his life, “accepted.” In truth, not only accepted, but downright hip.
Crumb’s cartoons became hip in their own right — Mr. Natural, Angelfood McSpade, Flakey Foont, and most especially, the hedonistic anthropomorphic version of Crumb’s childhood pet, Fritz (a cat), would become cult icons. Fritz, however, would fall into the clutches of animator Ralph Bakshi, who had virtually steamrolled over Crumb to secure the film rights to Fritz the Cat — which became a box office hit, but Crumb was so repelled by the film that he decided to assassinate Fritz in The People’s Comics soon after.
Further disillusionment would come in the wake of popularity of the phrase “Keep On Truckin.” Birthed in the pages of ZAP, “K.O.T.” proliferated, adorning everything from bumper stickers to T-shirts to buttons, etc., etc ... it was the perfect commodity for a culture with a taste for catch phrases. It would prove a litigious nightmare for Crumb, as attorney Albert Morse took it upon himself to file 18 copyright infringement actions on Crumb’s behalf over the “ownership” of three words. “Keep On Truckin” was judged to be Public Domain, and will very probably, as Crumb says, “...follow me to the grave.”
Crumb’s growing disillusionment would be further exacerbated by a $20,000 bill from the IRS for back taxes (the debt would eventually be paid, through contributions and the selling of publishing rights to Germany). One bright spot, however, would be Crumb’s meeting cartoonist Aline Kominsky, whom he would marry in 1978.
Crumb would later refer to the ’70s as his “lost decade,” but some of his most memorable work was produced at that time, particularly in the magazine Arcade, edited by fellow underground veterans Bill Griffith (Zippy the Pinhead), and Art Spiegelman (Maus).
Crumb’s work at this time reflected the disenchantment and confusion felt by most who had “survived” the ’60s. His voluptuous, acid-inspired romps gave way to comparatively sober, introspective dialogues and biting indictments of American culture. Interestingly, Crumb insists he was just “floundering around” at this time. He would not feel his work was “back on track” until the birth of Weirdo, a magazine partly inspired by Arcade and partly by the work of the “new wave” of cartoonists, many of whom had been inspired by Crumb’s work, such as Peter Bagge (who would take over editorship with issue #10). Weirdo was considered an alternative even to the “alternative” at the time (the often “precious” RAW) and reaction to Crumb’s brainchild ranged from virulently negative to positive ... with reservations. Still, Weirdo gave artists such as Bagge, Dori Seda, Kaz, and Doug Allen their first “big breaks.”
Crumb’s feelings of disgust with American culture and values, which seems to have grown with the rise of ’80s neo-conservatism, precipitated his move to rural Southern France. He continues to reside there with wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and they raised their cartoonist daughter Sophie there until she moved out on her own. The details of his daily life there are revealed in Fantagraphics Books’ Self-Loathing Comics #2, released in 1997. A resurgence of interest in Crumb’s work resulted from Terry Zwigoff’s critically acclaimed documentary Crumb. Now, with international gallery showings and massive media coverage at the release of The R. Crumb Handbook, Fantagraphics’ 17th volume of The Complete Crumb Comics and Crumb Sketchbook Vol. 10, there is a rising awareness of Crumb in popular culture. Your Vigor for Life Appalls Me — a collection of Crumb’s personal letters spanning the late 1950s through the late ’70s, and offering a rare glimpse into the influences and experiences that shaped Crumb’s artistic development through his most formative years — is available from Fantagraphics as well.
Texte : Fantagraphics book
illustration : Robert Crumb