Between Comic Books, Sex, Drugs, And Infamy

In an age when the hippie movement was taking over the northwest United States in the 1960s, Robert Crumb arose as an artist whose characters reflected an eerie and magnetic paranoia intermixed with galactical confidence, peppered with equal parts anxiety and of perversions symptomatic of a human being in constant turmoil of the world in which they inhabit.

Through a 55 minute documentary produced by Arena in 1986, we come to know the mind works of this American small town artist whose migration west allowed him to contextualize his early marriage, whilst participating fully in a communal lifestyle of promiscuity, drugs, sex, and alcohol. As we learn about how Crumb succumbed to and eventually beat his demons, we are testament to a man whose art becomes his therapy.

In the era of Donald Duck and Disney, a fresh perspective to the fairytale endorsing corporates could be found in Crumb’s characters and his muses and introspective comics, which often draws on his own experience of struggling with social norms and mores, whilst apparently remaining publicly shy and neurotic.

The documentary opens with an innocuous introduction of Crumb and his beautiful brunette wife, as they sit in front of a picturesque countryside house playing what appears to be the mandolin.

“Hello my name is Robert Crumb. This is my wife Ailee. We’re underground cartoonists.

“On the surface our world appears to be quite quaint and charming,” says Ailee.

Yes, doesn’t it, Crumb interjects. “But underneath it’s a steaming cauldron of sexual perversions, drugs, and twisted neurosis.”

Crumb treats his art as a means of confessing his life as the son of a man who had worked in the marines. Within seconds he is spanking his wife playfully, and we find out how her interest in fitness and dance has sparked his stalking tendencies and led him to write comic narratives of the events.

The psychedelic overhaul of this epic documentary is immense, but it is indeed worth it, particularly when we learn about how detailing became a crucial element in Crumb’s art when he encountered artists and caricaturists from earlier eras, from whom he learned about detailing.

Crumb rose to fame through strips such as Fritz the Cat, which brought him international recognition.

“Fritz the Cat Comes on Strong” (1965)

What drives me to Crumb’s work, however, is neither his autobiographical jabs at his parenting, love, sex and angst at the end of the 1960s, or even the hole he burns in his wallet continually because of his communal lifestyle, but in the portion of the documentary when, upon reading up on prior diarists, Crumb finds inspirations in the likes of James Gillray, a British caricaturist, as well as William Hogarth.

Crumb begins to compete with his idols as he sketches out his own version of a sultry and sardonic 18th century version of a diarist’s foibles. At the root of Crumb’s inspiration, we learn, is a desire to encapsulate the same essence as his idols, who “capture so well the spirit of their own times,” says Crumb.

Gillroy drew the following scene, said to have been inspiring precisely in the level of detailing:

Monstrous Craws, at a New Coalition Feast, also from 1787. King George, the Queen, and the Prince of Wales, all chowing down.

“I admire the works of the artists of the past and use them as source material, trying to compete with these guys, even though it’s a hopeless endeavor,” Crumb says.

Crumb’s final piece was the graphicized Diaries of James Boswell. He finds Boswell entertaining because  he had a personal conflict between being a society gentleman and his inner sexual desires and excesses.

William Hogarth, “The Rake’s Progress.”

The final product of Crumb’s work is a remarkable testimony of an artist who, although we may best know him these days for easy pop meanings such as this:

Was also capable of producing a beautiful series of drawings that pay an incredible homage to a man who in life, if to be believed through his own jottings, was an infuriating type. Boswell always needed attention, was an alcoholic who was prone to immortalize his indiscretions through writing, even if idealized. Boswell’s works reveal he fathered two children before marrying and was a regular customer of London’s better brothels over the course of his lifetime. Boswell’s public persona varied from imitating cows in packed London theaters to more discretionary uppercrust snobbishness.

Here’s a page that appeared in “Klassic Komic,” which was part of Crumb’s comic book “Weirdo,” in 1981, as part of the Boswell comic.

The fact that Crumb’s depraved sexual life mirrors that of one of his role model diarists is not lost upon anyone, and neither is the nervousness of panic and strange relationship to the female body, but for the sake of the study of a madness that is disquietingly normal, I found myself mesmerized by all things Crumb, and find that the connections between bawdy Georgian England, even though it leapfrogs over Victorianism and uncomfortably transplants itself onto the American west coast, still serves as a piece that survives the onslaught of the cultural differences and gaps, through paying attention to depth obsessively, in order to find release and inspiration everywhere.

I was reading somewhere recently, and I can’t remember where, that if an artist falls in love with you, you will never die, and can’t help being brought back to how this simple testament is the most profound gift we can give those whose words, ideas and ideals have changed us.



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