Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Best of the Best: R.Crumb: The Weirdo Years

If a reader unfamiliar with Robert Crumb's work were to ask for a single volume in order to get a sense of his best work, the new collection from Last Gasp, R.Crumb: The Weirdo Years would be my pick. Sure, it doesn't have any of the 60s material or characters like Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat or the Snoid, but it also lacks the more juvenile, misogynistic and nihilistic material that marked his work in the early to mid 1970s. One gets a sense that Crumb got sober and started taking stock of his career after it was briefly affected by fame, battles in court and a brush with the IRS.This material was previously reprinted across volumes fourteen through seventeen of The Complete Crumb Comics, published by Fantagraphics. Of course, those volumes also had a number of the Crumb/Harvey Pekar collaborations, as well as material appearing in other magazines like Zap and lots of ephemera. Those volumes are also far more precise in telling you precisely where and when each story was published, whereas the Last Gasp volume simply lays it all out there in roughly chronological order. The Last Gasp edition is more about preserving the flavor of the Crumb contributions from the actual issues of the seminal Weirdo anthology, and includes things like the bizarre fumetti that Crumb staged with various of his friends. The result is a heady brew of some of Crumb's best and most controversial stories.

Crumb, perhaps influenced by working with working-class Pekar, started to branch out and adapt selected works of literature and science. Naturally, he picked out the dirtiest and weirdest parts he could, like in his amusing adaptation of Samuel Johnson's journal. To be fair, that journal had plenty of filthy parts, as he discussed getting a venereal disease from a woman he thought was virtuous, the unsatisfying nature of having sex with a prostitute in the park and having a crazy threesome in an inn. Crumb's line is lush and even a little fuzzy in these stories, eschewing the harsher edges he reserved for more neurotic stories. That's true of his adaptation of an interview with the author Phillip K. Dick, wherein he goes into great detail about his years-long religious experience/psychotic breakdown in amazing detail, including a bizarre premonition about a birth defect in his infant son. Here, Crumb turns up the hallucinatory nature of his art in illustrating Dick's visions, all while keeping the drawing naturalistic. Another highlight is his adaptation of Kraft-Ebbing's Psychopathia Sexualis, a book of case studies of assorted sexual disfunctions. Of course, at the time, that include being an "invert" (or homosexual), and those cases (and more to their point) have a tragic quality. Then there's the kid who was hopelessly attracted to rabbits, or the man who could only have sex with his wife if she wore a wig, or the sadist who didn't understand what the big deal was when his activities came to light in court. These stories are Crumb at his best: witty, intellectually curious and fun to look at.

The stories featuring his character Mode o'Day are some of my favorites. Mixing in the model/actress wannabe title character, her sleazy anthropomorphic dog friend Doggo, and a cast of hipsters, coke fiends, art snobs and other attractions of Los Angeles, these comics are both some of his funniest and some of his sharpest in terms of satire. It helps that Crumb seems to genuinely like Mode as a character, even as he mocks her social-climbing ways. She's at least more tolerable than those she encounters, something that Crumb tends to note when he gives her self-awareness at times. The strip about Mode being roped into "helping" a restaurant is especially funny and felt like Crumb leaned on someone else's story to get some of the details of how hellish it can be to run a restaurant. Speaking of satire, Crumb's parody of Omaha The Cat Dancer ("Wichita The Rat Dancer") is amazingly on point, ruthless and hilarious. His retelling of Goldilocks from a modern, "punk" perspective is also amusing, as he attacks what he sees as a sense of entitlement while also secretly admiring the energy and insolence of the young.

Crumb's autobio is also outstanding. Stories like "I Remember the Sixties" and "I'm Grateful, I'm Grateful" see Crumb taking the piss out of both himself and his entire generation, as he especially takes on his own whiny narrative voice in the latter. "Footsy" talks about the beginnings of his fetish for legs and feet in junior high school and how much pleasure he was actually able to gain from these encounters. "Uncle Bob's Mid-Life Crisis" is perhaps the strongest piece in the book. Crumb takes stock of his life and his persona as a "famous" cartoonist, worrying that he's lost his edge and ability to be creative. He spills a lot of metaphorical ink on this page, getting into the nitty-gritty of his feelings about being married, being a new father again, and his still-unquenched lust. Unlike the fictional pieces in this volume that explore his misogynist, violent fantasies through a thinly-veiled alter ego, Crumb is honest here and talks about those desires that excite him and create feelings of repulsion both for himself and the women he does them to. Crumb always cops to how base his desires are and never tries to justify them, though he doesn't ever try to change them either. "Memories Are Made Of This" is a good example, as it details an encounter with a dancer when he was married. He has nothing but contempt for her and thinks only of how he might get her to lower her standards and have sex with him.

That brings us to the last piece in the book, the infamous "When The Niggers Take Over America!" This piece of trenchant satire has been appropriated by hate groups as a noble example of fighting against the dangers of non-white races, much to Crumb's horror. It is clear that this piece is meant to play on the worst fears and excesses of white America in imagining a plot by African-Americans (pushed along, of course, by Jews, the second part of the piece) to systematically destroy and enslave white Americans. This fear, spoken out loud, is at the core of much of the opprobrium hurled at President Obama today and Crumb dug down deep to generate every frightening image he could conceive to carry the piece. The problem with the story is that it's perhaps a bit too convincing in the sense that part of Crumb (perhaps through his upbringing) believed some aspects of his satire. After all, he still refers to African-Americans as "negroes" throughout this book, and it's not for irony's sake. Bob Levin noted Crumb occasionally using casual anti-Semitic language in his article about Crumb and his former lawyer Albert Morse in The Comics Journal #302. He writes about how young black men terrify him, and Doggo is also demonstrably uncomfortable walking in a "bad" part of town in stories in this collection. Fear is born out of ignorance, and it's clear that rather than being an overt racist, Crumb's lack of exposure to people of color outside of an entertainment context left him susceptible to this kind of emotive response. The text itself is clearly satire, but the subtext (especially the way in which Crumb gleefully draws the most hateful, stereotypical portraits of African Americans and Jewish people possible) is such that intent is much more difficult to parse. Like in his comics about women where he admits that he's a misogynist in terms of what he chooses to draw and how he chooses to act out his desires, these comics reveal Crumb as someone inadvertently admitting to and struggling with racist attitudes inculcated long ago.

There's no doubt that Crumb remains one of our greatest cartoonists. His craftsmanship here is impeccable as he tries a variety of different kinds of styles, line weights, narrative approaches and storytelling techniques. Weirdo was all about letting loose and letting the chips fall where they may, which might as well summarize Crumb's career after the influence of S.Clay Wilson's violent and misanthropic id-fueled comics. Wilson's stance was that a cartoonist should never self-censor and put it down on the page no matter how awful the thought. Of course, the questions that Crumb and Wilson never asked were: "Just because I can say something, should I say something? And if I do, should I examine why I said it? Does being 'honest exempt me from criticism?" Crumb certainly shows moments of self-reflection in this book, but not so much that it would actually cause him to change anything regarding his method. Instead, they fall into the kind of self-doubt and depression that has afflicted him from time to time. In a way, it's hard to blame Crumb for not being more self-critical; this approach has worked for him for a long time, and it's obvious he's made a number of highly successful works of cartoon art. Still, I think Crumb's career-long fixation on his basest obsessions has limited him in certain ways. Young cartoonists would do well to emulate his work ethic, skill and lack of self-censorship and then stop there without also absorbing Crumb's narcissism and habits. Of course, the last thing Crumb would ever want to be is a role model; he's never made excuses for his excesses, but he's never apologized for them either. What remains is a body of work that must be closely picked over, studied, enjoyed and critically examined (for good or ill) by those who seek to learn from it.


  1. "Crumb's line is lush and even a little fuzzy in these stories..."

    Many reviews on amazon have criticized the print quality here, compared with FBI's Complete Crumb or the original Weirdos... can you comment on that?

  2. That would be Boswell's journal, not Johnson's.