Who is this Crumb? Keep on Truckin' - Notes from the Sixties
Somehow, the history of the sixties has returned with a powerful vengeance, as if taking us to task for the things we've failed to change, for failing to live up to promises made — and then broken. New books are coming out from a slew of authors almost daily: it's hard to keep up.
Back then, I cut my teeth early on as a freelance journalist, writing magazine articles, reviews, profiles and reportage after dropping out of graduate school in Berkeley. I had planned to get my Ph.D in comparative literature and teach, but my dreams of striking out on my own as a writer overwhelmed and scuttled those plans, setting me loose in the world at large. Good luck, young man! Write when you get work!
My journalistic models were varied and rich, all good, all extraordinary: Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and John McPhee. I steeped myself in their work in Harper's, The New Yorker and New York magazine, doing the best I could to learn from their different writing styles and narrative techniques. I even taught a course at Berkeley in the New Journalism, as Wolfe called it, with a syllabus that included Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, as well as the writings of Wolfe, Mailer and others.
For a while, I emulated Wolfe and wore a white-flannel suit, thinking that clothes make the man. Why not? Ah, yes, as I soon discovered, the folly of youth divine, of Controlled Folly, as Kesey once told me up in his farm in Oregon when I arrived there to do a profile of him for the New York Times Magazine.
I had a great editor at the Times: Paul Goldberger. He was nothing short of terrific, and he commissioned me to write a profile of R. Crumb, the underground cartoonist. As it happened, I'd been a fan of Crumb's work while in graduate school, lapping up every one of his comic when they came. It was the perfect assignment, or at least I thought so, until I found it impossible to get Crumb interested in sitting down for an interview.
But then, I began talking about Cleveland, Ohio, where I'd grown up and how I'd started reading comics at an early age, falling in love with them. Turns out, Crumb had worked for the American Greeting Card Company, just down the street from where I lived. So we had a connection, and the profile took off from there. I spent months on the piece, and luckily, got great editing help from my good friend Andy Gordon, who was finishing his Ph. D in English at Berkeley and was also a fan of Crumb's work. Andy helped put Crumb in perspective, always a good thing, while I wrote and rewrote the text. One night I took Crumb out for dinner in North Beach at an Italian restaurant, and later billed the Times Magazine for the meal, along with $50 worth of underground comix, probably a first.
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Who is this Crumb?
His clothes are almost period pieces: flat-brim hat, small red bow tie and gray Hush Puppies. Somehow they make him appear at once older and younger than his 29 years. His face is pale and oval, marked by a thin, pencil‑line mustache. He sits hunched over his sketchpad, his left hand doodling in ink to the sounds of ragtime. Looking up, he smiles shyly from behind transparent horn‑rims, thick round lenses that comically enlarge his eyes. The look is that of honky‑tonk piano player — which is not inappropriate, since he's an avid collector of old 78's, and well‑practiced on piano, kazoo, banjo, uke and harmonica. And when he begins to speak of old music, as he often does, it’s as if he has suddenly come unstuck in time.
“'Keep on Truckin” was a popular blues phrase in the early thirties,” says underground cartoonist R. Crumb, sitting in the living room of a small flat where he usually hangs out with other cartoonists when he's in this city. “The song Truckin” was originally done by Blind Boy Fuller, a blues singer. I've got this old record, ‘Let's Get Drunk and Truck,’ and I've seen the original ‘Keep on Truckin’ record, done about '34 or '33, but I haven't got it. Then it became popularized in the late thirties, and into the forties it was a dance.”
Now, of course, the phrase has returned. Crumb revived it in 1968 in his “Zap Comix” as a series of screwball cartoon characters with tiny heads, funky old clothes and huge clodhoppers, strutting on down the street. That slogan, accompanying likenesses of his characters, can now be found almost everywhere: scrawled on subway walls and on sidewalks; plastered on bumper stickers; and imprinted on posters, buttons, T‑shirts, baseball caps and sneakers — even in the remotest corners of the country. Surviving many of the outmoded political clichés of the late sixties, “Keep on Truck in” has become as ingrained in the collective American psyche as “Kilroy was here.” Needless to say, it is more than a way of walking. For the generation that came of age in the middle sixties, it is a ritual of affirmation, a slogan of goodwill. As the song goes, “Keep on Truckin, truckin’ my blues away!”
“I don't invent anything,” says R. Crumb, grinning broadly. “It's like all there— all there to pick up on. It's a rich culture.”
• • •
Robert Crumb has been picking up a rich harvest from the discards on the trash heap of American pop culture, recycling old material into new modes of comic art. He has been drawing comic books since he was 6 years old. These books, notably “Zap Comix,” “Despair” and “Fritz the Cat,” have doubtless been some of the most outrageous and controversial works ever drawn in the history of the art, largely because of their free‑wheeling and uninhibited treatment of sex. His work has been scorned as filthy and obscene, and indeed on the surface one finds a Boschian world of raunchy cartoon characters who curse, cavort and fornicate as if they inhabited an X‑rated Disneyland. And yet, his work has been praised by others as comparable to the genius of Toulouse‑Lautrec or Picasso.
Whatever the verdict, Crumb's work has nevertheless established him as the most important underground cartoonist — and, by extension, social satirist — in America today. What Jules Feiffer was to the neurotic fifties, Crumb has been to the counterculture sixties.
“Crumb's a spokesman for a whole culture,” says Don Schenker, poet and co‑owner of Berkeley's Print Mint, which published some of Crumb's early work and some of his recent efforts as well. “People out there are waiting for the language and imagery he hands down, so that they can name portions of their lives by it.”
“Because Crumb's work is so various and accessible,” notes Berkeley English professor Donald Ault, who teaches a university course largely devoted to the study of comics, “people can extract a social vision from it, and it's a popular form of art — widely disseminated and direct in its visual impact. It communicates. And Crumb's characters, like Mr. Natural, are so true, so compelling in their unpredictability.”
• • •
Many of Crumb’s comic antiheroes — Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont, BoBo Belinski, Schuman the Human, Mr. Snoid — have become recognized as archetypal American grotesques, figures as representative as Dagwood and Blondie. And Crumb's work has had a revolutionary effect on the comic‑book industry as a whole by inspiring “straight” comics to become more “relevant,” more attuned to
social and political issues. Though the majority of the public is unfamiliar with either the man or his work, he has come to their attention second‑hand through the release last spring of “Fritz the Cat,” the first full‑length, X‑rated animated cartoon, which was based on characters created by Crumb.
• • •
“Crumb is like Johnny Appleseed,” says Gary Arlington, owner and operator of the San Francisco Comic Book Company, whom many consider the spiritual father of under ground comics. “He's spread ing the seeds of the new consciousness. You'd have to say that he's in the same category as Bob Dylan.”
And like Dylan, Crumb has been subjected to all the contradictory pressures of a young, hero‑worshiping audience. “Fans pore over his oeuvres for something like guidance,” writes Jacob Brackman in Playboy; but it's hope less, “for he won't stop shift ing his ground, shifting his targets. Like all great fantasists, he's irresponsible.” So far in fact, Crumb has resisted all urgings that he act as a spokesman for radical movements or underground comics.
“Robert doesn't want to be a media superstar,” says Susan Goodrick, copublisher of Apex Novelties, the small San Francisco operation that first published Crumb's “Zap Comix No. 1 and No. O.” “He just wants to be left alone.”
In late 1969, after constant invasions of his privacy, Crumb retreated from San Francisco's Haight‑Ashbury to an old rundown farm house some 45 miles north of the city.
Crumb now maintains a low profile. Though his influence is enormous and his work widely imitated, he shuns publicity, rarely grants inter views and shudders whenever someone recognizes or photo graphs him in public. He is extremely shy. One day this summer he was attending a comic-book convention in New York.
Word spread of his appearance and Crumb abruptly fled the scene. At a party to celebrate the publication of one of his latest books, the guest of honor himself showed up only after the party was over. His friends cooperate in maintaining a wall of privacy around him.
“When I was in eighth grade, I went through this traumatic change.... I tried to compete, get in there and do what you had to do to be a typical teen‑ager, and I just failed miserably,” confesses Crumb. “'Cause I was such a big jerk, nobody liked me. I felt this horrible, painful sense of rejection. There was a 10‑year period when I felt fiercely alienated from the world. I probably wouldn't have gotten that deeply into cartooning if that hadn't happened. ... I can remember thinking when I was 16 that one day when I was this great, recognized artist, I wouldn't be alienated more.”
But being alienated from everybody, except a handful of close friends, has become a permanent way of life for Robert Crumb. It has made him by and large inaccessible and contributed to the aura of mystery that surrounds his personal life and work habits. And yet, paradoxically, it has allowed him to form his comic view of humanity. Laughter is Crumb's weapon against every thing — including himself.
What Crumb has really done is to recreate the American comic avant-garde by returning the art to its roots. Original American comic strips, such as Winsor McCay's “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” Frederick Opper's “Happy Hooligan” and George Herriman's “Krazy Kat,” all first drawn before 1910, were daring and innovative, the “head” comics of their day. In these comics, social satire and even vulgarity were accepted as givens; cartoonists reveled in the outrageous. But by the nineteen‑fifties, experimentation and social commentary had ceased. Except for Walt Kelly's “Pogo” wherein 1952 Senator Joseph McCarthy was depicted as a jackal
comic strips became bland and unimaginative, partly due to mass newspaper syndication, which required that strips be inoffensive to the readers of large‑ circulation dailies. Then also, after the heyday of comic books in the forties, which
saw the meteoric rise of superheroes like Captain Marvel, Flash Gordon, Batman and Superman, psychologists and educators particularly Fredric Wertham in his “Seduction of the Innocent” — came down hard on comics. Wertham, appearing before a Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency, maintained that juvenile crime was directly linked to the excesses of gore and violence found in horror comics.
There was a public outcry against all comics. The industry, consequently, had to clamp down and impose the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority in 1954. Dark days fell on straight comics, as sales and reader interest declined sharply. Even Mad magazine, once a vital medium for social satire, but now minus the services of editor Harvey Kurtzman, began to pall. And despite the appearance of Jules Feiffer's brilliant psychological strips in the late fifties, and Stan Lee's transformation of the Marvel line in 1961, comics by and large hoed the establishment row.
Then, on Feb. 25, 1968, we find Robert Crumb on the streets of the Haight‑Ashbury, hawking the first issues of “Zap Comix” for 35 cents a throw. Though “Zap” was preceded by a few irregular strips in the underground press and a couple of brash experiments out of Austin, Tex., it was Crumb who, by privately printing his own work, set the underground presses in motion. The front cover of “Zap No. 1” warned: “For Adult Intellectuals Only!” Emblazoned on that cover was a city, environment of timeless Americana, where figures with Kilroy noses peered out of manholes against an abstract back ground of empty streets and a flat, monotonous skyline. In the middle of the scene, the white‑bearded, big‑schnozzed Mr. Natural guides a tired, bloated little cartoon car with eyestalks for headlights. Next to him is a skinny old lady
“I wish somebody would tell me what ‘Diddy‑Wah Diddy’ means,” she says.
“If you don't know by now, lady,” replies the impatient Mr. Natural, “don't mess with it!”
A squat mustachioed sidewalk spokesman inquires: “Is dis a system?”
Turning the page we see a self‑portrait of Crumb, entitled “Definitely a Case of Derangement.” Underneath reads the caption: “My wife cringes in a corner while I stalk the house, a raving lunatic!” Sure enough, the artist, his arms spinning and his hair frazzled, shouts: “Ridiculous! I want my money back! Phooey! Kripes! Nuts! Cancel my Rhumba lesson!” In what follows, Crumb satirizes the notion, fostered by parents who read straight comics, that cartoonists are sinister evil men out to corrupt the minds of their readers.
Juxtaposed with the Crumb self‑portrait is the story of “Whiteman,” who, we are told, is “on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” A caricature of the repressed businessman, Whiteman trudges along the streets of the big city, attempting at every turn to control his seething sexual instincts until he's accosted by a parade of blacks who pull down his pants and mock him. “How could they do this to me?” he says. “I'm White man.” “You jis' a nigger like eva'body else!” comes the reply. “C'mon nigger! Yo’ got music in yo’ soul, remember?” In the final panel, Whiteman is seen pondering, his face in anguish. “Will Whiteman join the parade?” poses the story.
Later, in “Zap No. 1,” we encounter Mr. Natural, one of Crumb's most complex and enigmatic creations: part guru and wise old sage, part charlatan and put‑on artist. Mr. Natural visits the city and drops in on Flakey Foont, a tall, gangling young man with big clodhoppers, who is some thing of a comic foil for Mr. Natural's philosophical quips. “Hiding something perhaps?” he asks. “Your sex problem must be bothering you again!”
What Jules Feiffer was to the neuroticism of the fifties, Robert Crumb has been to the cultural radicalism of the late sixties.
“Oh God!” shudders Flakey, gasping. “I freak out every time you bring up that sex business. ... It's all so ... so ....”
“I know ... Messy! Com plicated ... confusing... But look!” says Mr. Natural, pressing Flakey's navel. “Whatever it is that's happening, it keeps on happening no matter what! Right?”
“Wow! Yes! That's exactly ... it's like I mean. ...” Flakey's voice trails off. “Lost it again!” shouts Mr. Natural, throwing up his hands.
That mode of dialogue, hovering on the edge of revelation, continues throughout the strip. And in Crumb's later work, it becomes even more baffling; one is ultimately unsure of how much Mr. Natural really knows, his character is so rich and multifaceted. “Bootlegger, medicine man, magician, musician, migrant and taxi driver in Afghanistan, the crusty old philosopher,” writes comic‑book historian Les Daniels, “embodies much of the history of the Bohemian movement in the United States and abroad.” When we encounter the crusty old philosopher on the cover of “Mr. Natural No. 2,” drawn in late 1971, Flakey Foont postulates the final question: “Mr. Natural, what does it all mean?” Chugging along on a two‑wheel scooter, Mr. Natural shugs his shoulders, “Who knows?”
At any rate, “Zap No. 1” revitalized the lost tradition of social satire in American comic strips. It was quickly followed by “Zap No. O,” whose front cover depicted a small naked figure shaped like a human embryo, with a cord extending from his navel to a wall socket. “The comic that plugs you in!” says the man, electrified.
Inside, once again we find a self‑portrait of Crumb: “Mr. Sketchum is at it again!” Mr. Natural also appears, this time with Flakey in Death Valley. Elsewhere, we encounter the extraordinary “Ducks Yas Yas,” described as “The story about big city blues, about stoned out gurus, hopped‑up saints and flunked‑out hipsters who roam the stark streets and stay up all night and don't watch television.” The story actually focuses on a New York junkie who splits the city for the West Coast and, after dropping acid in the Haight‑Ashbury, ends up in the mountains as a Zen monk. The strip flows along in stream‑of‑consciousness style: “I got very paranoid. I was sure this cop knew where I was at. ... Made a decision to go back to my wife. ... Called but no answer. ... Bopped over to the East Side with a dealer named ‘Teenage Ric.’ ... He invited me to hitch it to the Coast. First ride was a wild young kid in a big old ‘51 Hudson. We drank wine all the way to Cincinnati. ... Finally wound up on ol’ Haight Street, dropped acid for three weeks! Man, it was intergalactic! Split outa that freak show with a truckload of Zen monks. Doin’ the spiritual thing up in the mountains!”
Throughout, Crumb lovingly parodies the entire format of traditional comic books, turning them into a vehicle for outrageous satire. The back cover of “Zap No. 0,” for instance, shows a big fat momma tearing up her son's comic books. “I'll bet this happened to you when you were a kid!” reads the message from R. Crumb. “Did you ever receive warnings about how comic hooks were going to RUIN your MIND? Were you given lectures about how comics were CHEAP TRASH put out by evil men? Let ZAP comics wisk away all such foolish notions!” But far from whisking away any such notions, the first issues of “Zap” created a public uproar: How could such smut be peddled on the streets to the young!
“The early ‘Zap Comix’ were like a composite style of old‑time comic books,” recalls Don Donahue, who published the first issues in a press run of 5,000 and hawked them on the streets with Crumb. “The whole spirit was like that of James Joyce. It was obviously an avant-garde work of art.”
Soon Crumb, along with such artists as Gilbert Shelton, S. Clay Wilson, Manuel
“Spain” Rodriquez, Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso, had started a comics renaissance based in San Francisco. These comics, now changed to “comix,” deliberately broke the taboos and defied the self-imposed censorship of the traditional comic‑book industry; they were sold outside the usual distribution channels — in head shops and on the streets — and therefore dubbed “underground.” They satirized fundamental. American values by using old lovable cartoon characters in new, and often unspeakable, situations, turning the culture's own ammunition against it self. It was obviously some thing the harmless comic books of the fifties — with the possible exception of the often puerile satire of “Mad” — had never attempted.
And with the decline of interest in contemporary fiction, the nonlinear art form of “head comics” began to fulfill some of the functions of social commentary once re served to the novel. Indeed, Crumb brought “trash” art into the cultural mainstream and made it respectable: For Adult Intellectuals. His work also connected more directly with the changing social consciousness of the young, both reflecting and defining many of the common attitudes to ward sex, drugs and violence shared by the growing counterculture. City Lights Book store even made room up front for racks of underground comics.
“Crumb is creating a whole new way of thinking, a whole new head trip,” says Gary Arlington. “People really relate to his stuff. It's like opening up your mind and seeing it in a mirror.”
• • •
But paradoxically, Crumb's attitude toward the counterculture was, and still is, very ambivalent: He dropped acid but never grew his hair. “There was always like, this encounter‑group feeling about the whole thing that made me nervous,” he recalls. “People would say, ‘How come you're so uptight? Loosen up!’ I'd go to these love‑ins and stand there and watch all this shit going on; I never really felt like I was part of it. It was like I was a reporter from another planet.” Crumb sympathized with certain radical changes, yet resisted any political involvement: “America has this tradition of artists being free of any political movements. Art is a movement in itself, so I'm not interested in being a propagandist.”
In his work, Crumb ridiculed just about everyone: from club‑swinging cops and repressed middle‑class Americans—easy targets—to militant feminists and slogan chanting radicals. Very often, in fact, he suspected the motives of those who were demonstrating in the streets for radical change. “I heard the demonstrations over in Berkeley were a good place to pick up girls,” he says, wryly. At the same time, Crumb foresaw even from the beginning much of the in stability, latent factionalism and self‑destructive impulses at the very core of the counterculture. “You couldn't help but get swept up in this feel ing of optimism. People were changing for the better. At the same time, there was this dark, apocalyptic side. A lot of people thought it was near the end and we were doomed. I went through that, too. Then all that intensity died down.”
But Crumb's work, if any thing, became more intense. Of all the underground cartoonists, he has been the most prolific, with more than a dozen titles to his credit, including “Motor City,” “Despair” (which many consider to be Crumb's most brilliant work), “Big Ass,” “Uneeda,” “Homegrown Funnies,” “Mr. Natural,” “Hytone,” “Fritz the Cat” and “XYZ Comics.” Several books with Crumb stories — “Snatch” and “Zap No. 4” — were busted on both coasts and declared “obscene.” The most infamous of these was a six‑page Crumb strip, “Joe Blow,” in which a stereotypical American family, mom and dad, son and daughter, learn to live happily together with incest.
“That strip was like the most heavily busted thing I ever did,” says Crumb, “'cause of the incest taboo. And it’s a taboo I go along with. I don’t think incest should be encouraged. Judges and people like that thought it was some kind of Communist plot to break down the genetic pool in America by encouraging incest. They were real paranoid.”
“What was your intention?” I asked him.
“I don't know. I think I was just being a punk.”
In any event, since the publication of “Zap” in 1968, a whole underground comics industry has begun to flourish not only in San Francisco, but also in Chicago and Milwaukee. Though it is still a minor phenomenon, accounting for only a small percentage of the 200‑million‑plus comics sold in America today, the market is growing. Distribution, of course, is a major problem; many retail outlets simply refuse to stock underground comics, given their irreverent nature. Still, Crumb's books currently sell at the rate of 8,000 to 10,000 copies per month, and there is obviously a growing cult of Crumb followers.
Crumb's books could probably sell more if he decided to go into business for himself. But so far, Crumb has refused adamantly to yield to commercial pressures. “Robert won't be bought off by big money,” says Susan Goodrick. “He's very careful about distribution and scrupulous about where his work appears. A lot of small‑ time publishers are supported by him.” And despite large offers from Playboy and other publications, Crumb has held fast in his refusal to compromise his art. Up until quite recently, in fact, he was trading his original artwork for old 78 records. Even now he feels somewhat apologetic that he pulls in $1,500 a month in royalties from his books, while other cartoonists are constantly struggling to survive. Dealings with a few large publishing companies, such as Ballantine and Viking, which, he claims, censored his work and attempted to steal his original art, have made him very suspicious of those who approach him with the, idea of turning a profit. “The more money involved,” he says, “the greater the chances for corruption.
Somehow those guys always fuck you over.” Very simply, he wants to keep his work at the level where he can control it.
But it didn't exactly happen that way in the case of “Fritz the Cat,” the story of a feline college student who gets involved in a series of riotous comic misadventures, which was recently turned into an animated film.
Produced by Steve Krantz, a one‑time producer of “Spiderman” cartoons and educational films, and directed by Ralph Bakshi, a young animator who worked for Paramount, the movie created something of a national sensation, partly because of its sexual explicitness and use of four‑letter words. The picture is loosely based on a few Crumb strips drawn during the middle sixties. And in the realm of animation, the movie is certainly a breakthrough. In the early stages of conception — the movie took two years to make — Crumb was offered control, to some extent, over the production, but he declined. And as it now turns out, he never wanted the picture made to begin with, and his lawyers have recently filed suit to remove his name from the picture's credits and publicity campaigns.
“It was not my movie,” Crumb insists. “I had nothing to do with it. They just used a couple of my stories. But a lot of people seem to think I was involved. That bothers me.”
Still, a contract was signed in 1970 — according to Crumb, against his wishes — giving the rights to “Fritz” to Bakshi and Krantz for a sum of $10, 000, plus a percentage of the film's net. (Krantz was quoted as saying it was a $12,500 advance.) “It was my fault,” says Crumb. “I copped out. They paid my expenses to New York and showed me a whole shitload of stuff — mock‑ups and drawings — and Bakshi said, like, his whole career depended on it. I told them that I really didn't want to get involved in animation, but if I let them do it with out me, I was afraid they wouldn't do it right. And didn't want my stuff to be exploited. So Bakshi came out to San Francisco to get me to the contract.”
Apparently some sort of agreement ensued, although Bakshi and Crumb do not agree now on the details. Per haps the truth will not be known until the lawyers finish their wrangling. In any event, shortly after the national re lease of “Fritz” in April, Crumb issued a statement denying any connection with the production. He also voiced strong objections to the “red neck and fascistic” tone of the scene in which Fritz denounces a group of revolutionaries and rhapsodizes about love conquering all: “They put words into his mouth that I never would have had him say.” Early this summer he saw the picture again in New York. “Whew! It was weird,” Crumb recalls. “Probably a lot of people were seeing it out of curiosity. But the movie lets them down, because the attitude in it is one of disappointment.”
• • •
For his part, Bakshi was quoted as saying: “I did it out of my love for animation, my love for Robert. Maybe working with Robert was the dumbest thing I've ever done. It's tough working with an idol. You touch a line of his stuff and it hurts a lot of people.”
Looking at the “Fritz” strips, which were drawn in Crumb's pre-acid stage, one can immediately see what his essential objection is to the movie version. Though Bakshi has been faithful to the image of Fritz as a phony college student in search of sex and cheap revolutionary thrills, that view of Fritz, for Crumb, represents a stage in his art which he now feels compelled to renounce. The creatures he now draws, after he started using LSD in 1965, are not as harmless as Fritz; they are more bestial, maniacal — and even dangerous. Also, in Crumb's recent work, there is an increasing strain of self‑mockery, metaphysical anguish, cynicism and despair over the human condition that and amused satire of phoniness one sees in the pre-acid days of Fritz.
• • •
Born in Philadelphia, Aug. 30, 1943, Robert Crumb was the second of five children in a Roman Catholic family. His father was a career Marine who now claims that his son has disgraced the family name. Mainly because of his older brother Charles, Robert began drawing comic books, in pencil, at age 6. By the early fifties, the Crumb brothers had turned out a large batch of comic books, all drawn in lined, composition notebooks, with such names as “Funny Friends” and “Brombo the Panda,” obviously take‑offs on the then‑popular “funny animal”‑style comics. “Felix the Cat” was one of Robert's childhood favorites. And how did his father react? “He said, ‘Yeah, you guys will give up drawing comics when you get to be in your teens and go out and play football.” But, of course, that never happened. In 1958, the Crumb brothers drew and privately printed three issues of “Foo,” a blatant parody of Harvey Kurtzman's “Humbug” and some of the Kurtz man‑inspired issues of
“Mad.” They tried to sell them from door‑to‑door, but without much success. “It was
real discouraging,” Crumb now recollects. “After that I just drew comics for my own benefit, but never thought of getting into the comic book. When Robert was 12, his family moved to Milford, Del., where he attended high school, returning to Philadel phia after graduation. In school, he was a solid C student. “I was studious, did my homework, yet I was stubborn,” he says. Though his teachers railed against car tooning, he persisted in draw ing comic books. “It was like sheer persistence that got me to where I am today,” he says. That —along with the strong influence of his broth er, who constantly criticized his work — contributed to Crumb's artistic growth and development; he never had any formal art training apart from high school. “If Charles were still doing cartoons, he'd be better than now.”
After high school, Crumb spent what he describes as a “depressing” year at home. Then one day he split for Cleveland and found a $60‑a week job working for the American Greetings Corp., doing color separations. That was in 1962. For the next four years, off and on, he worked in the company's Hi‑Brow card department, drawing hundreds of gag cards. “The boss kept telling me my drawing was too grotesque,” he remembers. “He got me to draw this cute stuff, which influenced my technique, and even now my work has this cuteness about it.” Those cards, in the instantly recognizable Crumb style, can still be bought to day.
Sick of his job, however, Crumb tried freelancing for a while, doing portraits on the boardwalk in Atlantic City one summer, and later, after his marriage in 1964, more gag cards in Europe. He drew bubblegum cards for the Topps Company in New York, worked for Kurtzman's magazine Help! and churned out illustrations for a magazine called Nostalgia that never got off the ground.
About this time Crumb began to draw many of the “Fritz the Cat” stories, mostly for his own pleasure and amusement. Actually, Fritz had appeared — at least prototypically — in a few of the Crumb brothers' homemade comic books of the late fifties. But in the stories he drew between 1965 and 1966, which were serialized in Cavalier magazine and eventually collected into a book, Fritz be came by turns a college student, dropout, rip‑off artist, street hustler and, by late 1968, a self‑styled revolutionary.
But Fritz died even before Crumb finally abandoned him in early 1969. By the time Crumb had moved out to San Francisco in January, 1967, leaving his job at the greeting‑card company, Fritz was already buried in his past. In part, Crumb attributes this to his experimentation with LSD. “I started taking acid in Cleveland, in June of '65. That changed my head around. It made me stop taking cartoon ing so seriously and showed me a whole other side of my self. I was married, working in this dreary job and getting drunk every night. I'd take acid on weekends and go back to work on Mondays and they'd say, What's wrong with your ... The difference between the early ‘Fritz the Cat’ stuff and what did in '67 was because of Crumb recalls another time during the spring of 1966, when he was staying with friends in Chicago: “I took some weird acid and all of a sudden everything got real fuzzy. I stayed that way for three months, and all this crazy stuff came out of my brain. That's how I invented all these characters — Mr. Natural, Angelfood McSpade, Mr. Snoid. One time a song came on the radio — some Motown group — and afterwards the announcer said, ‘That was Mr. Natural.’ So I started drawing comic books with this guy named Mr. Natural.”
Out of his experiences with acid, and his coincidental discovery of funk Americana, Crumb's attitude toward his art changed dramatically. He took himself less seriously and began to rely on a more free‑flowing technique; his strips became shorter and his funny animals soon transformed into human characters, though often with the characteristics of animals. And as for Fritz the Cat, the source and inspiration for much of Crumb's later work, it seems doubtful at this point that he will use him again.
Crumb now divides his time about equally between work at home in his country retreat and travel on the road. One day last year he visited Chester “Dick Tracy” Gould in Chicago. Since Gould, along with Carl “Donald Duck” Barks, Harold “Little Orphan Annie” Gray and Walt “Pogo” Kelly, was a major influence in Crumb's work, the encounter was especially poignant for Crumb: “He works in the old Chicago Tribune building all the way at the top in this He's like in his 70's and hard of hearing. He looks like an old bartender, this real grizzled character. He's the only guy left of the old school who really works at it. He's amazing.”
Like Gould, Crumb works at it, too, even when he's on the road. During a recent trip cross‑country, touching the cities of Aspen, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia, Crumb finished one of his best books, “XYZ Comics,” in a matter of weeks.
Up in the country, he works in a small shed next to his farmhouse. The place is crammed, floor to ceiling, with old records, magazines, cars, toy robots, model air planes and assorted junk that he's acquired from his frequent jaunts to flea markets. He works more or less when he feels like it — often at night — drawing new strips spontaneously in either pencil or ink. His habits are almost spartan — he neither smokes nor drinks—and he abhors television, calling it an “energy ripoff” and “bad medicine.”
He is reluctant to discuss his work, saying that “it just happens — for better or worse.” Probably his best work is yet to come — he figures he can turn out perhaps a hundred more books — though, according to friends, one of his finest, and most ambitious, books, called “R. Crumb's Yum‑Yum Book,” which is a cartoon novel of 140 color pages, was done in 1963. “Some people think my work's gotten worse,” says Crumb, “that it's cynical and repetitious. I worry about it. It's true my attitude's changed. I used to be more idealistic, more optimistic.”
“He will probably turn out to be,” writes the critic Jacob Brackman, “the greatest comic‑ book artist who ever lived.” Still, all the recognition accorded Crumb as an inspired new genius in the cartoon medium has tended to make him self conscious. He mocks himself in one of his most recent strips, “The Many Faces of R. Crumb”: “He's cute 'n clever.” Crumb pictures himself in a variety of roles, some of which are public distortions or misconceptions, others of which are bemused self‑reflections. We see Crumb, “the long‑suffering, patient artist saint,” Crumb, “the misanthropic, reclusive crank,” Crumb, “the media superstar, monumental egotist and self centered s.o.b.,” Crumb, “the sex‑crazed fiend and pervert,” Crumb, “one of ‘us’ ... youth culture member in good standing ... one of the ‘movement,’” Crumb, “the out‑of‑it dull‑witted fool,” Crumb, “the wasted degenerate.” The strip concludes: “The enigmatic, elusive man of mystery, who is this Crumb?”
With a weary scowl on his face, the cartoonist waves, “It all depends on the mood I'm in! Bye all!”
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