In 1972, the San Francisco art critic Thomas Albright congratulated Robert Crumb and the other underground cartoonists for rejuvenating the tired conventions of the comic strip and adapting it to a new revolutionary end - a "hard-core" form of honesty. The occasion was the release of Fritz the Cat, the first X-rated feature-length animated cartoon. The movie was based on a comic strip that Crumb had drawn in a sketchbook to amuse himself. It had been serialised in a men's magazine and then collected in book form. Crumb had nothing to do with the film, and it did not impress him. But Fritz the Cat was important. It bought Crumb a place in the country and additional notoriety. Not long after that, Crumb killed off Fritz with an ice pick to the head, a la Trotsky.
In an article in Rolling Stone magazine, Albright likened Crumb to a descendant of Lenny Bruce, the controversial stand-up comedian, for helping to change the way people felt about "changeless" things in the American consciousness: sex, drugs, race and violence. Bruce and Crumb were using their mediums as weapons in the guerrilla war to think one's own thoughts in a culture endlessly pausing for "a word from our sponsor".
Honesty, Albright felt, began creeping into comics in the 1950s with the appearance of Mad magazine. Mad was created by Harvey Kurtzman, one of the most subversive cultural influences to come from American comics. Kurtzman seemed to have a duty to show the reader how phoney the world really was, and for that reason he became a hero, then friend and mentor, to Crumb. Unfortunately for Kurtzman, his career was blocked at various stages as he tried to find the audience that he perceived was out there for his brand of satire and for ideas that were a bit more substantial and sophisticated. He was aiming high of the mark.
Crumb, the shy, eternal outsider wearing his id on his sleeve and "looking for love in all the wrong places", with no prayer of financial success, simply did what a lot of people did in the Sixties: he "let it all hang out". He put it all on paper in the underground comics that erupted from his egoless, LSD-inspired pen: Zap Comix, Snatch Comics, Motor City Comics, Big Ass Comics, Despair, Uneeda Comix, Your Hytone Comix, Home Grown Funnies, Mr Natural, The People's Comics, Artistic Comics, XYZ Comics, Snoid Comics, and many others. As an underground cartoonist, Crumb had total freedom. He did what he wanted to do with a "if you can't take a joke, fuck you", wise-guy attitude. It wasn't about money. He was after a certain deliberate proletarian kind of quality. As well as the truth about life.
Thirty-three years later, Crumb's artwork is for sale with high price tags. The comic books, originally printed in black and white on cheap newsprint and sold under the counter with an "adults only" warning attached, are collected in deluxe hardback editions, reprinted on nice off-white paper and sold in bookstores coast to coast. I have recently collaborated with Crumb on an overview of his life and career, The R Crumb Handbook. We tried to look at how various media had shaped his visual sensibilities, his transformation from a "loser-schmuck" into a cultural icon, the highs and lows of his "fame thing", and the acceptance of his work by the fine-art establishment. There is also a CD with highlights from his musical career.
Crumb defines himself as a liberal, but he has no easily definable political belief. He feels that, at this stage of the game, all we can do is trust in evolution. In his youth, after he quit the Catholic Church and went "on the road" for a couple of years, he became a young socialist firebrand and had long, loud arguments with his patriotic ex-marine father, who was totally demoralised when Richard Nixon had to resign the presidency in 1974. Crumb's political feelings run throughout his work, with sometimes amusing sources. In 1965, he drew Fritz the Cat running and screaming: "Come the revolution there gonna be no more strawberries and cream!" Fritz is adapting a line from a 1930s Willie Howard comedy routine on a 78rpm record that Crumb has in his collection.
Although he speaks his mind through his many cartoon characters, Crumb casts himself as the main character in strips such as The Adventures of R Crumb Himself, in which the cartoonist enters the School of Hard Knocks and is pummelled by the forces of the establishment, or The R Crumb $uck$$e$$ $tory, where Crumb reaches the pinnacle of a Disney-style CEO only to have the Red Chinese take control and try to re-educate him. Because Crumb likes to draw powerful women in action, he created Lenore Goldberg and Her Girl Commandos in Motor City Comics, giving him the chance to depict sex and feminism as naked girls kung-fu the fascist police force and vice versa. He even dared to draw the Christmas icon Frosty the Snowman leading a terrorist attack against the Rockefeller mansion.
If anyone wants to know how it would be if the National Rifle Association suddenly ran things in America, reading The Ruff-Tuff Cream-Puffs Take Charge! (1986) will give them a clue. These funny, scary stories are what Crumb describes as "hard satire". There are two others that could be published with relevance today: Four More Years starring Mr Know-It-All (1972) and Let's Talk Sense About This Here Modern America (1975), a horrible five-pager drawn for Arcade magazine.
The mid-1970s were a sobering period for Crumb, who had experienced celebrity burn-out, stopped using all drugs and returned to drawing from life in his sketchbooks. A document from that time which has never seen print is titled What are the Responsibilities of the Cartoonist in the REVOLUTION?. Over several pages of tiny hand-printed comic lettering, Crumb analyses his place in the greater scheme of things. Here are some highlights:
"Should an artist get involved in politics? Am I a liberal or a radical, or just a big jerk? Do I identify with the struggles of the people? Do I sympathise with the struggles of the oppressed? Have I become complacent and immersed in my own personal problems and my little comforts of life? I used to be more 'concerned', more enthusiastic about the 'cause' . . . Now I'm . . . I'm . . . nothing . . . Who are the 'people'? How can I have any sympathy for 'them' if I'm not involved with them? Has success turned me into another complacent liberal? Well, things are more complex than that. I'm an artist . . . I exist outside of political struggles . . . I go for the deeper, more subjective meaning of events!! Is this a booshwah artistic elitism? Am I an elitist? Has money corrupted me?
"Basically, I believe in socialism . . . in certain areas, America definitely needs to be socialised . . . This is still such a booshwah country . . . Maybe things will really have to get bad for the general public to get interested in the revolution . . . At this point it's all still just a lot of meaningless, tiresome slogans . . .
"It always gets back to politics and how sleazy the political game is . . . Most politically obsessed people I've met seem unpleasantly over-serious, with overblown pompous egos and a dogmatic type of mentality . . . I hate leaders and would never follow one unless I was in hell and he knew the way out . . . even then I'd be suspicious . . .
"Let's just say, for practical purposes there is some kind of valid revolutionary force at work here in moneyland . . . Should I get involved? . . . The first duty of any revolutionary is self-criticism . . . One must try to root out one's booshwah tendencies . . .
"Ah, Modern America, you dismal, hard, plastic, metal and concrete armed camp, choking on McDonald's hamburgers and carbon monoxide, don't I dislike you enough already?
"Is it a booshwah indulgence to philosophise . . . to see things in a more subtle, personal way? To be sceptical . . . detached?? Maybe so . . . because maybe, really, I just don't care enough . . . because I have it TOO GOOD! I'm a rotten corrupt 'pig' nestled in the belly of the monster! I CONFESS! I CONFESS!"
Kenneth Clark, the great art populariser, once made a very interesting statement in a documentary about Monet. "The great artist," Clark said, "spends his whole life turning himself inside out." Through the savage nervous energy of his pen lines, Crumb encourages his readers first to laugh, and then to take a good hard look at the unsavoury displays of their own quirky ids. It's not a pretty sight, but it is the reason Crumb is compared to artists such as Bruegel, Hogarth, Goya and Daumier. He is getting you to look at something you might not want to see. It is the reason the fine-art establishment has adopted Crumb and his work as one of its own, making him the only cartoonist ever to reach the top of "the pyramid of art" in his own lifetime.
Peter Poplaski is the co-author, with Robert Crumb, of The R Crumb Handbook (MQ Publications)