arts and letters
Even from his refuge in France, the comics artist still makes America’s pulse race.
R. Crumb, photographed in his office in southern France on June 28, 2022.Credit…Thibault Montamat
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THERE’S A COMIC by Robert Crumb from 1979 called “A Short History of America.” It’s 12 panels, all portraying a single spot of land. In the first, we see a bucolic field abutting a forest, birds flying overhead. In the second, there are fewer trees and a train rolling down a track, ejecting plumes of black smoke. Soon, there’s a log cabin, then telephone poles, then asphalt and cars. Then the trees disappear entirely and the house becomes a general store, the general store becomes a gas station, the gas station becomes a used-car lot and the sky, once so big, is almost completely obscured by crisscrossing electric wires. A small box in the final panel, containing the only text apart from the title, asks, “What next?!!”
This is the work of Crumb’s I keep thinking about on the summer afternoon I arrive in a medieval village in the Cévennes region of southern France. Crumb moved here in 1991 with his wife, the comics artist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and their daughter, Sophie, who was 10 at the time. They found a place that feels like it’s almost protected from the march of progress. Cars aren’t allowed in town; to get to the Crumbs’ house, I have to walk across a weathered bridge that traverses a murky canal. Affixed to the front door are what appear to be Catholic prayer cards though, on closer inspection, they depict Elvis Presley in a state of religious ecstasy. Inside, we go upstairs to a dimly lit office, with shelves of 78 r.p.m. records, mostly from the 1920s and ’30s (Crumb owns 8,000 of them; he’s been collecting “old music of all kinds from all over the world” since he was 16), a bulky metal drawing board, various instruments (he’s an accomplished musician), stacks of faded newspapers and books with titles like “Because Our Fathers Lied,” “UFOs and Nukes” and “Grey Aliens and the Harvesting of Souls.” (“I’m very interested in fringe things like that,” Crumb says.) I ask the couple, who have been together since 1971 and married in 1978, how they ended up here.
“Ask her,” Crumb tells me, gesturing to his wife. “It was all her doing. She comes from a long line of salespeople, and she just sold me on the idea of moving to France.”
In the ’80s, the couple lived in California’s Central Valley, in a small town called Winters nestled between Sacramento and San Francisco. “The fabulous ’80s,” Crumb says grimly. “Not a good decade in the United States.” (“It was like now,” says Kominsky-Crumb, “but not quite as bad.”) AIDS was killing their friends. A rising conservative Christian movement was accusing Crumb of being immoral. President Ronald Reagan had cut education funding, just as he’d done as governor, so there were no longer art or music classes at Sophie’s school. The Crumbs volunteered, teaching drawing, though at a certain point fewer students began showing up. A local preacher had been telling families that the Crumbs were “agents of the devil.”
“So we had to get out,” Kominsky-Crumb says. “And I guess I had some romantic idea about living in the south of France.”
“Some of that romance turned out to be true,” Crumb says. Then he adds, “Maybe you shouldn’t even mention the name of the town. I don’t want people showing up here.”
Crumb used to attend comic conventions and book signings, but now he makes very few public appearances. He never really picked up French (he relies on Kominsky-Crumb for that), and his social circle is small. Crumb’s followed in the long line of artists and writers who have exiled themselves from America, but his life abroad feels far more circumscribed than most. He doesn’t even have a cellphone. (At one point, he looks at his wife’s and says earnestly, “It’s listening to us right now.”) He uses email but “I worry about it,” he says. “Any email you write goes into the N.S.A. computer banks.” He’s only voted once in his life, for Barack Obama in 2008. Yet even living thousands of miles from America, disconnected from its culture by so many moats of his own making, he is, like many of his expatriate predecessors, a dedicated and unflinching observer of home. It was his ability to capture the id of America — in all its decadence, hypocrisy and lecherousness — that established him as an artist; that ability is unmatched nearly six decades later. He’s been called an “equal opportunity offender”: For his entire career, he’s angered the left, the right and everyone in between. It’s why his work remains, more than that of perhaps any other artist today, a litmus test for how much we’re willing to put up with for the sake of art.
CRUMB BEGAN BY publishing his work in the late ’60s in San Francisco’s underground comics scene, which arose alongside Timothy Leary’s acid tests and psychedelia. (Crumb was a regular user of LSD, but he hated what he calls “hippie music.”) American comics — at least, independent, non-superhero comics — were still something of a nascent form then, arguably the era’s least corporate, most anarchic type of expression. Even the Grateful Dead had at one point a deal with a major record label, but comics artists — Gilbert Shelton, Trina Robbins, Joel Beck — had no executives putting commercial pressures on them. Crumb published his early work in humor magazines and underground papers and sold stapled, self-printed comics out of head shops, introducing iconic characters that would become countercultural totems: Mr. Natural, a godlike imp and con man; the sex fiend Snoid; Fritz the Cat, a lampooning of the shallow hipster, who became his most famous character. (The animator Ralph Bakshi made a popular “Fritz the Cat” film, released in 1972; Crumb hated it so much that he retired the character — by having Fritz’s ostrich ex-girlfriend stab him in the head with an ice pick.) To counteract his reputation as “America’s best-loved hippie cartoonist,” Crumb made his work darker, creepier, more twisted and upsetting. By 1969, he was drawing “Joe Blow,” featuring a sweet, smiling all-American family — who fornicate with each other while shouting phrases like “I never realized how much fun you could have with your children!”
Despite such material, Crumb has always had a paradoxically grandfatherly aura. At age 79, he’s skinny and still strangely handsome, his khakis hiked above his waist. While his status as an alt legend has been secure for decades, it’s only in recent years that he’s truly transcended the comics medium to the realm of fine artist. These days, Crumb is shown by one of the largest commercial galleries in the world, David Zwirner, which also represents Barbara Kruger, the estates of Diane Arbus and Alice Neel and the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. In 2015, the “Star Wars” creator George Lucas purchased Crumb’s surprisingly faithful 2009 adaptation of the Book of Genesis for $2.9 million (at least according to a 2017 comic called “Aline & Bob in Troubles With Money”). Crumb’s notebooks, which he’s saved through the years, sell for close to a million dollars each. Leonardo DiCaprio, whose father was an independent comics distributor, has said he’s “picked up a couple” of Crumb originals. At a time of increasing conservatism, there is a greater demand for an artist so monumentally lacking in shame, and so averse to self-censorship.
It helps that Crumb is, as the gallerist David Zwirner describes him to me, “an extraordinary draftsman,” one whose style zooms in on “the absurdity of social conventions, and political realities, and stereotypes and sexual fantasies and fetishes.” Early on, the artist forged a singular technique full of crosshatchings and an exaggerated realism that has left many viewers angry and uncomfortable. Everything and everyone was a gruesome stereotype: Women were sex objects with excessive curves, Black people had features that recalled an ugly history of racist caricatures and Crumb himself was frequently seen doing disgusting things like masturbating out a window.
Encountering Crumb today feels like being in a staring match with an artist who’s still almost daring the culture to eject him. “The average people out there,” he tells me, “what they know of my work … either they love it because they are degenerates themselves or they hate it because they stand with the forces of political correctness.” His iconography includes every taboo imaginable: not only incest and racism but also sexual assault, castration, self-mutilation and murder.
Such images feel at once old-fashioned, relics of a less enlightened time, and more relevant than ever in an era when art often seems to be policed for potential sin. There has always been, and continues to be, much debate regarding Crumb’s true nature: Is he a genuine pervert or simply an artist who made perversion his subject? Is he himself prejudiced or satirizing a racist culture in which he came of age? Commentators have emerged on both sides of this debate. The curator Robert Storr has argued that Crumb points out “the extreme illogic of prejudice by mocking it,” though in the ’90s, an American neo-Nazi publication, taking Crumb at face value, reprinted some of his work without permission, much to the artist’s displeasure. In 2011, Crumb canceled his appearance at an Australian festival after an article in The Sunday Telegraph of Sydney described him as a “very warped human being,” and quoted a child abuse activist calling his work “crude and perverted images emanating from what is clearly a sick mind.” Of “Joe Blow,” Deirdre English, the former editor of the progressive magazine Mother Jones, has said, “On the one hand, it’s a satire of the 1950s, the healthy facade of the American family, and it kind of exposes the sickness under the surface. But at the same time, you sense that Crumb is getting off on it. … It’s a self-indulgent orgy, and a fantasy. … It’s part of an arrested, juvenile vision.”
His defenders, who include cartoonists like Alison Bechdel and Lynda Barry, have argued it is a dangerous misreading to claim that, by exploring ugly and evil things, Crumb is endorsing them. “He pushes all limits in order to bring every guilty impulse or thought pattern to light, where it can be examined in all its ridiculous, risible nakedness,” Storr wrote last year. In a 2008 interview, Barry characterized his appeal, especially to artists, most succinctly: “What R. Crumb gave me was this feeling that you could draw anything,” she said.
In drawings and in conversation, Crumb refers disdainfully to “the wokies,” even as he claims to be on their side. “The whole identity politics and L.G.B.T.Q. stuff,” he tells me, “I agree with it. These people need an equal share. I can’t argue with that. But then people get kind of intolerant about anything that could be seen as triggering.” In the fall of 2020, Phoebe Gloeckner, the author of the graphic novel “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (2002) and an associate professor at the University of Michigan, was accused of “curriculum-based trauma” by students in a comics course, in part because she showed them Crumb’s work. This surprised Gloeckner, who had never had this kind of problem in 18 years of teaching at the school. She started reading Crumb the way a lot of people do — by stumbling upon it as a child (her parents hid his comics under their bed). “When I was a kid,” she tells me, “I was really threatened by images of pretty girls in teen magazines and the idea that, to be taken seriously as a person, I had to look a certain way. When I looked at how he drew women, it was liberating.” Many of her students didn’t agree.
Crumb, who read me emails from Gloeckner, was clearly bothered by what happened, not because the students didn’t like his work — lots of people don’t, and he himself has dismissed his art as “only lines on paper” — but because he felt they had failed to engage with it: Trauma and discomfort were the whole point. The rot of our society is undeniable, he says, so, rather than repress the horror, he wants to make it impossible to avoid.
HE’S BEEN CONFRONTING that rot for most of his life. Crumb grew up in Philadelphia and attended Catholic schools, a scene he has revisited frequently in his work: the young Crumb, sweat dripping down his forehead, mouth agape, staring at the female students in their uniforms, looking not so much lustful as perplexed. As a teenager, he was deeply invested in Catholicism for about a year. “I remember walking around thinking, ‘If these people don’t get their act together, they’re gonna go to hell!’” he tells me. Later, his father would admit to him that he was an atheist all along.
The Crumbs are one of the most dysfunctional families in the annals of contemporary art, and their deterioration was closely examined in Terry Zwigoff’s classic 1995 documentary, “Crumb.” Crumb’s father was in the Marines for 20 years and had a temper. His mother was a housewife and an amphetamine addict. When Crumb was 15, she hurled an ashtray at her husband and missed, hitting her son in the face.
The oldest and youngest children were Crumb’s two sisters, Carol and Sandra, the only two siblings not to participate in “Crumb.” In the middle were the three brothers — Charles, Robert, Maxon — all gifted artists. Maxon began suffering from epileptic seizures as a teenager, which he has said were brought on by sexual activity. He spoke openly in “Crumb” about sexually assaulting women in the 1970s and being placed in a psychiatric ward for two weeks. Charles, who was intermittently institutionalized throughout his life, was a Disney obsessive and got Robert interested in making comics. But Charles wasn’t able to hold a job or leave home, and was treated for schizophrenia. He committed suicide in 1992.
Given his family history, I ask Crumb if he’s ever been to therapy. “No,” he says, though he once made an attempt. He didn’t attend college, and when he was 19, he moved to Cleveland. “I was profoundly, chronically depressed,” Crumb says. “I didn’t have any money for a therapist, but I went to this clinic that was associated with Western Reserve University. These students would give you therapy, practicing to be psychiatrists or whatever. So I talked to this guy for a couple of hours. He didn’t say much. And at the end, I said, ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘Eh, you’ll probably get over it.’” Instead, creating comics became “therapy, of a kind,” he says. “It just kept me alive, basically. Otherwise, I was nothing — just a cipher, a ghost in the world. I couldn’t do anything else. It maybe saved me from becoming more of a sociopath.”
The critic Robert Hughes has compared him to Bruegel, with his images of hedonism and suffering, but Crumb also evokes a painting tradition in Weimar-era Germany called lustmord, literally “sex murder,” in which artists like Otto Dix and George Grosz painted scenes of rape and mutilated female bodies that captured the nihilism in Europe between the world wars. Yet Crumb is perhaps most directly indebted to the 19th-century political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who helped bring down Tammany Hall and New York’s Boss Tweed political machine. A framed Nast hangs in the Crumbs’ hallway: an 1871 drawing of a tiger (a representation of Tammany politics) mauling a woman, who stands for justice, before an enormous audience in a coliseum. “What are you going to do about it?” reads the caption.
Although Crumb’s work hasn’t softened in recent years, it has changed. He’s now gazing less directly at a bigoted, violent world and instead examining his distance from it. Now he’s a grandfather — Sophie, who has three children, lives a short drive away — and his comics from the past five years are often about that.
But he continues to test the boundaries of audiences. His newest comic is “The Crumb Family Covid Exposé” (2021), made with Kominsky-Crumb, 74, and Sophie — each drawing and writing themselves — and published as a limited-run magazine by David Zwirner. Crumb caught Covid-19 last fall but, well before that, he’d developed extreme conspiracy theories about the pandemic. He calls himself “resolutely anti-vax.” In conversation, he is fixated on his distrust of the medical community though, in his work, he doesn’t present this worldview as correct, or even necessarily valid. He seems to be dissecting a contrarian impulse in himself the same way he used to look at his twisted sexual fantasies. His wife, a cancer survivor, is vaccinated and, at one point in the comic, believing the shot has made her arm magnetic, he tries to see if a spoon will stick to her. “Is this a crazy person?” he asks of himself, drawing himself very much like a crazy person.
He’s still willing, in other words, to make himself ugly and unlikable in his work. There’s a question that recurs in a lot of Crumb’s art, which I found myself wondering about as he dismissed the Covid vaccines to me as merely a way to enrich Big Pharma. It’s some variation of “What’s wrong with this guy?” In one comic, called “Anal Antics” (1971), the byline is “R. ‘What-Does-It-All-Mean?’ Crumb,” and the plot features Snoid living inside a woman’s posterior. In the first panel, there’s a subtitle: “More sick humor which serves no purpose.”
“I guess the question,” I say to him, “is ‘what is the purpose?’”
“That’s a question that I often imagine being asked of me by the tribunal that I’m in front of,” he says, “up there on their dais high above me. And I just have to stand there like this.” He shrugs exaggeratedly.
“No artist who’s honest knows why he does something,” Kominsky-Crumb adds.
But what Crumb does know is that he didn’t really have a choice. He describes exploring the darkness buried within him as nothing less than a physical impulse: “I felt like it had to come out.” And people couldn’t help but look. How everybody else responded was their problem. It was never Crumb’s.
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