Patron Saint of Underground Comix
Born 1943, Robert Crumb may be the drawingest fool the cartooning profession has ever seen. At a very early age, he and his older brother Charles spent every spare hour producing home-made comics in notebooks. Crumb finished high school in 1961 but did not join the work force; third-born in a self-proclaimed dysfunctional family, he stayed at home in Philadelphia, drawing constantly in sketchbooks, a practice he continued the rest of his life. Visiting Cleveland in the fall of 1962, he was hired by American Greeting Cards. In the summer of 1964, he started wandering: he went to New York, did some work for Harvey Kurtzman on Help, got married, spent a year in Europe, then back to Cleveland briefly, then again to New York, where, in the East Village, he experimented with drugs.
Every place he went, he drew everything he saw and much of what he imagined, filling page after page of his sketchbooks. In Chicago in late 1965 under the influence of what he later called "fuzzy" acid, he spent days drawing in his sketchbooks, creating the entire cast of characters that would populate his comics for years thereafter—Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont, Schuman the Human, the Snoid, Eggs Ackley, the Vulture Demonesses. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," he wrote, "—like a religious vision that changes someone’s life, but in my case it was the psychotic manifestation of some grimy part of America’s collective unconscious."
Later, Crumb would attribute his emergence as a cartoonist to the "fuzzy" LSD trip (and to taking LSD generally). "I could show you in my sketchbooks where that period starts," he told the Comics Journal’s Gary Groth, "when I was in that fuzzy state, and how my art suddenly went through this change, this transformation in that couple of months." Without this experience, he claimed, his work would have taken a more serious turn. "I probably never would have gotten into that real ridiculous cartoony phase, where I was basically doing throwbacks to the Popeye-Basil Wolverton-Snuffy Smith style of cartooning. I did that as a joke. That absurdity was such a deep part of the American consciousness, that way of seeing things, and I suddenly rediscovered that in that state. All the dancing images were in that grotesque funny cartoony style with big shoes."
Crumb gave up drawing from life and started producing great quantities of his goofy galoot-style cartoons, people with big feet and tiny heads, copiously cross-hatched. Homesick for his wife Dana, Crumb suddenly took a bus to Cleveland and rejoined her in the spring of 1966. He also returned to to his previous employer in the city, American Greetings and Hi Brow cards, where he worked for the next eight months. It was, he said, "the last time I ever held down a nine-to-five job." Restless, he started frequenting bars, and one afternoon in January 1967, two friends told him they were setting out for San Francisco that evening. He went with them. As simple as that: he got in their car with about seven bucks in his pocket and left Cleveland without so much as a phone call to Dana. And eighteen months later, he found himself a famous cartoonist.
The hippie community in the City by the Bay was ready for comix. The underground newspapers of the growing counterculture had been publishing comic strips that urged revolution and turning on to drugs (among other things) for some time. Underground comic books were the next logical development. And Crumb had already been toying with the idea, producing sketches and plans for a comic book to be called Fug as early as the fall of 1965. He was in the right place at the right time, the Haight in 1967. And as it turned out, he was the right person. That summer, he sold a few strips to the East Village Other as well as Yarrowstalks, but Crumb’s greatest contribution to the medium would begin with the comic books he created that fall. The first of these to be published was Zap Comix No. 1.
Crumb sold them on the streets of the Haight-Ashbury District. "The first issue was printed in February 1968," Crumb recalled. By this time Dana had joined in in San Francisco. "We folded and stapled all 5,000 copies ourselves," Crumb went on, "and took them out and sold them on the street out of a baby carriage. At first, the hippie shopkeepers on Haight Street looked down their noses at it—‘A comic book? No, I don’t like comic books.’ It looked just like a traditional comic book. It had none of the stylings of your typical psychedelic graphics—the romantic figures, the curvy, flowing shapes. It took a while to catch on."
Although not the first underground comix, Crumb’s established the irreverent genre as a viable outlet for an anti-establishment cartoonist, and Crumb perforce emerged as the hero of the counter-culture (even though he was too iconoclastic to be a member of it). In the next few years, Crumb set the pace for other underground cartoonists, deploying all the characters he’d invented in his sketchbooks. His most enduring character, however, was himself: Crumb made autobiography in comics fashionable. He rejected his overnight fame and most of the blandishments of the mainstream culture, living simply in rural California for a time and then moving to Southern France, far away from the temptations of the capitalistic middle-class culture he so rigorously ridiculed in his comix.
Crumb’s work is not remarkable for any great degree of formal experimentation. Except for an early foray or two into eccentric page layout that attempted to suggest the euphoric disorientation of being stoned, most of his work is quite straight-forward conventional comics storytelling. The story unfurls in a quiet succession of regular-shaped panels arranged with drill-team precision in two or three tiers per page. No flashy special effects. No layout tricks. No dramatically engineered timing. Just storytelling straight ahead in unhued black and white. But in his selection of subjects, Crumb opened broad new vistas by venturing into hitherto unexplored territory. And it was adult territory. At his most sensational, he broke age-old taboos, shattered them; and comics would never again be quite the same.
The first two issues of Zap that he drew, however, are distinguished by their good-humored playfulness rather than by any adventurousness in content. Crumb accurately catalogues his work of 1967-68 as a "sweet, optimistic, LSD-inspired mystic vision drawn in the loveable big-foot style that everyone found so appealing." His old fashioned looking drawings enliven every page with their purely visual comedy: the galoot characters look funny. And they also do funny things, often in baffling ways (which nonetheless seem funny because of the farcical appearance of the characters). In the shorter one- and two-page features, Crumb seems to be toying with the medium, giving us coherent images that, despite the order of their sequence, ultimately make no comedic sense in the ordinary, everyday way. And they doubtless were not intended to make sense in the usual fashion.
As fellow underground cartoonist Jack Jackson (Jaxon) said in recalling the early days of comix, "Comix were for aficionados and dopers and whatnot from the beginning. We were just entertaining our friends, so to speak." In short, these comix were likely to be funny only to those readers who were stoned at the time. (Jaxon, who produced in 1964 one of the earliest comix, God Nose [Snot Reel], about the hilarious dilemmas of a bearded, bulbous-nosed dwarf-sized god trying to fit into the twentieth century, sheds additional light on the matter as he explains the origin of the book and its title: "We were doing a lot of peyote in those days, quite legal at the time, and among other things, it makes your nose drip. So under the influence of this stuff, sitting around with some of these loony guys, we came up with a character called `God Nose.’ It was strictly drug-induced.... Anyway, God Nose was an attempt to render some of the ridiculous absurdities that had come through from these peyote sessions.")
A couple of Crumb’s earliest stories are satirical in an almost traditional way--"City of the Future," which ridicules blissful futuristic visions; and "Whiteman," which lays bare the repressed middle-class male. But in stories like "Meatball" (about an inexplicable rain of meatballs, hits of acid, that transform everyone struck by one) and "Hamburger Hi Jinx" (in Zap #2), Crumb continues to play with the subjects in ways that are most amusing, probably, to tripping readers.
The longest stories in both the first issues of Zap record adventures of Mr. Natural, Crumb’s Afghanistan cab driver cum guru and con man, a diminutive bald, bearded and robed "wise man" with gigantic feet, whose Zen-like pronouncements doubtless make the best sense only to readers who are turned on. Mr. Natural’s nemesis is an up-tight youth named Flakey Foont. After a frustratingly unsatisfying counseling session with Mr. Natural in the desert, Flakey turns to leave, saying, "Ah, you’re nuts." "Don’t you wish," responds the irrepressible Mr. Natural. "Hey," he goes on, "—know what?" "What?" asks Flakey. "That’s what!" says the wise man, exiting stage left. Funny if you’re stoned, no doubt.
The joyful exuberance of this sort of nonsense is repeated in the first issue of Snatch Comics, too, but these comix, with their raw and unbridled portrayal of sexual activity, begin to plumb a personal well of sexual hang-ups that Crumb will continue to explore the rest of his career. Starting with Zap #2 (June 1968), in the stories about an African amazon named Angelfood McSpade, Crumb gives us an unthinking, absolutely uninhibited child of nature, a wholly sexual creature for whom life and sex are one. And in Home Grown Funnies #1 (1971), Whiteman, Crumb’s embodiment of repressed American middle class sexuality, is captured by wild female yeti, who makes him her sex slave. He is rescued when she is taken captive, but back in civilization, he finds he isn’t happy without her. Arranging for her discharge from the institution in which she’s being housed and studied, he tries to make a place for her in his urban household but perceives it’s hopeless; in the last panel of the story, he’s back in the woods with her. And he’s happy.
Again and again in his work of the next several years, Crumb depicts characters with the most insatiable of sexual appetites, endlessly rutting, sweating, gasping, spurting, oozing, and crying out in ecstasy, often in outrageously acrobatic postures. Crumb knew he was breaking taboos: "I still have doubts sometimes while I’m [working]. It’s my linear mind telling me that. There’s always a battle with it; you might call it ego. That civilized part of you that always wants to be rational and logical. And the real self that wants to be magical . . . . We all—everybody— [have] this weird shit going on in our heads. I used to censor myself when I drew cartoons. I just stopped censoring, that’s all." On virtually every page, the cartoonist proclaims his own ideal of femininity: a "robust" woman with "big legs" and a generous derriere. For all his championing of sex, however, Crumb still seemed to harbor a deep distrust for the opposite sex, a resentment stemming, no doubt, from his lack of success with girls as a teenager. In two stories about Eggs Ackley and the Vulture Demonesses (Big Ass #1 and #2, May 1969 and August 1971), Crumb subjects the female characters (who are attired in leather and metal) to the most outlandish (and hilarious) physical abuse in the contortions Eggs forces them into. Despite the degrading treatment, the demonesses continue to display a sexual appetite as voracious as anything in male fantasy.
As a storyteller, Crumb had difficulty with endings in his early work. His tales seldom end with the kind of epiphany of meaning that give short stories their characteristic impact. The resolution of the story about Whiteman and the female yeti is almost a let-down. No balloon bursts. It’s very nearly a predictable commonplace, entirely expected from a "back to nature" advocate. And in stories like "Stinko’s New Car" (Your Hytone Comics, 1971), the conclusion is thoroughly ordinary. Crumb shows us Stinko the Clown indulging the aggressive behavior that having a powerful new car fosters in the male animal: he speeds, runs down pedestrians, and bumps into other vehicles, displaying the most anti-social conduct. At the end of the story, he crashes in his car and winds up swathed in bandages and casts in a hospital bed, saying, "Sigh—you can’t win." He gets his just desserts, but we might well expect just that outcome.
Crumb’s stories, however, are nonetheless effective satire: his message is delivered throughout the body of the narrative in a perfectly unabashed, undisguised manner. He makes his statement by outrageous assault on orthodox sensibilities. Whiteman is revealed as a wholly repressed male who discovers happiness only by discarding his inhibitions; Stinko shows us just how nasty a person can become if he gives in to the power fantasies that driving a new car inspires. Shock is the essence of Crumb satire. His work explodes the underpinnings of the conventional facades behind which we hide thereby revealing what we really are. And depending upon the subject at hand, what we really are might be better—or worse—than what we believe about ourselves.
For the Whole Story of Crumb’s
early career and the rest of the underground birth pangs, dip into my
book, The Art of the Comic Book (for a preview of which, you
can click here).