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Profile: Robert Crumb

He has been called a pervert, a misogynist and one of the most important comic book artists ever. Here is Robert Crumb at Comic Con India 2012 as he talks about his life, his work and LSD.

28 Feb, 2012

Vishad Sharma

Contributing Writer

For the uninitiated, Crumb is possibly one of the most important comic book creators to have ever existed. His journey starts in the 1960s when he became part of the underground comics publishing scene in San Francisco and then went on to create characters and comics that have influenced and continue to influence years of readers and comic book creators. This is probably his most recognized work

Crumb's Keep On Truckin'

I waited by the stage at Dilli Haat for the Robert Crumb retrospective that was about to begin. I am seated on the cold ground because all the seats around the stage were taken. There were people standing around me talking about Crumb. “What was his most famous work? I forget yaar…” “We’ll find out soon enough.” “Have you always been a fan of Crumb?” “I was a fan of him as an artist for a long time but then I saw this movie about his life and then I’m a fan of him as a person.” I listen to these exchanges and wince. A couple of guys are discussing Crumb and LSD. “I think LSD really influenced his art. I want to ask him about his art before and after LSD.”

The event begins and I am saved from listening to any more comments. Gary Groth (more about him here) and Robert Crumb come on to the stage. The slick tiles on the periphery of the stage were dangerous and almost made me slip when I was walking on them. They exercise their malice on the 68-year-old Crumb and he trips but luckily, he doesn’t fall. The only thing the guys standing behind me had to say was, “That’s such a Crumb entry, man.”

Crumb reacts as Gary Groth recounts Crumb's childhood

Hearing this, I almost want to leave but Groth and Crumb start talking. Almost immediately they talk about Crumb’s childhood, his mother (who was addicted to amphetamines), his father (who didn’t understand why his sons would read comics), and his brother (who would get angry if he, Robert, didn’t draw good comics). “My brother Charles loved comics and we’d spend hours drawing or reading comics.” Recounting a trip to Disneyland, when it first opened in Anaheim, California, Crumb reminisces, “It was the most exciting day of our lives. Charles worshiped Disney.”

"Dad never understood our interest in comics. We were real 'nerds' or 'comic book geeks'" -Crumb

“Charles loved Disney because he was very interested in telling stories. I like to draw. I don’t want to use art just as a means of telling a story. Art Spiegelman is a great storyteller but not that great an artist. I was more into Carl Barks, who was a great storyteller and a great artist. I always thought more of myself as an artist than a storyteller.” The conversation turns to Harvey Kurtzman, who was Crumb’s idol and published some of his first strips in the magazine Help! Crumb also worked on a few articles for the magazine in the 1960s such as this one on Bulgaria.

Crumb was on honeymoon in Europe when Kurtzman contacted him to do this 'sketchbook report' on Bulgaria. "I wanted to settle down there. They were really eager to set it up for me too. They really wanted a defector from the USA." - Crumb

After the introduction of Crumb in the 1960s, the talk quickly turns to LSD, San Francisco and hippies. Crumb talks about how it was easier living in the USA in the 1960s because you could get by with a small amount of money and it was easy to earn that. He recounts his first LSD experience in 1965, after which he stopped taking cartooning so seriously. “This was when LSD was still legal and was made by a company called Sandoz. It was declared illegal in 1966 after which the quality of LSD greatly declined because it was being made by guys in labs. It was really bad LSD.” Crumb asks the crowd about LSD in India, prompting several enthusiastic responses but then says, “LSD makes it harder for you to cope with the practical aspects of reality.” The LSD gave Crumb what he describes as ‘iconographic’ images and characters such as Mr Natural and Mr. Snoid.

Cover of The Complete Crumb Comics Vol 4 published by Fantagraphics Books.

Zap Comix came in 1968 and ran for 16 issues that featured Crumb and many other prominent artists such as S. Clay Wilson, Victor Moscoso, ‘Spain’ Rodriguez and Gilbert Shelton. The comic was very successful and led to a publishing deal with Ballantine Books for a Fritz The Cat book. The second consequence of Zap Comix was the conception of an animated feature film by Ralph Bakshi featuring Fritz The Cat. The cartoon went on to become infamous and was the first X-rated animated feature ever but Crumb was so dissatisfied with the film that he killed Fritz in a later strip by an ex-girlfriend.

The Death of Fritz The Cat

With the advent of the 1970s, Crumb felt, “the optimism of the 1960s was sort of dead. Everything was falling apart. People had been expecting a revolution but nothing changed.” Groth asks him what the revolution was supposed to bring about and Crumb laughs telling him the question is a good one and then replies, “I think the idea was large corporations shouldn’t control everything.” Groth notes that this idea hasn’t gone anywhere to which Crumb quips, “It went up against the wall!”

The conversation turns into a bit of a downer with the discussion moving to Crumb’s suicidal tendencies and S Clay Wilson’s alcoholism. The 1970s were not a good time for Robert Crumb but the 1980s saw him return to form with comics satirizing yuppies.

"The yuppies made food and coffee much better in America. They used to insist on Italian coffee and other things. American coffee was awful before that so that's one good thing they did. I knew a yuppie couple that once decorated their Christmas tree with hundred dollar bills" - Crumb

The 1980s also saw Crumb editing and contributing to the comics anthology Weirdo. The period also saw most of his work turning autobiographical. He routinely collaborated with his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb during this period. On making comics with her, he says, “Aline is like a natural-born Jewish comedian. Working with her was very easy. It was like when I used to work with Charles.” Groth then moves to the 1990s when Crumb did a lot of illustration work such as a Goldilocks and The Three Bears story in Weirdo, a book about Kafka called Introducing Kafka.

A page from Introducing Kafka

This is also around the time when Crumb left the USA and moved to France. The next big project he worked on was an illustrated version of The Book of Genesis from The Bible that came out recently. Apart from this, Crumb also contributes to Mineshaft magazine.

A page from The Book Of Genesis Illustrated By R.Crumb. "The publishers offered me a lot of money for this" - Crumb.

After the talk ends and Crumb answers questions from the audience. However, he tries walking away whenever there is a slight pause as some nervous fan gathers courage to ask a question. He then signs autographs for fans (such as myself). I gift him a vinyl record for which he thanks me and I ask him to sign a copy of the X-Men (NOW THE ONLY COPY OF AN X-MEN COMIC SIGNED BY ROBERT CRUMB) which he does, with some slight irritation and smiles as he signs things for other people.

It has been something of an experience listening to Crumb even though I knew most of the things about his life beforehand – gleaned from articles over the internet and documentaries. It becomes very apparent that Crumb does not put on a front and is almost always very honest about the things he says or does. This has often lead to him being demonised by people and the media which explains, to some extent, why he may have been reticent to speak to the Indian media. There is so much more that can be written about Crumb and how important he is but there is no better way to understand that than by fighting your way through his body of work. So here goes.

More on the second edition of Comic Con India here.

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