Robert Dennis Crumb (born August 30, 1943), often credited simply as R. Crumb, is an American artist and illustrator recognized for the distinctive style of his drawings and his critical, satirical, subversive view of the American mainstream. He currently lives in Sauve, France.
Crumb was a founder of the underground comix movement and is regarded as its most prominent figure. Though one of the most celebrated of comic book artists, Crumb's entire career has unfolded outside the mainstream comic book publishing industry. One of his most recognized works is the "Keep on Truckin'" comic, which became a widely distributed fixture of pop culture in the 1970s. Others are the characters Devil Girl, Fritz the Cat, and Mr. Natural.
Life and career
Robert Crumb was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He grew up in an unhappy family, surrounded by artistic brothers and sisters, which was chronicled in the 1994 Terry Zwigoff documentary film Crumb. His older brother, Charles Crumb, was an avid comic book fan and relentlessly pushed Robert to draw comic books from childhood into their teenage years. Together they created a comic called Foo; they attempted to sell it at their school and even door to door in their neighborhood, but Robert Crumb has said that they had little success. Eventually, Charles gave up drawing, but Robert kept at it.
The son of a Marine Corps sergeant, Crumb grew up around military bases in Philadelphia and Oceanside, California, and later in Milford, Delaware. In the early 1960s Crumb moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to live with a writer friend, Marty Pahls. There he designed greeting cards for the American Greetings corporation (some of them are still in circulation today) and met a group of young bohemians including Buzzy Linhart, Liz Johnston, and Harvey Pekar. Johnston introduced him to his first wife, Dana Morgan Crumb. Crumb became a friend and protege of his idol, Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman, contributing early Fritz the Cat strips and other work to Kurtzman's short-lived magazine Help! (which featured other budding talents including Terry Gilliam and Gloria Steinem). Encouraged by the reaction to some drawings he'd published in underground newspapers, including Philadelphia's Yarrowstalks, Crumb moved in 1967 to San Francisco, the center of the counterculture movement. Crumb, along with poet and publisher Charles Plymell, self-published the first issue of his Zap Comix in early 1968, and its success soon established Crumb as the best-known artist of the underground comix movement.
Crumb's artwork referenced the detail of early 20th-century cartoon styles. However, his stories were frequently satirical, sexual and politically outrageous, particularly in the context of comic books, which, thanks to the enforcement of the Comics Code, were generally wholesome children's fare. He soon inspired and attracted a number of other artists who were excited by the possibilities of publishing countercultural comic books. Crumb shared the pages of later issues of Zap with a collective of cartoonists: Spain Rodriguez, Rick Griffin, S. Clay Wilson, Victor Moscoso, Robert Williams and Gilbert Shelton.
In the pages of Zap, the East Village Other, Oz, Gothic Blimp Works, Motor City, Yellow Dog and scores of other comix and counterculture publications, Crumb created characters that became counterculture icons. The best-known of these are Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat. Crumb's work was suddenly in great demand, and Crumb himself became an anti-establishment icon, a figure who genuinely resisted "selling out." His friend Janis Joplin hired him to draw the artwork for the cover of her band's album Cheap Thrills. Asked to illustrate an album cover for The Rolling Stones, Crumb rejected their offer because he hated the band's music. Animation director Ralph Bakshi made a feature-length animated film of Fritz the Cat (the first animated film to garner an "X" rating), and the film was a box-office success. Crumb was highly ambivalent about the project and has claimed that his wife signed the rights to Fritz over to Bakshi when Crumb was away. Crumb disliked the finished film so much that he killed the fictional cat in his comics (an ostrich-woman stabbed the pompous movie-star Fritz in the head with an ice pick). He has since refused other lucrative offers to base films on his work. Crumb and Zwigoff collaborated on a script based on Crumb's story Whiteman Meets Bigfoot. It was never filmed, but it did turn into a short-lived stage production.
The 1970s were a difficult decade for Crumb, as he lost the legal rights to his ubiquitous Keep on Truckin' cartoon and endured protracted legal battles with the Internal Revenue Service. His work became more bitter and satirical, and was outright misanthropic by the time he began Weirdo, the influential comics anthology that ran through the 1980s. Crumb was the first editor, but even after he stepped down from that position he had a story in every issue and usually drew the covers. In 1985, Crumb illustrated the 10th anniversary edition of Edward Abbey's "The Monkey Wrench Gang".
The Crumb documentary became a surprise hit in 1994, introducing Crumb to a whole new generation. Since then he has become an occasional contributor to The New Yorker, producing covers and multi-page stories. In recent years, he has also dabbled in fine art paintings and sculpture, creating a lifesize statue of one of his "Vulture Demoness" characters and another of his character Devil Girl in a contorted, sexualized and anatomically dubious pose that has her sitting on her own head.
Influences and critical response
Robert Crumb’s cartooning style draws on the work of cartoon artists from earlier generations, including Billy De Beck (Barney Google), C.E. Brock (an old story book illustrator), Gene Ahern’s comic strips, George Baker (Sad Sack), the Merrie Melodies animated characters of the 1930s, Sidney Smith (The Gumps), Rube Goldberg work, E.C. Segar (Popeye) and Bud Fisher (Mutt and Jeff). Crumb has cited Carl Barks, who illustrated Disney's "Donald Duck" comic books and John Stanley (Little Lulu) as formative influences on his narrative approach, as well as Kurtzman. In 2005, in an appearance in New York City with Hughes, Crumb also credited "Little Orphan Annie" creator Harold Gray as one of his influences. However Crumb has cited his extensive LSD use as the factor that led him to develop his unique style (The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book; p. 67).
Crumb's comic artwork has elicited sharply divided commentary from readers and critics. He has been hailed as one of the century's greatest artists, and compared to literary satirists Rabelais, Jonathan Swift, and Mark Twain. Art critic Robert Hughes has likened Crumb to Albrecht Dürer, Brueghel and Francisco Goya. Others, including comics historian Trina Robbins and feminist Deirdre English denounce Crumb's work as socially degrading and emotionally immature misogynistic pornography. Crumb has been vague and equivocal about this criticism. He has admitted he has a strong "fear of women" and has apologized many times for the more extreme elements of his work, calling them "masturbatory", but he has also dismissed critics like Robbins as "uptight" and told The Comics Journal that "we all have a little Trina in our brains", namely a repressive voice that needs to be overcome. Crumb's racial imagery, often harking back to the extreme racial caricatures of the early 20th century, has also caused much controversy. Crumb typically defends this work by saying he is expressing the racism endemic to American culture, and that he does not endorse racism himself. In the '90s many racist groups reprinted his satirical story "When the Niggers Take Over America"Comic Link (Weirdo #28, 1993) and "When the Goddamn Jews Take Over"Comic Link (Weirdo #28, 1993), much to Crumb's horror.
Crumb remains a prominent figure, as both artist and influence, within the alternative comics milieu, hailed as a genius by such talents as Jaime Hernandez, Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware.
He is currently at work on "Robert Crumb's Book of Genesis", an adaptation of the Bible's first chapter, while R. Crumb's Sex Obsessions, a collection of his most personally revealing sexually oriented drawings and comic strips, will be released from TASCHEN publishing in November 2007.
Harvey Pekar was a friend who shared Crumb's love of 78 rpm records. Pekar solicited Crumb's help to illustrate an autobiographical series of comics about Pekar's own life called American Splendor. These were later adapted into a movie of the same name. The role of Crumb himself in that film was portrayed by James Urbaniak.
A theatrical production based on his work was produced at Duke University in the early 1990s. Directed by Johnny Simons, the development of the play was supervised by Crumb, who also served as set designer, drawing larger-than-life representations of some of his most famous characters all over the floors and walls of the set.
The 1994 documentary film Crumb, focusing on Crumb and his work in relation to his family life and two troubled brothers, introduced Crumb and his work to a younger audience. The film was directed by Crumb's long-time friend Terry Zwigoff.
In the mid-1990s Crumb traded six of his sketchbooks for a townhouse in Sauve, a small village in the South of France, where he moved with his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb (also a well-known "underground" cartoonist) and their daughter, Sophie (herself a comic artist). He also has a son, Jesse Crumb, by his first wife Dana. Jesse is an accomplished artist in his own right, and their relationship is briefly explored in Crumb, with R. giving Jesse some drawing tips. Jesse founded the website CrumbProducts.com which is now operated by family and friends as RCrumb.com.
Crumb is an avid collector of 78 rpm phonograph records; he has over 5000 records as of 2004. A selection of 24 songs from his collection called Gay Life in Dikanka: R. Crumb's Old-Time Favorites was issued on CD in 2000 by the Swedish record company Bakhåll, with a cover painting by Crumb. In 2003, the collection was the source for Hot Women: Women Singers From The Torrid Regions Of The World, his compilation of world music from Mexico, Cuba, Turkey, Burma, and Tahiti. All but two of the 24 tracks were recorded between 1927 and 1934. Crumb also hosted a BBC radio series featuring his favorite records.
In the 1970s, three albums of Crumb and his own band R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders were released on Blue Goose Records, produced by his friend and fellow collector, Nick Perls. The group played old blues, white jazz and some original tunes, mostly with a 1920's pop / novelty sensibility. Most of the vocals for the band were sung by Crumb himself. Terry Zwigoff and underground comix artist Robert Armstrong were also in the band. In addition, a limited edition 12" 78 rpm record of decidedly off-color novelty material was released on red vinyl (under the label "Red Goose"). The band achieved some success in the '70s and early '80s, even turning down the chance to perform on Saturday Night Live. In the '90s, the band reunited briefly to perform in one episode of the weekly A Prairie Home Companion radio program. Crumb currently plays banjo and mandolin (lefthanded) with the French band Les Primitifs du Futur. He also co-hosted with fellow collector Jerry Zolten a one-hour public radio program special, Chimpin' the Blues, featuring rare 78s from the dawn of the blues. Crumb has frequently drawn comics about his musical interests.
In its list of the 100 Greatest English Comics of the 20th Century, the Comics Journal filled four slots with Crumb work: #10 for his Weirdo stories, #19 for his sketchbooks (published by Fantagraphics, the same company that publishes The Comics Journal), #61 for American Splendor (to which Crumb is a regular contributor), and #80 for Zap Comics.
In 2006, Crumb brought legal action against Amazon.com after the website used a version of his widely recognizable "Keep On Truckin'" character. The case is expected to be settled out of court.
Also in 2006, Sirius Radio host Howard Stern revealed that Crumb had contacted his show, offering to swap some of his art prints in exchange for a subscription to Sirius that he could listen in France. However, it was not Robert Crumb who contacted the Howard Stern Show. Crumb is not a listener to the show and claims that he's never even heard it. The actual caller was his brother-in-law Alex, who moved to France from New York and deals in R. Crumb prints. The whole incident was an embarrassment for Crumb, who has done much to help out many members of his family.
In the 2000s, Crumb became increasingly ambivalent about continuing to contribute to new issues of Zap. By issue #14 he announced to the other artists he wasn't interested in continuing; this resulted in a brief physical altercation with Victor Moscoso, in which Moscoso slapped Crumb on the shoulder and called him "Mr. Fucking Moviestar!" The incident was recounted several times in issue #14 by the artists involved (including Crumb), and artist Paul Mavrides contributed a strip in which Moscoso kills Crumb with a Rapidograph pen in a parody of Fritz the Cat's death scene.
"Devil Girl Choco-Bars"
In 1994, Kitchen Sink Konfections, a branch of comic book publisher Kitchen Sink Enterprises, used his character Devil Girl to promote chocolate candy bars named "Devil Girl Choco-Bar". Promotion for the candy bar was most unusual, and exhibited a rare form of candor in advertising.
The candy bar's slogan was "It's BAD For You!".
The wrapper's artwork was printed onto a promotional lapel button: Devil Girl giving a knowing wink and a voluptuous smile to the reader while saying "Eat me!".
The back of the wrapper read "7 Evils in One! 1-Delicious Taste; 2-Quick, cheap buzz; 3-Bad for your health; 4-Leads to hard drugs; 5-Waste of money; 6-Made by sleazy businessmen; 7-Exploits women".
The bottom of the display box featured the following text written by Crumb himself: A word to wholesalers and retailers of the Devil Girl Choco-Bar. It may seem to you the depths of marketing ignorance to state in bold letters on the package 'IT'S BAD FOR YOU', but think about it... this is a brilliant strategy in consideration of kids today; a stupid, know-nothing generation of brain-dead morons who want nothing more than to be 'BAD'. We're certain this morally bankrupt horde of 'slackers' will eat up this low-grade product as fast as you can place it on your candy counter. The sharp, up-to-date business operator will not fail to perceive the beauty - and reap the profits - in the hook 'IT'S BAD FOR YOU!'.
Kitchen Sink folded in 1998 and the candy bars are no longer in production, but the wrappers, display boxes and advertising signs are now sought-after collectables. A second product, "Devil Girl Hot Kisses", a hot cinnamon flavored candy, was also produced. It is back in production by Cheesy Products.