Portrait of the Artist as an Old Crank

Sketches of R. Crumb

Robert Crumb laughs a lot. In virtually every scene of Crumb, Terry Zwigoff's absorbing film portrait, the infamous comics artist lets loose with a chuckle or snort or, most often, a kind of brittle snigger. At first, Crumb's laughter seems in character and perfectly natural (not to be confused with his character Mr. Natural); after all, finding humor in things, making fun, provoking laughs, is what R. Crumb (his professional monicker) does. It's his gift, his trade, the source of his fame.

But the more you hear it, the more Crumb's laughter seems to carry more than just the sound of his own amusement. Also embedded in it is a sliver of pain, and there's a nervous quality, too: the dull ring of a defense mechanism, a shield that goes up when the subject gets too close to home, a buffer between Crumb's social being and some primal impulses surging within him. Crack the thin surface of this man's comic response and you'll find some very deep, sometimes very dark waters swirling below.

But what could be more apt for this pioneer of underground comix? His work is known for its broad, bawdy humor, but his gags mostly play on social and sexual anxieties deep in the souls of modern guys and gals. It may not be apparent in what is arguably Crumb's most famous image - the loose-limbed, large-footed happy traveler of "Keep on Truckin'," who's adorned everything from pocket patches to mud flaps in the 25 years since he debuted - but it is in virtually all the rest of his scratchy ink visions: in the squawling babe and Jemima mammy and blues-roaring women of his oft-copied 1968 album cover for Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Co.; in sly, smooth-talking Fritz the Cat, ever on the sexual prowl; in the Amazon-figured, Sambo-headed Angelfood McSpade; in the constipated Whiteman, rigid in his gray flannel suit; the rapacious Devil Girl, flicking her foot-long tongue; in every woman with an outsized posterior and every man with a swollen crotch; even in the bald-pated, snowy-bearded con man-cum-guru Mr. Natural. Crumb's characters are the cartoon clowns of an earlier era schlepping through today's urban landscape, their appetites set free to eat, drink, smoke, toke, shoot up, get down, sneak around, steal, lie, con, shout, shit, piss, screw, and engage in any base human activity to riotous excess. Beyond their farcical entanglements and protracted pratfalls, they are our egos, superegos, and ids responding to the modern world - to issues of sex and race, conformity and authority, poverty and violence, commercialism and vegetarianism - on our most primal - and often most honest - level.

It is the combination of his total command of the comics medium and his total honesty that made Crumb the breakthrough artist of underground comix. As Austin artist Jack Jackson (aka Jaxon) notes (see sidebar), the underground books had been around, tweaking the Establishment's nose, for three or four years when Crumb's first issue of Zap appeared in 1968. But the audience for these books was still tiny, the small percentage of the public who were conscious of the counterculture by the mid-Sixties. With Crumb's arrival, though, underground comix gained a voice that could be heard by the mainstream. His characters were the funny animals and sunny spokesmen of the Hollywood cartoons and Madison Avenue ads of the Forties and Fifties. We recognized them; hell, on some level, we were them. And seeing these symbols of a straighter era get liberated, to be open and unrestrained and outrageous even, meant that we might be freed in some way, too. In the uninhibitedness and sassiness of Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, the country found new role models.

Of course, Crumb's success was not without its prices. The cartoonist's best-known images became sources of pain for him. "Keep on Truckin'" was reproduced widely without Crumb's authority; a judge ruled that the artist did not own the image; and the IRS socked him with a big bill for royalties that took him years to pay off. Fritz became the star of an animated film by Ralph Bakshi, and Crumb was so disgusted by the result that he killed the character with an ice pick through the head. Perhaps the most difficult for Crumb in the long run was the way the public began to perceive him as a person. The more "honest" he was on the page - exploring his ideas and fantasies through not just cartoon characters but autobiographical strips - the more he came to be viewed as a weirdo. His relationships with women, his sexual neuroses, his social and political attitudes were all squiggled into panels and set down in sequences of little boxes. While readers enjoyed seeing Crumb's life rendered in print and identified with many of his feelings and experiences, they were ultimately unnerved by his openness about so many intimate areas of his life. He was labeled a misfit, misogynist, misanthrope, bigot, oddball, crank. To some extent, Crumb fed - and feeds - the fire of this attitude, maintaining a very private existence and frequently portraying himself in his own comics as Crumb the crank. But the public's perception of him is nonetheless troubling to the artist.

Terry Zwigoff's film covers all this ground in the way a competent documentary should and adds the background biographical material that provides context in which to enhance our understanding of Crumb's style and significance as an artist. We get accounts of his development of Zap, the onset of fame and Crumb's difficult struggle with it, the controversies over his material, and Crumb's own reflections on his life and work. And the film is satisfying - even entertaining - in its presentation of this material. It includes substantial amounts of footage of the artist's work, as well as plenty of wry commentary by Crumb himself, imbuing the piece with the same tart, twisted comic sensibility of the Crumb comics.

But in the same way that Crumb's material yields deeper levels of complexity upon closer reading, Zwigoff's documentary goes well beyond a surface examination of its subject's personality and work. Resonating throughout Crumb are multiple questions about the nature of the artist's relationship to his life and his art: how much of his experience should be fodder for his work, what relationships are free to be translated into one more page of material, whether art is a force that may serve to channel the energy of one's life or may consume it. Because so much of Crumb's work is autobiographical in nature, these are ongoing concerns for the cartoonist. Zwigoff is able to get Crumb to ruminate on camera about his feelings on the subject, but just as importantly, he is able to get such figures as Aline Kominsky (Crumb's wife) and Dana Crumb (the artist's first wife), as well as a couple of Crumb's former girlfriends, to comment on their feelings about being served to the public in R. Crumb's comics. Given Crumb's obsessions with women, the female voices included here are particularly provocative and illuminating.

Much more troubling are the voices of Crumb's two brothers, Charles and Max. Both are men with artistic talent of a quality similar to Robert's, perhaps even equal to it, yet neither of them utilized their talent to the degree that Robert did. Charles, the elder brother, is shown in the film as a middle-aged man living in his mother's house, reading and re-reading tattered paperbacks to pass the time. He is articulate, even witty, but his world is closed. Max, the younger brother, lives a hermetic existence in a San Francisco flophouse, occasionally painting surreal portraits but more frequently meditating on a bed of nails. These are men of troubled minds, who admit to compulsive behavior and suicidal dreams. But growing up, they shared with Robert an interest in comics that led them to draw and write their own books. Zwigoff displays some of these works, and the talent of Robert Crumb's siblings is evident. What happened to them? Zwigoff has no pat answer, but his film's intense focus on the relationship of the brothers at least reveals what a powerful force art can be in a life. The filmmaker himself says, "What interested me was not the family itself, but the artwork of the family. It's sort of a gift for that whole family. There's so much talent or energy in those brothers. But it's sort of a risky business. You have to know how to channel it or it becomes very dangerous."

Part of what makes the film resonate on so many levels is the personal quality with which Zwigoff has imbued it. Crumb operates on a level of intimacy that reflects the filmmaker's 25-year friendship with the subject. He is never afraid to move the camera close, whether to focus on the face of the artist or on his work. He values the details and wants to make sure we can see them full-blown. What's more, he lingers on them. When Crumb makes a reference to a particularly outrageous story he did, Zwigoff allows us to see the whole piece, panel by panel, page by page. In sharing Crumb's passion for old blues music, Zwigoff plays "Last Kind Word Blues" in its entirety. These are decisions that appear to fly in the face of commercial filmmaking, but they reflect the kind of sensitivity Zwigoff had for his subject that makes Crumb not only a superlative documentary but one that is true in spirit. Crumb is funny and dark and amazing, and this film about him is precisely the same.

Which makes the subject's chilly reaction to the film about him every bit as ironic as those lightning-bolt-up-the-ass last panels he puts in his comics. R. Crumb is upset by the film, not because it's poorly done or fabricates facts but because it reveals too much about him! He said as much in a two-page strip published in The New Yorker in late April. In the strip, Crumb and his wife Aline (who co-wrote and co-drew the piece) discuss having seen the documentary and how strange they feel about how much of their lives it depicts. This from a man who has built a career on sharing all his thoughts and experiences - especially his private ones - in print. Needless to say, Zwigoff was a bit taken aback by his friend's response. "His reaction really puzzled me. I said to him, `You know, this comic strip, I can tell you're kidding in parts of it, but you seem really serious, too.' I thought he was being this hypocrite. So I told him, `But you describe great art as this peek through this keyhole at the life of the artist. I don't see how you can say that and then act like the film is such a surprise.' And he said, `In the movie there's no way that I can control it. In the comics, I can. It's just too painful.' So I said, `Well, I guess I always bought your story.' He professes this profound honesty with his readers, and he doesn't really feel it. I could perfectly understand not sharing this stuff but I don't go around saying that I think everything in my life is open for my art."

While the film has created some friction between Crumb and Zwigoff, it has not sundered their friendship or dimmed the filmmaker's fascination with his subject. Zwigoff spent six years shooting footage of Robert Crumb and his life and says he might have continued for years more if he hadn't made himself stop and begin shaping what he had into a film. Even now, as the completed Crumb is slotted into theatres and film festivals across the country, Zwigoff speaks eagerly of being able to add to his portrait of R. Crumb: via a proposed laserdisc edition which would include outtakes and additional footage. And there is a story that he thinks would bring the story full circle, a link between the past and the future.

"I've only just now come up the perfect ending," Zwigoff says. "It's this thing Robert told me about his daughter Sophie. She's always kept up with her drawing and drawn in her own way until just recently. He said that his daughter found the old comics that Charles made as a kid, when he was drawing in that style that was all lines and wrinkles. For the last couple of months now, she always draws in that style." n

Crumbbegins an exclusive Austin engagement at the Dobie Theatre on Friday, June 30.

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