Robert Crumb

crumb

Robert Crumb (b. 1943) is an American artist, illustrator and musician recognized for the distinctive style of his drawings and his critical, satirical, subversive view of the American mainstream. 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.

Crumb was in Philadelphia. His father, Charles, was a career officer in the United States Marine Corps; his mother, Beatrice, was a housewife who reportedly abused diet pills and amphetamines. Their marriage was unhappy and the children—Robert, Charles, Maxon, Sandra and Carol—were frequent witnesses to their parents’ loud arguments.

Crumb’s first job as an artist was for the Topps company. He was hired by Woody Gelman and drew illustrations for an internal publication that offered premiums to gum salesmen such as toasters and blenders. Crumb’s first major production was a hardcover graphic novel entitled ‘The Yum Yum Book’ which he drew in 1963. It is a ‘fractured fairy tale’ concerning a frog named Oggie. Oggie climbs a magic beanstalk to escape the fools of earth and there in the clouds falls in love with a giant, silly, sexy girl named Guntra who wants only to devour the frog. This story also introduces the character of Fritz the Cat.

In the mid 1960s, Crumb left home and moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he designed greeting cards for the American Greetings corporation, and met a group of young bohemians including Buzzy Linhart, Liz Johnston, and others. Johnston introduced him to his future wife, Dana Morgan. In 1967, encouraged by the reaction to some drawings he had published in underground newspapers, including Philadelphia’s ‘Yarrowstalks,’ Crumb moved to San Francisco, the center of the counterculture movement. Crumb, with the backing of Don Donahue, published the first issue of his Zap Comix in 1968, printed by Beat poet Charles Plymell. After years in California, and a second marriage to Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Crumb and family moved to a small village near Sauve in southern France in 1993, where he now resides.

Crumb is a prolific artist and contributed to many of the seminal works of the underground comics movement in the 1960s, including being a founder of ‘Zap Comix,’ contributing to all 16 issues, and additionally contributing to the ‘East Village Other’ and many other publications including a variety of one-off and anthology comics. During this time, inspired by psychedelics and cartoons from the 1920s and 1930s, he introduced a wide variety of characters that became extremely popular, including Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural. Sexual themes abounded in all these projects, often shading into scatological and pornographic comics. In the mid-1970s, he contributed to the ‘Arcade’ anthology, and in the 1980s, to ‘Weirdo’ (which he created and co-edited).

As Crumb got older, his comic work became more autobiographical. He frequently collaborates with his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, on comics. His complete comics and selections from his sketchbooks have been published by Fantagraphics in seventeen volumes of comics and ten volumes of sketches to date. He contributes regularly to ‘Mineshaft’ magazine.

In 2009, he published his illustrated graphic novel version of the ‘Book of Genesis.’ The book includes annotations explaining his reactions to Biblical stories. It was a four-year effort and does not rewrite any part of the text. Crumb did extensive research in the earlier language versions of the Bible to support the interpretations. It contains all 50 chapters of Genesis and comes with a warning on its cover: ‘Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors.’

A peer in the underground comics field, Victor Moscoso, commented about his first impression of Crumb’s work, in the mid-1960s, before meeting Crumb in person: ‘I couldn’t tell if it was an old man drawing young, or a young man drawing old.’ Robert Crumb’s cartooning style has drawn 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’), Isadore Freleng’s drawings for the early ‘Merrie Melodies’ and ‘Looney Tunes’ of the 1930s, Sidney Smith (‘The Gumps’), Rube Goldberg, 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 Harvey Kurtzman (founder of ‘Mad’ magazine).

Crumb has also cited his extensive LSD use as a factor that led him to develop his unique style.

In the early 1980s, Crumb collaborated with writer Charles Bukowski on a series of comic books, featuring Crumb’s art and Bukowski’s writing.

Crumb’s collaboration with David Zane Mairowitz, the illustrated, part-comic biography and bibliography ‘Introducing Kafka,’ aka Kafka for beginners, is one of his less sexual- and satire-oriented, comparably highbrow works since the 1990s.

A friend of Harvey Pekar, Crumb illustrated many of the award winning ‘American Splendor’ comics by Pekar including the first issues (1976).

Crumb collaborates with his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, on many strips and comics, including ‘Self-Loathing Comics’ and work published in ‘The New Yorker.’

Crumb’s work also appeared in ‘Nasty Tales,’ a 1970s British underground comic. The publishers were acquitted in a celebrated 1972 obscenity trial. Giving evidence at the trial, one of the defendants said of Crumb: ‘He is the most outstanding, certainly the most interesting, artist to appear from the underground, and this (Dirty Dog) is Rabelaisian satire of a very high order. He is using coarseness quite deliberately in order to get across a view of social hypocrisy.’

Crumb has created several sets of trading cards. His full-color, pen & ink portraits of 36 early great blues singers and musicians is entitled ‘Heroes of the Blues Trading Cards.’ In the fashion of baseball cards, the back of each card contains a short bio written by blues scholar Stephen Calt. Crumb’s portraits capture the humanity and individuality of each performer. Other similar sets of cards published since that time are entitled, ‘Early Jazz Greats’ and ‘Pioneers of Country Music.’

Crumb has frequently drawn comics about his musical interests in blues, country, bluegrass, cajun, French Bal-musette, jazz, big band and swing music from the 1920s and 30’s, and they also heavily influenced the soundtrack choices for his band mate Zwigoff’s 1994 ‘Crumb’ documentary.

Crumb was the leader of the band R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders, for which he sang lead vocals, wrote several songs and played banjo and other instruments. Crumb often plays mandolin with Eden and John’s East River String Band and has drawn three covers for them.  He was – together with Dominique Cravic – the founder of ‘Les Primitifs du Futur,’ a band based on French musette/folk, jazz and blues.

Crumb has also released CDs anthologizing old original performances gleaned from collectible 78 RPM phonograph records. His ‘That’s What I Call Sweet Music’ was released in 1999. His ‘Hot Women: Women Singers from the Torrid Regions’ was released in 2009. Naturally, Crumb drew the cover art for these CDs as well.

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