Crumb is the poster boy for alienated but talented youth making good. He did indeed become a great artist, as well as an underground comic and counterculture hero, whose distinctive style and prolific output helped to revive and reinvent the comic form.
On his first visit to Australia, Crumb, 68, will appear on August 21 at the Graphic Festival at the Sydney Opera House, in conversation with American comic guru and musician Gary Groth. At the festival he will also perform “old-time jukebox” music (his other big love) with Australian band Captain Matchbox.
In January 1966, aged 23, Crumb – bespectacled, short haired, all-around geek – landed in San Francisco, just in time for the Summer of Love. “I remember it very well, it was a major decision in my life,” Crumb says. He’d hitched a ride away from dreary Cleveland, Ohio, and his dreary job illustrating greeting cards. A year before he had turned on (to LSD) and tuned in and now he’d dropped out.
“It was good,” he says. “It was just a partying scene that was really sweet – it didn’t last forever. The drugs, all the hustlers brought it down, but in ’66 and ’67 San Francisco was sweet, an exceptional place.”
Crumb is speaking from his home in France, his base for two decades. He is softly spoken, often with a downward inflection, which makes him seem melancholy, even when he laughs. “It felt like a new era, but there was a lot of nonsense going on too,” he says of the late 60s in San Francisco. “I was alienated from the silliness of the hippies, I didn’t like the music, I didn’t dress like a hippie. I couldn’t do it, I was too uptight.”
He became a popular, prolific cartoonist, turning out comic series including Zap, Head, Bijoux Funnies, Snatch and more. He gave the world Fritz the Cat, Mr Natural and Keep on Truckin’. It wasn’t all sunshine, daisies and acid trips. He copped flak for sexist images of women, and stereotypical characters such as Angelfood McSpade, a black woman. He also wrote a comic called Despair, and tried to avoid the hustlers trying to take advantage of his talents, not always successfully.
“Success was very heady at first, and of course as a guy who was a total loser with women, suddenly I found myself with very attractive girlfriends,” he says. “That was brilliant, it made my head spin. And I did an album cover for Janis Joplin [Cheap Thrills] and that impressed a lot of girls. I went crazy and had a complete crazy life running from one female to another,” he says, laughing. “Oh my God, it nearly killed me, it was nuts. Such were the times.”
Crumb began drawing and constructing comics as a child. He never studied formally, but has never stopped illustrating. About six years ago he embarked on a project that may seem out of character considering the profane nature of much of his work. “I’ve been studying ancient legends and ancient civilisations and ancient scriptures like that for a long time, and the idea built up of doing a comic about Adam and Eve,” he says. That evolved into The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb.
To depict the first book of the Old Testament, Crumb investigated the pre-modern world of Hebrew wandering tribes – farming methods and tents and robes and hairstyles. Among the visual references, he used stills from early Hollywood epics including Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. He based the image of God on a face that came to him once in a dream, a sort of Charlton Heston character, severe but anguished looking. The text is from the King James version and the translations of Robert Alter. Crumb spent four years on the detailed illustrations, sometimes spending weeks at a time alone in a small farmhouse as he worked through the stories, frame by frame, sketched in pencil, then drawn using a crow-quill pen and ink on vellum paper. “The script was all there, it was a bit like laying bricks, panel after panel,” he says.
Crumb knew he wouldn’t please everybody with his biblical work, and he didn’t try. But he was respectful, scholarly and literal as he drew every story of the 50 chapters from the creation of the world and Adam and Eve to the adventures of Joseph and his brothers. Even the ones that don’t make much sense are fully covered, unlike some of the characters: there’s plenty of naked coupling in Crumb’s Genesis. The book, published in 2009, was a critical and commercial success, but the marathon drawing job left Crumb burnt out. “I have to rest awhile before I take on another big job,” he says. “Plus I’m getting arthritis in my hands.”
There’s a unique timing and way of telling a story with comic panels, different to writing novels or a film script. And there are seasons in the life of any artist. Crumb has dropped all his ongoing characters.
“I’m sick of them all. I’m very critical of my own work, when I look back on it I’m not especially proud, I wasn’t really serious enough about it. I’m not sure what it all means for posterity, I have no idea. You can be the world’s most favourite artist, and be totally forgotten a few years later,” he says.
From his Cleveland days, Crumb was close friends with another American legend, melancholy comic book writer Harvey Pekar, who died last year. Crumb illustrated Pekar’s series American Splendour, which later inspired a film about Pekar’s life.
“He was also a child of popular culture, grew up on TV shows and comics just like I did,” Crumb says. “At the same time, people in those kinds of cities are so alienating to any kind of sensitive soul, any kind of sensitivity. Those are rough towns, you know. We grew up in these proletarian environments, we weren’t part of the privileged. And so we fell into comics. His approach to comics, without him realising, was very much in the Yiddish tradition of writing vignettes of everyday life, that don’t really resolve anything, nobody overcomes difficulties, there’s no sense of triumph,” Crumb says. “The triumph, you might say, is in getting through it, getting through another day.”
In his youth, Crumb loved Disney, Donald Duck, Little Lulu and Mad magazine. “When I took LSD and became a hippie, I took those childhood influences and made something else, something new with it,” he says.
When people met the young cartoonist they were surprised. “They thought I was an older guy, the style was so old-fashioned. I’m kind of out of step with the modern world,” he says. “I despise modern graphics, and I find modern architecture deeply depressing, office buildings and modern houses, the way they’re designed make me despise the architectural profession. When I look at old movies and old photographs, life might not have been better in the old days, it might have been worse in a lot of ways, but things sure as hell looked better. Clothing, the houses, the furniture, the cars … “
By the late 80s, Crumb and his wife and collaborator of 40 years, artist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, had left California for the south of France. They have a 17th-century home in a medieval walled village, crammed with books, pictures and a collection of more than 5000 vintage 78rpm recordings. In France, he loves the flea markets (in particular for the old records and vintage pens), the trains and the health system. “It’s very beautiful here,” he says. “In some ways it was a hard adjustment. I didn’t understand that much about the French mentality early on, but I know enough now to keep my mouth shut about things I don’t know anything about.
“I live in my own little world,” he says. “I just moved my little world from California. I just sit in my room here, that’s the kind of guy I am. The guy who sits in his room in his little fantasy world.”