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Robert Crumb’s canceled trip to Australia, and the artist living in fear, inside his own head

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Robert Crumb was one of the most important of the Underground Cartoonists of the late 1960s-mid 1970s. He became an icon thanks to creations like “Fritz the Cat” and “Mr. Natural,” the original Zap Comix, and the cover of the Big Brother and the Holding Company album “Cheap Thrills.” His artistic skills are among the best in the history of comics.

His work was fantastically personal. The subject matter was usually bleak, and featured caricatures of sexual violence and depravity that were so exaggerated as to be almost quaint. Very often, it read like the fever dreams of a teenage virgin fantasizing about what he would do with an enormous woman with mythical proportions of chest and buttocks. Crumb’s fantasies were, for the most part, specific to himself, and so reading his works is too often like listening to someone tell you about the really weird dream he had last night. Any satirical elements or broader social commentary tended to be superficial at best, and usually accidental. The greatest tension in his work is the dichotomy of artist vs. diarist. And when he ventures outside his “let-me-tell-you-about-the-really-weird-dream-I-had-last-night” comfort zone, he tends to lose focus. By way of example, I offer what is one of Mr. Crumb’s more famous illustrations, which I actually recently saw hanging as a poster in a coffee/burrito shop in Portland:

My answer to this bit of gimcrackery is “So what?” Is Mr. Crumb making a statement about the destruction of our beautiful natural resources, or his celebrating the progress of man? Yes, there is less forest land in America than there was when America was born, but we’re doing much more to protect what we have.

About 30 percent of the 2.3 billion acres of land area (745 million acres) in the U.S. is forest today as compared to about one-half in 1630 (1.0 billion acres). Some 300 million acres of forest land have been converted to other uses since 1630, predominantly because of agricultural uses in the East.

The forest resources of the U.S. have continued improving in general condition and quality, as measured by increased average size and volume of trees. This trend has been evident since the 1960s and before. The total forestland acreage has remained stable since 1900.

Not to be glib about this — unlike Mr. Crumb’s illustration, which almost the very definition of glib — in a country whose human population has increased to more than 300 million, we have actually found ways to protect our unspoiled nature, not to senselessly destroy it. And most of us like living in cities, including Portland. It beats living in the woods.

So again, I ask, is Mr. Crumb criticizing or celebrating? When it comes to some of Mr. Crumb’s work, even he himself is at a loss as to explain it.

I have no defence. I can’t explain why I drew all those crazy pictures. I had to do it. Maybe I should have my pencils and pens taken away from me. I don’t know.

Of course, the artist should never “explain” why he created something. An artist should not make excuses for himself. That is authorial trespass, and authorial trespass is bullshit. But Mr. Crumb felt motivated to compose the sentences quoted above by a recent incident in Australia, where he was scheduled to appear at The Graphic festival at the Sydney Opera House on August 21 and 22. That appearance has been canceled, by Mr. Crumb himself.

Sorry, folks. I do feel bad, as I hate letting people down. But I decided I’d rather bear the pain of letting people down than subjecting my long-suffering wife to a 10-day period of dread and anxiety for my well-being. She’s been awfully nice to me since I told her I wasn’t going! She baked a chocolate cake even!

In anticipation of that appearance in Australia, Mr. Crumb had given an interview in which he frankly discussed how he worked his own particular fetishes into his art.

He was notorious for his fetish for jumping on the backs of women and going for piggyback rides, a fetish that found its way into his art.

”It was easier to jump on them once I got into the sack with them. Getting into the sack with people, that’s tough,” he says. ”It’s a touchy business, fraught with pregnancy and babies and deep intimacy and courting.”

The avoidance of real intimacy and emotion is a recurring theme in Mr. Crumb’s work. It’s another reason why his work can be so off-putting. And, for all of its self-revelation, his works never really did any self-examination — as if merely presenting his peculiar preoccupations was as far as he needed to go. Mr. Crumb was afraid of intimacy, even with himself!

Following the announcement that Mr. Crumb was to be feted at the Graphic festival, an article appeared in the Daily Telegraph. The article, headlined, Smutty show a comic outrage, was not subtle.

Cartoonist Robert Crumb’s visit, funded by the Opera House and endorsed by the City of Sydney, has sparked outrage with sexual assault crisis groups describing the France-based American artist as “sick and deranged”.

Crumb, a “seminal” cult comic cartoonist from the 1960s regarded by fans – including the City of Sydney – as legendary, and a genius, is renowned for extreme drug-fuelled drawings, depicting incest, rape, paedophilia and bestiality.

True, his work does depict all of those things. There is some context for those depictions, but there isn’t room in a brief article to offer much of that. No subject is ever off-limits in art. But it would appear that Australia has bigger problems than just ginned up outrage over the visit of a cartoonist:

A spokesman for the federal Attorney General’s department told The Sunday Telegraph that Crumb’s work cannot be shown in Australia unless he submits his illustrations for classification. The spokesman said his work would almost certainly be refused classification.

The government of Australia thinks its citizens are too delicate to even look at Mr. Crumb’s work to decide for themselves whether or not it truly offends them. That in itself is far more offensive than anything Mr. Crumb has ever drawn, or could even think of drawing.

Anyway, Mr. Crumb pulled out of the event. In the open letter I quoted above, Mr. Crumb reveals that he was targeted by, um, the right-wing media, and that he feared for his safety.

The very next day, Sunday July 31, the right-wing media sharks at the Sunday Telegraph verily jumped on this juicy morsel. Me, I know nothing of Australian politics. I had no clue that there were such nasty right-wing media manipulators there. Crumb was somebody they could use against the liberals in the City of Sydney .

I was quite alarmed when I read the article in the Sunday Telegraph. I showed it to my wife, Aline, who said, ”That’s it, you’re not going.” She got a very bad feeling from the article. She feared I might be attacked physically by some angry, outraged person who simply saw red at the mention of child molesters. She remarked she’d never seen any article about me as nasty as this one.

First, I find it hard to believe that the Daily Telegraph article, as hysterical and alarmist as it was, could truly be the nastiest article about Mr. Crumb that they’d ever seen. Mr. Crumb has been writing and drawing comics for more than 40 years. His comics have been about subjects that many people find unsavory. Has Mr. Crumb been living in a bubble, or is it possible that this is the first time he’s actually been subject to such criticisms? (I guess it is possible — this is a man who was infamously called “the Bruegel of the second half of the 20th century” by an infamous art critic, and has had at least three books published which feature doodles made on restaurant placemats.) For crying out loud, I’ve had far worse things written about me and my work, and I’m a nobody. But, just as I said earlier that no subject is off limits in art, the artist must be willing to accept the fact that not everyone is going to appreciate his genius, and just might offer criticism. And that some of that criticism might appear to the artist to be “nasty.”

Second, the world is a dangerous place, it’s true. And there are unstable people in the world. “Anybody on the street has murder in his eyes.” “Someone could smile at me then Shake my hand then gun me down.” You could get run over by a bus. Your plane could crash. But should anyone live their life in fear of some abstraction — especially an artist who needs contact with the world outside his own head in order to create works that are relevant to others? Does Mr. Crumb offer any example of an artist being attacked for creating something that offended a dangerously unstable person?

What if I’d gone there, and what if some Mark Chapman-type person who’d read that article decided the world needed to be cleansed of scum like R. Crumb? (Mark Chapman shot John Lennon.) This possibility worried Aline deeply.

Really, Mr. Crumb had to go all the way back to Mark David Chapman, the guy who shot John Lennon back in 1980.

This is a world in which the late night television host David Letterman was recently targeted for a death threat by a jihadist website. This is a world in which a cartoonist is told by the FBI to disappear because they cannot or will not protect her from the threats made against her life for a cartoon that she drew. This is a world in which the creators of the popular television cartoon program “South Park” are receiving death threats over the content of their cartoons. This is a world in which hundreds of people were killed in rioting over the publication of 12 cartoons in a Danish newspaper. This is a world in which one of those Danish cartoonists was attacked with an axe over his cartoon. This is a world in which a man can be murdered for making a film.

And Mr. Crumb went all the way back to Mark David Chapman? He’s really afraid (excuse me, his wife is really afraid) of “some Mark Chapman-type person” attacking him? What world does Mr. Crumb inhabit now? Does he keep up with any current events?

As a matter of fact, he does. In the original “I-have-no-defence” interview that I quoted above, there is this:

Would he still describe himself as a butt man?

”Oh yeah, absolutely,” he says. ”Serena Williams … she’s my dream girl. I always look for pictures of her in magazines and newspapers … [she is] an unbelievable phenomenon of nature.”

But he’s never thought of sending her signed copy of his work.

”No,” he says. ”She’s a Jehovah’s Witness … [a] simple, down-home girl. She’s not going to go for me: [puts on thick American accent] ‘Jesus, what a weirdo!’ No way.

So, Mr. Crumb has his priorities. But not so much perspective. Back to his “open letter”:

Did it occur to the people at the Sunday Telegraph that they might be stirring up such dangerous passions? Do they care? Their article showed a profound lack of integrity and social responsibility. And unfortunately, I was made the object of their hateful Machiavellian tactics.

This comment is so off the wall that it surely must be intended as satire. Apparently, Mr. Crumb of all people is suggesting that the author of an article should be held responsible for the reactions of some unstable “Mark Chapman-type” to that article. Does the author of A Bitchin’ Bod and Joe Blow want to open that can of worms? How does Mr. Crumb feel about the fact that some of his satirical works were approvingly reprinted in a white-power magazine in the 1990s? More than a few white supremacists took those stories at face value, and celebrated them. Does he feel that those comics were in any way promoting racism? Does he feel responsible for the actions of the white supremacists who read those comics and felt “inspiration?” Does he feel that those stories “showed a profound lack of integrity and social responsibility”?

Robert Crumb is an amazingly talented artist. Some of his work is brilliant. Much of it is very funny. Much of it is tawdry and off-putting. But that doesn’t exempt him from criticism, nor does it exempt him from having to live in a world in which a few insane people might at any time snap. Life is dangerous and unpredictable. There are artists who really are living with threats against their personal safety. Of course they should take whatever measures are necessary to protect themselves. But if after one article that features some I admit alarmist criticism you start worrying about a “Mark Chapman-type,” then you’ve completely lost your perspective, and maybe it’s time to get outside of your own head.

“Keep on truckin’,” unless someone writes a “nasty” article about you that might, theoretically, set off some unstable person who might possibly attack you.
Ricky Sprague occasionally writes and/or draws things. He sometimes animates things. He has a Twitter account and he has a blog. He scripted this graphic novel about Kolchak The Night Stalker. He is really, really good at putting links in bios.
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10 Responses to “Robert Crumb’s canceled trip to Australia, and the artist living in fear, inside his own head”

  1. I appreciate Crumb, but his art has never appealed to me. You and Daniel K have written two of the best criticisms I’ve seen of the man. Daniel’s story is here:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/jan/12/robert-crumb

    The CRUMB movie pretty much sealed the deal for me. The guy struck me as petulant and uniquely out-of-touch with reality despite his whole “outre” shtick. And I also thought he was a condescending little prick when he was mocking the moving company guys in the Zwigoff film. Very “liberal” of him to belittle guys whose net worth is a mere fraction of his own.

  2. Thanks MC.

    I saw the movie “Crumb” twice in the theater. The first time I saw a lot of myself in it — moody, artistic type misunderstood by school peers, who “makes good” and gets to jump on women’s backs almost at will. The second time I saw it I wondered why the hell I’d liked it so much the first time.

    I seem to recall a moment in the film in which Crumb’s daughter says something about her father only liking black and white movies, and only listening to old jazz and blues records. My suspicion is that Crumb has been stuck in his own world for awhile now, probably since childhood, and nothing is ever going to get him out of it.

    Then again, he’s rich and famous, so I guess he doesn’t really have to.

  3. Crumb is the luckiest man alive; he can draw well and has become very rich drawing his masturbatory fantasies. Maybe he is so successful because the other underground cartoonists (Moscoso, Bode et al) were really shit, and in comparison he seemed amazing. Not sure.

  4. There are a few of the Underground cartoonists of that era whose work I still read and admire: Jack Jaxon, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, and especially Richard Corben. But most of it is no better than the mainstream stuff that was being done at the same time. In fact there is some mainstream stuff, like Marvel’s “Jungle Action,” “Conan,” and “Howard the Duck” comics, that are far superior. And the stuff that was being done in Europe that ended up in “Heavy Metal” magazine puts the US Underground stuff to shame. Compare Crumb’s illustrations to Phillipe Druillet, Moebius, Milo Manara, and Alain Voss for instance. No contest.

  5. Ricky, thanks for mentioning Gilbert Shelton. I was a big fan of “Freak Brothers” in the early 70s, and I still find those old stories to be hilarious.

  6. Shelton was indeed funny, much more enjoyable than Crumb, and Corben not too shabby either now that you mention him. He had chops… and so wound up doing a lot of work for Metal Hurlant.

    Spain Rodriguez is allegedly Jodorosky’s favorite cartoonist but I note that Jodo chose to work with Moebius instead when he was breaking into comics.

    Jack Jaxon I don’t know.

    Speaking of the mainstream, those early 70s Ghost Riders are also quite far out, man. They even deal with the Native American power movement. Cosmic!

  7. The Furry Freak Brothers was probably the biggest underground comic, sales-wise. Shelton’s Wonder Wart-hog was pretty good, too.

    Spain drew some unsolicited promotional/unofficial adaptation stuff for “El Topo,” which might explain why Jodorowsky would have said something like that. In the long interview that appears in “El Topo: A book of the film,” Jodorowsky mentions Dr. Strange, and Robert Crumb, but I don’t think he mentions Spain. Maybe he does, and I missed it. Of course, Jodorowsky also talks about holding your hand out the window and waiting for a bird to build a nest and lay eggs in the nest and then cracking the eggs on your forehead.

    Jodorowsky and Moebius apparently met while working on the infamous “Dune” adaptation, so they’d already done some work together by the time they started working on “Eyes of the Cat,” “The Incal,” etc. If I were trying to break into comics, especially in France, I’d work with Moebius, too.

  8. Ricky Sprague, you are an idiot.

  9. Touché!

  10. Rob +1
    Not only is Mr. Sprague a nobody (I’ve never heard mention of his name for any worthwhile endeavor of anything), he is an idiot. As the total of the whopping 9 comments previous to mine (1/2 by the author) as well as the unkown website somehow I ended up on, I would give little credit to Mr. Sprague’s “professional” review/criticism. Like so many in the new trend, it’s much easier to hop on the “interwebs” and act like a douche while commenting (see trolling) on others work. Pick up a pen and draw something more intelligent or of better art quality to strengthen your arguments you skill-less twit.
    In parting, please hire someone to proofread your rubbish, most simple word processing programs have spell/grammar checking, and reflect on the pathetic error of being a “blog-ist” “or “columnist” or whatever you consider yourself to be (critic? hardly)
    Quote from ^^ “Not to be glib about this — unlike Mr. Crumb’s illustration, which almost the very definition of glib — in a country whose human…”
    Also ^^ “and I’m a nobody” dead on there Ricky boy…

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