Comics College: Robert Crumb
Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
With everyone and their uncle sounding off about his new adaptation of the Book of Genesis, I thought it might be a good time to look at the work and career of Robert Crumb, and offer an introductory entryway for those who up till now have been hesitant to dip their toes in his water (so to speak).
Why he’s important
Do I really need to spell this out? How many other cartoonists can you think of that single-handedly started a movement? Sure, there were other underground comics before Crumb came along with that first issue of Zap Comics in 1967, but it was Crumb’s work that became the voice of the counterculture movement (whether he wanted it to or not), kickstarted the underground comix scene and inspired legions of like-minded cartoonists to ditch the daily newspaper and comic book world and attempt to create more thoughtful, self-expressive work.
But beyond his historical importance, Crumb’s comics, at their best, are daring not just for their taboo-breaking, but because of the way they provide a window into his own psyche and viewpoint. What ultimately makes them work, however, is his own self-awareness. What critics of Crumb don’t seem to understand is he’s just as horrified at his fantasies — both sexual and otherwise — as everyone else is. It’s that tension that makes his comics so fascinating and, yes, entertaining.
Plus, the guy’s an amazing artist. Great chops, really.
Where to start
Both the R. Crumb Handbook and The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book (from the late, lamented Kitchen Sink) are designed to serve as introductory guides to the artist and his work, which makes them as good a place to start as any. Both sadly, are out of print, and the Handbook seems to be selling at rather high prices, but I don’t think either are impossible to track down at this point. Of the two, I’d say go with the Art Book, even though I’m not crazy about the coloring job they did on some of Crumb’s black and white stories.
Another good starting place, believe it or not, is Crumb, the documentary, directed by the artist’s good friend and Ghost World director Terry Zwigoff. Of all the movies and books written about Crumb (and there have been more than you think) this is probably the most revealing and artful. You should know by the end of that movie if you want to explore Crumb’s world further or not.
From there you should read
If you do decide to keep digging, the next and most obvious place to go to is Fantagraphics’ Complete Crumb Comics series, which collects just about all of the artists work from his early teen-age years to about 1990 in 17 volumes. Volumes 4-6 collect his seminal ’60s material from the 1960s with Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, etc., but his best work can honestly be found in the later volumes, namely No. 14-17. It was during this period, while staring up the Weirdo anthology that he put out some of his most interesting and revealing work, like “Patton,” “My Troubles with Women,” “Where Has It Gone, the Music of Our Grandparents?” and his adaptation of Boswell’s London journals. Those are the books I’d head to next. After that, you can start filling in the rest of the Complete Crumb series (although you should save the first two volumes for last last — see my notes at the bottom of the post). Warning: Not all the volumes are in print, and some can be quite costly — Vol. 13 is selling for $65 used.
Unfortunately, some of Crumb’s best material from the late 80s and early 90s, especially all four issues of his stellar Hup! series and the last few issues of Weirdo, remains uncollected, the Complete Crumb series having seemingly ground to a complete halt for the foreseeable future. You’ll have to comb through back issue bins and contact collectors to try and locate those comics (and they are worth tracking down).
Luckily, a lot of his mid-to-late 90s comics — Mystic Funnies, Self-Loathing Comics and Art & Beauty — are still easily available. This stuff has its detractors, some folks feel Mystic is just Crumb running in place and that Self-Loathing has too much shoe-gazing (and too much work from his wife, fellow cartoonist Aline Kominsky Crumb), but they remain miles ahead in terms of craft and storytelling
There are very few cartoonists — at least modern cartoonists at any rate — whose sketchbooks measure up to their “for print” material and Crumb is one of them. Fantagraphics has released nine volumes of sketchbook material so far, both in hardcover and paperback editions, that go up to about 1973. As with the Complete Crumb series, it’s hard to tell if this series will be continued down the road.
You can also try to track down Crumb’s Waiting for Food series, which consists of sketches the artist did on restaurant placemats while … well, you get the idea. They’re all out of print, but available in various places like Amazon.
Before he decided to take on the Bible, Crumb attempted to adapt the works of Franz Kafka in the mid-90s as part of the “Introducing …” line of books. Fantagraphics recently republished that book as simply Kafka. It remains a fascinating attempt by one artist to understand and decipher another, though it’s far from essential.
Also inessential, though entertaining, is The Big Yum Yum Book, a lengthy, early story Crumb did before he got married (or dropped acid), when he was still slaving away for American Greetings in Ohio. It’s terribly naive and wears its heart on its sleeve to an almost embarrassing degree, but it’s still an interesting look at what Crumb’s work was like before he had his big revelation. It’s also noteworthy as the book that inspired Harvey Pekar to try his hand at comics (sort of).
If you’re interested in learning more about the man behind the comics, then I’d suggest picking up a copy of Vol. 3 of The Comics Journal Library. This oversized book features a number of great interviews with the author, many of them more revealing and introspective than Zwigoff’s documentary. You can also check out R. Crumb: Conversations from the University of Mississippi Press.
Finally, if you find you prefer Crumb’s craftsmanship to his down and dirty stories, then the Sweeter Side of R. Crumb, which collects some of his illustrations and considerably less raunchy one-page strips.
Oh, and there’s also that Genesis book everyone is talking about.
The first two volumes of Complete Crumb consist of early work from his teen-age years and early ’20s, and thus are for serious fans who want to see how far he’s progressed. It’s awkward, juvenile material (though occasionally witty and self-knowing) and like Yum Yum, over-earnest to a fault, and really not the place for neophytes to start. Wait until you get a feel for his later work and personality before diving into these books.
Likewise, Your Vigor for Life Appalls Me, which is a collection of early letters to friends, is a portrait of the artist as a young, somewhat desperate, man, and is interesting more for revealing Crumb’s early state of mind than anything else.