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Crumb, Robert

CRUMB, Robert

(b. 30 August 1943 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), prominent "underground" cartoonist whose work was credited with revitalizing the comic book genre in the late 1960s.

The second child and second son of Charles Crumb, Sr., a career marine, and homemaker Bea Crumb, Crumb grew up on various military bases. His family's itinerant existence proved difficult for Crumb, who had trouble making new friends and fitting in. Life at home was not much better, as Robert and his siblings were targets of their father's physical and emotional abuse. As a boy, Crumb also watched his mother succumb to an amphetamine addiction. In an interview conducted in 1985, Crumb describes himself as a boy, saying, "I was very shy and scared of people and life, and I just retreated into drawing." But drawing was not entirely Crumb's idea. His older brother Charles, Jr., forced Crumb and his younger brother Max into creating their own comic books, an activity that Charles, Jr., knew his father abhorred, and for which the younger brothers would be punished.

Yet even at that early age, Crumb found solace in his art. He remembered that one day when he was sixteen he imagined that when he became "this great recognized artist, I wouldn't be alienated anymore." After graduating from high school in Milford, Delaware, in 1961, Crumb moved to Cleveland, where he took a job as a colorist for the American Greetings Corporation. His boss Tom Wilson, who later created the syndicated comic strip Ziggy, found Crumb's work so impressive that he allowed Crumb to design and draw all the humorous cards for the company. Still Crumb's work was not for everyone. Another of his superiors at the American Greetings Corporation found Crumb's work "too grotesque" and so had him "draw this cute stuff, which influenced my technique, and even now my work has this cuteness about it." During this period, Crumb also continued to work on his own cartoons.

In 1965 Crumb began experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, an experience he credits with making him "stop taking cartooning so seriously." A year later, while visiting friends in Chicago, Crumb "took some weird acid.… and all this crazy stuff came out of my brain," which resulted in his conceiving some of the most memorable cartoon characters ever to grace a page. Soon afterward, Crumb quit his job at American Greetings and by 1967 had moved to the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco, then the center of the 1960s counterculture. While immersing himself in drugs, Crumb became part of a group of cartoonists whose work was deeply subversive toward what they regarded as the moralistic code of the comic book industry. Just a year later, in 1968, Crumb emerged as the most significant and influential figure of this "under-ground" movement when his first book Zap appeared in February. Because no mainstream distributor would take on underground comics, Crumb and his publisher sold copies of Zap on street corners throughout San Francisco.

A favorite target of Crumb's comics was middle-class America, and his cartoons were often sexually explicit and graphic in their depiction of violence. Among his most memorable characters were Flakey Foont, a suburban nebbish filled with doubts and hang-ups, Angelfood McSpade, a simple African-American girl exploited by greedy and lecherous white men, the small sex-fiend Mister Snoid, and Whiteman, a patriotic and moralistic businessman who is both sexually repressed and obsessed. Yet Crumb did not simply mock the middle class. He lampooned certain elements of the counterculture as well, depicting Mr. Natural, a sham guru, as exploiting his followers. Crumb's most famous character was Fritz the Cat, who first appeared in Comics and Stories, published in 1969. Fritz gained stardom as the first X-rated cartoon character in the film Fritz the Cat (1972), but Crumb hated the film so much that he killed his popular character with an ice pick through the forehead.

With Zap comics, Crumb also reintroduced the popular saying "Keep On Truckin'," a favorite among blues musicians of the 1930s. The phrase was often accompanied by a "series of screwball cartoon characters with tiny heads, funky old clothes and huge clodhoppers, strutting on down the street." The saying became one of the more enduring catch phrases of the 1960s, as a sign of perseverance and goodwill. According to one writer, "Crumb brought 'trash' art into the cultural mainstream and made it respectable."

In 1968 Crumb became the first underground cartoonist to have his work appear in what members of the counter-culture referred to as a "straight" publication. A collection of Crumb's early comic strips and the original story "Fritz the Cat" were brought out in book form as Head Comix by the Viking Press. Despite the controversy surrounding his work, Crumb's comic books were soon selling between 8,000 and 10,000 copies per month. Although the numbers were small compared with popular mainstream comic books, Crumb developed a growing number of fans who clamored for his work, which was also gaining serious critical attention. Additional evidence of his influence comes from the increasing numbers who condemned his work as obscene. Whether praised or censured, Crumb's work clearly gave visual definition to the counterculture of the 1960s.

By the 1970s, however, Crumb's popularity had ebbed. Rebelling against his own success, Crumb ceased to draw some of his most popular characters and refused assignments from high-profile magazines. His first marriage, in 1964, to Dana Morgan collapsed in 1977, and he owed a considerable amount in back taxes. In 1978 Crumb married artist and cartoonist Aline Kominsky, and slowly began to make a comeback. By the 1980s, his work had evolved. Retaining his sharp and satirical edge, Crumb focused less on sexual themes and more on the greed and materialism that characterized the decade. He also branched out, illustrating cards and books and having a one-man show of his abstract paintings at a San Francisco gallery. Cartooning, though, remained his passion, and Crumb continued to produce comic books. He also stopped taking drugs, and instead began to sketch when he felt panicked or nervous. Much of Crumb's work has been collected and published. Two such works include Carload O' Comics (1976), and The Complete Crumb (1998).

Throughout his career, critics have decried Crumb's racist and sexist stereotypes, which were particularly evident in the work he did during the 1960s. Crumb does not shy away from his critics and has admitted that "revealing the truth about myself is somehow helpful." One art critic, by contrast, has called Crumb the "Brueghel of the second half of the twentieth century," comparing him to the late-medieval Flemish painter whose work focused on ordinary people and everyday life, rather than religious subjects or the elite. As a chronicler of U.S. society during the 1960s, Crumb offered an idiosyncratic vision that made him a cultural icon, and his reputation as one of its most cogent observers of that decade has endured.

The closest thing to a biography of Crumb is Monte Beauchamp, The Life and Times of R. Crumb: Comments from Contemporaries (1998.) Assisted by Carl Richter, Crumb also compiled Crumb-ology: The Works of R. Crumb (1995). For Crumb's place in the history of comic books, see Donald M. Fiene, R. Crumb Checklist of Work and Criticism: With a Biographical Supplement and a Full Set of Indexes (1981), and Mark James Estren, A History of Underground Comics (1993).

Meg Greene

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