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The R. Crumb Handbook

R. Crumb and Peter Poplaski

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 01, 2005
Category: Memoir

Like any self-respecting survivor of the 1960s, I knew all about R. Crumb. He was the San Francisco "underground" artist who created "Mr. Natural" and "Flakey Foont" and a lot of big-assed women in short skirts. He wrote the immortal line "Keep on Truckin’." He did the cover for a Janis Joplin album.

Which is to say that I didn’t know Robert Crumb at all.

Thanks to this 404-page handbook, I now do.

And just about everything I thought I knew — which is the same stuff you may know — turns out to be wrong.

For one thing, I now get that Crumb is a major artist. Not a pornographer who became respectable simply because he forgot to die young. A real artist, with lots to say about major topics.

And I now understand the torment that drives the art, and the life that provided the torment.

Why do I appreciate Crumb now when he eluded me all these years? Because, in addition to the long interview that provides most of the text of this book, there is a generous sampling of Crumb’s work and a CD of the music he’s made over the last 40 years. He’s smart. The work’s smart. I even admired the music.

Yeah, yeah, you say — but give us the dirt. This guy is a sicko. He likes to dominate big women. His sexual fantasies are grotesque. Give us that stuff.

Ok, here you go. Robert Crumb’s father "watched the fights and baseball on TV." Mom read cheap magazines. They fought.

Dad said he killed 50 Japs in World War II. Bob feared him. And, "instead of going out and challenging other males, all those impulses are channeled into sex. That’s why I want to ravage big women…."

When he was nine, his family moved to California. Rosemary Clooney and Perry Como were on the radio — "depressing" stuff. He had "an uneasy feeling" that "something was going on they weren’t showing you — something that was ugly." Before he hit puberty, he figured it out: "We were living in a commercial, commodity culture." America was a movie set. "We barely have contact with the real world."

Crumb’s response was to look back (he loved old architecture and vintage music) and to look askew (he began to read and collect comic books). Soon he was drawing: Catholic school girls in uniforms (what a turn-on!), lost kids like himself. By 21, he was married and working for American Greetings. A few years later, he "ran off to join the hippies."

Crumb doesn’t recommend drugs, but his years in "the army of the stoned" clearly saved his life, pried open his brain and made his reputation. Which he hated. "Keep on Truckin’ is the curse of my life…I didn’t want to turn into a greeting card artist for the counterculture." How to short-circuit the cult of Crumb? "Let out all my perverse sex fantasies." Comics like "Snatch" and "Big Ass" did the trick quite nicely.

Crumb turns out to be some sort of political seer, at least in his take on popular culture — America’s biggest industry. Eventually, he says, media based on media becomes thin soup, hardly nutritious. At that point, pretty much everyone figures the game out. But so what if the culture is a con? There’s nothing you can do about it — except be hip and cynical.

Crumb found a way out: a protective second wife, a move to the South of France. He never escaped the ultimate problem — his response to Sartre’s "Hell is other people" is "Hell is also yourself" — but at least he isn’t besieged by fools, hustlers and fans. A happy ending? Well, when the other choice is suicide, you’d better believe it’s happy. Hey, he warns you right on the cover: "I’m not here to be polite."

If I’m making this book sound like a downer, my bad. It’s actually quite exhilarating. A kid from nowhere with plenty of emotional baggage and a dark view of the world finds a way to express himself. Others can relate. He makes a living, then a life. And in the end, while critics compare him to artists like Durer, Crumb knows the score: "It’s only lines on paper, folks."

But such revealing lines! Such anarchic, poignant, truthful lines! Who knew comics could be this much fun?

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To buy the deluxe edition of "The R. Crumb Handbook" from, click here.