Originally Published Jan. 19, 1996
By Buddy Seigal
Robert Crumb is universally acknowledged as the Godfather of underground comics, and is widely held up in some quarters as a counterculture icon in general as well. Through his pioneering Zap Comix in the '60s, Crumb blew apart the conventions of the medium of comics. Crumb's creations don't save damsels in distress, spout innocuous punchlines or harmlessly entertain the kiddies - no, such characters as Fritz The Cat, Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont, Angelfood McSpade, Mr. Snoid, Eggs Ackley, Forky O'Donnel and Devil Girl engage in weird and sometimes violent sex acts, take drugs and fight the law, all the while pondering life's big questions.
Crumb's subsequent artistic growth both as a writer and cartoonist has always been more than a few steps ahead of his contemporaries. He was, for example, the first cartoonist to compose amusingly confessional autobiographical work - now a flagrantly over-used formula in alternative comics - and his intensely rich drawing style has continued to improve dramatically over the years to the degree where he has few if any equals. However, his often fiercely disturbing muse has consistently drawn the ire of morality watchdogs on the right and left side of the political spectrum, as he's been branded a sexist, a misogynist, a racist and a corrupter of youth. In truth, Crumb is a quiet and unassuming man with a strong sense of morality that is simply at odds with the majority of John and Jane Does. He is also a recluse and an eccentric, prone to intolerance and crankiness towards modern societal mores and pop culture, particularly as practiced in this country. That's largely what led to Crumb, along with his cartoonist wife Aline Kominsky and their daughter Sophie, packing up and moving to a small village in the south of France several years ago.
Last year, Crumb's friend, filmmaker Terry Zwigoff, released a documentary on this brilliant bundle of contradictions, simply titled Crumb. The film put Crumb's life, and the life of his wildly dysfunctional family, on display in theaters around the world. Much to the artist's chagrin, the film became a minor sensation, and wound up on most critic's Top Ten lists for 1995.
Whether he likes it or not, Crumb has now crossed the line from underground hero to mainstream pop culture figure. In the wake of the film's success, a slew of Crumb reprint books are now flooding the market, the most recent of which is The Big Yum Yum Book. Drawn in 1962 when Crumb was a naive 19-year-old boy, Yum Yum wasn't released until 1974, and went out of print almost immediately (his first wife, Dana, retained the rights to the book as part of a divorce settlement). Now in release by SLG Books, Yum Yum offers a fascinating look at The Artist As A Young Man, and is essential fare for any Crumb-o-phile worth their salt. Crumb very rarely speaks to the press - particularly in the wake of his newfound and unwanted fame - so it was a treat and a privilege to chat with him recently about Crumb, Yum Yum, comics, society and life in general. While a reputation for aloofness to outright hostility precedes him, Crumb was quite friendly, thoughtful and downright likable in conversation, and as honest about himself as any subject I've ever interviewed. The mantle of "misunderstood genius" applies here as comfortably as anywhere.
OCW: I'd guess that things have been a little crazy for you since the movie came out?
CRUMB: Well yes, but things have been a little less crazy in France. The movie didn't make a big impression in France, it's just a bunch of talking heads in English. The French mostly like French stuff, and aren't terribly interested in anything else - fortunately, because if we were still living in the United States, my life would be hell. My wife Aline had kind of a precognition when she got us out of there. Nobody expected the movie to be as big as it was in the United States. Terry [Zwigoff] didn't expect it and I certainly didn't. He made one film before that, a documentary called Louie Bluie. It was good, and he got some awards and everything, but it didn't make a huge splash. So he wanted a do a film about me, I was there, I was his friend and it was easy. "Okay, sure," you know? The shooting dragged on for six or seven years. Whenever he got some money together, he'd hire a film crew and shoot some footage. My main input into the film was, "Let's just get the shooting over with."
OCW: Now that it's all said and done, do you have any regrets over it?
CRUMB: It's scary - that kind of attention, becoming kind of a public....you're no longer a private person. You're almost owned by the public. And it's such an intimate portrayal of my life, my family, my brothers and everything, everybody knows now and feels like they have a little piece of me. It's scary. I don't even know ultimately what the consequences of that are. There are also perks that come with it, but it's scary. At the most extreme end of the scariness is if some psychotic Christian fundamentalist decides that these people are scum and filth and it's his mission in life to rid the world of them. That's a worst scenario, but there's all kinds of stuff in between - devoted fans and fledgling young cartoonists want you to be their mentor, you know? It's a good thing I'm not living in the United States, is all I can say. It would just be too scary over there. People would be showing up at my door.
OCW: I've heard that when you were over here last summer, you had actually grown a long beard and stopped wearing your trademark vintage Crumb clothing so that you wouldn't be recognized?
CRUMB: Yeah, I went over there last June and I completely changed my trademark look that was easily identifiable as R. Crumb. I looked completely different, and I wasn't recognized - it was great. I was in downtown San Francisco with my crazy brother Max who is in the film also, and some young guy passed us on the street and he turned around and said, "Hey! I saw you in the film!" We both turned around and he was addressing my brother. He didn't know who I was. It was really great. So after that, I decided to go see the film on a big screen at a local theater since I'd only seen it on video before. No one recognized me at the theater. I went to the men's room and stood in line to take a leak. These people had just seen the movie, and no one bothered me, no one said, "Hey, Crumb," nothing. It was great, it was an exhilarating feeling, being in disguise.
OCW: Do you feel that Zwigoff did a good job on the film?
CRUMB: Yeah he did. He was very conscientious. I wouldn't have let him do it if I didn't think he was gonna do a good job. He'd done that Louie Bluie, and that was a really good film.
OCW: There was no feeling of him having compromised the friendship or anything like that?
CRUMB: I worried about that a little bit, you know, but it doesn't seem to have affected our friendship. We would annoy each other over the years about various little things, but basically a friendship goes on and we're still pretty close and all that.
OCW: In light of having the Crumb family brought to life on the big screen, what do you think of the concept of the family unit?
CRUMB: What do you think of the concept of the family unit?
OCW: Me? It looks nice on paper, if it ever really worked. Over here, we're bombarded by Republican rhetoric about family values, and it always sounds like a Hollywood fantasy from another era.
CRUMB: The ironic thing about the Republicans is that while they talk about family values, all their actions work to destroy whatever shred is left of close family, or even close community in the United States. While they pay lip service to that and use it to get votes, anything they actually enact goes completely to break that down. When you live in a country like France where family and community are still very strong, you see the process of what's at work that breaks those things down. It's mostly corporate mono-culture, and that's exactly what the Republicans really stand for. They don't really stand for family values.
OCW: Is one of the perks of living in France not having to deal with Republicans and corporate mono-culture?
CRUMB: It is, yeah. Corporate mono-culture is here, but it's definitely not as pervasive. You don't see corporate logos everywhere you look. But it's here - people wearing the clothes with the brand names on them and all that, but it's about 25 years behind the United States in that there's still family unity, families are still strong, everybody sits down to eat dinner together, television is not as strong.
OCW: You had some doubts when Aline first wanted to move to France - now do you think it was a good decision?
CRUMB: I had a lot of doubts and trepidations about it. It's a trade-off. My work is so tied to America and the American experience, and now I'm not experiencing America as it is ongoing, you know?
OCW: It seems like you haven't been working much since you moved there either. The only recent thing I've seen from you is Self-Loathing Comix, which you and Aline did together some time ago.
CRUMB: That's actually the last comic of mine that's come out. I haven't done much comics since then. I spent months and months working on a life-size statue of Devil Girl [an ongoing Crumb cartoon character]. It was wood with epoxy and other mediums. I was hoping to sell it, but I spent so much time and money on it that now I have to get a lot of money for it. It's sitting there in the front room all covered up with a bedsheet so it doesn't scare people that come in the front door (laughs). It's very strange-looking, she's in this very contorted position. Her head is way down there, it's weird. I'm very happy with the way it came out, but Jesus, it was an incredible amount of work. I get tired of doing nothing but comics, I want to do other things.
OCW: There's a lot of people out there that wish you would do more work on comics.
CRUMB: Oh, yeah - more comics, the public wants comics. But I'm not generally as prolific as I used to be. It seems like the movie and that kind of bullshit just kind of really freezes me up. It's real hard to continue in the face of that kind of crap. You really have to spend a lot of time just kind of dealing with that, psychologically, otherwise that kind of shit can really destroy you. It's the public and media repercussions that you have to deal with.
OCW: I know you'd been taking a lot of flack from feminists for the more disturbing sexual elements of your work. Did the movie exacerbate that?
CRUMB: Ohhh, yeah...feminist critics and reviewers hated my guts. I was called racist, sexist, everything.
OCW: Call me insensitive, but I've always been able to take what you're doing at face value. This is satire, after all. This is Crumb laying his darkest sides down on paper. This isn't really a man that wants to cut off a woman's head and fuck the stump!
CRUMB: Actually, getting all that stuff out on paper helps me to be a really...I'm not repressing a lot of rage. It's all on the paper. I don't run around feeling a desire to hurt or that kind of thing. I got it all out. I foisted it on the public (laughs).
OCW: Do you ever feel guilty after finishing a particularly disturbing drawing?
CRUMB: Oh yeah, sure. I deal with that. It's not so simple. Sometimes I think, "What the hell am I doing?!? Why am I putting this out there? It's so crazy and weird, I don't even know what it means, I don't even know why I do it. I don't know. But I feel I have to do it. It's like having to take a shit - you have to shit, it has to come out. I don't know where it comes from or what, I just don't know. You can call me every name in the book, and people have. I'm a sexist, a racist, a pervert, a weirdo, a child pornographer. Maybe I'm all those things, I don't know. But it all has to come out.
OCW: Everyone has a dark, unspoken side. Isn't this a case of you facing it, exorcising it and making fun of it rather than repressing it and refusing to admit it exists?
CRUMB: I don't know. I just don't know. I really don't know. Maybe as an artist, you just end up reflecting whatever weirdness there is in the culture as a whole. Not everybody has those things inside of them. Maybe it's just like a festering thing in the whole society, and I'm just like a pimple that appears on the surface. My work just brings it out like a pimple, like a bad zit that has to be popped (laughs).
OCW: Aside from the more disturbing elements of your work, I thought the best piece of writing you'd done in a while was the story you wrote about your abusive father that Pat Moriarty illustrated. I was really disappointed that you didn't illustrate it yourself. Why didn't you?
CRUMB: That thing called "Dad?" I sat down and started to draw it and I just couldn't do it. It was too painful. It sat around for a couple of years just in script form. Then Pat Moriarty called and said, "You have anything laying around like scripts you haven't drawn that you could give me?" So I thought, "Well, I'll give him that." I got like one page done of that myself and I just couldn't go on with it. I think I certainly could have illustrated it in a more interesting way than he did - his illustration is all very lightweight. Mine originally was going to be very dark and sinister and noir-ish, you know?
OCW: I envisioned it in more of the style like you had used for your story about Charlie Patton.
CRUMB: Exactly. That's exactly how I would have done it.
OCW: There's so many Crumb anthology books on the market now - The Complete Crumb Comics, R. Crumb Draws The Blues, My Trouble With Women, the Fritz The Cat saga, The Book Of Mr. Natural, there's talk of an anthology of Harvey Pekar stories you illustrated.....
CRUMB: It's amazing that I'm not making more money than I am. They claim they only print and sell a couple thousand copies of those books.
OCW: When you see this huge body of work being reprinted, when you know that you're considered a legendary figure, does it freak you out and put more pressure on you? Is it an honor or is it kind of daunting?
CRUMB: It's both, you know? But something that worries me is too many of these reprint books overlapping each other in content, which I try to control. I try not to....you know, when this movie came out, anybody that had ever published something of mine wanted to come out with something. It gets kind of sleazy if they're reprinting the same material with different packaging. That bothers me.
OCW: Now that The Big Yum Yum Book is back in print, do you still see it as the undeveloped, vaguely embarrassing work of a young kid, like you did when it was first published?
CRUMB: It seemed like an immature work to me, but my [ex] wife needed money, she owned it, she wanted to publish it, so I said, "All right, I won't fight you about it." I just got a copy of the new printing, and I sat down and read the thing and said, "Yeah, this ain't bad for a 19-year-old." It's as good as a lot of other junk that's out there.
OCW: Isn't there a kind of sweetness and naiveté that would be impossible to re-capture now? That mindset is completely absent from American culture now...
CRUMB: Really? You think there's an older, more romantic mindset, an innocent way of looking at things?
OCW: Absolutely. It's so....unjaded! It conjures that early '60s aura of relative sweetness that's long dead.
CRUMB: That's interesting. I can tell you that when I wrote that in 1962, I didn't think it was a very sweet world at the time. It seemed like a pretty hard-assed place to me, America back then. Maybe not as anarchistic as it is now, but it was hard-assed, it was hard-assed.
OCW: But the protagonist's romanticism rose above the hard-assedness...
CRUMB: He was very alienated from it, as I was - extremely alienated. While I was working on that book, I was also contemplating suicide. I was very virginal. Mostly, it was a romantic ode to my dream girl, is mostly what it was.
OCW: The artwork is very impressive for a 19-year-old. You did some incredible work with colored pencils that almost looks like airbrush.
CRUMB: Yeah. Yeah. When I was looking at it recently, I felt that too. It's nice artwork. I was kind of inspired in the color there.
OCW: Is it good to see it back in print, or is it more like "Well, here's another thing they've done?"
CRUMB: Yeah - it' more like, "Here's another thing they did." Cashing in. I hope my first wife makes a lot of money on it.
OCW: You mean that genuinely? There's no resentment towards her about it?
CRUMB: No. I hope she makes some money on it. I get along with her okay. I don't talk to her very often, but I get along with her okay. She gets to have her say about me in the film (laughs).
OCW: Your impressions on underground or alternative comics today? The state of the medium? Who's good, who's up-and-coming?
CRUMB: There's really good cartoonists around now, some younger people that are doing great comics. Dan Clowes' work in Eightball lately - that Ghost World thing I think is great, great. There's these girls that hang out and talk and there's this weird blue tint on the artwork.
OCW: His work is very strong and sometimes very unique, but sometimes he also seems to have been a bit too influenced by you.
CRUMB: Sometimes yeah, sometimes. But that Dan Pussey thing he did was the greatest! He's good, he's good...Joe Matt's doing great work, Phoebe Gloeckner. She's in Twisted Sisters, she did a story about her adolescent years that is a masterpiece, one of the greatest comic stories I ever read.
OCW: The people that you're naming here...Joe Matt is also very Crumb influenced in laying all his personal shit down on paper. He even had a strip where you entered a nightmare he was having. He portrays himself as a very unlikeable guy....
CRUMB: Oh, he is! I think he's a real jerk, but he does great comics!
OCW: So is there a natural tendency on your part to gravitate towards cartoonists from the confessional school?
CRUMB: Clowes isn't that confessional. He does some personal stuff, I don't know exactly what it is he does. I've never been interested at all in action/adventure comics, all this hero stuff. I can't get with that at all. I like stuff that's either personal or reflects reality in some way, you know?
OCW: How do you feel about guys like Chester Brown, guys that show themselves eating their own snot and beating off and other pleasantries?
CRUMB: I like Chester Brown's stuff, I like it.
OCW: Peter Bagge's Hate?
CRUMB: Great stuff. He's a great storyteller.
OCW: Mary Fleener (artist of Slutburger who lives in Encinitas)?
CRUMB: I like her stuff, some of her stories are very good. There's this unbelievable Southern California hedonistic life that she's part of - it's unbelievable.
OCW: What do you think of Harvey Pekar's recent output - Our Cancer Year and the follow-ups?
CRUMB: I thought it was a great book. It was great.
OCW: It seemed to me that Frank Stack got a lot of unfair critical flack for his illustration work on the book, which I thought was often brilliant.
CRUMB: So did I. I really like his work in general. I like Stack's drawing, and he's a good storyteller also when he does his own comics. Carol Tyler is another one - great. I think there's a lot of great comics being done now. It's all on a very small scale, it's not widely disseminated. The public at large doesn't know much about it, but that's probably just as well. All the people that are pushing to make comics respectable and put them up there on some pedestal right next to fine art and all that crap, I think they're making a big mistake. Leave what's well enough alone.
OCW: What do you have on the table right now in the way of projects that we can look forward to?
CRUMB: I'm illustrating some [Charles] Bukowski stuff....lemme see here....I don't have any immediate plans on doing any more comics. I had a big falling out with those guys at Zap Comix. I've been trying to quit Zap Comix for years, and they just want to keep it going. They really don't feel like they can keep it going without me, you know?
OCW: Is that a fair assessment?
CRUMB: I don't know. I just wanted to hang it up, you know? They feel like I've betrayed them because I don't want to be with them in a gang anymore. That's what it's like, a gang. Trying to quit that is like trying to quit the Mafia or something. I didn't like it at all. I got really pissed at them. Spain [Rodriguez], [Victor] Moscoso, [S. Clay] Wilson, Robert Williams. Gilbert Shelton was kind of neutral about it, and Rick Griffin died, of course.
OCW: You feel like they're trying to perpetuate something that's outlived its time?
CRUMB: I don't want to make any judgments about their attitudes towards it, I'm just not interested in doing it anymore. The thing about me is I'm kind of a wimp, and I didn't just come out and say, (shouting) "NO! THIS IS FINAL! I'M NOT DOING THIS ANYMORE!" I just said, "Well jeez you guys, I don't know." I always let them bully me into it. Like the last three issues they kind of bullied me into keeping it going. Then whenever a new one would come out, they'd tell some gallery or something and have a big publicity bash and everything. They seem to like that and eat that up. "Keep it going, keep the glory alive," is how they seem to look at it or something, I don't know. I think they feel that since I started it, it would be too weird to have it without me. But finally after this last issue and this blow-up, they decided they were gonna go ahead and go without me. They came to my house where I was staying with Terry in San Francisco in June, and they all came over to get me to do this jam session with them. I said, "No, I don't want to do it, I'm not gonna do it," and they got all pissed at me. They all stormed out very angry. Hostility. That was Spain, Moscoso and Wilson. Robert Williams wasn't there. When I got back here about a month later, Robert Williams called me and said, "Look Crumb, just do two pages and keep everybody happy" and all that, so I said, "Okay. I'll do two pages - about the incident that happened at Terry's house." And that's the last comic I drew.
OCW: Sounds very interesting! And when will this come out?
CRUMB: I don't know. They're all still working on their stuff, I guess.
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OCW: One last question: Have you ever been to Orange County, and if so, what were your impressions?
CRUMB: Orange County is a vortex of evil. I really believe that - the place is an evil place. I think the whole Southern California thing from L.A. on down is a very evil place. I spent some time down there visiting about five years ago, in this town called Oceanside that I used to live in as a kid.....
OCW: You're kidding? You lived in Oceanside?
CRUMB: Yeah, for four or five years. In the '50s, my father was in the Marine Corps, see, at Camp Pendleton. I wandered around town and looked at the old houses we used to live in in the '50s, and the whole place had turned so horrible and nightmarish compared to how it was. In the '50s, it was actually kind of genteel compared to what it's like now. Guys in noisy, 4X4 vehicles - it was frightening, horrifying, that whole area. I really think it's one of the most evil places on the planet. The life that Mary Fleener's comics reflect down there is really frightening to me. Frightening. If this is the future of the plant, oh man. How depressing.