I begin with a confession: I am not a fan of Robert Crumb.
But from what I’ve seen and read, I don’t think that would bother him. On the contrary, I think he’s puzzled by the adulation he does receive in some quarters because, it seems to me, Robert Crumb hates himself.
Concerning that last point, I’ll return to it in a minute. Back to me for a moment. I have been influenced by his draftsmanship, especially his wooly cross hatching and stippling techniques. (I’ve included a little sample below of a splash page of mine that I think owes something to Crumb–among others. Click on it to enlarge.)
Now let’s go big and forget about Crumb and me for a moment. All art, I am convinced, is autobiographical. Even realism requires a subject, and of all the things you could write about or draw, you must choose something that interests you, that speaks to you for some reason. And there you are again. There is no escape for the artist, wherever he turns, he turns up.
When you read Metamorphosis, or Smith of Wooton Major, you enter the mind of either Kafka or Tolkien respectively. (I prefer Tolkien’s.) And even when the subject is the book of Genesis, when we pick up his treatment, we enter into Crumb’s mind in some sense.
Crumb does contest this point right in his introduction. He insists that he has given us Genesis straight up, no snide or cynical treatment, he’s just illustrating the text. Yes, Crumb does exercise a great deal of self-control, and I appreciate the effort. In many respects the book is more faithful to the biblical book than other illustrated versions produced by evangelical publishers.
But it is an interpretation. Even a literary translation striving for accuracy is in some sense an interpretation. You must render the words of an ancient tongue into a modern one.Words are subtle things, with shades of meaning. As they say, things gets lost in the process. (Some things get added, even unintentionally.) That’s why these works come with marginal notes. And even then something can be lost.
So, Bob Crumb, there’s no getting away from the fact that this book has a lot of you in it. But that’s okay. That’s why I bought it. I knew the story already, I’ve read it many times. I even have a working knowledge of Hebrew. What I’m looking for when I read your book is whether or not you’ve seen something in the story that I’ve missed. And you have. But you’ve also distorted some things. I’ll get to both of those in a moment.
Who is Robert Crumb?
Warning: Robert Crumb is a dangerous object of study.
You may be tempted to “google” his name. If you do, prepare yourself for a cascade of disturbing images. Some people have accused him of being a pornographer. I don’t think that’s right. What Robert Crumb is is a “confessionalist”–something in the spirit of Augustine or Rousseau. He can’t help giving us, unwilling as we may be, the full and uncensored contents of his mind at any given moment.
Think about that. If you did the same, you might be accused of being a pornographer.Now, we’re not all as bad as Robert Crumb. Crumb is on the edge of things, maybe beyond the edge. He was definitely an outsider back when he began his career, but things have moved and he’s on the inside now. (I think he’s surprised by that.)
Beginning with his work, Crumb is one of the fathers of underground comics. Underground was never that far underground. Back in the 70s, when I was really into the comics scene and I was only a teen, I had heard of him and had seen some of his stuff. It struck me as perverse, but strangely powerful.
Now the world of comics is layered. The top layer, the one most people know about, is the superhero stuff–Marvel and DC–Spiderman and Batman–that stuff. I was never into that stuff much. What I enjoyed was the next layer down, the stuff you found in Creepy and Eerie magazines, Mad and Cracked, and even Heavy Metal. (Heavy Metal was yet another layer down, but still not underground.) The artists I enjoyed were Al Williamson, Wally Wood, Frank Frazetta, and Moebius. (Again, if you are tempted to google, prepare for mature themes.) These artists have been incredibly influential. Frazetta gave us the popular image of Conan the Barbarian and Moebius gave us an aesthetic that informed everything from Blade Runner to The Empire Strikes Back.
Crumb’s stuff you just couldn’t put on the shelves next to Superman, or even Creepy or Heavy Metal. It was just too disturbing and subversive. But Crumb has been influential in his own way. You’ve probably even seen his stuff. Remember “Keep on Truckin’!”?–yep, Crumb.
There have been a couple of documentaries about Crumb, so I’m not speculating here. The documentation is there for all to see.
Crumb had a miserable childhood. His father was the guy Robert Duval portrayed in The Great Santini. His mother seems to have been both passive and manipulative. The three Crumb boys were scrawny and a real disappointment to their over-the-top macho father. Couple this with the fact that the boys appear to have been more intelligent than the father and you have a formula for suffering. School was just as tormenting, if not more so for the Crumb boys, because it put girls into the mix. At both home and in school they found only rejection and humiliation.
As is so often the case with intelligent and creative boys who have been ostracized, the Crumbs escaped into fantasy worlds. And because they were gifted with pencil and pen, they drew comics.
There are thousands of boys like Robert Crumb out there. But few are as gifted as Crumb, and no one else is willing to put it all down on paper like Crumb–the full contents of the mind, uncensored. This is the secret to his success. If you are male, and you hate yourself, you will probably love Crumb. You will identify with him.
And this is why I purchased his visual interpretation of Genesis. Even though I don’t like him, I wanted to vicariously read Genesis through his eyes to see it as he sees it.
And next time I’ll tell you what I saw. Among those things you may be surprised to learn (Crumb might even be surprised to hear) that Crumb is a little bit of a bohemian conservative. To understand what I mean by that you’ll have to read my next post.
As a parting gift–here’s a link to an interview with Crumb from NPR from a while back: