Wide Angle

Digging 'Underground'

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 26, 2008

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. -- I don't know if the comic book is the lowest form of art, but it's way down there.

This is central to its charm.

The comic that's worth remembering isn't fancy-schmancy. It's quick and coarse and cheap. It doesn't seek admission to the higher realms of art. It's closer to the pits.

Ah, the pits! Ah, the nostalgia! "The Vault of Horror" and "Tales From the Crypt," two favorites of my childhood, were deliciously disgusting. Those pulpy-paper booklets published by EC Comics were so dank with rotting monsters (this was part of their attractiveness), and so appalled my righteous parents (this was another), that I had to keep them hidden, buried, under the mattress -- which brings me to R. Crumb.

The old reprobate himself -- he of Mr. Natural, Zap Comix and Meatball, and don't forget "Keep on Truckin' " -- is shamelessly exhibiting 50 years of his comics at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art.

The war upon the cute mounted in the '60s by the counterculture's comics was a multi-front offense. The cartoonists who produced them -- S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton, Skip Williamson and others -- then seemed a sort of army, a scraggly one for sure, and Crumb was the lewd leader of those stoned and savage warriors, commanding from the front, Rapidograph in hand.

So many heroes met in comic books are muscular and handsome. Crumb isn't. He's scrawny and geeky. He is not nice. Still, his drawing is implacable, and his skills are undeniable (he's the captain of the crosshatchers, perhaps the best since Thomas Nast). His museum retrospective, precisely as intended, soaks you in a hose-pipe jet of gags and hideosities, old-timey yearnings, nerdy sexuality and eye-grabbing delight.

His exhibition in his birthplace, the city of brotherly love -- of which he doesn't have much -- is titled "R. Crumb's Underground," which sounds exactly right. Underground is where you put the cesspits and the secrets. The now-abandoned underground of counterculture fun, of hairiness and head shops and San Francisco dreamin', of sex and pot and rock-and-roll (or in Crumb's case, early blues), is where his comic-corrosive vision first burst into view.

Its outrageousness is stunning. Most of us (and I include the hippest and the freest) have walls around our thoughts, imagination boundaries, established in our heads. Crumb dissolved his with LSD. He breaks ours with his drawings. Few goaders of his period -- not William S. Burroughs of "Naked Lunch," or savage Lenny Bruce, or "Fear and Loathing's" Hunter S. Thompson -- were as assiduous as he at liquefying decencies.

America is chockablock with rude people who draw comics, and most are pretty awful. In some ways Crumb is awful, too, but he is also excellent -- excellent at lettering and onrushing narrative, at baseball caps and street clothes. He's also very good at telephone poles; no one draws the wires that sag across the shoddy backways of America more poignantly.

Measured by celebrity, by scholarly attention and by the quantity of stuff that, erupting from his id, pours straight through his pen, Crumb's the best we've got.

So the art world now agrees. Crumb has won them over. And he's come at them from below.

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