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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 26, 1995


Terry Zwigoff
Robert Crumb;
Max Crumb;
Charles Crumb;
Beatrice Crumb
graphic comic book illustrations, disturbing sexual confessions and profanity

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IN TERRY Zwigoff's superb, revealing "Crumb," cartoonist Robert Crumb makes the misanthropic lament that he will be best remembered for three things:

* Fritz the Cat, his comic book character made famous by Ralph Bakshi's porno-art film of the same name. ("An embarrassment to me for the rest of my life," he says.)

* His cover design for the album "Cheap Thrills" by Janis Joplin's Big Brother and the Holding Company.

* The "Keep on Truckin' " poster, that modern-folkloric panel of three bearded men walking in step and leaning backward as if they are human Harley-Davidsons.

Perhaps "Crumb," a documentary that took six years to shoot, will put the record straight: that the gangly, porkpie-hatted, gonzo satirist is an American artist of the highest order. A seminal nerd-god in the underground comic movement, starting with his '60s publication, Zap Comix, Crumb has tapped gainfully into the darkest recesses of his own—and America's—id.

Beyond this aesthetic recognition, the movie spends more engaging time with members of Crumb's extraordinary family. By getting to know them, we learn about Robert too. The more we find out, the more we want to know. Are the Crumbs zoned-out loonies or touchingly normal? There's Charles, the reclusive older brother whose inspired, dark doodlings triggered Robert's artistry and success. There's Maxon, his younger brother, who sleeps on a bed of nails and (following yogi practice) swallows thin ropes to cleanse his bowels. He also paints striking pictures.

Hovering in the background during these conversations at the Crumb home in Philadelphia is Robert's mother, Beatrice, clearly ill at ease with Zwigoff's camera crew, but a significant player in the psychic family history. But even more influential is Robert Crumb's late father, a former Marine who broke Robert's collarbone one Christmas Day and stopped speaking to him after seeing his first artwork.

The difference between Robert, now 51, and his brothers (Crumb's two sisters declined to be interviewed for the film) is the success his bizarre outlook has brought him. His material wealth, the public recognition, the groupies—all these developments have given Robert conventional validation.

Now, as he returns home (a rare thing for him; his visit is largely for Zwigoff's purposes), he is something of the conquering hero. But he's also reentering the psychic morass that formed this family. Character mysteries arise with a profound urgency you seldom get in fictional movies.

Why, for instance, did Charles (once the family's artist-bully) evolve into a demure stay-at-home who seldom bathes, is strung out on antidepressants and hangs out with a mother he resents? For all his questionable qualities, Charles is a highly intelligent, witty presence. A similar dichotomy occurs with Max. If he has such a troubled, even depraved history, why does he come across as relatively balanced and sensitive?

"Crumb," which also features the artist's professional observers (such as Time magazine critic Robert Hughes and Deirdre English of Mother Jones magazine), fellow cartoonists (including "Zippy the Pinhead's" Bill Griffith), latest wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb and 17-year-old daughter, Sophie (a chip off the old block, judging by her drawings), mines Crumb's innermost nature. A complex mixture of user, egotist, misogynist, pessimist and sex fiend (Bugs Bunny was his first sexual fantasy, then Sheena, Queen of the Jungle), he lives in a constant state of self-irony, disgust at mall-culture America and gleeful inspiration. But no one is more aware of the beast within than Crumb. And no one has transformed that monster more successfully into popular art. Zwigoff's documentary, which shows all this and more, is truly one of the most extraordinary films of the year.

CRUMB (R) — Contains graphic comic book illustrations, disturbing sexual confessions and profanity.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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