You could talk to a lot of high school kids, even college kids or art school kids before you'd find anybody who'd heard of R. Crumb.
Once he was a celebrity among students, communards, acid heads, runaways, guru-groupies and other members of that mind-tribe known as "the '60s." He was an outsider, a slouching nerd with a mustache that looked as though he were still trying to grow it, but he was also the comic-book laureate, the creator of the "Keep on Truckin' " panel showing stoned urban characters with huge shoes and little heads trucking down the street, leaning back and strewing their feet before them in a hipster cakewalk against a lurking city skyline that hints at Apocalypse.
It was a logo for an age. What did it mean? Put more glide in your stride, more zip in your trip, hang in there but don't get hung up, dig the Kerouacian quirks of the mad sidewalks of America. Something. Or maybe nothing. It must have meant something or a two-hour documentary film called "Crumb" wouldn't have opened here on Friday.
If Peter Max was the suave culture hero artist then, with his drawings that looked like crib decorations, Robert Crumb was the nerd antihero, with his rounded, foodlike bouncy-baby characters lusting, despairing, hating and winking with huge irony at it all.
A 1972 Crumb character named Fuzzy the Bunny asks about "The Mary Tyler Moore Show": "They sing in the theme song about love' being all around' her but what about all the hate? What about all the hate around Mary Tyler Moore?"
If you apprenticed the craft of hipness back then, you might remember the opportunistic Fritz the Cat spouting Aquarian Age cliches to get girls. Fritz ended up in an animated movie that Crumb hated, just as he hated all the T-shirts, vans, hats, posters and so on that ripped off "Keep on Truckin'." Another Crumb classic was the robed and bearded Mr. Natural, who was a lascivious, freeloading, prankster satire on the notion that some guru, master or roshi had The Answer.
Mr. Natural grabs Flakey Foont's shoulder and says: "I'll let ya in on a secret! The whole universe is COMPLETELY INSANE!"
"It is?" asks Flakey, always the seeker and sucker.
The true protagonist is always Crumb as either artist of character.
A panel in Zap Comics, called "Definitely a Case of Derangement," begins with Crumb's wife cowering naked in a corner while he storms around ranting: "From the bedroom closet I operate a huge network of radios, sending out incantations, curses, voodoo hoodoo! I've been called an evil genius. . . . The truth is, I'm one of the world's last great medieval thinkers! You might say I'm a mad scientist for my plans have been worked out quite methodically, logically. But the ends justify the means, heh heh. This comic book is part of that plan."
Comic books lend themselves to subversion, as one Dr. Frederic Wertham, author of "Seduction of the Innocents," told a congressional committee in 1954. Comics back then, particularly EC horror comics, were viewed by upright types as marching orders for armies of what were called "juvenile delinquents."
They had an edge, all right.
"Good Lord! (Choke!)" as EC characters were always saying at the latest flaying or dismemberment.
They were sexy too -- the postures, the Wonderbra attitude toward anatomy. Under pressure from right-thinking Americans, the publishers agreed in 1956 to censor the horror and crime comics. The nation was safe until Crumb & Co. arrived.
Underground comics appealed to an older crowd, but it was impossible to imagine parents understanding Crumb any more than they'd understood horror comics. It wasn't just Crumb's bizarre sex and drugs, but the assaultive nerd pointlessness, the willful stupidity of children's humor, like the "Har Har Page," which begins with a fat guy asking, "If I pick my nose, what do I do with th' snot, huh?"
Nowadays, it's the kids who don't understand, and the parents who can't explain.
Your kid gets into your old comics collection in the attic.
"Who's this R. Crumb?" he says.
"Are you serious? You don't know who . . . "
"I hate it when you do that, Dad."
"You never heard of Zap comics? Mr. Natural?"
"I found these comic books, Dad. Gross. Really gross. And stupid. I'd hate my friends to know you used to read stuff like that."
Kids today, what do they know? And how soon they forget. Truckin' Today
Once upon a time R. Crumb got famous, and the people who remembered him for 25 years have a hard time imagining that other people haven't. He changed the way a generation saw things, taught it to look at seediness and depression as a source of humor and even beauty.
"I never would've heard of him if I didn't work here," a kid said recently at the Closet of Comics in College Park, which specializes in alternative and underground comics. "We get something in once in a while, but it's not a big thing."
Crumb kept publishing, but he eschewed stardom, movie projects and merchandising deals. He was said to be selling original drawings to collectors. He put out decks of trading cards with drawings of old blues musicians. He invented new characters and published a series called "Hup Comics." Nobody but Crumb was going to exploit Crumb, and he did, publishing books of old and sometimes bad notebook sketches and reproductions of the cards he did for the American Greetings Corp.; the card business was back in Cleveland in the early '60s, before New York, San Francisco and LSD gave him the teeming brain that he could glean with his Rapidograph pen.
If Crumb is history at 51 -- married, a father and living in France -- why would anyone want to see this movie about him? Who cares about a cold, narcissistic, leering, shoe-fetishistic '60s hero with an evil laugh?
In the film, Crumb tells an old girlfriend that with all the girls of his glory days in San Francisco, "I never loved anyone, I never got jealous." He laughs. After a while, the laugh becomes a motif of the film.
Why care about a psychotic brother, another brother who meditates on a bed of nails, an addled mother and a dead ex-Marine father who broke Crumb's collarbone in a rage one Christmas day?
His brother Chuck, a fat, plaintive recluse, sits in his bedroom describing his failure to kick antipsychotic drugs: "I tried getting off but I was coming unhinged."
Crumb laughs -- a laugh full of scoffing, self-consciousness and chagrin. This laugh seems to say he knows you think he's a jerk. He finds that funny. This gives him the last laugh, so screw you, pal. In the world of nerds, self-consciousness hangs over everything like bad air at rush hour in the Holland Tunnel. Nerd City
He portrays himself in his comics as a sex-obsessed, slavering, slouching, cringing, subversive, woman-hating, doom-brooding nerd, and there is nothing in the movie to contradict this image.
His most organized enemies were feminists who resented the big-chested, big-thighed women of his fantasies. They were repelled by his depiction of them as sexual chattel. They were appalled by the strips showing being humiliated, raped and killed. At the same time, his terror and admiration of female power could turn into the satire in Motor City Comics, featuring Lenore Goldberg and her All-Girl Commandos flattening male chauvinists.
He had enough civic awareness to attack amphetamine abuse and worry about the environment. But more often, in the words of one strip in "Snatch Comics": "A trickle of saliva ran down one side of his mouth in anticipation of the morsel of sexuality he was about to enjoy . . . in the dim light of the alley . . . she could smell his disgusting hairy body and his filthy unwashed clothes . . . she was frozen in horror."
You can imagine him in high school, or his species, at least, sitting at the back of the class with one hand in his pocket and the other drawing pictures of girls he hated because he loved them. Or you can imagine him knowing everything about time bombs or shellfish that can kill you in 15 seconds or less. The problem is that the coin of teen maledom is not time bombs or shellfish or even increasingly graphic drawings of cheerleaders being ravished, but muscle and girls. Nerds don't have either. All they have is a feverish awareness of both themselves and the airless, pointless, furtive, dirty, embarrassing facts of childhood life that ends with puberty, and then puberty's awards of acne and oozing squalor are conferred.
This, one senses, was R. Crumb, in some incarnation or apotheosis. One senses this because he describes himself this way in the movie, a two-hour account of the depression, hate, madness, brutality, rejection, fantasies, resentments, vindictiveness, derision, giggles, watchfulness, manipulation and genius of a man, R. Crumb, who in deep middle age can still brood over his high school yearbook, remembering which girls were snotty. Nerd love and nerd hate: They're never far apart.
Ever since the beatniks, and Colin Wilson's book "The Outsider," and Norman Mailer's essay "The White Negro," we've been looking for more alienated latter-day hipsters and Dostoevskian pariahs to save us. There have been punks, eco-hermits and Vietnam veterans, but we've often overlooked the biggest army of malcontents lurking out there beyond the firelight: nerds.
Nerds may have been to comics what blacks were to jazz. David Letterman is a cool guy pretending to be a nerd pretending to be a cool guy. Woody Allen is a nerd pretending to be a nerd in hopes that people will think he's really a cool guy.
Are we not all nerds? Did He who made the nerd make thee? If so, we identify with Crumb, or at least understand his license as an outsider to lampoon all taboos and sensitivities. The nerd resents the fact that you don't like him because if you did he could hate you for it. The nerd is America's answer to Dostoevski's masters of perverseness, as in one character in "The Brothers Karamazov" saying: "I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering, and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong." Such Contradictions
Contradictions are the heart of Crumb.
For instance, Crumb understood what Disney understood -- that people want to see the world as having soul and life, and they want it cuddly. Hence Crumb's Clever Mr. Ketchup, Solly Salt Shaker and Sammy Saucer in a two-page spread called "Kitchen Kut-Outs," along with cars and buildings leering and winking as if they were sentient. And, just as Disney transformed Mickey Mouse from a beady-eyed, long-nosed rodent into a big-eyed, snub-nosed baby, Crumb goes for the same archetype with his rounded, big-eyed people, fat-tired cars and a world that looks as if it's made of food.
However: Disney made Mickey Mouse so harmless that he was bland but Crumb takes his happy inflato-people and gives them genitals and butcher knives.
At the beginning of "Despair" comics, Crumb warns: "You may not think it's funny, but Ive got a MORBID SENSE OF HUMOR." He shows himself laughing as a bus crushes a little girl's head.
The back cover tells us that "anyone can be a cartoonist," and argues that "art is just a racket! A hoax perpetrated on the public by so called artists who set themselves up on a pedestal and promoted by pantywaste ivory-tower intellectuals and sob-sister critics who think the world owes them a living! . . . IT'S ONLY LINES ON PAPER, FOLKS!!"
But such lines! Such art! Such contradictions! Watching Crumb draw in the movie, you see a hand so sure that every line has purpose and meaning. This sureness, along with the roundness and aliveness of his figures, creates people, cars, animals and furniture with heft, as if every figure is carrying tremendous weight, as if they live on a planet where gravity is stronger. At the same time, he attends to tiny details -- he draws all the power lines over a highway intersection, and does endless shading, as if he's tracing the fingerprint whorls of reality itself.
Stereotypes battle taboos.
A character named Whiteman stands tense and sweating in business suit and hat, saying: "I must maintain this rigid position or all is lost."
In Motor City Comics, cops are chasing a naked woman. They stop to question a black man drawn not just as a thick-lipped caricature but as the caricature whites used to do in minstrel shows. It ends up being a satire on a satire, making fun of white people who see blacks that way, and of white liberals who would deny they ever did, not to mention angry blacks who see all whites seeing them that way, and passive blacks who don't care.
Then, in archaic minstrel show dialect calculated to make everybody squirm, the black man lies to the cops: "Ah guess ah sho' wooda noticed if deh wuz a nekkid womin runnin through here!"
A story called "Joe Blow" shows a stereotypical 1950s suburban family, a sort of lower-middle-class Donna Reed operation, all smiles and pie-faced pep all the way through their extravagant incest scenes. In the last panel, radiant parents say: "Yes, youth holds the promise of the future."
The point is not iconoclasm or the exposure of middle-class hypocrisy. The point is to present a fantasy of the ideal American family sanctioning the ultimate taboo, incest. It puts the reader in the middle of a contradiction. It's not subversive as much as it's misanthropic. Besides, how can there be a surrealistic or sexual underground when Zippy the clown appears in big-circulation newspapers, and naked breasts appear in the editorial page cartoon of The Washington Post?
It's only lines on paper, folks. But it is lines on paper, like a lot of art. Every line is a Crumb signature, every face the Crumb idea of that face, every bleak phone-wire smog-doomed city Crumb's idea of cities. But it isn't subversive, anymore.
What is? There are lots of strange comic books around now -- "American Splendor," "Love and Rockets," "Destroyer Duck" and so on, but like modern jazz in the early '60s, underground comic books now generate connoisseurship where they used to generate excitement.
What seduction? What innocents? Did the underground win its war with the Establishment, and thereby lose its power to seduce? Or did it lose the war so badly that nobody's frightened of it anymore? CAPTION: Stereotypes battle taboos in the comic creations of R. Crumb. Left, the artist's self-portrait. CAPTION: R. Crumb, the nerd antihero of the '60s counterculture, and some of his creations.