The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Aline Kominsky-Crumb, feminist underground cartoonist, dies at 74

Her autobiographical, raunchy and darkly absurd comics in the 1970s made her a feminist heroine to a generation of women

Aline Kominsky-Crumb at the Society of Illustrators in New York on March 24, 2011. (Richard Drew/AP)
8 min

Aline Kominsky-Crumb, the underground cartoonist whose autobiographical, raunchy and darkly absurd comics in the 1970s made her a feminist heroine to a generation of women who saw their own frustrations and sexual longings in her drawings, died Nov. 30 at her home in a remote village near Nimes, France. She was 74.

Her husband, the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.

Mrs. Kominsky-Crumb’s crudely drawn black-and-white drawings depicted the sexualized counterculture through stories of women with hairy armpits, big noses, large rear-ends. The women were self-depictions of Ms. Kominsky-Crumb, who once said, “I’m not capable of making anything up.”

Though her work in later years appeared in the New Yorker and galleries around the world, Mrs. Kominsky-Crumb said that was never her intention.

“I was drawn to underground comics,” she said in 2020 interview with a German art journal, “because I wanted to do something that people would throw away. Basically, they’d read it on the toilet and throw away. That’s what I like.” If it was unimportant, she added, “there would be the most freedom in that art.”

In 1972, Mrs. Kominsky-Crumb published “Goldie: A Neurotic Woman” — believed to be the first autobiographical comic published by a woman — in Wimmen’s Comix, an underground, all-female anthology with contributors such as Lee Mars and Diane Noomin, who died earlier this year.

The drawings and language in the comic show a plump young woman reminiscing about listening to her parents have sex as she desperately tries to find a suitable sexual mate. In one panel, Goldie is shown sitting at a desk, with her legs wide open and thinking something that cannot be printed in a family newspaper.

“She specialized in outgrossing anyone who was going to call her gross,” Noomin told the New York Times in 2018.

One of her most famous works is a drawing of herself on a toilet, published on the cover of “Twisted Sisters,” an anthology she co-founded with Noomin. Her underwear is pulled down around her high, thick-red socks. She’s looking in a mirror and thinks, “I LOOK LIKE a 50 YR. OLD BUSINESSMAN.” She also wonders, “HOW MANY CALORIES IN A CHEESE ENCHILADA?”

Mrs. Kominsky-Crumb’s characters were “made up of exaggerated parts of me that I blow up and push to the maximum,” she told the Huffington Post in 2017. “I drew the most sordid, unacceptable parts of myself. I’m not as ugly as I draw myself. But when I was younger, that’s how I felt, so that’s what I drew.”

Aline Goldsmith was born on Aug. 1, 1948, in Long Beach, N.Y., and grew up in a dysfunctional middle class Jewish household. Her mother came from a wealthy family and her father was a businessman who dabbled in organized crime.

“My family was really barbaric,” she told the Huffington Post. “My father was a wannabe criminal. If he could have been a ‘Goodfella,’ he would have. But he wasn’t Italian. He was Jewish. So he was a total loser.”

Though she loved the humorous aspects of Jewish culture, especially self-deprecating Borscht Belt comedians such as Jackie Mason and Joan Rivers, Mrs. Kominsky-Crumb wrote in her 2007 memoir “Need More Love” that she longed to escape her family’s “sleaziness, out of control materialism, upward striving, tension, financial problems, selfishness and misery.”

“In high school I marked my days on the calendar like I was in prison,” she told the Huffington Post. “My town was all upward striving Jewish kids that all wanted to go to the best schools, all pretty spoiled and snotty. I’m sure there were other losers like me, but, generally speaking, I thought it was a horrible place.”

As a teenager in the 1960s, Mrs. Kominsky-Crumb would sneak off to Manhattan to visit galleries and museums, staring for hours at works by Claude Monet, Henri Matisse and especially the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, whose vibrant self-portraits revealed both pain and deep beauty.

On her Manhattan trips, Mrs. Kominsky-Crumb would also slip down to Greenwich Village to observe and hang out with hippies and other misfits she was drawn to. In 1966, after graduating from high school, she attended the Cooper Union’s art school in Manhattan.

“That was like the most sexist, you know, incredibly uninspiring creative environment that I can imagine,” she said in a 2012 interview published in Critical Inquiry, an academic journal published by the University of Chicago. “The critiques were so mean and the competition it was so horrible, it made you never want to draw or ever show your work to anybody.”

In 1968, she was briefly married to Carl Kominsky. Before divorcing, they moved to Arizona, where Mrs. Kominsky-Crumb pursued a degree in fine arts at the University of Arizona, graduating in 1971. She relocated to San Francisco, where she fell in love with the hippie scene and, after being introduced by a mutual friend, began dating the underground cartoonist who signed his work “R. Crumb.”

Crumb, who grew up in a troubled family, with a drug-addicted mother who threatened her children with enemas if they misbehaved, was even more outrageous and perverse than the comics his new girlfriend was beginning to publish. They married in 1978, agreeing to an open marriage.

Some feminists objected to her relationship with a man whose sexual depictions of women they found disturbing. “There were two factions: militant feminists who wanted nothing to do with men and women who wanted to be strong and independent but sexy too,” she told the Huffington Post. “That’s who I aligned with.”

In 1995, their marriage became the subject of fascination after the documentary “Crumb” won wide acclaim. The film detailed Crumb’s painful childhood — his brothers were mentally ill and one died by suicide — and his wife’s compassion for him.

“Movies like this do not usually get made because the people who have lives like this usually are not willing to reveal them,” film critic Roger Ebert wrote.

By then, the couple was living in France and raising their daughter Sophie, while collaborating on autobiographical comics about their lives that appeared in the New Yorker and other mainstream publications. In 2007, Mrs. Kominsky-Crumb published “Need More Love” as a graphic memoir.

“Although her raw, messy drawing style and no-holds-barred content are off-putting to many comics fans, there is no denying the potency of her confessional comics,” Booklist said in its review. “Readers drawn to this volume to learn more about Crumb are likely to come away from it with a newfound appreciation of his talented spouse.”

Mrs. Kominsky-Crumb was once asked by Guardian readers what it was like to be married to a genius.

“Robert is the best dishwasher I’ve ever met and he’s fun to talk to at the breakfast table,” she said. “He always laughs at my jokes and is my best fan. And that’s what it feels like to live with a genius to me.”

The echoes of Mrs. Kominsky-Crumb’s influence on women extended well beyond the counterculture days, artist Art Spiegelman told the New York Times in 2018.

“She has something in common with Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, women who are trying to grapple with their identities in a way that is not prettified,” the author of “Maus” told the paper. “They are just trying to live and breathe as women with all their contradictions. And it’s a liberated and liberating way of looking at oneself.”

In addition to her husband and daughter, Mrs. Kominsky-Crumb is survived by three grandchildren.

Earlier this year, in an interview with Artforum, Mrs. Kominsky-Crumb reflected on her evolution from the underground to the mainstream.

“I chose to do stuff that could be read on a toilet,” she said. “Now, my work is taught at Harvard and women have written PhDs on my work, which really amazes me. So it’s full circle, if you hang in long enough. And I guess if your work is meaningful, eventually it’s recognized by the establishment.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the birthplace of Aline Kominsky-Crumb. She was born in Long Beach, N.Y., not Five Towns, N.Y. The article has been corrected.