The Life and Art of R. Crumb

R. Crumb Self-Portrait

I have a longstanding fascination with the cartoonist and artist Robert Crumb.  He’s an unapologetic misanthrope, subversive eccentric, and a one-of-a-kind artist.

He oozes authenticity.

When I was 11-years-old, my dad and I rented the documentary “Crumb” from Blockbuster as our Friday night movie of the week.  It got great reviews and my dad was excited to learn more about the counterculture cartoonist he remembered from his hippie days.

At 11, I was distinctly unimpressed.  The movie was simply a series of scenes focusing on a nerdy guy talking, drawing surreal cartoons, and getting piggy-back rides from strong women.  It was all too weird and boring for me at the time.  I don’t think I made it to the end.

However, I rediscovered “Crumb” in my early twenties and was blown away: It now ranks as one of my favorite documentaries of all time.  It’s such a raw depiction of a dysfunctional family and how Robert clung to art as a way to cope with and escape from his bleak circumstances.

I couldn’t believe it.  I couldn’t believe that there was an artist like this — a person like this — out there.

A person proving that there are alternatives to mainstream culture and to mainstream life.  Robert Crumb is a living example of how we have the power to reject normalcy, embrace our weirdness, and carve out a singular path on our own terms.

Here’s what else I’ve learned from following Crumb over the years:

1) He made the 10,000 Hour Rule look like a joke

He probably put in 10,000 hours of focused drawing time before he was out of high school.  From what I can tell, Robert Crumb draws the way most people breathe: constantly, automatically, compulsively.

I was struck by the sheer volume of creative output and “pencil mileage” Crumb had already accumulated by such a young age.  He put in the requisite time and deliberate effort to get good — really fucking good.  So good that there are no apparent technical limitations between what he envisions in his mind and what he’s capable of reproducing on the page.  If he can think it, he can draw it, and in a style that’s completely his own.

2) He accepted his “weirdo” status at an early age

I knew I was weird by the time I was four. I knew I wasn’t like other boys. I knew I was more fearful. I didn’t like the rough and tumble most boys were into. I knew I was a sissy.

He owned it.  Why try to be something you’re not?

While so many people expend massive amounts of energy trying to erase their differences and fit in, Crumb took a different route.  He made peace with his true nature, accepted that he was an outsider, and doubled-down on pursuing his own eccentric interests.  And he became a far more compelling person (and artist) as a result.

3) He’s audaciously honest

I was lucky to be part of the “underground comix” thing in which cartoonists were completely free to express themselves. To function on those terms means putting everything out in the open—no need to hold anything back—total liberation from censorship, including the inner censor!

Picture the deepest, darkest, most embarrassing thoughts, desires and crushing humiliations you’ve experienced in your life.  Now sprinkle in your myriad private dysfunctions, idiosyncrasies, and inadequacies.  Finally, imagine sharing all of it — everything — in lurid detail, for the whole world to see.

Scary, right?  You’d likely face waves of judgment, ridicule, and criticism.

Well Crumb has the guts to actually do it, to lower his guard and let us inside.

Racism, misogyny, aggression, isolation, ostracism, violence, the absurdities of life, wildly explicit sexual fantasies — no topic is sacrosanct; nothing is off-limits.  His id runs amok, revealing the twisted inner workings of his vivid imagination.

I may not agree with (or even like) all of Crumb’s work, but I sure as hell admire the bravery necessary to pursue this level of unfiltered creative expression.  It’s raw and it’s honest and it deftly exposes the complexities of the human condition — even the parts we’re most horrified by.

4) He recognized the insidious effects of marketing/advertising/mass media on culture 

I know this is a long quote, but I think it’s amazingly well-articulated.  I’m extremely interested in the intersection of art, culture, innovation, and advertising in modern-day life.  And this quote encapsulates my intuitive feelings about what has happened and where we’re likely headed:

Before industrial civilization, local and regional communities made their own music, their own entertainment. The esthetics were based on traditions that went far back in time—i.e. folklore. But part of the con of mass culture is to make you forget history, disconnect you from tradition and the past. Sometimes that can be a good thing. Sometimes it can even be revolutionary. But tradition can also keep culture on an authentic human level, the homespun as opposed to the mass produced. Industrial civilization figured out how to manufacture popular culture and sell it back to the people. You have to marvel at the ingenuity of it! The problem is that the longer this buying and selling goes on, the more hollow and bankrupt the culture becomes. It loses its fertility, like worn out, ravaged farmland. Eventually, the yokels who bought the hype, the pitch, they want in on the game. When there are no more naive hicks left, you have a culture where everybody is conning each other all the time. There are no more earnest “squares” left—everybody’s “hip,” everybody is cynical.

It’s all very meta.  Advertising once looked to culture for guidance on how to reach people; now the situation has reversed.  Today, advertising drives culture.  It sets the societal tone.  There’s just so much money in it.

Any culture that organically emerges is bound to get co-opted, repackaged and sold, and eventually stripped of whatever non-commercial qualities made it authentically appealing in the first place.

What started off as a symbiotic relationship between commerce and culture has turned increasingly parasitic.  We appear to either be moving toward an all-consuming monoculture or a world of fractured subcultures that mutually influence and react to one another.  Perhaps both paradigms can co-exist.  Time will tell.

Photo of R. Crumb 2004
PARATI, BRAZIL – AUGUST 04: R. Crumb (Photo by Flavio Moraes)
5) He warns us to choose what we consume wisely

About the only power you have is the power to discriminate. Living in a culture like this, you have to make choices and search out what has the most authentic content or substance.

It’s easy to mindlessly consume content all day, every day.  Cute pet videos, stream-of-consciousness political ramblings, and other viral ephemera are all mainstays on our ubiquitous screens.  A million different entertainment options vie for our attention non-stop.

And we are up against some powerful forces — very smart people working behind the scenes to hack human psychology and find its inherent weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  How can they make our collective dopamine flow at will?

Given these increasingly sophisticated obstacles, it’s more difficult — and more important — than ever for us to take the initiative to seek out art and entertainment that will fulfill us, challenge us, and allow us to grow.  Art that speaks to our humanity, that makes us feel more alive and less alone.

6) He points out the dangers of “art as industry” 

The fine art world and the commercial art industry are both all about money. It’s hard to say which is more contemptible: the fine art world with its double talk and pretensions to the cultural high ground, or the world of commercial art trying to sell to the largest mass market it can reach. A serious artist really shouldn’t be too deeply involved in either of these worlds. It’s best to be on the fringe of them.

Amen.  When art becomes big business, it’s reduced to a commodity — merchandise to be moved.  This is antithetical to great art.

If artists get too caught up in how to market themselves, how much their work is selling for, and how to navigate the byzantine structures of the business world, they may lose focus on the primary act of creating.

Then there’s fame: becoming the center of attention, receiving obsequious praise, and acclimating to the ever-increasing lifestyle inflation that success brings.  This can take a toll on any artist.

When the internal drive and struggle that once led to great art gives way to adulation and the pressure to constantly satisfy outside expectations, an artist’s creative recipe may end up losing its key ingredients.  Many artists become victims of their own success, afraid to take chances for fear of jeopardizing their newfound status, financial security, or reputation.

Like a true artist, Crumb sized all this up and said to hell with it.  And by doing so, he freed himself to make whatever he wants.

R. Crumb photo

7) He chose LSD over suicide

I took LSD as a sort of substitute for committing suicide.

My ego was so shattered, so fragmented that it didn’t get in the way during what was the most unself-conscious period of my life.”

LSD put me someplace else.  I wasn’t sure where.  All I know is, it was a strange place.  Psychedelic dugs broke me out of my social programming.  It was a good thing for me, traumatic though, and I may have been permanently damaged by the whole thing, I’m not sure.

Sometimes when life isn’t working for us, we need to make a drastic change.  I’m glad Crumb found the jolt he needed to see the world differently.  Some of his most well-known characters originated during this period of his life.

Thankfully, he developed his prodigious drawing skills prior to experimenting with LSD.  It’s a case of preparation meeting opportunity.  Because Crumb was a highly capable and obsessive drawer by this point, we got an inside look at what was going on inside his brain during his LSD-fueled months as he visually documented his journey.

8) He embraces the Anti-Hero

I’m an outsider. I will always be an outsider.

I could never relate to heroes. I have no interest in drawing heroic characters. It’s not my thing, man. I’m more inclined toward the sordid underbelly of life.

How refreshing.  I’m tired of the endless parade of superhero movies.

Save your big-budget special effects, your antiseptic stories written to appeal to the masses and the lowest common denominator.

Give me the weirdos any day.  The freaks.  The people living on the fringe doing it their own way.  I want personality and originality.  I want nuance.  I want to see life in all its colors, not just the artificially curated and most pleasing tones.

You get to be old enough and you realize that we’re all weird in our own ways.  Life’s a long journey.  Most of us feel like outsiders at one time or another.  We’ve been beaten down, unsure of ourselves.  And sometimes things don’t work out in the end.  Sometimes life simply sucks: You’re incredulous that things happen the way they do.

And when it’s unfair, how do you respond?  How do you wake up, day after day, and deal with your situation?  What do you think about?  How do you get by?

Who ARE you?

And here’s Crumb, the ultimate outsider, welcoming us into the deepest recesses of his mind and offering us a seat, pointing to his vast body of work and saying, “Here.  This is who I am.”

third-eye-crumb drawing




3 Comments on “The Life and Art of R. Crumb

  1. It is a testament to how much this article speaks to me when I offer up a resounding “Amen!”

    I’m 48 years old and as long as I can remember I’ve been a comic book fan. Back in the 70s and 80s comic books themselves were plentiful but they didn’t truly enjoy the mainstream spotlight, at least in terms of Hollywood being particularly eager to make superhero movies. Yes, there were the Christopher Reeves Superman movies, and they were spectacular for their time due to the high quality of production. Then in 1988, I think, Tim Burton’s Batman movie came out and, once again, for its time the movie was awesome. The superhero movies were few, but they were fine.

    But now Disney owns Marvel and we’re overwhelmed with superhero movies. So much so that I, self avowed superhero fan that I am, have no interest in seeing superhero movies anymore. If you told me as a kid back in the 70s that in the future there would be three or four superhero movies a year featuring dozens of my comic book favorites I would have gone absolutely nuts with the desire for the future to get here so I could see them all. There is no way kid me would believe I’d get sick of seeing superheros on the big screen. Yet here we are. I have no desire to run out to see Infinity War, and that’s the big one the MCU has building up to for a decade!

    I blame mass marketing and the unrelenting barrage of product placement with superhero tie-ins. One of the stupidest things I’ve seen was a shaving kit with the Avengers on the packaging. Only on the packaging. The actual razor and shaving cream had nothing to differentiate them from the other identical items placed elsewhere on the store shelves. Throw away the box and you have no more Avengers to grace your purchase. Somehow, we’re supposed to believe that we’ve bought something special because the packaging features the mugshots of a bunch of overpaid actors in superhero costumes.

    The same goes for Star Wars. I’m sick of Star Wars. God help me, I never thought I’d say that, but I am truly sick to death of Star Wars. When I saw the first Star Wars film back in 1977, it became a new religion for seven-year-old me. Then there was Empire Strikes back and, glory hallelujah, my religious fervor knew no bounds. Return of the Jedi was akin to the Second Coming of Christ, Ewoks notwithstanding. And then Star Wars was done. Complete.

    Then we went for 16 years without a new Star Wars movie. (I’m not counting the doctored up re-releases of the original trilogy in the 1990s, though that was a fun opportunity to recapture a bit of my childhood. I also am not counting the Christmas Special or those god awful Ewok specials.) The Phantom Menace was announced and, like any old-school Star Wars fan I was giddy with anticipation. Then the movie was released. At this point I could go on about how bad the prequels are in my opinion but I wouldn’t be saying anything that hasn’t been said a million, million times before. The prequels sucked but at least we had the Timothy Zahn novels.

    Now Disney owns Star Wars and has put it back on the big screen and I no longer care. I thought Force Awakens was mediocre at best and absolutely hated Last Jedi. Rogue One has been the best of the new movies so far. Once again, though, one cannot go out into public without being bombarded with Star Wars merchandising. Too much of a good thing I suppose. Mass marketing strikes again and destroys a critical part of my childhood. I’m hate you, Disney!

  2. Not sure why but it seems appropriate to leave this quote by Ira Glass right here, as it seems to support what you said about Crumb’s more than 10,000 hours:

    “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

    1. That’s a great quote. Definitely applies to anyone pursuing something creative.

      This part is why I think most people give up: “It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.”

      It’s painful knowing you’re gonna have to suck for a while. Most people, myself included, want a shortcut or a way to “outsmart” the process. And when we realize that, nope, you just have to crawl through the stages of creative development one step at a time — just like everyone else who ever got good at something — it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

      Thanks for the Ira quote!