Born in Philadelphia August 30th, 1943 Robert Dennis Crumb; has shocked, entertained, titillated and challenged the imagination (and the inhibitions) of comics fans the world over. In truth, alternative comics as we know them today might never have come about without R. Crumb’s influence. The acknowledged “Father” of the underground comix genre is quoted as saying “When I’m not drawing. I’m NOTHING.”
Crumb’s earliest cartoons were inspired more by the work of Carl Barks and Bazil Wolverton than the superhero comics enjoying their first wave of popularity at the time of Crumb’s childhood in the late 40’s. At the age of 5 Crumb began honing his skills drawing his own versions of “funny animal” comics with his brothers, Max and Charles. These early efforts included the first incarnation of Fritz the Cat---after whom, years later; the concept of “funny animals” would never be the same.
In his teens, R. Crumb came to realize the incompatibility between the values espoused by his parents’ generation and his own. His admitted inability to “fit in” would enable him to develop the ability to question concepts such as conformity, normalcy---and what constituted art. After graduating from high school, Crumb moved to Cleveland, where he was hired by American Greetings, his first exposure to “corporate life”. As a greeting card artist, he was instructed to render his drawings as harmlessly “cute” as possible---something that would spill over into his later underground work, but with startling results.
Although to all outward appearances, Crumb seemed well and truly integrated into the “normal” existence that he had shunned as a teenager, he became more disillusioned with “the system” and the general dreariness of the 9-to-5 life. In January of 1967, after talking with some friends in a bar, he decided to drop everything---literally---and join them on their journey to San Francisco.
The “Summer of Love”, the gentle anarchy of Haight-Ashbury, a time of experimentation and questioning--- resulted in a metamorphosis---Crumb’s talent bloomed in ways not even he could have imagined. With his inhibitions not so much relaxed as demolished, Crumb felt driven to create the cartoon universe that would redefine the art of comics forever.
In the years 1967-1971, odd little magazines that certainly looked like the average, normal, all-American comic books began to appear in the kinds of shops frequented by denizens of the “counterculture.” The first Zap Comix No. 1 was published in 1967 and the underground comic book was officially born. This issue contained the single page “Keep On Truckin” inspired by a riff of the Blind Boy Fuller song “Truckin’ My Blues Away” this big footed gang, also called the Do-Dah men went on to become the moniker for a generation and where later referenced in the Grateful Dead song “Truckin” from the 1970’s album American Beauty.
Zap was followed by titles such as Despair, XYZ Comics, San Francisco Comic, Motor City Comics and Hytone Comix to name a few. The 1971 Hytone Comix, contained two single page strips which went on to become popular posters which adorned the walls of many a hippie pad during the 70’s, the infamous “Stoned Agin!” graced the inside back cover while the equally infamous “Tommy the Toilet” was the back cover.
Crumb’s characters are many and varied; one of the most likeable is that saucy sage Mr. Natural, Fred Natural or “Natch” as he is known to his friends, is part mystic, part con-man. He always has the answer, he tells it like it is, he is never short on brilliant ideas and he does not suffer fools well. He does get himself into a bit of trouble now and then, like when he told God he found the whole thing just a little bit “corny”, and was promptly ejected from heaven but always the philosopher he rolls with the punches. Other characters include Fritz the Cat of whom a feature film was made, Flakey Foont, Devil Girl, Mr. Snoid, Shuman the Human, Dirty Dog, Smelly Cat, Mr. Appropriate and many others.
Crumbs compulsive need to draw and to create, has filled many a sketchbook. A resent quote from an interview with Crumb in The Paris Review , “I am a bookmaker I see blank books I want to fill them, notebooks, sketchbooks, blank pages.” His most recent work, the illustration of The Book of Genesis, demonstrates Crumb’s mastery of pen and ink and the original art can be viewed in a traveling museum collection which is currently touring the country. Mr. Crumb presently resides in the French country side with his wife Aline.
And many thanks to William Giles, the author and creator of The Wacky World of Crumb, who has so generously allowed me to borrow heavily from his imagery and text. Check out his site, it is well worth the visit.