Keep On Truckin'!
R. Crumb, Godfather Of Underground Comix

Although the first true "underground" comic was Jack Jaxon's God Nose (first published in 1963), the underground comix field really got underway in 1967 with R. Crumb's self-published Zap #0 and Zap #1. Jay Lynch, a cartoonist/publisher of the hippie magazine The Chicago Mirror, recalls that "When I got that that copy of Zap Comics in the mail, I thought maybe we should be doing a comic book instead."

Zap's premier was a revelation for a lot of other cartoonists, who fell outside the 'house styles" and super hero restrictions of the monopolistic New York comics publishers. By 1968 the underground comics movement was rapidly expanding, with new titles, like Gilbert (Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers) Sheldon's Feds n' Heads, Jay Lynch's Bijou Comics, and Denis Kitchen's Mom's Homemade Comics,appearing more and more frequently.

Robert Crumb was born in Philadelphia on August 30, 1943, the second of three brothers. The oldest Crumb brother, Charles, was a cartooning fanatic who forced his two younger siblings to, for whatever reason, produce two or three hours' worth of cartooning per day. "It was tedious labor... I drew years and years and years of 'Brombo the Panda Comics' that were really uninspired," Crumb recalls. "Without my brother Charles forcing me to draw comics, today I would be a commercial illustrator signing my name 'Bob Dennis'."

Crumb never enjoyed the typical adolescent's comics of the fifties, the crime, horror, and western titles, preferring instead books like John Stanley's Little Lulu and Carl Barks' duck tales. In ninth grade he discovered the 19th century political cartoons of Thomas Nast, leading him to practice the cross-hatching which would become a trademark of his own work. Another later major discovery was Harvey Kurtzman's Humbug in 1957. Robert and Charles were so impressed by this find that they were inspired to produce their own homemade satire magazine, Foo.

Crumb discovered comics fandom through a letter in Humbug, which resulted in contacts with other comics fans like EC historian John Benson (my first roommate) and Marty Pahls. When Crumb decided to leave home in 1962, it was Pahls who offered him apartment space, enabling Crumb to seek work in Cleveland. Crumb soon landed a job with The American Greeting Card Company, working first as a color separator, in time graduating to doing roughs for what was called the "Hi-brow" (or "hip" cards) department, supervised by Tom Wilson, the future creator of Ziggy.

While working as a greeting card artist, Crumb found the time to submit work to Harvey Kurtzman's Help! Magazine,which was the first to print Crumb's Fritz the Cat. Crumb wrote and drew three major Fritz stories, which were later printed in an oversized anthology format by Ballantine Books (1969). The drawing and storytelling style of Fritz was different from what Crumb would be turning out years later, but it's my feeling that if Crumb had never turned out another line, he'd still be remembered for this material. Unfortunately Crumb allowed himself to be persuaded to give permission to Ralph Bakshi to animate Fritz, and the full-length mediocre mess that resulted so disgusted the cartoonist that he killed off Fritz by having a spurned lover--an ostrich-- murder him with an an icepick.

Crumb sold other work to Kurtzman, who had become something of a mentor and a friend, and was sent to such diverse places as Harlem and Bulgaria to work up stories for the magazine. In 1965 Crumb moved to New York to replace Terry Gilliam on Help!, which promptly folded on his arrival. By this time Crumb had gotten married and had begun traveling and contributing strips to the many underground newspapers that were springing up. In 1966 he settled in San Francisco, just as the new hippie movement arrived in Haight Ashbury. LSD was still legal then and he and his wife Dana began experimenting with the mind-altering drug.

"LSD was never easy for me," Crumb said in an interview, "I always had horrible nightmarish experiences and cosmic wondrous experiences like the ups and downs of a roller coaster." Nightmarish it might have been, Crumb was later to credit LSD as the big inspiration of his life, unleashing his subconscious. It was during this period that a whole new cast of characters sprang up under his pen; Angelfood McSpade, Schuman the Human, Whiteman, and, most famous of all, Mr. Natural. Crumb's work began popping up in virtually every underground comic published. At Janis Joplin's request he drew a cover for the rock star's second album, Cheap Thrills. ("The album cover impressed the hell out of girls much more so than the comics. I got a lot of mileage out of that.")

One publisher Crumb turned down was Playboy. Not that Crumb disdained beautiful women; it's no secret that Crumb is obsessed with them, frequently portraying himself as a lust-crazed nutcase who would do anything for sex. His busty, big-legged girls are disturbing to some, particularly to many feminists who complain that Crumb's cartoon women are nothing but sex objects.

Crumb's humor, roughly speaking, falls into three different areas. The first is overtly sexual, with stories featuring women who are usually lusty but menacing. Then there's the more philosophical quests of the Zen-like guru Mr. Natural and his neurotic disciple Flakey Foont. And finally Crumb puts himself between the panels (Self-Loathing Comics, Dirty Laundry), always questioning his own work, his own worth, and everyone around him. Crumb's drawing style, inspired by Wolverton, Segar, and Barks, is usually rendered in the classic "Big Foot" tradition of cartooning.

In the seventies Crumb began to burn out on being "Mr. Cool Hippie Cartoonist." He had separated from Dana and, to escape the pressures of fame, formed a band, R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders, traveling with cellist Terry Zwigoff (who would later make the award-winning film Crumb.). The Suits cut a number of records of the 1920s-style of music Crumb loved, and lasted from 1972-1976, reuniting in 1995 to play on a European tour.

By the 1980s the underground comics were almost extinct, killed by the banning of the head shops that carried them. Crumb edited his own magazine, Weirdo, featuring the works of other cartoonists (Peter Bagge, Robert Armstrong, Drew Friedman) as well as his own stories about Philip k. Dick, Franz Kafka, and James Boswell. Crumb also continued to collaborate with his second wife, Aline Kominsky, on their autobiographical Dirty Laundrystories.

In 1990 Kominsky and Crumb moved to France, reportedly in part to escape a $30,000 tax debt. Crumb's work, always prodigious, has increased in this decade, with Hup, Self-Loathing,and, most recently, Mystic Funnies. Flakey Foont and his mentor Mr. Natural have made a comeback, and Crumb has introduced a new character, the demonic, lust-crazed (what else?) Devil Girl. Crumb's work is being continually reprinted and is available in a wide variety of forms, from anthologies, to posters, pins, collaborations with writers, sketchbooks, and a new coffee table "Art Book" volume.

To quote Harvey Kurtzman's introduction to Carload O'Comics, "If you want to look at original, truthful, and never boring cartoons, turn the page." To R. Crumb, that is.
 
 
 

--Steve Stiles