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A brick of Crumb
A Handbook collects the cartoonist
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R. Crumb's official Web site

There are very few cartoonists, or artists of any kind, more frustrating than Robert Crumb. That seems to be the way he likes it. Prodigiously gifted and bubbling with fury at almost everything and everyone, especially himself, he’s obsessed with particular kinds of old cultural detritus, and his work is driven by the twin impulses to re-create the glorious junk of his childhood and to smash and pulverize the sick culture and the pathetic desires that frame it in his mind.

Crumb is a phenomenal draftsman — his scribbliest distortions have palpable mass and momentum — but the hallmark of his art is that he refuses to pretend that he’s okay or doesn’t have bad thoughts. He’d rather spill every bad thought he has onto the page, so he can point and laugh at it. (He’s forever drawing the huge-butted, elephant-legged, backwards-contorted women who fit his sexual ideal, and mocking himself for it; his infamous creation Angelfood McSpade isn’t just a racist caricature of a black woman, she’s the ultimate racist caricature, and a mortifying indictment of internalized racism.) Whenever you think you’re laughing with Crumb, he turns around and starts guffawing at you. As he puts it: "Kitchee-koo, you bastards!"

The R. Crumb Handbook (MQP) is a 440-page brick of a book surveying his life, opinions and art and arranged according to the "four enemies of man": fear, clarity, power, and old age. (Crumb’s collaborator on the book, Peter Poplaski, appears to have picked up that classification from Carlos Castañeda.) It’s a peculiar hybrid: part sampler of Crumb’s work, part autobiography, part festschrift, part documentation of his favorite things, part collection of photographs of the artist looking like one of his own caricatures. It even includes a CD of bands he's played with over the past 33 years.

The book is neither fish nor fowl, but the same goes for Crumb’s art. The 20th-century art he loves is mostly disposable — comic books, and also record-label designs and cereal boxes and B-movie posters. That may be why so much of his own work is ephemera or self-imitation, from the paintings and sculptures that get displayed in galleries simply because they’re paintings and sculptures (he's scaldingly contemptuous of the "fine art" world) to mass-produced Devil Girl chocolate bars to the faces he doodles on pistachio shells. His sketchbooks are legendary — he traded six of them to a collector for a house in the South of France — and he’s probably the only artist ever to have three books collecting his restaurant-placemat drawings. But substantial work? Not so much.

Crumb writes in the Handbook about his love of narrative, but he’s never been able to put a coherent story together. Still, the fact that there’s no single canonical piece by him beyond the one-page "Keep On Truckin’ " routine has worked in his favor: to deal with Crumb, you have to consider a big cross-section of his work. Which means you can’t miss his themes and obsessions, or the devices he uses over and over. His sense of humor owes everything to Harvey Kurtzman’s early MAD comics, and the consequent fake-grinning tone gets hard to take. But the best idea he picked up from MAD was that the more sacred a thing is, the more enthusiastically it can be skewered, and his own best idea was to apply the hot poker of satire to his own ego and sexuality.

It’s an idea that may have burned itself out. Crumb’s recent work, as the Handbook presents it, has devolved into a collection of thematic tics held together by his mighty drawing hand. (One late image, called "The Holy Grail," is a pair of stocky women’s legs in clunky shoes, protruding upward from a rare blues record, framing a grail with a radiant eye and a crown above it. Yeah, we get it.) His real enemy isn’t fear or clarity or old age, all of which he’s handled admirably: it’s his own power, which made him famous by breaking taboos until there weren’t any good ones left to break.

Issue Date: July 22 - 28, 2005
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