“He gave me the impression that he thought of himself as a kind of nobody, a nothing.” —Terry Gilliam, The Life and Times of R. Crumb, St. Martin’s Press (1998)
Until Crumb came along, a crumb was a crumb—a porous aggregate of soil particles. A bit. A small fragment of bread, cake or cracker. The informal use of the word conveys an objectionable or contemptible person; i.e., “He’s an absolute crumb!” In the category of slang, a crumb is a worthless person. A word’s attributes often form an image in one’s mind.
Who among us has heard of Margaret Crumb? James Crumb? Henry Crumb? Elizabeth Crumb? Frank Crumb? David Crumb? Daniel Crumb? Mary Crumb? Or William Crumb? The mind draws a blank.
When the name Maxon is introduced into the mix, an image or two may form—idiosyncratic ballpoint drawings or paintings perhaps, or that of the struggling social outcast behind them, panhandling on the streets of San Francisco’s Skid Row or meditating on a bed of nails.
If Charles is linked to the Crumb surname, childhood pencil drawings of comic book pages may arise, or that of their psychologically impaired creator, years later, in an upstairs bedroom of his mother’s house, filling notebooks with obsessive, illegible, characterless text.
Both Maxon and Charles share the same familial tie with Robert Crumb. But, with the mention of this particular Crumb, images reverberate—along with descriptors: genius, weird, warped, brilliant, taboo, perverse, racist, chauvinist, pornographer, bent, an original.
It was drawing—and only drawing—that served as a salve against the harsh reality of the brothers’ chaotic, enmeshed home life. Like their mother’s sordid upbringing, theirs too was tragic. During a beating by his cold, stern, strict father, five-year-old Robert suffered a broken collarbone. “She knew how to hurt him, to stick the verbal knife into him,” Crumb recalled of his mother many years later. “It was awful, awful.”
Over the course of the 1950s, Charles and Robert withdrew into the world of comic books, gorging themselves on the work of Carl Barks (“Donald Duck”), John Stanley (“Little Lulu”), Walt Kelly (“Pogo”), and Harvey Kurtzman (Mad magazine). They spent countless hours plotting, writing, lettering and penciling their own, one-of-a-kind, homemade editions.
Crumb’s road to Damascus moment occurred in the fall of ’62, a year after he graduated high school. Socially inept, suppressed and uneasy around girls, the conflicted teenager constantly wrestled with his inner world. Overwhelmed by life and on the brink of self-obliteration, Marty Pahls, several years Crumb’s senior, stepped in. He severed the family tie.
“That was a momentous occasion in my life,” Crumb recalled many years later. “Charles had no plans to do anything. The way my mother was, I could have stayed there indefinitely.” Moving miles away to Cleveland, Ohio, to room with his pen pal was “the only opportunity or prospect I had in the world.”
In the Great Lakes city, Crumb landed a steady job producing color separations for decorated cards at American Greetings. During his off-hours, he immersed himself in an ambitious, private project—R. Crumb’s Big Yum Yum Book. Produced with pen and ink, Prismacolor pencils and six months of earnest labor, his fairy tale about a hung-up toad and a towering, nude, apple-cheeked female, would lead him to starry-eyed Dana.
Harvey Pekar of American Splendor watched Crumb’s epic comic novel unfold. Many years later he proclaimed it to be “new, better, hipper, more important than Mad.”
At American Greetings, Crumb encountered the Rapidograph—a reservoir pen that produced an even-flowing line of uniform width, unlike that of the Crow Quill, a dip pen, whose steel-pointed nib produced a variant line. Over the course of the 1960s, he employed them both. A marked change in Crumb’s sketchbooks occurred during this period. Pencil drawings gave way to those rendered in Rapidograph. One such sequence, inspired by a childhood feline named Fritz, was snatched up by Harvey Kurtzman for Help!, his third post-Mad effort.
Kurtzman, whose irreverent and anarchist Mad magazine revolutionized humor in America, saw that, from behind those thick, Coke-bottle lenses, Crumb perceived the world with astounding clarity. Bowled over by the essence of all things Crumb, Kurtzman offered him the position of assistant editor upon Terry Gilliam’s departure. Now married, Crumb and Dana pulled up stakes for New York City. Stepping into the magazine’s office that very first morning, aglow with excitement, the versatile, young penman was suddenly waylaid. Help! was folding. Publisher Jim Warren had yanked the plug. Crestfallen, stuck in the urban sprawl of the East Coast metropolis, and with scant freelance work coming in, Crumb flirted with lysergic acid diethylamide—legal at the time—introduced to him earlier in the year.
After one particular “trip” Crumb became “ego-less, drifting along, totally passive.” For a five-month stretch, all he could do was draw in his sketchbook. LSD altered Crumb’s perception of comics forever. Big-footed cartoon characters emerged from his id—Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont, Angelfood McSpade, Schuman the Human, The Snoid and Eggs Ackley would serve him well over the course of the coming years.
Deflated by his time in the Big Apple, Crumb returned to Cleveland and his career at American Greetings, cranking out cutesy Hi Brow cards. Stuck in a humdrum marriage, in a humdrum job, in a humdrum town, he dialed up his intake of alcohol. Dropping by Adele’s Lounge for an after-work drink in January 1967, Crumb bumped into two locals about to embark by car to the mecca of LSD and psychedelic art—San Francisco. Struck by an On the Road moment, he threw caution to the wind and tagged along. Settling into a three-dollar-a-day dive apartment in the Mission District, Crumb “turned on, tuned in, and dropped out.”
After an all-night drawing vigil down in The Haight, the former greeting card artist presented Janis Joplin the cover illustration for her forthcoming album, Cheap Thrills. “Janis used to come around, smoke pot, talk about the comics,” Crumb recalled. “She was nice.” The comics Janis liked were “comix,” a new breed of comic book spearheaded by Zap. Crumb’s mind-warp stories and “anything goes” subject matter would mold the emerging art form. “Keep on Truckin’,” an appropriated panel from that very first issue, became an icon of the counterculture.
Savvy journalists, hip to the scene, got the word out to Middle America through mainstream mags such as Playboy, Cavalier and Rolling Stone. On October 1, 1972, The New York Times reported: “Crumb is creating a whole new way of thinking, a whole new head trip.”
As with many great artists, from Picasso to Rauschenberg, Crumb has destroyed his work. Upset over the handling of Fritz the Cat in the landmark animated movie produced by Ralph Bakshi, Crumb offed his famous feline in The People’s Comics. With the demise of the counterculture came the demise of comix, and as one might surmise, the demise of Crumb. Yet, from those ashes he arose. In the hallowed halls of illustration, fine art and documentary film, he would be equally celebrated.
From his latest touchstone, transforming the Book of Genesis into a 200-page graphic work, stretching a half-century back to the dawn of Zap, the pen of Crumb has stirred commotion.
Crumb—a bit; a small fragment of the human race—grew to become the Great Crumb. Against all odds, he kept on truckin’.
Founder, Editor and Art Director of BLAB! and BLAB WORLD, Chicago