Few people outside the world of comic-book fandom may have heard of Robert Crumb, although many of his creations, such as Fritz the Cat, Mr Natural, and the “Keep on Truckin’” image, have made it into the world of popular culture. R. Crumb is not the type to seek fame and fortune, but he’s left an indelible mark on the comics medium specifically and popular American art in general, which is why producer David Lynch and director Terry Zwigoff found it fitting to film a documentary of Crumb’s life over 15 years ago.
Shot over six years and edited three times, Zwigoff managed to create a film of such density that it garnered the attention of critics and the public who would perhaps have overlooked a mere biography of an underground comic-book artist. Zwigoff combines biography, interviews with Crumb’s family and friends, and commentary by social and art critics to weave a complex cinematograph masterpiece that became an almost instant classic.
More than just homage to perhaps the best known of the underground comix artists of the counter-cultural ‘60s, Crumb provides an in-depth analysis of the reclusive man, his troubled family, and his infamously provocative work, which has both won him praise and garnered him criticism bordering on outright disgust. Born 30 August 1943 in Philadelphia, R. Crumb is the son of a career officer in the U.S. Marines and a housewife who, he claims, abused amphetamines. Their unhappy marriage produced five children, but Crumb focuses mainly on his three brothers: Robert, Charles, and Maxon (his sisters declined to be interviewed ... perhaps for reasons soon to be made apparent). Charles, in particular, Crumb points to as his major artistic influence, alongside Pieter Brueghel, William Hogarth, and Al Capp.
“Charles introduced to me to comics,” Crumb admits, “and even now I think of winning Charles’s approval whenever I draw.” The film shows that, despite his fame, Crumb still reveres his brother: “He was always much cleverer and funnier than I was.”
Visiting his brothers, who both are even more reclusive than Robert (Charles was still living with his mother during the film’s shooting, and both he and Maxon seemed to exist in worlds walled off by psychotropic medications and stacks of old books). Sadly, Charles committed suicide shortly before the film’s release.
Crumb reminisces about his nerdy childhood and the strange sexual fantasies he harbored, all of which eventually became evident in his later work. At the age of four, he recalls having an erection while humping his aunt’s legs and later finding himself oddly attracted to Bugs Bunny. By 12, his libidinal yearnings seemed to grow more conventional as he became “fixated” on Sheena Queen of the Jungle.
As a teenager he “felt hurt and cruelly misunderstood”, particularly by the opposite sex, and decided on becoming a “shadow” in the halls of his high school. It was at 17 that he decided he would get his “revenge” by becoming a great artist.
Crumb went on to hold a number of humdrum jobs, including one as an artist for American Greetings in Cleveland, where he met underground comic-book writer Harvey Pekar. It was his work with Pekar on the classic American Splendor that got Crumb off and running in the world of underground comics, and in 1967 he moved to San Francisco, the hub of the counter-cultural movement. After extensive experimentation with LSD, he began publishing Zap Comix, the outlet that allowed him to develop his unique style.
Despite his public association with the hippie-centered world of late-‘60s San Francisco, especially the Grateful Dead (through his “Keep on Truckin’” painting), Crumb says he never felt a part of that world and hated that era’s music, preferring early twentieth-century jazz and blues. All he says he wanted was “a piece of that free love action”, even though then, as now, he chose to sport oversized clothes, thick-framed glasses, and a fedora, a look Janis Joplin tried to persuade him to abandon in order to meet girls—advice he never took.
Much of R. Crumb’s work is defined by sexually explicit renderings and offbeat social satire. Former Mother Jones editor Deirdre English, whom the film interviews, says she feels “Crumb’s getting off” on his drawings of rubenesque women (evocative, perhaps, of his mother and aunts) often in sexual situations with diminutive, nerdy men unquestionably redolent of Crumb himself. She admits that his work disturbs even her, and that he pushes the boundaries between satire and pornography.
Even his work with “cute cartoon characters”, like Fritz the Cat (which animated movie legend Ralph Bakshi made into a movie in 1972), often depict female bondage and decapitation and over-the-top racist renderings of African Americans.
Crumb openly admits he feels a hostility toward women, but justifies his extreme portrayals as hoping “revealing the truth about myself will be helpful [to myself].” He also notes that most of what he draws already exists in the “seamy side of America’s subconscious” and all he’s doing is revealing “the horror of America” to itself.
Crumb’s 2010 release as part of the Criterion Collection features a newly restored hi-def transfer, two audio commentaries, one by Robert Ebert from 2006 and another by Zwigoff from 2010, more than 50-minutes of previously unused footage, a stills gallery, and a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and artwork by Charles, Jesse, Maxon, and Robert Crumb.
Crumb is seminal among the history of documentaries, winning a slew of awards, including Best Documentary from the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Kansas City Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Seattle International Film Festival, and the National Board of Review, not to mention winning Best Cinematography and the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary in the 1995 Sundance Film Festival.
Despite his success as an American artist, at the end of the film R. Crumb, a man shown to be perpetually at odds with society, expresses his desire to exile himself from a nation he says “has turned culture into a commodity.”
After filming, Crumb and his wife painter/writer Aline Kominsky-Crumb expatriated to a small village in southern France, where they continue to reside. R. Crumb’s artwork an collectibles can be accessed at rcrumb.com.