[23 January 2007]
Although ‘60s counterculture gave the women’s movement a chance to blossom, women were fighting an uphill battle; they had to go up against not just The Man, but the men: their own supposedly sympathetic compatriots. Underground comix started in the mid-‘60s as an exciting new venue for political discussion that was available to anyone with a photocopier and something to say. However, rather than offering an open forum, these comix became a male-dominated arena, and rather than providing an intelligent, supportive atmosphere, they tended to endorse violence and misogyny. R. Crumb, now considered the greatest of the underground artists, played a large role in fostering this attitude, and through it, contributed to the demise of the first wave of the underground comix movement, which could have been an innovative forum for creative expression.
The counterculture was a youth movement, which meant that along with the more popular peace, love, and understanding were equal amounts of angst and unhappiness. Margo Adler, writer of Heretic’s Heart, says: “In the Berkeley of the mid-‘60s there was an extraordinary amount of experimentation with sex and drugs, but that doesn’t mean that love filled the streets. There was as much sadness, tension and anger as there was love”. While the lasting image of ‘60s teenagers is one of gentle, peace-loving hippies, in reality there was as much conflict in young people’s lives as there was in Vietnam; freedom warred with law, love with jealousy, and commerce with creative expression.
Dealing with gender roles was equally as difficult. While young men of the movement loved the sexual equality part (more women saying yes meant more sex all around), they balked at allowing women what they considered male freedoms. It was only a short decade after the restrictive ‘50s, when women were expected to have dinner on the table and a nightcap in their perfectly-manicured hands before Father came home from work. The perfect woman of the ‘60s counterculture, an image propagated in literature and art, was a hippie chick who had a good time, took care of her man, and didn’t complain when he dumped her for the open road: the “old lady”. As John Denver’s popular lyrics went, “Kiss me and smile for me / tell me that you’ll wait for me.” Although women were peers in theory, in reality they continued to handle the same homemaking chores their mothers had done: taking care of children, tending the garden, and cooking the food.
Women’s freedom was the final frontier. Sara Davidson, author of Loose Change (University of California Press, 1997) said, “It was resisted from top to bottom in society, by the straight world and just as vigorously and adamantly by the counterculture”. This was particularly true in the world of underground comix, which became more popular and influential as the ‘60s wore on.
With Zap! Comix, started by Crumb in 1967, the comic strip was reborn as a serious and powerful art form. While there had been underground cartoonists before Zap! (like S. Clay Wilson and Trina Robbins), they mostly drew occasional strips for magazines or newspapers. After Zap!, artists realized that they could draw entire books and spread their messages to the masses, cheaply. If they were willing to put in the numerous hours of work necessary, it was easy to find an old web press to run off copies for a few bucks. Crumb hand-folded and stapled his comix, and peddled them on Haight St. with his pregnant wife.
Because the comix were so cheap to produce, cartoonists no longer had to struggle to find a venue that would exhibit their art. Because most comix were self-produced, there was no censorship (at first). Artists drew what they wanted without fear of condemnation from the mainstream, and all was seemingly well, but only for male artists.
Female artists continued to suffer from sexism, even in this field that came to represent letting one’s voice, no matter how small, be heard. Trina Robbins, one of the only female cartoonists at the time, was shut out of a major cartoonists’ art show in New York, and couldn’t penetrate the cartoonists’ network. “I found myself in a field that was all guys and me,” Robbins said, “and I discovered I wasn’t welcome.”
While male cartoonists were collaborating with each other, none ever offered to collaborate with her and ignored her requests. Her boyfriend at the time, Simon Deitch, was another cartoonist: “Crumb and Gilbert [Shelton] and [S. Clay] Wilson and Spain [Rodriguez] and Jim Franklin and I all went to L.A. and painted up this bar called the Oar House –- when I got back, Trina had joined Women’s Lib. Then it was a downhill flight” (Rosencrantz, Patrick. Rebel Vision. Fantagraphics Press, 2003). Of the cartoonists he mentions, in Zap! Comix #4 Gilbert Shelton drew the story “Wonder Warthog Breaks Up The Muthalode Smut Ring”, wherein Wonder Warthog screws a woman named Lois Lamebrain to death because she laughs at his penis size. S. Clay Wilson, whom Crumb claimed as artistic inspiration, produced a strip in another Zap!, entitled “A Ball in the Bunghole”, where a girl in a pony outfit is shot through her vagina while being forced to perform fellatio. Spain Rodriguez, one of Crumb’s more ardent admirers, produced a story for Kiss (1969) where a leather-clad dominatrix interrupts a man having sex with a naked lady. Undaunted, he punches her in the face, saying, “All I wanna do is get laid would ya mind?” At this response, the girl he is ardently “laying” moans, “My hero.” These were the most popular cartoonists of the day, a veritable “old boys’ club”, and their comix provided a blueprint for aspiring artists: in order to be part of the club, you had to treat women badly on the page and keep them out of the comix in real life.
Willy Mendes, another female cartoonist of the time period, said, “Guys like Spain [Rodriguez] and Simon Deitch would be so nice when I was with Rick, an old lady, but were a bit rude when I was Willy, the girl artist” (Rosencrantz, p. 42) Nowhere did this rampant sexism become more noticeable than in the work of R. Crumb. As underground comix grew in popularity, Crumb, their founding father, grew more and more disgruntled. At first, Crumb drew mostly psychedelic nonsense art and slightly risqué stories, a la “Fritz the Cat”. His most universally famous artwork from this period is the generically sweet “Keep on Truckin’”, in which big-footed buffoons stride down a city street.
This, along with “Fritz the Cat” and his cover for Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills album, made Crumb a counterculture celebrity and an icon of the hippie scene. Images from his work splashed posters, t-shirts, and head-shop memorabilia. Zap! Comix, the magazine he started, became the standard bearer of quality and content for the underground comix world, and artists everywhere clamored to get in.
His reaction was to heap contempt on the fame and recognition he’d sought since childhood. Crumb took perverse pleasure in scorning anyone who had ever rejected him before, which included hippies, commercialism, and especially women. Aside from a few acid-inspired flights of fancy, Crumb’s art became cynical and neurotically, painfully autobiographical. Crumb’s favorite character to draw was himself: a poor, geeky shlub with pimples and a slouch hat. His comix (which had never been particularly woman-friendly) became violently misogynistic, as he graphically poured what were essentially his masturbatory fantasies onto the printed page. Women were raped, dismembered, mutilated, and murdered, sometimes all at once.
Interestingly, Crumb blamed his kinky comix on his fans: “My pissant little fame had made my life so completely crazy. Most of my energy was now focused on dealing with the endless procession of hustlers and hangers-on, and getting rid of all this pent-up sex rage. The comics definitely suffered” (ibid). By absolving himself of responsibility for the graphic images he portrayed, and portraying himself as an artist who was forced to play to the public rather than his own art, Crumb came across as a hero of the counterculture. He was being held hostage to society’s ideals, and he demonstrated with every pen stroke just what he thought of that; by making the counterculture itself into a source of oppression, he became even more counterculture by rebelling against it.
Fans of his style claimed that he was merely holding nothing back and keeping nothing sacred; he was really “letting it all hang out.” In a time that despised instinctual repression, Crumb’s work seemed like a representation of everything The Man was against: artistic expression, sex, and sexual artistic expression. In reality, he was so generally embittered towards women and afraid of “selling out” to commercialism that he resorted to shock tactics or material designed to alienate. By buying in to the cultural norms of female repression and gender roles, Crumb ended up supporting the very mainstream values he claimed to abhor. He freely admitted his hostility towards women, sometimes on the printed page, often referring to himself as “male chauvinist pig R. Crumb”.
Crumb himself, and supporters of his work, were quick to point out that “it’s only a comic book.” The same supporters who discounted the effect of Crumb’s comics, however, were quick to point out his artistic merits when it came time to heap him with accolades. His admirers also argued that Crumb was skewering organized “systems” or establishments, not women’s liberation as a concept—one of his rape cartoons ends with a statement: “Just kidding girls! Actually I’m on your side!! Honest!!” (The Complete Crumb Comics: Volume 9, Fantagraphics Books, 1992). Many of his cartoons against the Women’s Lib Movement (often drawn in clubhouses with “No Boys Allowed” signs) depict them as having no sense of humor, and indeed, Crumb believed that everyone took everything far too seriously.
What Crumb was really doing with his comix, however, was inspiring dozens of young male cartoonists to copy his style. Trina Robbins said that “none of the male cartoonists would acknowledge this hostile element in Crumb’s work…Crumb was sacrosanct, and criticizing him was a sin that earned me ostracism” (Beauchamp, Morte The Life and Times of R. Crumb: Comments by Contemporaries. Kitchen Sink Press, 1998). He was a culture hero, and his comics became the inspiration for dozens of others, who copied not only his artistic style but his rampant misogyny. As Jay Kinney said, “Here I am with Jay [Lynch] and Skip [Williamson] and Crumb. It’s sort of like my older brothers let me in to the club” (Rosencrantz, p. 53). Even as Crumb aged and his work mellowed, the damage had already been done. Artists like Rory Hayes (who produced Cunt Comix) and Don Donahue (creator of Snatch and Jiz), as well as Spain Rodriguez, filled comic stands with images of rape, slavery, and torture, each more degrading than the next.
Scenes became more graphic and violent, and more poorly drawn, as young artists assumed that all you needed to gain success was the misogynist attitude Crumb had made stylish. Trina Robbins says, “Entrails, usually female, were scattered over the landscape in a phenomenon of violence to women that I believe has never been equaled in any other medium” (Beauchamp, p. 42). As a result, the comic-book-reading public soon reached a limit, both in terms of quality (which had become very poor) and subject matter. Bill Griffith called it “an ugly kind of unconscious prepubescent homosexual obsession with strength and power, particularly over women who were usually either in dire need of rescuing or were gratuitously murdered by unfeeling monsters” (Rosencrantz, p.127).
In 1973, due in large part to the proliferation of “sex comics”, the Supreme Court ruled that individual communities could regulate pornography (Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, 1973). This case was specifically based upon “the sale of illustrated books, euphemistically called “adult” material,” and resulted in the “Miller test”, wherein material is found to be pornographic if it meets three criteria: whether an average person would consider the work to apply to “prurient interests”, whether the work depicts or describes sexual conduct or excretory functions in a patently offensive way, and whether the work as a whole lacks literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. This test allows for community standards rather than national standards; what is offensive in Tulsa, Oklahoma, might not be offensive in San Francisco); for underground comix, now littered with female blood, guts, and sexual parts, it was the beginning of the end.
Head shops, which had long been the most popular way of selling comix, refused to carry them anymore. For comic artists who had grown used to popular acclaim and an audience panting to see more, it was a blow, and left many artists at loose ends, with few personal visions cohesive enough to create their own comic books and complaining bitterly of selling out to ‘the Man”. The first underground comic movement came to an end around 1975 amid a counterculture split by factions and dissent.
Around the same time, Shary Flenniken published a one-page comic, “Shary Come To Bed”, showing herself with feet up on the drawing table, imagining advice from others. “Crumb refused to be in it, so there’s a space for you,” says one gentleman, while another says, “Your work is well, uh, gentle.” Crumb himself makes a cameo, stating, “Think with your brain, not your cunt!” Shary, along with fellow women artists Trina Robbins, Willy Mendes, and Aline Kominsky, helped found the Wimmin’s Comic Collective. The comix it produced, Wimmin’s Comix and Tits ‘n’ Clits were widely distributed in the ‘70s, yet academic art historians, even those who specialize in feminist art, have largely ignored them. While Crumb has become the subject of a documentary film Crumb, the 318-page survey of feminist art, The Power of Feminist Art (Harry N. Abrams, 1994), which has whole chapters dedicated to feminist art presses and alternative publication methods for women, makes no mention of wimmin’s comix.
Ultimately, the underground comix movement was a squandered opportunity. Where there could have been an open forum for feminist art and collaborative, ground-breaking works, there was only hatred and sexism, often inspired by a man who admitted his fear and loathing of women. Now, Crumb’s supporters laud him as a satiric artist of Goya-esque proportions, even though Crumb himself admits that he “derived such masturbatory pleasure out of drawing these women in bizarre situations, it’s just boiling over out of my brain, and I just have to draw it” (The R. Crumb Coffee-Table Art Book, Robert Crumb, Little-Brown, 1997). Deirdre English, former editor of Mother Jones, says, “It’s part of an arrested juvenile vision”, and the youthful counterculture movement, by choosing him as a standard bearer, espoused the very ideas and images it claimed to oppose. “Comics,” Art Spiegelman has said, “is about creating pictures that actually talk.” R. Crumb spoke loud and clear, and his speech was full of sexism, violence, and hatred.