Robert Crumb Essay - Critical Essays

Crumb, Robert


Robert Crumb 1943–

American cartoonist.

As one of the first underground cartoonists, Crumb has found a loyal and appreciative audience for his unusually graphic and violent satires of American life. Several of his works, Snatch for example, were so sexually explicit that they were judged obscene and have therefore suffered restricted circulation. Crumb's champions, however, claim that he is a genius who challenges the inhibitions of his society, and that his work deserves serious attention and respect.

Though his works seem to ridicule many of the moral values of middle class America and to advance the mores of the young and hip subculture as an alternative system, in some ways Crumb shows himself to be politically conservative. His well-known creation "Mr. Natural," a cross between a prophet and a con man, actually mocks those who, in their readiness to be exploited, follow his teachings. Crumb has also been castigated for his depiction of women either as empty-headed sexual receptacles or as intimidating man-eaters. To such criticisms he has answered, "I just draw what I see. That doesn't mean I approve of it."

J. D. O'Hara

[The] best young comics-makers, Robert Crumb and Vaughn Bodé, aren't sick and dirty; they're gross and funny. Their grossness takes the form of four-letter words and more or less naked women … or animals. So what's new? The grossness is new. In our day, gentlemen of the jury, those words and that nakedness were dirty; they generated sniggers and sidelong looks. Grossness is better. Laughing is better than leering.

As for the humor, well, it's television humor, I suppose, but it works. In the second of Fritz the Cat's three stories, Fritz is a C.I.A. agent ordered to discover the new Chinese ultimate weapon. The James Bond gags are okay, but when Fritz is captured and thrown before "Captain Stin Ki Chin Ki … Head of Seclet Porice Folce! Most fealed man in arr of China!" and he says, "Gleetings, paper tiger Amelican! Terr us, what has blought you to Peking?" then the reader can relax, knowing he's in safe hands. All the old heroes come back, blessedly transmogrified, as Fritz meets "Su-Su, Chinee sex bomb and beautiful temptress … No man can lesist my charms!" Silliness, sure, but silly satire, and satire demands a relatively bright audience.

The best of the three stories …, and one of the best things ever written/drawn about Today's Youth, is "Fritz Bugs Out," in which hip college-boy Fritz loses his girl, drops out, gets involved in social issues and the race problem … hides from the police, heads...

(The entire section is 402 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

[In a sense, the future of George Herriman's character Krazy Kat] may be taken care of by R. Crumb's "Fritz the Cat." Mr. Crumb … seems to have consumed and digested the whole history of comic-book art. His first book was last year's "Head Comix." His new one contains three stories about his cat hero…. Since the language and the action are on the raunchy side, the stories are not for children. But anyone else will find them trenchant satires on the hip-and-now generations….

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Buck Rogers, Krazy Kat and Fritz the Cat," in The New York Times (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 19, 1969, p. 53.∗

Harvey Pekar

There is a vigorous avant garde cartoonists' movement in America today. Most of the artists involved in it are unknown to the general public but one of them, Robert Crumb, has developed a following that extends beyond the hippie subculture into a variety of social classes. (p. 677)

By now a number of underground comics have been published…. Perhaps the best known of them is Zap, out of San Francisco, which was created by Crumb in 1967. It was one of the first underground comics to be published….

Zap has something for everyone—sex, violence, stories about people ranging from hippies to lower middle class characters. It's an All-American publication. (p. 679)

[Crumb is] one of the finest comic book artists to come to the fore since the 40's….

The first time I met him he showed me a project he was working on—a cartoon novel (which is an unusual form in itself) called R. Crumb's Big Yum Yum Book. (p. 680)

I'd never seen anything like his Big Yum Yum Book. Nothing he's done since—and I really dig his more recent work—has impressed me as much. (p. 681)

It's difficult to describe Crumb's style in just a few sentences. He's been influenced by so much; by whole schools of cartooning as well as individual cartoonists. His work is notable partly because of its variety and the way he synthesizes his influences. He digs animal cartoonists like George Harriman, who did Krazy Kat; Walt Disney—especially early Disney and 40's Disney comics, which were done by a variety of cartoonists including the excellent Carl Barks; and Walt (Pogo) Kelly. He did and still does use animal characters like Ogden, Fritz and Dirty Dog.

Crumb also has been impressed by the work of cartoonists who are better appreciated by older teen-agers and adults than by little kids. People like Kelly, a fine political satirist, and [Jules] Feiffer. The guys who did Mad when it was in comic book form (Bill Elder, Jack Davis, Wally Wood) should also be cited as influencing Crumb. (p. 682)

"Popeye" also marked the work of Crumb. The lumpy, oddly proportioned characters that Crumb sometimes draws are reminiscent of those in "Popeye."… And there's a feature in Popeye comics about a crackpot inventor named O. G. Wottasnozzle that is similar to Crumb's "hot-headed old sage", Mr. Natural. Crumb told me he'd never been aware of Wottasnozzle until after he'd created Mr. Natural. Still, the resemblance between the two characters is interesting. Both are old men with beards. Mr. Natural has a disciple named Flakey Fooney whose mind he's always blowing and Wottasnozzle has a landlord he's always involving in crazy projects that backfire. (pp. 682-83)

He also credits colleague S. Clay Wilson with influencing him in that Wilson's wild stuff persuaded him to stop censoring himself….

[There] is no secret key to understanding his work. He's been turned on by a great variety of people and things; consequently his stories have to do with a great variety of people and things.

He lived for some time in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury section and is involved in the hippie scene so, not surprisingly, he deals with sex and drugs. But partly because he's a little older than most hippies and has...

(The entire section is 1384 words.)

Jacob Brackman

Zap #1 and #0 are 100 percent Crumb, as are several Rip Off numbers, like Big Ass Comix ("Weird Sex Fantasies with the Behind in Mind"). Motor City Comix (featuring Lenore Goldberg, a kind of feminist Trashman) and the magnificent Despair. Having assimilated, it seems, the entire history of comics (with perhaps special emphasis on Barney Google, Orphan Annie, early Popeye, Dick Tracy, Pogo and the Katzenjammers), Crumb is by now a one-man band of cartooning….

Crumb's preoccupations and, therefore, his subject matter, have varied as wildly as [Bob] Dylan's over the several years of his published career. More than any of his predecessors, he's concerned with what Russian novelists liked to call "the eternal questions." Yet he also manages to stand apart from his own desperation. This duality emerges in the testy association of hung-up Flakey Foont and the spiritually arrogant, self-appointed guru Mr. Natural. Now, Mr. Natural may be a moocher and a phony, but he certainly knows some things Flakey doesn't. Theirs is doubtless the most complicated relationship ever developed in a comic….

Crumb's characters get horny, goofy, pretentious, mean—everything real people get. Of all cartoonists, he is the most eclectic, the most fertile and the easiest to get into. His cartoons are the friendliest, the uppest. Every one of comics' age-old mannerisms reappears in them:...

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Thomas Maremaa

Robert Crumb has been picking up a rich harvest from the discards on the trash heap of American pop culture, recycling old material into new modes of comic art…. These books, notably "Zap Comix," "Despair" and "Fritz the Cat," have doubtless been some of the most outrageous and controversial works ever drawn in the history of the art, largely because of their free-wheeling and uninhibited treatment of sex. His work has been scorned as filthy and obscene, and indeed on the surface one finds a Boschian world of raunchy cartoon characters who curse, cavort and fornicate as if they inhabited an X-rated Disneyland. And yet, his work has been praised by others as comparable to the genius of Toulouse-Lautrec or Picasso....

(The entire section is 582 words.)

Arthur Asa Berger

There are many parodies in the underground comics, and comic strip and comic book heroes are frequently ridiculed. But the underground comics also ridicule the absurdities of the counterculture as well as those of bourgeois culture. For example, one of the most interesting underground heroes is Robert Crumb's fake guru, Mr. Natural, a horny old man with a bald head and long flowing whiskers. His cohort is a seeker-after-knowledge named Flakey Foont, who never gains any satisfaction from Mr. Natural, and who is, in fact, frequently abused by him. (pp. 220-21)

Mr. Natural goes to the Haight-Ashbury district where he encounters all kinds of people who want his advice. He runs into a hippie costume shop...

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George Arthur

Downhome Dadaism in a cheap suit, but this time around it's a double-knit. Crumb becomes cartoonist-cum-crooner [in R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders], ripe but two decades late for Spike Jones…. Even in the year of Moog Synthesizer Ragtime it is unlikely that this release will capture the imagination of the greater public. But if the climate were any healthier—or becomes more desperate—these tunes should have all America singing and dancing. Besides the definitive country blues holler about Amerikan shitfood, the album has three songs about women whose names begin with L, ten other selections and cover art by Crumb. As he said of the album, "As long as it's no hassle it's okay with me."...

(The entire section is 146 words.)

Susan Goodrick

Crumb loves to use his satirical touch to strip … people naked. He gets them all—from the spiritualist who would give it all up for a good lay to the inept politico who spouts off about revolution while using his girlfriend as a footstool. He goes after hucksters who prey on the frightened and confused, the self-righteous leaders who claim they have The Only Answer or hold the secret to The True Way.

For Crumb, there is no true way, no simple all purpose solution. He sends his characters looking for meaning in life. They try everything: sex, drugs, vegetarianism, religion, spiritualism, politics, despair, gurus, and soaking in bathtubs. But they generally only get ripped off, a case...

(The entire section is 486 words.)