Robert Crumb Harvey Pekar

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Harvey Pekar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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 had more varied experiences, he's able to see the underground in perspective and deal with it very perspectively.

There's a piece he did called "Duck's Yas Yas" about a frantic junkie who cuts out of New York and goes on the road that presents a sensitive portrayal of a very strung-out guy even while parodying itself. (p. 683)

In addition to stuff about sex and dope there's also some good healthy violence in Crumb's work—Bertrand Russell getting hit with a meatball (nothing is sacred to Crumb), a kid smashing his head against a wall, a sadist biting a girl's toes, a couple of peacefully conversing snails getting squashed by a kid's tennis shoe—all kinds of violence. Perhaps the most savage of all Crumb's published pieces is "Neato Keeno Time", which appeared in the Bantam publication Us #1 and is a parody of comic stories like "Archie". "Neato Keeno Time" deals with the activities of a brutal sadist named Forky O'Donnell, who is shown running over a pedestrian while driving with his girl friend, doing in his girl friend by stabbing her with a fork, and later, after he and a male friend have had sexual intercourse with her body, telling the counter man at a restaurant not to bother giving him a fork to eat with because he has brought his own, i.e. the one with which he'd stabbed his girl friend. Because the characters in it look like square, clean-cut American young people, such as those that appear in "Archie" and "Freckles and His Friends", the brutality of "Neato Keeno Time" is especially shocking.

There is a mean, cynical side to Crumb's work. This is illustrated in his "How to Get Inside a Teenybopper's Head, Take Over, Develop a Large Following and Become a Leader of the Scene", which also appears in Us #1. Dig some of Crumb's comments in it, "Teenyboppers aren't very smart. This is your Chief Advantage … If you don't get her, somebody else will … They're fun and they're beautiful, but they die soon after exposure. They're pathetically stupid and vulnerable." (p. 684)

In addition to being funny, this piece contains an accurate description of teenyboppers and sound advice regarding techniques to use to exploit them. And Crumb conveys the impression in this piece that he does advocate exploiting them.

Now let's consider the characters that Crumb, a "keen student of human nature", deals with. He has a sympathy for and is amused by people who are cast as freaks and misfits. This is apparent not only in "Duck's Yas Yas" but in a sex thing he does about horny Dirty Dog who can't pick up a girl and gets his kicks by reading skin magazines.

He also does things about up-tight people. His "Whiteman" is the story of a guy straining against his inhibitions … and his inhibitions straining back. Crumb wants people to loosen up and have fun.

In "Just Us Kids" Crumb evokes memories of childhood. This story is a masterpiece because it tells it like it is. Kids are presented not as adults think they are—gentle and nice—but as they really are—vicious and destructive…. Also—Crumb does a great job of portraying an alienated little kid in "Just Us Kids" through a character that I think is him.

One of the better things Crumb's done, "Life among the Constipated," in a series of hilariously vulgar vignettes about lower middle class white America. Crumb keeps his eye on the proleteriat. (p. 685)

Another thing about Crumb is that he uses the accents and dialects of all sorts of different people in his work, e.g. Lyndon Johnson's accent, black people's accents, 1920's slang, hippies' slang….

The nature of hipness concerns Crumb. What is it? How does one acquire it? These questions are explored in "Mr. Natural."…

Crumb uses rhyming dialogue spoken by a large, constantly changing cast of characters to set up a rhythmic, euphoric groove in "Don't Gag on It … Goof on It," which was published in Jive Comics and "Stoned," which is in Head Comix. (p. 686)

There's a certain amount of science fiction influence in Crumb's work, too, although he doesn't like most super hero characters, feeling that he can't identify with them. He does like to draw robots and weird machines and vehicles, though, and these can be seen in his "City of the Future" and "Abstract Expressionist Ultra Super Modernistic Comics."

The latter is a strange kind of feature. Crumb did it partly to satirize and put down modern art, which he dislikes, but it's good enough to be looked at and enjoyed not only as a parody but as fine, far-out modern cartoon work. (pp. 686-87)

[It's] a waste of time trying to find a hidden key to Crumb's work. Sure, it's often profound. But remember, he's trying to make you laugh. So when you read his stuff, don't let it put you up tight. Relax and enjoy it. (p. 687)

Harvey Pekar, "Rapping about Cartoonists, Particularly Robert Crumb," in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1970 by Ray B. Browne), Vol. 111, No. 4, Spring, 1970, pp. 677-88.∗