Robert Crumb Thomas Maremaa

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Thomas Maremaa

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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. Whatever the verdict, Crumb's work has nevertheless established him as the most important underground cartoonist—and, by extension, social satirist—in America today. What Jules Feiffer was to the neurotic fifties, Crumb has been to the cultural radicalism of the late sixties. (p. 13)

Many of Crumb's comic antiheroes—Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont, BoBo Belinski, Schuman the Human, Mr. Snoid—have become recognized as archetypal American grotesques, figures as representative as Dagwood and Blondie. And Crumb's work has had a revolutionary effect on the comic-book industry as a whole by inspiring "straight" comics to become more "relevant," more attuned to social and political issues….

[Being alienated] has become a permanent way of life for Robert Crumb. It has made him by and large inaccessible and contributed to the aura of mystery that surrounds his personal life and work habits. And yet, paradoxically, it has allowed him to form his comic view of humanity. Laughter is Crumb's weapon against everything—including himself.

What Crumb has really done is to recreate the American comic avant-garde by returning the art to its roots. (p. 64)

[Crumb,] by privately printing his own work, set the underground presses in motion. (pp. 64, 66)

[In] "Zap No. 1," we encounter Mr. Natural, one of Crumb's most complex and enigmatic creations: part guru and wise old sage, part charlatan and put-on artist. (p. 66)

[One] is ultimately unsure of how much Mr. Natural really knows, his character is so rich and multifaceted….

"Zap No. 1" revitalized the lost tradition of social satire in American comic strips….

Throughout ["Zap No. 0"], Crumb lovingly parodies the entire format of traditional comic books, turning them into a vehicle for outrageous satire….

[With] the decline of interest in contemporary fiction, the nonlinear art form of "head comics" began to fulfill some of the functions of social commentary once reserved to the novel. Indeed, Crumb brought "trash" art into the cultural mainstream and made it respectable: For Adult Intellectuals. His work also connected more directly with the changing social consciousness of the young, both reflecting and defining many of the common attitudes toward sex, drugs and violence shared by the growing counterculture. (p. 68)

In his work, Crumb ridiculed just about everyone: from club-swinging cops and repressed middle-class Americans—easy targets—to militant feminists and slogan-chanting radicals…. At the same time, Crumb foresaw even from the beginning much of the instability, latent factionalism and self-destructive impulses at the very core of the counterculture. (p. 70)

[In] Crumb's recent work, there is an increasing strain of self-mockery, metaphysical anguish, cynicism and despair over the human condition…. (p. 72)

Probably his best work is yet to come. (p. 73)

Thomas Maremaa, "Who Is This Crumb?" in The New York Times Magazine (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 1, 1972, pp. 12-13, 64, 66, 68, 70, 72-3.