The Conundrum Of R. Crumb: Genius or Pervert?
Born on August 30th, 1943, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Robert Crumb is one of the most influential and divisive comics artists of all time, with as many followers as detractors. So which Crumb is the real one? The artistic genius or the pervert?
There's nothing one can say or write about Crumb that hasn't already been said or written hundreds of times before. As the most prominent and prolific of the underground comix artists of the 1960s, R. Crumb has achieved a cultural penetration that has seen him poked and prodded and thoroughly dissected in text, film, the court of public opinion, and in an actual court, and a consensus has yet to be reached.
His portrayals of women and African-American people have drawn debate for years, with some defending his work as satire, others condemning it as masturbatory and un-ironic, and there are persuasive arguments to be made on all sides. Strips teeter so precariously between pornography and critique of the modern American family that it seems as if there's no right answer; no matter how shallow and lacking in substance many of his comics are, there's still a sense of importance about them. His work could be grossly impulsive, obscene, and self-satisfactory, yet it seems fair to say that they were never malicious.
And regardless of the discussions that surround the man, even Crumb's most vocal detractors must admit his uniqueness, his influence, and his talent.
As a craftsman, he's unparalleled; he stood head-and-shoulders above his peers in the underground scene even while in his creative infancy, and grew and expanded from there. His heavily hatched and textured style projected an inescapable presence onto alternative comics, with entire generations of cartoonists taking cues from him directly or indirectly. He's continued to evolve his skills well beyond where they stood at the point he became an icon.
Today's Crumb is much better artist than he was in his youth --- and he was exceptional before most of us were born. His comics were always very well made, but Crumb is now approaching an old-world type of mastery. His Book Of Genesis is a remarkable application of a lifetime's worth of craft, with incredibly detailed etchings that represent the peak of his exaggerated realism. His artistic talents cannot be impugned, even at the times when he was making the most controversial of his id-splattered comics.
But some would say that's the greatest disappointment about Crumb: with all of that skill, he's wasted most of his creative life on puerile, offensive subjects. For his part, Crumb has always seemed to shrug this off, explaining that he was just drawing what's in his head. Like him or not, there is something pure in that.
S. Clay Wilson and LSD encouraged Crumb to share his imaginings, and whatever interpretations might be applied to his work, what's important is that he shared it. Sexism or satire, parody or pornography, offense or provocation; it's all out there because this strange and incredibly talented man had the talent to bring his raw thoughts to the page. Above all else, that makes him remarkable.