My Crumb Collection Goes to Vassar- But Is It Art?

Considering all the trouble cartoons have caused in the world lately, it was with some trepidation that I entertained James Mundy’s request. James is both a friend and the director of the Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, and he called a few weeks ago to ask permission to borrow some of my comic books.

These weren’t just any comic books, but my prize collection of underground comics by Robert Crumb, the creator of Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat, whom the critic Robert Hughes described as “the Breugel of the last half of the 20th Century.” And James wasn’t asking for them because he wanted to read them, but because he wanted to use them as part of an exhibition that Vassar was mounting.

Perhaps “exhibition” is too strong a word. As James explained it, the Friends of Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center sponsors an art-film series that would be showing Crumb, the 1994 Terry Zwigoff documentary about the artist. The comic books were sort of visual aids, supporting material, atmospherics to supplement the film.

To describe Mr. Crumb’s work as politically incorrect would be grotesquely to understate his contribution to popular culture. He’s virtually the Moses of political incorrectness. Zap #2, for example, features Angelfood McSpade, a sex bomb lurking in darkest Africa, whose scent is so intoxicating that she’s off-limits to all but pencil-necked researchers—“and those creeps can’t hardly ever get one up.” And Zap #4 visits the all-American, aptly named Joe Blow family, who consider incest a family activity. “That’s it. Pretend it’s candy,” Joe instructs his daughter.

Knowing the no-nonsense reputation of Vassar girls (or should I say women?), I was concerned that they might take offense, perhaps even stage violent protests and—worst of all—damage my comic books. But James assured me Vassar students aren’t like that. “The students are so blasé about anything scandalous,” he said. “You can’t shock anybody here—the racier, the better.” If we were going to have any problems, he added, it might come from the Poughkeepsie natives who like to visit the museum on weekends.

I wasn’t totally sold, but the allure of being a donor, a benefactor, was hard to resist. A close relative recently donated a Dutch painting to the National Gallery in Washington, and he didn’t hesitate to rub it in. Utterly apart from the prestige associated with having a plaque with your name on it in perpetuity, he touted the tax advantages. Apparently, he made so much money last year that he needed the charitable deduction.

My taxable income last year—or any year, for that matter—isn’t sufficient to warrant frittering away a masterpiece. In fact, lending a few comic books to Vassar for a couple of weeks is about all the largesse my Form 1040 can bear. Nonetheless, James assured me that were I to loan my comics to the museum, he could probably arrange a plaque with my name on it, too. So I agreed.

He dropped by a few days later—his attitude no less solemn and seigniorial than I suspect Philippe de Montebello’s was when he was negotiating the repatriation of that looted ancient Greek plate or urn or whatever it was with the Italians—to examine the collection and pick several items that would best summarize Mr. Crumb’s oeuvre.

Unfortunately, those that would aren’t suitable for women and children.

For example, the cover of Your Hytone Comics features a fellow whistling a happy tune as he takes a whiz. And Snatch #3, I believe it is, stars a rumpled, middle-aged commuter impishly nudging his hard-on into the lady in front of him as they line up to board a bus. James eventually left with several comics, none of them quite so graphic, as well as a Crumb-designed Devil Girl chocolate bar and matching tin of “Hot Kisses” cinnamon candy.

I first discovered Crumb back in 1971. Someone had abandoned one of his comic books in the senior room at the Browning School, and I was immediately hooked by its unrepentantly adolescent sensibility and high pornographic content. I shouldn’t boast, but I suspect that my brother James (an art and architecture critic) and I may be the only siblings cited in Mr. Crumb’s work.

He quotes a passage from my brother’s 1993 book Culture or Trash, lamenting the commodification of art, in his own 1996 Art and Beauty Magazine, on a page that features the thoughts of Da Vinci, André Gide and Einstein.

My citation is somewhat less impressive. It comes, unattributed, on page 246 of a Crumb sketchbook, taken from an article of mine that appeared in Penthouse magazine. The piece was about men who worship strong women—a Crumb fetish—and like to play-wrestle and stroke their muscles.

“Tami Frazier,” Mr. Crumb writes, paraphrasing my prose, “a female body builder from San Diego, says she and her athletic girlfriends are not attracted to men with scrawny chests and a self-mocking sense of humor. ‘They can never have somebody like us,’ she explains.”

To which Mr. Crumb adds, “ oboy.”

James, sensing my apprehension, called to inform me that my material arrived in Poughkeepsie safely and had been handsomely installed. No Vassar coeds had yet flung their bodies at the display cases in feminist mortification. However, he reported that his decision to feature the “Grand Opening of the Great Intercontinental Fuck-In and Orgy-Riot” spread from Snatch #1 had “raised eyebrows” and promoted “quizzical looks” in the faculty meeting that had just adjourned.

Furthermore, since school groups—not to mention families with children—apparently traipse through the museum at will, the staff had decided to place a “Viewer Discretion Advised” warning label on the works.

James said that a professor of Japanese art had approached him for information about this Ralph Gardner Jr. character—as in “On Loan from the Collection of …. ”

“Is he a Vassar graduate?” the professor asked. “How do we know him?”

While James assured me that interest was high, and that the Vassar student body had shown impressive restraint—like all top-tier colleges, their undergrads are far more serious and focused than they were in my day—he added that we weren’t out of the woods yet. Weekends were usually when the locals showed up, and how they’d react to Mr. Crumb’s brand of social criticism was anyone’s guess.

As it turned out, the exhibition went off without bloodshed, and James returned the works to me the following week, together with the wall placards describing the material, in impressive museum-quality font. He also tossed in the “Please be advised that some of the contents in this case are of a mature nature” sign.

I placed it in front of the collection on our bookshelf and proudly showed it to my teenage daughter when she got home from school that afternoon. After all, some day this would all belong to her. Perhaps it’s not the same thing as having your name hallowed in the halls of the National Gallery; nonetheless, I was feeling rather good about myself, my collection and my eye—until she spoiled it all.

“Isn’t that pathetic?” she said. “This is your collection … other people collect art.”