With this generation of overfed, spoiled-brat writers, every long, arduous journey into uncharted territories is called a Heart of Darkness—GPS and lack of war notwithstanding. The man that I’m looking for in the bowels of France is thankfully deprived of any irony. Robert Crumb has been living in a godforsaken medieval village, where cars are banned and spotty Wi-Fi has only been recently discovered. This true American has been locked up in self-exile—in an unlocked house—for the last 20 years.
There’s a direct line of salt-of-the-earth, irony-free, all-American icons, passing from the painters Thomas Hart Benton and Reginald Marsh, the musicians Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, all the way to Crumb. America, for them, wasn’t its flag, but its dirt. They eluded political and religious affiliations and labels: Guthrie liked the K.K.K. in his youth and Dylan became an evangelical Christian, for instance, yet they all fought against the oppressive American conformist machine. The Kennedys slept with Marilyn Monroe; Crumb did Janis Joplin’s friend Pattycakes.
“Can I smoke?” I asked Robert Crumb, sure that he would say no in his studio, where we spoke off and on for more than three days.
“Yes, I don’t care,” he said.
There’s an extraordinary Crumb comic, 1988’s Memories Are Made of This, that made a lasting impression on anyone who read it. He takes a long bus ride under the rain to go to this attractive woman’s house. She is his type: stocky with big, fat calves. She doesn’t really seem interested at first, but she gets drunk and he ends up having destroying sex with her from behind. He then looks at us and tells us that from now on, no woman will want him because he copped to this story. The drawing is precise, sharp, simple, straight to the point—until it reaches the sex part, and all hell breaks loose. The eyes are popping, the tongues are erupting and the orgasm transforms the woman into a Cubist bull.
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“That story is an extremely unromantic view of love and sex,” Mr. Crumb said. “Any normal, intelligent, college-type woman would find this story disgusting, would say look at how he’s portraying this woman. She gets drunk and then puts out, this guy is a creep, that’s just hateful to women. It’s very unromantic; they want romance. Some writers have a talent for seducing women through their work, you read their stuff and you know they are seducing women. It’s an art. Some men know how to talk to women and I just don’t have that.”
“Writers like Martin Amis or Christopher Hitchens are like that, you can tell that their writing is meant to bed women. They used to hit on everything that moves,” I told him.
“My publisher told me that women don’t buy my stuff,” Mr. Crumb said. “When I do book signings and I spot an attractive woman on the line I know she’s gonna ask me to sign the book for her husband or boyfriend, who is a big fan of my work. I tell you, it’s almost 100 percent predictable!”
“I know many women who like your work. Some women don’t care about romance; they know that the guy who gives them flowers, carries their shit and holds doors will end up cheating on them.”
“Yes, in private those are the guys who say the worst things about women,” Mr. Crumb said.
“I was in a restaurant with this very attractive woman once and I could tell I was losing her,” I said. “I was so intimidated, insecure and meek. I was broke but invited her to Nobu, just that in itself was ridiculous. I decided to flip the script and go for broke. I was getting weaker by the moment, she was sensing my weakness and probably saw me as this almost effeminate guy.”
“Yes, you were castrating yourself,” Mr. Crumb said.
“Exactly. I knew she would never see me again anyway, so when she came back from the bathroom I told her: you have the most beautiful ass, I would love to eat it—and it worked. In one of your comics, you say that women will always go for the most obnoxious guy.”
‘My work reached a mass audience because I used a very traditional way of drawing to say something more personal and wacko.’
“They will protest and say, ‘I hate that kind of offensive, arrogant male,’ ” Mr. Crumb said. “Many women will tell you that what they really like in a man is a sense of humor. The two funniest men I know with the best sense of humor are these bitter, self-deprecating Jewish guys, with a very negative, ironic sense of humor. They are total losers with women. Women see the self-deprecating part—you point out a weakness about yourself; they might laugh, but they perceive the weakness. Even if it’s hard to generalize, if you make a joke about yourself that you are awkward or a failure, that’s what sticks in their mind.”
I responded, “I once asked a gorgeous guy if he had ever been rejected, and he told me, ‘All my life.’ He said what women don’t realize is that by the time we find one who says yes, we bring to her the 50 nos we got before, with all the angst, bitterness that comes with it, the prior rejections that destroyed our self esteem.”
“I have tried to talk to women about that very issue of male domination, power and feminism many times before to no avail. They don’t wanna hear about it. One rejection and that’s it for me. That just kills me,” said Mr. Crumb. “I couldn’t take all those nos so I don’t do anything. I’m just paralyzed. Women expect men to take the initiative, to be forceful, assertive; they expect to be courted and seduced. In spite of feminism, women still want to be the object of attraction, and the male’s confidence in courting her is a test that he must pass in order to win her.”
“So, before you became famous, how did you get laid?”
“You must have a big ego,” I told him.
“Gigantic, but fame changed all of this,” he said, “I got married to the first overweight woman passing by, this deeply neurotic, insecure woman. I was living the life of a wage slave in Cleveland and then one day in January, 1967, I just hitched a ride to San Francisco without telling her, and left my job in the greeting card business. The hippie culture of Haight-Ashbury, where it all started for me, was full of men doing nothing all day and expecting women to bring them food. The ‘chick’ had to provide a home for them, cook meals for them, even pay the rent. It was still very much ingrained from the earlier patriarchal mentality of our fathers, except that our fathers, generally, were providers. Free love meant free sex and food for men. Sure, women enjoyed it, too, and had a lot of sex, but then they served men. Even among left-wing political groups, women were always relegated to secretarial, menial jobs. We were all on LSD, so it took a few years for the smoke to dissipate and for women to realize what a raw deal they were getting with the ne’er-do-well hippie male. Men who acquired preeminence at the time were all frauds, fake gurus who were paying lip service to peace and love, charismatic cons who just wanted to fuck all their adoring disciples. Timothy Leary was like that. A big phony.”
“With fame you didn’t have to avoid rejection and jerk off forever,” I observed.
“It was the most remarkable change in my life,” he agreed, “and it came very suddenly, too. All of a sudden beautiful women started flocking to me. It happened, like, overnight, in the year 1968. It took my breath away.”
“When you have sex in your drawings, like in the bus story, it is usually from behind,” I observed. “But we never see if it’s anal sex or vaginal.”
“I’ve never been asked that before,” Mr. Crumb said. “It’s vaginal, although the act of penetration itself is not the main event for me. It’s the psychological stuff around it, what’s called ‘foreplay,’ I guess you might say. That’s where the big thrills are for me. Intercourse for me is just, you know, the icing on the cake, or something. These things are hard to talk about. Anyway, it’s all in the comics.”
In those comics, Crumb seems to be obsessed with riding a woman piggyback style or on her large shoulders or humping her big, fat, socked calf while banging on her enormous butt cheeks. It is pretty obvious to anyone reading his comics that there’s no distinction between the eponymous creature he draws and the real Crumb, although spending time with him and staying at his house, I noticed that he leaves a lot of fascinating things out. As Umberto Eco said, “The only thing we know to be true is that Clark Kent is Superman.”
“What is your favorite sexual position?” I asked him.
‘This sex drive causes so many problems,’ Mr. Crumb said, ‘because I spent so much of my time and energy chasing women, thinking about women, jerking off. It keeps everything unstable, makes life crazy. You can’t think clearly, let alone maintain a stable relationship.’
Mr. Crumb giggled nervously and shifted in his chair. “I dunno… Is that something I really have to…? I can’t really talk about it. I can draw it in my comics, but I can’t actually talk about it… It’s embarrassing. Then how was I able to draw it for all the world to see, you might ask? I don’t know the answer. I like to be sucked while I’m sitting on a chair with the woman kneeling, all spread out sprawling so I can slap her big ass,” he said. “A big ass is just heaven. Like two giant basketballs.”
Once, when leaving David Remnick’s office after The New Yorker commissioned two stories by Mr. Crumb and his wife Aline—one on the Cannes film festival and the other on New York Fashion Week—Crumb told the unamused editor: “Hey David, no dicks and cunts, right?”
“Remnick,” Mr. Crumb recalled. “A hateful guy if any.” He drew a cover for the magazine on gay marriage that was never published.
For all his talk about coming on at the altogether perfect time in the late ’60s, Robert Crumb might have reveled in becoming known in our times, when the awkward, odd, wimpy, angry dork seems to reign supreme among women—ironically, just as his own interest in sex is waning.
“How do you feel about your life of pleasures coming to an end?” I asked him.
“My sexual drive has really diminished a lot by now,” he responded. “It’s like finally being allowed to dismount a wild horse.” (No doubt that living cloistered in a lost village of a thousand hicks dramatically helped getting off that horse.)
“Really? Because they say there has never been as much banging as in nursing homes. There’s an entire industry of old people’s porn.”
“This sex drive causes so many problems,” Mr. Crumb said, “because I spent so much of my time and energy chasing women, thinking about women, jerking off. It keeps everything unstable, makes life crazy. You can’t think clearly, let alone maintain a stable relationship. I could never have been in a monogamous relationship. I couldn’t do it. I was too obsessed with all those incredible girls out there. I never had any preferences for hair color or race, if they were big, strongly built, thick-limbed, that’s all that mattered for my imagination to start racing. I had no control over this thing, this sexual libido.”
“These stories you draw are highly personal,” I told him. “You don’t advocate misogyny in any way, you just put yourself out in the world naked and that’s probably what annoyed many people more than anything else. Most men and women can see themselves in the story of your bus ride under the rain, women who need alcohol or a buzz to fuck boring guys and men who can’t conceive that a woman would like them sober…”
“This guy I know counted the number of times I decapitated women in my stories. I forget the number. I was kinda horrified at myself,” Mr. Crumb said.
“Could you kill someone?” I asked.
“No, I don’t have it in me. I don’t have that kind of violence in me; if anything, I would have killed myself.”
“The decapitations, what’s that all about?”
“Not sure,” Mr. Crumb said. “I guess I had a lot of anger in me. It actually came out after I became famous. I put it all out there to test their love—my earlier underground comics are actually pretty soft, but after I became famous I exposed my deepest, darkest thoughts for all to see. Many women at the time were talking about the abuse men had subjected them to; it was the first big wave of the women’s liberation movement and the last thing they wanted to see was this male anger. I kinda got it out of my system, though.”
“Your character in your work is more vulnerable than that—brutally honest, but human. I don’t see misogyny in your work,” I told him.
“It’s there,” Mr. Crumb replied. “I would be lying if I said I had no beef with the female of the species.”
“Was the anger because of the constant rejection you were submitted to by women as early as high school?”
“I might as well have been a lamppost, I was invisible. I got beat up by a girl when I was in third grade. I was a very wimpy kid, a sissy. She told me, ‘Oh, go on home and cry to your mommy,’ and she and her girlfriends laughed. She broke my glasses. And the nuns in Catholic school were brutal. They hated boys. They were psychologically and physically sadistic,” Mr. Crumb said.
“If anything, I see hatred for men in your comics,” I said.
“Oh, I hate men much more than women,” Mr. Crumb said, “They are just horrible. It’s men who do all the raping and pillaging, the mass killing. Fame also exposed me to a very seedy, sleazy side of humanity I wasn’t aware of before. I was just a naïve, 26-year-old schlub with a boss working for a greeting card company. I was just a worker drawing these cards. After I started doing these comics, suddenly a lot of very carefully coiffed men in leather trench coats and open shirts with gold chains wanted to talk to me and make deals.”
“You turned them down?” I asked
“Always,” he said, “but I took the free trips. They wanted to have me sign exclusive five-year contracts, trying to diversify and capitalize on this hippie thing, somehow to commercialize the underground culture. I didn’t want to be owned by anybody for five years. That was a trap. It would have been inconceivable at the time to sell out like that. Coming from the greeting card business with very narrow, strict rules about what you could draw and what you couldn’t draw, to finally find the freedom of underground Zap comix in California and LSD was very liberating.
We didn’t need much money to live, you could rent a room for $30 a month. You could draw whatever you wanted and get published, see it in print, no restrictions other than the ones I put on myself, it was magical. The magic of print, the whole thing was miraculous, a brand new thing, very revolutionary, and people were buying them and we began to make a little money out of it. Completely uncensored, unrestricted comics. The only place it had existed before was in these deeply underground pornographic 8 pagers in the 30’s that were sold surreptitiously . Those booklets were the real underground comics full of dicks and cunts, very explicit, but funny, with titles like, ‘Position is everything in life,’ or ‘Play this one on your violin.’”
“Where did you find the strength to just leave everything behind?” I asked him.
“I was just dying there, it all fell into place perfectly, at the right time. I was a drop out. I quit my job, ran away to San Francisco, it was the summer of love, people were dropping out of their jobs, colleges and flocking to the West Coast, the mecca of love. It was the high noon of the cultural revolution of the Sixties. It all gradually fell apart through the 70’s, and by the 80’s with the rise of the yuppies, Reagan’s election and the real estate boom. In California it was always about real estate ever since the Gold Rush, but the 80’s saw a new explosion of it. They went crazy. Everybody was getting their real estate license. They kept on building these hideous housing developments where we lived. It used to be farmland there when we first arrived, then everything became a fight. Dow Chemical tried to come there, we fought that. Then the Super Collider, we fought that. It was this constant battle against these forces of development and business. They are still fighting them there in California right now.”
“With all these women and fame, you did get married again, to Aline. I don’t understand that. Do you guys have an open relationship?”
“Yes, when we first got involved I told her how I went through hell with my first wife and other women with the jealousy issue. I can’t be faithful and she said, ‘O.K., I can live with that.’ There’s an art to it, you have to be sensitive, discreet about it. You can’t bring a woman home and say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna sleep with her in the other room.’ You keep it out of her face,” he continued. “I’ve had this other girlfriend in Oregon for 25 years. We see each other a few times a year. I got involved with her a few years before we moved to France in the early ’90s. And Aline’s had some boyfriends, one she’s been seeing off and on over here for almost 20 years, her Latin lover.”
“Fame brings you to a point, I imagine, where women know already what you have accomplished. You don’t have to explain yourself for hours like the rest of us schmucks.”
“Yes. It was astounding to me that attractive women actually became ‘interested’ in me, I couldn’t believe it. The whole game suddenly got a lot easier. I didn’t have to prove anything. They are already impressed before you say anything.”
“How many women are we talking about here? Thousands?” I asked.
“I made a tally once. I actually had sexual intercourse with 55 women,” Mr. Crumb said. “Out of those 55, 10 were really pleasurable. I’m kind of sexually quirky. Some women find it creepy and repulsive, but fortunately there are some who like it. There are so many variations in human sexual preferences you could collect them like a zoo. I was at first very shy and reluctant to show my true colors, preferences. I was conforming to the standards of sexual behavior I had seen in Hollywood movies, what’s considered normal, socially acceptable. Gradually with fame I became bolder and found out that some women not only accepted how I was but truly got off on what I like to do with them and that was some amazing discovery. I ended up having a fabulous sexual life beyond my wildest dreams, the most profound experiences. Maybe it’s that eastern religious idea of duality, you have to suffer to experience the profound thrills of life.
“The first female obsession I had was with this TV character called Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. She was played by a 6-foot-1 voluptuous actress, Irish McCalla, wearing this skimpy, leopard skin outfit and living in the jungle. I couldn’t wait to go to bed at night and fantasize about what I would do with her. I built up a rich fantasy life through my teen years, and then, to finally be able to act all that out was so profoundly thrilling. It’s inexpressible. It’s beyond words. The best thing in life, way better than drugs.”
“After the Fritz the Cat movie debacle, did you try to write a sexual movie on your own? Because your comics are very storyboarded,” I asked.
“That whole story around the Fritz the Cat movie was hateful. I didn’t know how to deal with high-powered media professionals… I should have told Ralph Bakshi, the director, in no uncertain terms that I did not want to do the animated film with him, but I couldn’t stand up to him. Finally, he flew to San Francisco and got my [then-] wife, to whom I had given power of attorney, to sign the contract. I can’t blame her, really. She got $10,000 immediately. I had run away and left her to deal with the rather assertive Mr. Bakshi,” Mr. Crumb recalled.
“I love the way you turned that around when you had Fritz the Cat assassinated in a comic right after the release of the movie. Yet this episode didn’t deter you from working in Hollywood?”
“Well, in the late 1980s, I got involved in writing a film script with Terry Zwigoff. We went down to Los Angeles and took some meetings. He told me later that that Woody Allen described to him how even he gets jerked around by Hollywood. So we pitched our script at these meetings but you know some of these meetings were classic, you can never tell what’s going on in them. When you get back to your car you wonder, what just happened in there? Was that a yes, was that a no? It was based on a comic story I did in the ’70s about this giant, fur-covered Sasquatch female character. There’s this wimpy guy like me that gets captured by her and carried off into the forest. I was proud of it. I worked for six months on the damned thing; I learned the scriptwriting formula. We thought it was a solid script, a humorous social commentary. They told us it was a well-written script but not a very commercial idea and that it went against family values because the guy leaves his family for her. ”
“I wonder if your script wasn’t self-destructive. In Hollywood, who’s gonna produce that giant furry woman? It reminds me of a short film that Fellini made about this guy who finds immoral this giant gorgeous temptress woman on a billboard ad by his house and she ends up stepping down from the billboard and talking to him and captivating him,” I said.
“Yes, Boccaccio ’70. The billboard woman was Anita Ekberg, big and beautiful,” Mr. Crumb said. “I love Fellini, I was always inspired by him, especially 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita. He liked big women, like I do. He once said, ‘So I like big women, do I have to apologize for that, too?’ It was naïve of me, I didn’t know better, I was innocent. We got many suggestions to change the script and got confused by it all. We made the changes and the thing fell apart, the whole idea got lost. They said we’ll put up five million dollars, write us a porno script. Terry was supposed to direct it. So I set to work on this script based on this Bigfoot story. But the brothers spent all their money in lawsuits, the city was trying to shut them down. They were always involved in the courts, fighting obscenity cases. So Terry urged me to finish the script so we could pitch it in Hollywood. I had this vision of bringing to life this big furry female creature, that for me was the seductive idea, finding a giant actress and putting her in a fur suit and having her act out this fantasy of mine. It was quite naïve for me to believe I could pull that off in Hollywood. It was classic… You know, seduced and abandoned.”
“Have you ever thought of actually committing suicide?” I asked.
“Yes. The last time I came close was 1986,” Mr. Crumb said, “I was at the peak of my fame. The BBC came to my house to make a documentary on me and I got a tribute at this comic convention, the Angoulême International Comics Festival in France. All of these ordeals had to do with being famous. I needed money, so I accepted the BBC offer. They invaded my house with their cameras, lights and their shit — it was awful. Then I went to this big comics convention in France, where I was the main event. They built a giant head of me, people could actually walk through it. All my comic stuff was pasted inside this giant head. It was torture. There were journalists, photographers everywhere. I felt disgusted with life.
“So who buys your shit? Some fat, balding wanker guy in mommy’s basement?”
“Yes,” Mr. Crumb said.
“No wonder you want to kill yourself.” I said.
“I see them at conventions,” Mr. Crumb said. “Nerdy guys or fat, aging hippies. One time I was signing books next to this guy Peter Bagge, who had young cute teenage girls lining up for him. His comics are very funny stories about young punk rock-type kids, a very sympathetic portrayal of their world. My work creeps women out. The very thing that you are talking about that you think should make it sympathetic to them, they find very creepy. This introspective, self-loathing guy who then wants to dominate and do all these crazy things to women. In real life, some women might respond to that sort of man, but believe me, it’s not what they want in their entertainment. They want Fifty Shades of Grey, which sold 50 million copies, all to women.”
“Along the way, you met some very talented graphic novelists,” I told him. “But many of them didn’t make it,” I said. “What were they lacking?”
“They couldn’t tell a coherent story,” Mr. Crumb said, “It wasn’t readable, accessible to an audience. My brother Charles was my master. He was a genius at drawing comics. He was very dominant. He really influenced how I see the world. I always wanted to please him and he was always talking about a narrative, a story in comics. He had a very powerful vision of the world, much stronger than mine. He even started making mystical, spiritual advances while he was still in his teens. Then everything went bad for him, he tried to commit suicide by drinking furniture polish in ’71 and they pumped his stomach. The state, because my parents had no money, put him on a very powerful tranquilizing drug and that flattened him out for the rest of his life. He knew it was bad, but he couldn’t get off it.
“Were you devastated when Charles eventually did kill himself?”
“No, I was relieved,” Mr. Crumb said. “A sad, tragic character. The last time I saw him, he told me, ‘If I can’t dig myself out of this, I’m gonna kill myself.’ He was a fascinating, interesting writer, too. A great cartoonist when he was young, but he lost interest in cartooning. He was very proud of my success because I was like his student.”
“There are a lot of people in America who live in their beds like Charles did; it’s an American thing. I knew many people like that, men and women. He was gay, right?” I asked.
“He never had sex. He liked young boys. That’s an American thing—that extreme isolation, alienation, loneliness.” Mr. Crumb observed.
“You see that in Edward Hopper,” I replied. “Do you like his work?”
“Not really,” Mr. Crumb said. “He had a shtick, some of his paintings are kind of weak. I’m much more interested by Thomas Hart Benton, Reginald Marsh. Their paintings are beautiful, so sensuous. Benton’s autobiography is really interesting —about his travels across America where he goes to meet farmers and workers, like Woody Guthrie did.”
“There’s a dark side too, this love of the farm dirt and ukulele fetish thing, there was something very patriotic, nationalistic about Benton,” I told him, “and Guthrie started early on as a KKK lover, influenced by his dad.”
“What?!” Mr. Crumb exclaimed.
“That’s why the hero thing is always idiotic,” I offered.
“I don’t care if artists are right wing or not,” Mr. Crumb said, “as long as they are not anti-Semitic or anti-black and their work is strong. I really like painters like George Grosz, Otto Dix,Christian Schad .”
“Yes, the New Objectivists are some of the most fascinating painters of the last century. I went to spy on Grosz’s house in Long Island,” I said.
“Really? I didn’t know you could do that. I also like Brueghel, Bosch all that school of Netherland painters.” he said.
“Robert Hughes from Time used to call you the Bruegel of comics,” I told him.
“Even though my work is nothing like Brueghel’s, the truth is you don’t invent anything. You borrow, you steal,” he said
“Whom did you steal from?” I asked “Harvey Kurtzman? Max Fleischer?”
“Yes, of course it’s all in there, they were big inspirations,” Mr. Crumb said. “You steal a little idea here and a little idea there; you can’t make anything up out of a whole cloth.
The way the art world works to make heroes out of this guy or that guy is absurd, it’s hype, a sales pitch. They pull these hero artists out of their context.”
“But what you did is unique,” I argued.
“I happened to be the guy on whom things crystallized but there were some people who went much further than I did. S. Clay Wilson for instance. He made remarkable underground comics. He was more original than I was. I don’t know where he came from. No one had ever done anything like that before, but he was less appealing to a larger audience than my work was. Wilson is a little hard to take. My work had a wider appeal. I kept my work much more readable than Wilson did. Justin Green is one of the best of that period of American alternative underground comics. But it’s more homely, subtler than my work. There was much more linearity, readability in my comics than in theirs. I recently took a look through my collection of underground comics from the late 60’s – early ‘70s. Very few of them were coherent or readable, a surprisingly small number. Most of the artists were so fucked up on drugs they couldn’t make anything readable. Who was buying and trying to read this crazy shit? But Wilson and Green stood out, they were at the top, outstanding.
My work reached a mass audience because I used a very traditional way of drawing to say something more personal and wacko. I used the traditional, standard newspaper comic strip style to say something crazy, some personal things that somehow reached people. Also, I was always very aware of orienting my work for an audience, what to do and not to do to make it readable, to keep it entertaining.”
“This is a very market-oriented approach for an underground cartoonist to have.”
“But it wasn’t about marketing. It was about communicating,” he replied. “I was using these traditional cartooning skills to communicate my own personal experience. Cartooning was a medium I had deeply loved all my life. And it was the only way I knew to connect with the human race.”
Sure, I desired recognition. I was ambitious. But I wanted recognition on my own terms. I didn’t want to draw their ideas. I wanted to draw my own visions, and I had plenty of them whirling around in my fevered brain.”
“Did fame affect the way you work?”
“It became paralyzing,” he replied, “to the point that I became so self-conscious I was only working within the confines of what was expected of me. It was like moving pianos to get the work done, a supreme act of will. You end up in a prison cell of fame.”
“Is that why you mostly draw out of photographs now?”
“Your comics work because they are subversive and cute, tender and crazy, innocent and rough.”
“That’s exactly what my wife Aline says about them. She was trying to explain that very mixture to me the other day,” Mr. Crumb said
“The comics you made with her in Drawn Together are great. It’s surprising that your two very different styles could mesh so well.”
“Yes, but we took a lot of flack for that, people were saying that she was riding my coattails. People are just awful. I hate everybody equally, I don’t discriminate,” he said.
“You had a revolutionary creature at some point [in the ’60s]—Frosty the Snowman—who was throwing bombs at the Rockefeller mansion. Do you think that’s why the IRS came after you right after that?”
“What do you think?” he said
“Were you interested in the Weather Underground at the time?” I asked.
‘I hate men much more than women. they are just horrible. it’s men who do all the raping and pillaging,
the mass killing.’
“Peripherally, I had left-wing sympathies,” Mr. Crumb said, “but a lot of these extreme left-wing groups became hopelessly doctrinaire to the point where they became rigid and dogmatic and unattractive. Life is not that simple…when people start spewing Marxist doctrine around, I just fade out. One of my best friends, the cartoonist Spain Rodriguez, was a very committed Marxist, and his point of view was subtle enough that he gave me a lot of clarity regarding class allegiance. The difference between the value systems of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie used to be much clearer than it is nowadays. Spain would always bring it back to that class difference. Who are you going to align yourself with? The values of the working class or the bourgeoisie? That was very enlightening; it helped me a lot because the bourgeoisie is always trying to erode the other side away, to obfuscate it. But then he would defend the Soviet Union, even people like Joseph Stalin. He used to say that Stalin might have actually saved Western civilization. It was Stalin who beat the Nazis. Stalin ruthlessly industrialized Russia and that enabled him to beat the Nazis. Had he not done that, the Russians wouldn’t have had the weapons to beat the German army, which was after all the best army in the world at the time.”
“Yes but Western civilization produced the Nazis in the first place,” I told him.
“Yeah, so maybe it’s not worth saving. I’m fascinated by the birth of the industrial revolution, the Victorian era too and this period when the Nazis occupied France. The documentary The Sorrow and the Pity by Marcel Ophuls is one of the best documentaries ever made, just people talking for hours, it’s fascinating, everybody should watch it. The Nazis could have never survived without the help of big banks and corporations, many of them American. If the Weather Underground was bombing banks I’m all for it as long as they weren’t killing too many people,” Mr. Crumb said.
“That was their creed at first, to bomb empty buildings,” I said.
“We should still bomb motherfucking banks,” he said.
“What did you make of Occupy Wall Street?” I asked him.
“I thought it was a worthy effort,” he said.
“I walked through Zuccotti Park and these fools were calling for ‘good’ banks, the church and Thomas Jefferson’s ideals.”
“That’s sad. 2008 was the biggest robbery in history and who goes to jail? Some poor black kid who stole some sneakers at a fucking Wal-Mart if he gets lucky enough to not get shot in the back on his way there,” Mr Crumb said,
“A black kid recently in New York ended up at Rikers Island for stealing a backpack. He couldn’t make bond, always denied the charges, stayed at Rikers for years and after he finally got out, killed himself. Obama, in his final year in office, finally realizes that he spent his presidency trying to please the white man who hates him on sight, he did nothing to help black people.”
“Yes. He’s a house Negro,” Crumb said.
“That’s what Osama bin Laden said about Obama.”
“Really? Wow! I didn’t know that. And the bankers and corporations keep on raping America and most of the poor don’t vote at all, and when they do, they keep on voting their shills into office. I’m so glad I don’t live there anymore. I haven’t had a boss since 1967, when I quit the greeting card company. I’m an exceptionally free agent in this world. Ninety-nine percent of the population lives in fear of losing their job. I’ve been lucky that way I’m free to speak my mind and not fear for my livelihood,” Mr. Crumb said.
“Yet, you are still depressed.”
“Yes, but I’m doing better. The pain of attachment, the fear of loss—especially when you have children and now grandchildren.”
“In retrospect, wasn’t it a big mistake to leave America? Your voice is greatly missing there now,” I asked.
“Do you think so?” Mr. Crumb said. “I don’t miss that culture. The America that I missed died in about 1935. That’s why I have all this old stuff, all these old 78 records from that era. It was the golden age of recorded music, before the music business poisoned the people’s music, the same way that ‘agribusiness’ poisoned the very soil of the earth. In the old days, music was produced by common people, the music they produced to entertain themselves. The record industry took it and resold it, repackaged and killed it, spewed it out in a bland, artificial, ersatz version of itself. This goes along with the rise of the mass media, the spread of radio. My mother, born in the 1920s, remembered walking in the street in the summertime in Philadelphia, and in every other house, people were playing some kind of live music. Her parents played music and sang together. In her generation, her brothers didn’t want to play an instrument anymore. It was the swing era and all they wanted to do was to listen to Benny Goodman on the radio. The takeover of radio happened much later. In places like Africa, you can still find great recorded music from the ’50s. I have many 78s from Africa at that time that sound like some great rural music from America in the ’20s. In the U.S at that time there were thousands and thousands of bands, dance halls, ballrooms in hotels, restaurants had dance floors, school auditoriums, clubs in small towns. A small town of 10,000 would have a least a hundred bands. In the mid 30’s radio spread very fast in America and the depression killed a lot of the venues where live music was performed. You could go to the movies for 10 cents. Then in the 50’s TV finished it all off. Mass media makes you stay home, passive. In the 20’s there was live music everywhere in the States. I talked to old musicians who played in dance bands. This old musician bandleader Jack Coackley in San Francisco told me that in 1928 when you went downtown in the evening on the trolley car to play at a ballroom, the streets were full of musicians going to work, carrying instruments in cases. Same thing happened in France with the death of musette, the popular dance music of the working classes. There hasn’t been a decent popular music in America for a long time.
The current pop music in the Western world is just plain god-awful. America is long gone. The ’80s killed it for me. The Reagan era, AIDS. It was an awful decade.”
“I think your Book of Genesis is your most unassumingly disturbing and subversive work to date,” I said. “You just illustrated it and let its absurdity speaks for itself. You didn’t satirize any of it, didn’t add anything to it, just illustrated.”
“Ha, you are right,” Mr. Crumb said. “It’s by far the biggest selling book I ever did. I made a lot of money with it. ’Cause guess why? It’s the Bible! Who knew? I certainly did not anticipate such a success. The fact that I didn’t ridicule it or satirize it, but instead did as straightforward an illustration job as possible means that my version could theoretically be used in ‘Bible study’ classes. But how could they read my illustrated version and not then see how crazy it is to use this book as a source of moral or spiritual guidance? Maybe the teachers will miss that and give it to their children to encourage them to read the Bible. So maybe it will have a subversive effect. That would be ironic. Anyone in their right mind reading it would understand how bizarre the Bible is and yet some people use it to introduce their kids to the Good Word or in Bible studies. That’s America for you.”