SAUVE, France – But for the river flowing through its midst, the entire French village is monochrome. The walls, the monument to the victims of World War I, the two fountains and two churches are all made of pale brown limestone, which contrasts sharply with a brightly colored poster on one of the doors.
On the poster is a drawing of a woman wearing summer clothes and ankle bracelets, dancing ecstatically as a man in a top hat plays the tuba. The poster, which advertises a festival held in the village last year, looks familiar. Similar ones are used to publicize music events all over the world, all inspired by the work of legendary cartoonist Robert Crumb, who in the late 1960s became one of the architects of the aesthetic of the hippie era.
This poster, however, is different. Something in the confidence of the line, the precise grotesquerie of the woman’s movement, her sensuousness and the fleshiness of her limbs confirms that this is an original Crumb, made by the hand of the father of underground comics. Crumb is exceptional in his field not only by virtue of the immediately identifiable style but also by the absolute virtuosity of his hand. Since 1991, he has been living with his family in this village in the south of France, tucked among steep, forested hills about 40 minutes from the nearest city, Nimes.
“Aline did this,” he says in his home, referring to his wife, the cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb. “She organized everything, and then one morning I woke up in France. It’s like when you buy that vacuum cleaner on impulse, and the next day you wake up and ask yourself, where did I get this vacuum cleaner?”
Crumb tells that Aline suffered claustrophobia in America, but his own misgivings appear to have contributed to the move. The ‘80s were not a good time in America. It was the time of Reagan, cocaine, AIDS, not to mention the yuppies and all the money business. I met people who had an anti-hippy stance and openly said they focus on money. We lived in a small town in the Central Valley of California and all the towns around got filled with suburbs and malls. Somebody came and wanted to build 5000 homes in a single project in our town. Most of the population thought that was wonderful.”
“We were constantly involved in struggles to prevent that,” he adds, “We fought all the time. Meanwhile Aline found this place, and here there’s no development. What’s going on here? Look at these villages. I don’t understand how they’re preserved like that.“
Crumb says the move shielded him from the burst of fame after the release of “Crumb,” a 1994 documentary by Terry Zwigoff. On the other hand, He feared the move would distance him from sources of inspiration.
I’m no friend of Trump. I think he’s a bad man, but he’s a symptom of things that have been happening in the States for decades, it’s the decline of the Roman EmpireRobert Crumb
“I was scared I’d lose it and start making soft paintings of pretty villages, which I did. I was scared also because my art is entirely concerned with America. I am very, very American. My family has been in America for hundreds of years. Only after we came here it occurred to me that Aline has much more recent roots in the old world. She still got to know her zaydeh and bubbeh who were born in Europe.“
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You can’t talk to people like that
For years I have enjoyed Crumb as an artist. In his work there is a constant freshness. It’s beyond the virtuosity, the interesting social context or the boldness. There is a unique vivacity in his every line, every portrait, every plot, every joke. Only recently did I become more curious about him as a person, in part thanks to an inkling of a shared fate. Like him, I too moved from a complex country to a quiet village in southern France.
The coronavirus pandemic awakened in me new thoughts about the land of my birth and my departure from it. Simultaneously, it compelled me to seek out local materials. An agent working on Crumb’s behalf rejected email requests for an interview, informing me that all such requests are automatically denied. I had no option but to drive 90 miles or so, through vineyards and forests, and find a door on which to knock.
After wandering about the village and its environs for half a day, I bumped into a relative. Aline’s brother, Alex, invited me to his home and asked me to wait for him there while he went to ask his brother-in-law to agree to an interview. I sat in his kitchen, under a framed portrait of Crumb, completely in the nude, with his sex organs dangling, and pondered the common Israeli idiom “60s survivor.”
Crumb was born in Philadelphia in 1943, into a middle-class, Catholic family. He says that his mother was mentally ill and his father was a military man who didn’t know how to protect his children from her condition. Of five siblings, all of them talented artists, only Robert flourished and developed a successful career. One of his brothers died by suicide, another drifted into poverty and crime, and a sister became an alcoholic.
'The ‘80s were not a good time in America. It was the time of Reagan, cocaine, AIDS, not to mention the yuppies and all the money business'
Robert moved to Cleveland as a young man and worked as an illustrator for a greeting-card manufacturer. In the past, he has said that drawing, even for a commercial reason, saved him from the total destruction of his life because he wasn’t talented at anything else and his social skills are limited nearly to the point of disability.
His social difficulties contribute to his avoidance of interviews, and not due to mere shyness.
Crumb speaks softly and intelligently but his speech, like his drawings, lacks common filters. In 2016 a journalist for The Observer visited him and was appalled by his politically incorrect remarks and interest in conspiracy theories. The journalist accused Crumb of every possible sort of racism and prejudice and went to great lengths to skewer him, depicting him as an absolute model of hypocrisy.
The poison-pen Observer piece is so blatantly defiant of journalistic ethics (for one, Crumbs assumed thoughts appear in quotation marks), that as I take a seat in its subject’s colorful kitchen, I am free of the impression it aimed to create. I am therefore quickly astonished when Crumb speaks excitedly about conspiracy theories, such as ones doubting the existence of Covid-19 and AIDS, and makes a somewhat offensive wisecrack. Does he not know how to protect himself? Is he not interested in doing so? Is he testing me?
“Aline says I have Asperger’s,” he says. “I am naive, people tell me: Crumb, you’re too open with people. You can’t talk to people like that.”
'Aline says I have Asperger’s. I am naive, people tell me: Crumb, you’re too open with people. You can’t talk to people like that'
Crumb grew up in an era when free speech testified to a liberal outlook and lives now at a time when such outlook necessitates self-censorship and plentiful sensitivity. His lack of political correctness is softened by warmth, gentleness and a sense a love for human beings. Conspiracy theories require greater tolerance. An attraction to thinking that is perceived as subversive joined with the same obsessiveness that leads him to endless drawing and collecting, both lead him there. His shelves hold hundreds of books on such theories, alongside innumerable files of investigations that he assembled himself.
Drawing Trump’s hair for an entire day
In comics, Crumb’s lack of a filter proved an advantage. In the mid-1960s he created Fritz the Cat, a sexual, crude and sometimes criminal variation on comic book pets. Powerful LSD trips engendered other characters, and an even more grotesque and daring world of images, impelling him to publish more and more comics.
A move to San Francisco toward the end of the decade connected Crumb to the epoch’s cultural leaders and he began illustrating posters and album covers, most famously that of 1968’s “Cheap Thrills” by Big Brother and the Holding Company, Janis Joplin’s band. The match was ideal: The counterculture gained an illustrator who naturally opposed the existing order.
Crumb’s fans see this period as the start of his flourishing. He sees it as the beginning of the end. “I got a little burned out from the work,” he says. “The response was so strong, and it started just after I started to be known, in ‘68. Before that, I was the observer, and suddenly I became the one being observed.”
Fame spurred Crumb to make his work even more daring and it became unrestrainedly sexual. Last year, several of his drawings from the 1970s were shown at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York. In the run-up to the show Crumb distanced himself from the sheer quantity of buttocks and genitals in his drawings.
“I don’t even look at women anymore,” he said in an interview with The Guardian. “When I was young, I was just obsessed with sexual desire, fantasizing about sex, masturbation, trying to figure out how to get laid. It was awful. Fortunately for me, I found a way to express this inner turbulence in my comics, otherwise I might’ve ended up in jail or in a mental institution.” In another interview, he expressed regret that his obsession with sex caused him to lose the female half of his audience.
'Even if I felt alienated in the U.S., and even if I hated it sometimes, my work was a response to it'
He struggles to imagine what his art would have looked like had he been in his 30s today. “I would have grown up with a totally different set of culture,” he notes, “Maybe I wouldn’t have made comics at all. In my generation comics was very important.”
I mention that his daughter, Sophie Crumb, chose comics and illustration as a way of life. “She grew up with two comics creators,” he replies. “She drew comics at age 6, and still I didn’t expect her to take my path. She went to circus school and then traveled to the States, and became a tattoo artist and went down a very dark corridor. In her 20s she was very wild, much wilder than myself, maybe not as wild as Aline.”
Aline is a huge motivating force in Crumb’s life. Over the years the two of them published a joint comics series called “Dirty Laundry,” depicting their private life, with an emphasis on sensitive topics like addiction and polyamory. Crumb offers me a volume of their joint work, the catalog of an exhibition at the Basel Cartoonmusuem.
On page 26 there is a small masterpiece: “Amazon with Braids,” in which a tiny image of Crumb embraces the leg of a gigantic woman.
A sculpture in a similar spirit stands in the Crumbs’ kitchen: a life-sized woman made of clay, donning Japanese attire, lifts up a tiny man by the hand of a tiny man. “That’s Aline’s,” he says. “A friend of hers made it. I think it’s terrible.”
It was Aline who hung, at the entrance to their home, a Donald Trump voodoo doll, complete with pins. “She’s really obsessed with Trump,” he says. “I’m no friend of Trump. I think he’s a bad man, but he’s a symptom of things that have been happening in the States for decades, it’s the decline of the Roman Empire. She suggested we make a comic about Trump together. I said, Okay, I can get into that, and then I spent an entire day just drawing Trump’s hair. I studied his hair with a magnifying glass. When you see a man with hair like that, alarms should go off.”
Ugly, scary, beloved
The distance from the United States yielded at least one masterpiece, “The Book of Genesis.” Isolated from his natural themes, Crumb began exploring ancient Mesopotamian culture. “It drew me more than Egypt, People are obsessed with ancient Egypt, but the Mesopotamian sculptures are ugly and scary and that’s why I like them. Dealing with this led me to contemplate the Old Testament. My initial idea was to write a satire on the Adam and Eve story. Then I realized there is no need for satire. It’s so strange to begin with.”
As he worked, Crumb went into a philosophical spin, which echoed his youthful disillusionment with Catholicism. “I started hating it, the whole position that’s expressed there. It’s all so tribal and crazy. I don’t understand the position of people who read that and take it as word of God, whether they’re Talmudic sages or medieval Christian scholars I worked on the book using an edition that featured the work of Jewish interpreters, and the interpretations were so frustrating. They only asked what is God trying to teach us, not what might be the processes that gave life to the stories.”
That which helping him complete the work was a sense that he had been given an opportunity to do justice to an alternative view of the Bible, including the female aspect of the stories, which he says was crushed by the patriarchy. He quotes from “Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis” by Savina J. Teubal, which argues that the Biblical figure of Sarah is only a faded vestige of an ancient high priestess. “The way to bring that out was to give equal attention to every part of the text, even the bits people skip.”
“Genesis” was published in 2009, with a Hebrew version soon after. Rather than rejoice in his achievement, crumb regrets the style he picked for the book. “I used too much detail,” he says, and adds that recent years drew him away from comics, and toward musical projects.
On his drafting table is a half-completed sketch for an album cover he is doing for a German friend. Surrounding it are shelves holding thousands of vinyl records: jazz, American folk music, klezmer, African recordings from the 1930s and ‘40s and more. Noteworthy in its absence is the genre with which the man is most identified. Robert Crumb, it turns out, does not like psychedelic rock.
It was their shared love of jazz that introduced Crumb to Harvey Pekar, a Cleveland hospital clerk who composed anticlimactic literary vignettes: reflections on a visit to a health clinic, musings on his name, the portrait of a peddler offering pickled okra to office workers. Crumb turned those into comics.
'She went to circus school and then traveled to the States, and became a tattoo artist and went down a very dark corridor'
The books were failures, as one would expect. They rebelled against a medium best known for its flying superheroes, aliens and mutants. Revolutions take time to complete. In 2003 Crumb and Pekar were immortalized in the feature film “American Splendor,” starring Paul Giamatti.
The Pekar pieces highlight the great wonder of Crumb’s work: the tension between form and content. The eye perceives his works as being fantastical, while in fact they deal exclusively with the terrestrial, sometimes the very terrestrial: His desire to depict America alive using a grotesque line has stirred quite a lot of anger at him and he has often been seen as accentuating racial stereotypes.
“My work is very personal. It represents the time and place from which I came and expresses who I was. I grew up in a not-very-enlightened, lower-middle-class world. Today we see racism wherever we look. It’s a path we take in order to heal ourselves eventually of racism, but now America is so extreme. It has gone completely crazy.”
Crumb mentions a single event in which he intentionally avoided criticism, and it involves a different country: Israel. “In ‘95 we were guests of the Jerusalem Film Festival. It was the time of the peace accords, and when we got in the cab on the way to the airport, Aline told the driver that she really hopes peace will come. He was this kind of tough Israeli and he said: We don’t want any peace with them. We started working on a comic based on that moment and then we let it go. We decided it’s too risky. Art Spiegelman will give us hell.”
The Leonardo da Vinci of comics
Outside of that taxi was a land full of admiration for the artist’s work: “Crumb is the Leonardo da Vinci of alternative comics,” says Israeli illustrator and installation artist Zeev Engelmayer. “He invented it. There wasn’t anything before him.”
Engelmayer has collected nearly every work published by Crumb and he contributed to the research for “The Book of Genesis.” His familiarity with Crumb’s life and work is encyclopedic and provides a window into the artist’s enigma. “You can understand him if you understand the power of exposed flesh,” says Engelmayer. “He does not deny his lust and this does not make things easy for the viewer.”
According to Engelmayer, all of Crumb’s characters, from Fritz the randy cat to happy-go-lucky guru Mr. Natural, are self-portraits. He too mentions Art Spiegelman, the Jewish American artist who created the Holocaust-themed graphic novel “Maus”: “He and Spiegelman worked together at first, created the magazine Arcade and then quarreled. Spiegelman leaned toward fine art. He traveled to Europe and sought out artists who explored new forms.
' I spent an entire day just drawing Trump’s hair. I studied his hair with a magnifying glass. When you see a man with hair like that, alarms should go off'
Meanwhile Crumb walked around San Francisco with his friends, enlisting artists from prisons and mental asylums. Some of the participants in their magazine Weirdo were homeless.”
“For him, everything is possible,” he concludes, “All fantasies are realized, and some people don’t understand this. He has a fetish for broad hips and he objectifies women. He drew Black people as caricatures of Blacks, Jews as anti-Semitic caricatures. He had comics on sex within the family. If you don’t see the irony in the material and don’t understand it as parody, you won’t know how to react to it. On the other hand, when you see the humanity in him you understand that he is genuine.”
Another young artist who has been influenced by Crumb’s work is his daughter, Sophie Crumb. A gallery near the river in Sauve currently shows an exhibition of her early work, which clearly displays the influence of that of her parents. Sophie has acquired a reputation as an artist in her own right but at the moment she has set her art aside and is devoting herself to parenthood in a nearby village.
“My mom and my dad,” she says, “their strangeness was normal to me, their 1930s aesthetic and drawing all the time was normal to me. I did realize that we were not like the other people, especially living in central California surrounded by Wonder Bread Mormon evangelical types. When we came to France I actually felt less alienated because we were in a small village with some eccentric people that were more similar to us.”
Robert and Aline met in the 1970s. By strange coincidence, his comic books featured a character who resembled her and had her surname, albeit spelled a bit differently – Kaminski. Friends who noticed the fact introduced the two.
Their drafting tables face each other. He draws himself, she draws herself. He writes the words in his speech bubbles, she writes hers. He will throw out an idea while drawing the basic sketches and Aline will roll with it.
Aline, who was born in 1949, turns out to be an even stronger explosion of color, stories and vivacity than I had expected. She started out as a comics artist in a feminist collective that rejected her when she began seeing Robert. “It was a very narrow-minded group, and also hypocritical. Eventually I found out that the one of those who put me down there was actually sleeping with Robert. The only time I got an STD was from her through him. She gave us both the crabs.”
When I ask her to name contemporary artists she likes, to my surprise she mentions Alison Bechdel, whose name has become synonymous with feminism in comics. She says she has no objections to any particular agenda but rather to the lack of humor. “There’s a big problem in the world today with people who are humoristically-challenged. If you are politically correct, you have an idealized notion of how people should be, and no one is really like that. It takes all the fun out of life.”
Besides Bechdel, Robert and Aline share a strikingly long list of contemporary comics artists they admire. They clearly enjoy naming them: Chris Ware, Chester Brown, David Heatley, Daniel Clowes, Justin Green, Noah Van Sciver, Gabrielle Bell and Marjane Satrapi, creator of “Persepolis.” Their daughter Sophie joins the list, and they still love Art Spiegelman.
“Art was interested in raising comics to a higher form of art,” says Aline. “And I think he succeeded. He created the graphic novel, but we are more interested in creating something you can read in the bathroom.”
Aline suggests that Robert show me their joint work involving Trump, which appeared in The New York Review of Books in June. At first he has difficulty finding it. “You better find it, Bob. George Lucas bought it for $93,000.” Finally, it is found on a shelf, in a file labeled “Bad Diet and Bad Hair Destroy Human Civilization.”
“Even if I felt alienated in the U.S., and even if I hated it sometimes, my work was a response to it,” says Robert. “Maybe I can respond to it from a distance. I don’t know.”
But you did respond,” says Aline.
“It’s not the same. I’m not complaining, but my work has changed.”
“You wrote the book of Genesis here,” she reminds him proudly.
“I know,” he says unenthusiastically.
They both admit that only one of them is in exile. “Sometimes I feel that it’s actually here that I’m in the center of the world,” Aline says, and following some thought, attributes the magic of the place paradoxically to its very foreignness. “I’m not French,” she explains. “So at least here I know why I don’t fit in.”