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Book review: <i>The R. Crumb Handbook</i> by Robert Crumb and Peter Poplaski

the cover of the book

If this was funnier, contained no sex whatsoever, five times less interesting to look at, but only slightly more suitable for children, it would be a The Charles Schulz Story, published 1971. (Have you READ early Peanuts? Good grief.)


A self-portrait of Mr. Crumb at his drawing desk, against a flat yellow background, below some of his trademark hand-drawn text.


The R. Crumb Handbook is about fifty percent text, as Crumb relates his life story to Poplaksi from childhood up to the present while exploring tangents of opinion and commentary, and about fifty percent illustration, arranged by chronology and relevance to the intermingled text.

The good

Crumb is a compulsive creator and also seventy, so there are a LOT of collections of his work to be found if you missed all his comics the first time. I picked this particular one up because of the unusual format (thick, small, hardcover, high-quality art reproduction, with a CD included featuring Crumb's blues favourites) and it turned out to be exactly what the offhand-sounding title suggests: a perfect primer and 'best of' for the new or casual fan.

The writing is conversational and emotionally involved, as though straight from Crumb's mouth. He's as comfortable discussing his upbringing in print as he is in his artwork, and it's every bit as personal, if not quite as graphic as the graphics. Crumb's sexual hang-ups and peccadilloes developed early and have been explored fearlessly throughout his career, if not forming its very backbone. What is perhaps most telling about coming of age immersed in fifties Americana (a process Crumb excels at conveying in his art) is that even now, at seventy, he remains convinced that he's some sort of pervert. An unrepentant, successful, happily married pervert, but a pervert nonetheless. A combination of nature and nurture render him unable to step outside himself long enough to realise the enormous role an empathetic audience played in making him famous. The shocking nature of Crumb's materials have faded somewhat over time, but the reader's involuntary identification with the author simultaneously gratifying and flagellating himself in their portrayal remains fresh.

This is one of the subtler notes The R. Crumb Handbook strikes, most of which are missing from his other collections and even from Terry Zwigoff's well-received biographical documentary. Crumb's powerful mistrust of any attempt to translate his work into motion (the Fritz the Cat film in particular) is another example. In Zwigoff's documentary, Crumb portrays himself as the meek, trembling artist having his humble creation abducted and abused by mighty Mammon. Here, he takes this same basic attitude, but adumbrates telling details; he concedes that Ralph Bakshi, the director, was a genuinely enthusiastic young man who liked Crumb's work enough to want to film it, but that any material added by Bakshi to the original creation was dismal. Crumb also mentions that he seeks that old blessing/curse 'artistic immortality' - not the meekest yearning on the menu.

More personality emerges in The R. Crumb Handbook, is what I mean - among other things, the humble artist seems less humble, but a fraction more forgiving, perhaps in his dotage, perhaps in the combination of artwork and interview.

Visually, I can't see how this wouldn't be a pleasure for any fan of the artist or medium. There's a lot of things reproduced elsewhere (his covers, his most notably risque strips such as Joe Blow, Angelfood McSpade, Mr. Natural, etc), but there's also a wealth of titbits, rarities, and context-specific comics from which even the most thorough fan should be able to pluck a novelty. There are double page spreads, close ups, very early work, very recent work, and an occasional outside artist's Crumb-related work. It's immaculately presented, capturing Crumb's highly imitable style: dark, organic ink work, bulbous figures, hatching that seems to wriggle into corners beneath our gaze. All doubly shocking to begin with, I imagine, because just as the subject matter tapped into a wellspring of unspoken sexual quirks tracing back to childhood, the very artwork was a thrilling subversion of every comic book Crumb had ever read, and the comics he read were determinedly innocent Disneyfied things, all talking animals and silly schemes.

The bad

Crumb's not funny. He intends to be funny, but he isn't. His strips LOOK as though they should be (which is, at the risk of being patronising, the only explanation I can adduce for his female fan base), but they aren't - storytelling involving wacky-looking pictures does not classify as a comic strip to me. Crumb helped invent "underground" (or, as they're more aptly called nowadays, "alternative") comics, which helped liberate a strata of artists from commerciality and (more importantly) clichŽs of men in tights and talking fucking animals (although Crumb certainly wasn't afraid to put a comma in the latter concept and make it his own). Many of these comics stress autobiographical or storytelling detail over any attempts at humour, and Crumb's drawn plenty himself. Sorry to push this, but the inescapable fact is that most of Crumb's output looks as though it ought to be funny, is intended by the author to achieve this goal, yet fails. Gary Larson's art never improved noticeably over his entire career as a (comic) stripper; he could draw just adequately to convey the spectrum of his jokes. He is unlikely to unveil a Parisian exhibition. However, in terms of humour, he inhabits a wholly different planet to Crumb.

What IS funny, in my opinion, is a quote from a critic like Robert Hughes "validating" Crumb's status as an "artist", because Crumb was never anything BUT an artist. He draws compulsively, automatically, translating everything he sees through the medium of his talent into a continuous, unique, transforming vision of the world around and within him. He spent his life developing his own particular style, which, though obviously not without influences, has in itself influenced generations of artists, not just in technique but in the way Crumb uses this technique to explore his inner landscapes. He detests commercialism, yet wishes to live on through his art, and his work has had an inescapable effect on twentieth century culture. He's obsessed with sex. The French love him. No, Crumb was always an artist. He's just not much good at comic strips.

He's also not for everyone. As I mentioned, to my surprise, some women seem to find his combination of cute images and the awkwardly, brazenly sexual material appealing, but I imagine many would be turned off by the combination of Crumb's objectification/fetishisation of women and his apparent lack of interest in what makes them tick. Art needs honesty, however, and without openly acknowledging these elements of themselves then neither Crumb the man nor Crumb the artist would be the successes they've become.

In terms of the book itself, there's not much to argue with. The type layout borders on spartan, but that's probably the least important part of the book after the page numbers. The R. Crumb Handbook is, literally, Crumb's story in his own words (and pictures), and I've always found what he had to say about himself more interesting than what he had to say about the world. Even if the opposite is true, or you've never even heard of the guy, then there's still plenty here. It doesn't have a singular gimmick (I'm leaving aside the CD), but I'd take this over any of his other compilations, unless you really do have them all.

What I learnt

That R. Crumb longs for immortality through his art, which explains better the artist's natural distrust for attempts to commercialise their work than any holy artistic altruism. I reckon.

In short

Title: The R. Crumb Handbook
Author: Robert Crumb and Peter Poplaski
Publisher: M Q Publications
ISBN: 1840727160
Year published: 2005
Pages: 440
Genre(s): Non-fiction, Art, Biography
Review Type: