Masters of comics: Robert Crumb

Masters of comics: Robert Crumb

Candido Romano Published on 4/17/2024

  • Introduction
  • Childhood, “weirdness” and a love for comics
  • Fritz the Cat and experimentation with LSD
  • Mr. Natural, Zap Comix and Weirdo magazine
  • Robert Crumb’s modern work and legacy

Robert Crumb was born in Philadelphia on 30 August 1943, the son of a Marine Corps officer father and a devoutly Catholic mother. He is considered the godfather of the American underground comic movement, which grew out of releases from tiny publishers and self-published works that are a world away from mainstream publications aimed at a mass readership.

Underground comics were often satirical and edgy, containing explicit sex and violence, and using foul language to describe states of mind or the puritanical society of fifties America. As such, they were a direct challenge to the strict moralism of the Comics Code Authority, the body that censored mainstream comics at the time.

Illustrated self-portrait by Robert Crumb.

During the sixties and seventies, Crumb and other authors like Gilbert Shelton, Barbara “Willy” Mendes and Trina Robbins created a canon of underground and counterculture comics that shocked and unsettled audiences unaccustomed to many of their themes.

Childhood, “weirdness” and a love for comics

When he was young, Crumb’s family moved about a lot before finally settling in Delaware in 1956, when his father retired after 20 years in the military. His mother, who probably suffered from bipolar disorder, abused diet pills and amphetamines. Life at home wasn’t the best and Robert, as well as his two brothers and two sisters, often witnessed violent family arguments.

Fortunately, he shared a passion for comics with his older brother Charles, who would literally force Robert to draw. Charles was the biggest  influence on Robert Crumb at the time and the co-author of much of the work they produced as children. Inspired by authors like Walt Kelly (whose most famous comic strip is Pogo) and the animations of the Fleischer Brothers, Robert and Charles Crumb began working on their first comics. In 1958, they self-published three issues of Foo, a satirical imitation of Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad, as well as Fuzzy the Bunny, Charles’ comic strip alter ego.

Illustrations taken from the works of Robert Crumb. All rights reserved.

Growing up, Robert Crumb felt increasingly alienated from society: “I was one of those social rejects, but then, you know, many people were — nothing unusual about being an outcast in high school”, he once told an interviewer. He began collecting classic jazz and blues records from the twenties. Then, at 16, he lost his faith, declaring himself no longer a Catholic.

After graduating from high school, Crumb spent a year at home drawing obsessively. He would often discuss the meaning of life with his brother Charles, who never even left the house. Things changed when he moved to Cleveland in 1962: his father gave him 40 dollars to leave home for good.

Crumb’s first job was at the American Greetings Corporation as a colour separator. He was promoted after just a year, and began drawing hundreds of greetings cards, although his boss continued to reproach his work for being too grotesque. Crumb married very young in 1965 and set off on a six-month honeymoon. He carried on drawing cards on his travels, sending them back to the company in the post.

Illustrations taken from the works of Robert Crumb. All rights reserved.

The fate of Robert’s brother Charles was not such a happy one: he stopped drawing as a boy, despite having an enormous talent. As an adult, he was gripped by a permanent state of depression, which could only be partially alleviated by psychiatric medication, and lived at home with his mother. He committed suicide in February 1992 at the age of 49, a year after appearing in Terry Zwigoff’s superb documentary “Crumb”.

Fritz the Cat and experimentation with LSD

Robert Crumb began to make a name for himself in 1965 when he printed and self-published the first issues of Fritz the Cat, probably his most famous work, which he sold mainly to university students in Cleveland. The comic follows the absurd adventures of Fritz, an anthropomorphic cat and con artist living in a supercity populated by other animals. These tales involve obscenity, sex and eroticism, soft drugs, rock music and run-ins with the police. The character of Fritz had been devised by Crumb back in 1959, and was published in underground magazines like Help! and Cavalier between 1965 and 1972.

During this period, his style became more sophisticated, developing expressive and often caricatured lines that skilfully communicated fear and the other emotions that drive people and their uncontrollable urges.

Illustrations taken from the works of Robert Crumb. All rights reserved.

The strip garnered wider attention thanks to the eponymous 1972 animated film, which Crumb subsequently distanced himself from. It was the first R-rated animated film ever to be produced in the US: a milestone that shows how before Crumb (and other authors in the American underground), comics were seen simply as entertainment for kids. And with these new underground works themes such as extreme auto-eroticism, the innate violence of human beings and depression were tackled by comic books for the first time.

Illustrations taken from the works of Robert Crumb. All rights reserved.

In 1965, Robert Crumb discovered hippy culture and with it LSD, a psychedelic drug that was still legal in those days: “I started taking LSD in Cleveland in June of ’65. That changed my head around. It made me stop taking cartooning so seriously and showed me a whole other side of myself”. During this psychedelic period interspersed with rather unpleasant bad trips, Crumb created some of his most famous characters, like Mr. Natural, Angelfood McSpade and The Snoid.

Illustrations taken from the works of Robert Crumb. All rights reserved.

Mr. Natural, Zap Comix and Weirdo magazine

In January of 1967, Crumb met two friends in a bar who were about to head to San Francisco. He decided there and then that he too would leave Cleveland and move to the city that was at the very heart of the counter-culture. There he continued to find success by contributing pieces to underground newspapers that were inspired by his own experiences with LSD.

Illustrations taken from the works of Robert Crumb. All rights reserved.

Crumb then created Zap Comix magazine, which was published by Charles Plymell, himself a writer in the beat generation and contemporary of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. In a pointed dig at the Comics Code, issue one of Zap Comix carried the words “Fair warning: for adult intellectuals only” above the title. The magazine would feature the work of the likes of Gilbert Shelton, Robert Williams, Jim Osborne and many more, including a very young Art Spiegelman, who just a few years later would earn the recognition of the literary establishment by winning a Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel Maus.

Illustrations taken from the works of Robert Crumb. All rights reserved.

In 1968, no retailer wanted to distribute the first issue of Zap Comix, so Crumb and his wife began selling it on the street, with the couple’s new born son, Jesse, beside them in a pram. Jesse Crumb died tragically in a car accident in 2018.

This comic magazine featured the character Mr. Natural: a thickly bearded man who styles himself as a philosopher, guru and mystic but who is also a scoundrel and con man ready to exploit the naivety of hippies, women and the average Joe. He dispenses advice that belies his wise-man shtick and invents absurd situations bordering on the horrific.

Illustrations taken from the works of Robert Crumb. All rights reserved.

Mr. Natural possesses strange magical powers and great intuition, but is also temperamental, cynical, self-pitying and suffers from various sexual obsessions. In short, many of the themes Crumb holds dear are woven around this character who seems to be “good”. Here Crumb’s style becomes even more cartoonish, bringing to mind the work of Popeye creator E. C. Segar. Other trademark features of his work are there, too, like exaggeratedly shapely women and an outrageous but devilishly funny world view.

Illustrations taken from the works of Robert Crumb. All rights reserved.

In the seventies, Crumb travelled all over the United States while continuing to draw. When his first marriage ended, he joined a commune in Potter Valley, before settling in Madison, California, with his new fiancée, cartoonist Aline Kominsky, who would become his second wife and life companion.

In 1980, Crumb founded Weirdo magazine, which was inspired by Mad and the men’s magazines of the forties and fifties. Featuring a bevy of new irreverent and politically incorrect authors, it offered a lowbrow alternative that blended pop surrealism with the intellectualism of Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine, which was aimed at a more “educated” reader.

Robert Crumb’s modern work and legacy

In 1991, Crumb moved to Sauve, France, disgusted by what he saw around him in the United States. In 2009, he published The Book of Genesis, a five-year labour of love that is a literal illustration the first book of the Bible. It was an enormous success.

Robert Crumb has lived a full and colourful life. His bold, distinctive and often provocative style has pushed the boundaries of sequential art, influencing generations of comic artists, none more so than Andrea Pazienza. However, he has often been accused of sexism, racism and anti-Semitism, particularly by younger generations.

Photograph by Robert Crumb. All rights reserved.

But one thing is certain: his natural propensity to explore controversial themes and tackle societal issues has made his work an endless source of debate.

The legacy that Crumb leaves younger generations of cartoonists is an invitation to explore their creativity without inhibition and challenge convention.