Happy 69th birthday today to Robert Crumb, one of the founding figures of the underground comic movement, who took the conventions of comic books and turned it on its proverbial ears, absolutely slaughtering sacred cows with unabashed, uncensored and downright filthy and brutally honest approaches, and holding mirrors up to real life and all its pretensions and fascinations.
Crumb, whose knack for illustration trailblazed an absolute revolution in said movement, was full of cynicism, wit, style, subversive radicalism, and a “fuck you if you don’t like it or agree with it, but never fuck with my right to draw it and say it” attitude. His entire career has been fixed in the underground movement, he never tried to jump that ship, he never tried or wanted to draw for a mainstream publication, and even in the very, very few times he did, it was still like lighting a match in the hallowed halls of those institutions, Robert Crumb’s illustrative and eclectic mind and sharp ear for dialogue still every bit mired in his style and in full force.
Best known as R. Crumb, there are many highlights in his artistic oeuvre. Some of the best remembered characters are Mr. Natural and his “Keep on Truckin’” logo and characterization, which was bootlegged on countless T-shirts after it first appeared in the first issue of Zap Comix, which was published in 1968, and became as well known as a symbol of the 1970s as recognized as the yellow smiley “Have a Nice Day” face, “Enjoy Cocaine,” the attitudinal T-shirt which parodied the famous Coca-Cola slogan “Enjoy Coke,” and dark light posters, lava lamps, and cannabis bongs.
But above all, what he may always be best remembered for, although he himself would be the first to admit that the adoration for the character made him cringe somewhat, was the sordid, sneakily sleazy and perverted sexaholic and meandering feline, Fritz the Cat. That character, which first appeared in the mid 1960s, became one of Crumb’s trademarks; an adaptation into a animated feature film in 1972 by legendary cartoon director Ralph Bakshi was met with chagrined disappointment by Crumb, and cult status and delight by almost everyone else. The film stands today, 40 years later, as a cinematic highlight in the history of animation. Crumb was so incensed by what he felt was an absolute abolition of his character in the film that he gruesomely killed off Fritz in the comic strip about a year later, by way of ice pick to his head by a jealous and jilted lover, played by an Ostrich. Crumb was never known to play it both sides of the fence like a lot of anti-establishment figures of his generation did and continue to do today, make fun of the conventions of the establishment, but do it with a sly wink, when it’s all broken down, it’s just one big party after all. That theory was off by a mile for Robert Crumb, he always stayed true to his cynicism, his radicalism, his blowhard preachy yet absolutely irresistible artistic demeanor.
His resume reads as prolific as are true artists wont to do: old style blues and jazz album covers (Crumb has gone on record as being a huge early 20th collector of jazz and blues and bluegrass vinyl and has performed in music groups which showcase those styles, usually playing a banjo or mandolin), countless illustrations in other underground comics, a standout being the work he did for the equally wonderful and modern day prince writer of underground comics, the late Harvey Pekar, for his American Splendor series. Crumb also illustrated Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills album cover; anthologies of his work are bound in lavish coffee table style tomes and are available in libraries coast to coast, and was even the subject of a 1994 documentary which not only showcased the man, but gave a rare glimpse inside his complicated and quirky machinations of himself; finding out even an ounce of what makes Robert Crumb tick is as rare and welcome regarding a man who remains a true enigma, who made himself and his philosophies come vividly alive on the underground comics pages, which were certainly not for everyone indeed ultimately.
Today he resides in France with his wife Alice, who is an artist, and his daughter Sophie is also an artist. The Crumb DNA still runs wide and expansive. He’s sort of now a living legend in his genre, but he would probably be the last one to embrace that platitude; his gruffness and style is still very inherent and controversial as ever, witness his rendering of The Book of Genesis, which came out a few years ago, and was as usual, presented in the either you go with it or you don’t manner, but either way, it was firmly rooted in the “I’m going to tell it like it is like it or not” style that is Robert Crumb.
So let’s give a rousing Happy Birthday to the master of the underground, the chief individualistic proponent and architect who took comics to levels untold before, which delighted some and repelled others. But one thing is for sure, not too many artists offer a fresh perspective and makes one think, react, wince, laugh, delight, shake their head, nod their head, all of the above, like the great R. Crumb.