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CRUMB

from Chris Wayan's journal, 1995/6/7

1: MY UNDERGROUND ROOTS

Panel from R.Crumb versus the Sisterhood, R. Crumb, 1973 Panel from R.Crumb versus the Sisterhood, R. Crumb, 1973
I drew and read all day--well, reread. Went through some of my biggest early influences in comix and visual storytelling: Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky and early Wimmen's Comix. Curious what I'd think now, 20 years later.

CRUMB: he's not so negative. Sad and angry at what he sees, yes. The blight and ugliness of American cities as he draws them are very close to what I see, though most folks don't seem to notice. Blind to all the wires and pipes and techno-junk. Crumb carefully shows it all.

Reactionary? Sexist? His most twisted stuff still has a playful warmth in it. Even "R. Crumb versus the Sisterhood"--with my mother inside me gasping in horror at the political outrageousness--makes me laugh despite myself. Clubhouses, girls and boys fighting mostly to get a rise out of each other, so to speak. He always sees the roots in childhood, the brats inside our grownup posturing and passion.

Panel from R.Crumb versus the Sisterhood, R. Crumb, 1973 Panel from R.Crumb versus the Sisterhood, R. Crumb, 1973
In the middle of their inept parody of a superhero battle, Big Kate stops for a quickie. "Pull out your ding-dong! Whatsa matter, don'tcha like girls?" So Crumb crawls into her womb and drives Big Kate mad... Soon she's climbing telephone poles and howling. Crumb: "Gee, you can see the whole city from up here!"

Crumb draws about 17 panels for Kate's mad orgasm, 1 for his. Gotta satisfy his girl. Her sexual abandon is a sort of toy he controls--with envy, fear, delight and a small boy's curiosity. Big Kate as a giant scary go-kart... Crumb as Tom Swift and his Electric Whizbang, circa 1930...

Get to know your inner brat, I guess.

ALINE KOMINSKY: I find, with my newly grown cartoonist's eye, it's her writing I like. The sheer nerve, talking about things that personal. Crudity and embarrassment become a high-octane fuel, propelling rather than holding her back. She influenced me much more directly than Crumb because she showed me how to make art--not just how to loosen up my drawning, as he did, but art regardless of medium--by saying "Quit hiding your embarrassments--use them! If you let out what you're silently ashamed of, you can embarrass others instead!" Spiritual judo. Art. Not the only possible kind, but...

Hey, it works for me.
Goldie: A Neurotic Woman by Aline Kominsky; one panel. 'You Are What You Know' by Michelle Brand; one-page comix-poem.

WIMMEN'S COMIX: when I first saw these I most admired the polished sexy style of Trina Robbins--she got me drawing--but now I see the ground-breaking confessional cartoons as the ones that inspired me most: especially Aline's, and Michelle Brand's lucid dream-tale There I Was and lyric pieces like Diane Noomin's "Home Agin," and Lee Marrs on work, and especially Melinda Clothilde Gebbie's feverish fantasies, which I knew at the time were too grown-up and complex for me to appreciate fully--her outrageousness easily topping Crumb.

Such pieces weren't just exploring the medium (words + pictures) or the content (confessional, taboo-breaking) but also exploring form or genre: they were essentially comix-poetry, when nearly all the comix I'd seen till then were essentially prose narratives. But some of these just weren't linear--throbbing mazes of words and images that still communicated both thought and feeling.
Left: one panel from "Goldie: A Neurotic Woman" by Aline Kominsky, from Wimmin's Comix #1, 1972.
Below: half a page from "Supersilia/Sea Cucumber" by Melinda Clothilde Gebbie, Wimmin's Comix #3, 1973.
Right: 'You Are What You Know' by Michelle Brand; one-page comix-poem, Wimmin's Comix #2, 1973. Click to enlarge

Supersilia by Melinda Clothilde Gebbie: half a panel.

2: CLARISA ON FAT

As I look, I listen to Clarisa Pinkola EstÚs on KPFA, talking about being fat. In Mexico, her birth culture in Tehuantepec, everyone looks like her! Fat is good, fat is pretty. In fact, she's too skinny there! "Are you sick, have you been starving?"

Then she gets back to America, to her adoptive family in New Mexico. She goes to a big dance atop a mesa. The Butterfly Dancer comes out and the gringo tourists are disappointed: she's old, big, fat! Butterflies aren't like that! We want a supermodel! But she ignores them and fertilizes the world anyway...

And next on our tour of appreciators of brobdingnagianesque women...
Panel from R.Crumb versus the Sisterhood, R. Crumb, 1973

3: CRUMB AT THE CASTRO

Terry Zwischoff's film biography, CRUMB, is playing at the Castro Theater. I bike through the Mission and walk around on 16th street before the film. Enjoy just looking... Not everyone here's a Crumb grotesque. A few of the Goya faces have some spark in them. And I spot more attractive girls than before--even Trina Robbins would like some of them. Not just my mood; this street is starting to improve. Lesbian immigrants are finally reaching a critical mass--the heroin users and dealers are retreating.

Into the Castro Theater. Waiting for the film, I eavesdrop on a young cartoonist pontificating behind me--he's already got jobs drawing for DC or Marvel and his own work's coming out via Last Gasp or Kitchen Sink. If he can, I can... Why don't I send my stuff out? Too shy. Max Crumb paints on a bed of nails on a Mission sidewalk; by Wayan

I turn around once and peek. His girl friend is gorgeous. But talks like a ten year old. So what? They're well matched: so does he.

CRUMB starts. Feels eerie, seeing such a local film: his brother Max's place is just a few blocks away, and Robert sketches the same Mission streets I know, catching exactly the same grotesques I see and write about. And his eye isn't that different from mine. Surprises me. My FOCUS seems different (spirituality and sexy dreams get me hot, not big-ass women) but perceptions... well, anyone with their eyes open can see the gallery of American gargoyles, and the wires and cars and hideous biz-huts. Pizza hut, burger hut, money hut, gas hut, comix hut. Hup ho!

Only... most people DON'T see it, somehow. Panel from R.Crumb versus the Sisterhood, R. Crumb, 1973

Crumb really is turned on by strange things and puts it all in his art. Practices what so many how-to books on creativity preach: suspends morality and reacts freely. One revealing scene shows him with his son, both cartooning from photos of madwomen in a French asylum circa 1900. Free to feel whatever they feel, their dialog is casually judgmental yet... they really look and really see these forgotten faces. ("How do I know what I think till I see what I say?" -- Barry Stevens.)

Aline insisted Robert finish a comic where a guy fucks a headless woman (tantric magic made it vanish; you pour smoothies down her neck to feed her). It appalled even him. I cringe at it myself yet recognize power in it: and the fantasy of a totally compliant sex partner is only the beginning: when her head emerges, it really is just as mean as Mr Natural warned. You empathize with her rage, but also with poor little Flakey's guilt--he just wanted an easy-going girlfriend, but restores her head cuz it's the right thing... and she stomps him for it. A control fantasy where the perpetrator relents, helps the victim... and pays. It's an amorality play, where Flakey may claim "women have no brains, fuck em, they don't feel a thing..." but he's wrong. Heads pushed down inside, suppressed... a 1950s coma! Guilty little wimp finally lets his lover's head emerge, and flees from its feminist rage.

No social commentary here! Crumb's a siiiiick boy!

While the corpses pile up on TV.
Panel from R.Crumb versus the Sisterhood, R. Crumb, 1973

I do cringe. Sex, social history, and low comedy--what a queasy mix! He has a talent for facing discomfort. I had a near-identical dream, Cute Witch, Bad Head. Troubled me a lot--it's fine to show men as assholes, but a female asshole must be sexism! I could dream it, but I just couldn't draw it--though maybe now I can, if I remind myself Crumb could.

Women's reactions to the real-life Crumb. One big woman says "He made me feel I really was beautiful." Most of them agree Crumb lacks much sense of his own body, though. Gets me stretching and exercising as I watch. I can see it now--CRUMB: THE EXERCISE VIDEO.

He upsets other women--Trina Robbins condemns him for "Joe Blow", admits it makes a point about the LAST time we had "family values", but says "he gets off on the molestation"--which makes me laugh, I thought that was the point, it helped me look at incest-tension in my own family--made me FACE it--and laugh. Never could have, without that guffaw. I'm shocked to hear Trina so vehement--her own comix are beautiful, bisexual, pedophilic, and hot! Draws slim young girls on sexual adventures--she just drapes a politically correct plot over them. She loves--and gets off on--those sweet young thangs she draws so obsessively (not just human ones, either: I still have a crush on her lion-girl and Natasha the Sphinx). I'd love to be one of Trina's elegant girls, but looking at them makes me feel inferior for being male and big and lunky clunky.

And I bet most women react that way to Trina's art too--it's hot, but makes us feel we probably aren't.

Or am I overreacting to Clarisa Pinkola Estes's rant on fat?
Panel from R.Crumb versus the Sisterhood, R. Crumb, 1973

Put Clarisa and Trina in the ring and let 'em mudwrestle it out, with Crumb drawing it for us. As they say, it ain't over till the fat lady stomps...

The later part of the film, showing Crumb's roots and his brothers, is quite sad. All three brothers talk of their messed-up lives (his sisters, wisely perhaps, refused to go on camera). Charles, housebound and celibate now, tended to go up to strange women and scare them by asking bizarre metaphysical questions... while crazy Max (the bed of nails guy) just pulled their pants down. Robert's the sanest of the three!

See, art is therapy.

Scares me, warns me--don't want to end up in a room like Charles. And I could.

The film didn't scare only me. After the making of the film, after seeing his life through others' eyes, Charles Crumb killed himself. The end.

Out of the theater, stunned, as the sun sets. Pale colors in a strange sky, oil-paint daubs of clouds like little eyes. Brass-edged fogbanks start to move in.

I feel sad. But I bet I dream tonight.

And draw tomorrow.



LISTS AND LINKS: what I dreamt that night: The Krelkin Sisters on Mission Street - artists - creative process - play - sex - random rants - heads (and losing them) - that Crumbish dream, Cute Witch, Bad Head and a related dream, Old Witch and New - Crumb's id time-travels in Ishi and Snoid - Michelle Brand's There I Was - family - siblings - Clarisa Pinkola Estes - movie dreams

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