Robert Crumb

[CARTOONIST]

“There’s very little reward for the amount of work you put in, in comics.”
Factors contributing to Robert Crumb’s sanity:
Stopping drugs in ’74
Never drinking much
Escaping into his work
Marrying Aline Kominsky-Crumb
Meditating for thirty-five minutes each morning

He might deny it, but when Robert Crumb published Zap Comix number 1, in 1968, he invented a new form of art as surely as Marcel Duchamp did in 1913 when he made the first “ready-made” sculpture. Duchamp used a familiar object—a bicycle wheel—and imbued it with new meaning by changing its context, placing the wheel in his studio as a work of art. Crumb, meanwhile, took the familiar mid-century comic book and messed with it, stripping it of its patriotic superheroes and huggable, funny animals and filling the pages instead with psychedelic and psychologically charged imagery.

Underground comic books existed before 1968, but none had the potency or popularity of Zap Comix. Its success was founded on Crumb’s accomplished draftsmanship and surreal wit, as well as his shrewd commercial instincts. His psych-pop sensibility was appealing to the late-’60s crowd, specifically to those frequenting the head shops and hippie boutiques that were sprouting up and looking for something to sell next to the bongs and beads. When these stores bit, Crumb inadvertently opened up a distribution door for hundreds of artists.

Crumb was the first to conceive of the comic book not as a genre but as a medium for anything. He found an audience hungry for picture stories that related to their own experiences. Underground comics fed the need, and the impact of his moves changed the medium forever. Without Crumb there might be no Art Spiegelman and no Maus, no Lynda Barry and The Good Times Are Killing Me, no Gilbert Hernandez and Love and Rockets.

After Crumb published two solo issues of Zap, he started releasing work by other prominent creators in the underground scene—not only cartoonists, but illustrators and poster artists. Crumb published the great psychedelic designers Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso; S. Clay Wilson, the brilliant artist of the grotesque; a young hot-rodder and future Juxtapoz magazine founder Robert Williams; the epic revolutionary cartoonist Spain Rodriguez; the hilarious, underrated satirist Gilbert Shelton; and the younger, anarchic cartoonist Paul Mavrides. These artists were responsible for a large chunk of the best of 1960s and ’70s comics. By banding together to produce Zap, they allowed access to the extremely diverse potentialities of the comics medium in a single comic book. Now Fantagraphics is collecting all fifteen issues of Zap, published over a nearly forty-year span, and packaging them with the sixteenth and final issue and a lengthy oral history.

On the occasion of this publication, I spoke to Crumb, now seventy-one years old. He has produced a wide and varied body of work over the years, from his numerous one-man comic books, with titles like Despair, Uneeda, and Hup, to his hugely important 1980s comics anthology magazine Weirdo, to his most recent title, The Book of Genesis. Crumb lives in France with his wife and frequent artistic collaborator, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, not far from his daughter and two grandchildren. Crumb was a wry and funny conversationalist, generous with his answers and patient with his time. Toward the end of our talk I heard the shouts of children in the street, which signaled that it was time for Crumb to stop being an icon on the phone and once again become a grandfather to the exuberant voices outside.

—Dan Nadel

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Dan Nadel is the author and curator, most recently, of What Nerve!: Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present, and the coauthor of Dorothy and Otis: Designing the American Dream. He is a sales director at ARTBOOK | D.A.P.

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