ROBERT CRUMB IS the undisputed godfather of alternative comics. His work has appeared in museums across the world, from the Venice Biennale to New York's Museum of Modern Art; he was the subject of Terry Zwigoff's acclaimed documentary Crumb (Gene Siskel's favorite film of 1994); his drawings are so coveted by collectors that a sale of some sketchbooks in the early 1990s bought him a centuries-old chateau in southeast France. The legendary art critic Robert Hughes has favorably compared his portrayals of the human grotesque to Pieter Bruegel and William Hogarth, declaring Crumb "the one and only genius the 1960s underground produced in visual art, either in America or Europe."
Nearly every milestone on the long road comics have crawled from derided trash to treasured American art form was inspired either directly or secondhand by Crumb's choices and achievements. With his first issue of Zap in 1968, Crumb singlehandedly invented a format and sensibility, under the broad label of "underground comix," that permanently changed how printed cartoon stories are perceived. Along the way, it opened the form to social criticism, history, outrageous satire, and the full range of deeply personal human experience, including the both lightly and darkly sexual.
Crumb's occasional collaborator Harvey Pekar, one of the major innovators of quotidian comic autobiography, says his partner demonstrated that "comics were as good an art form as any that existed. You could write any kind of story in comics. It was as versatile a medium as film or television." Similar praise from other creators for Crumb's mind-blowing importance to them could go on for pages; anyone making noncorporate, nongenre, self-expressive comics occupies a space he created.
But events in the comics world last year served notice that the social-justice re-evaluation currently sweeping comedy, film, and literature has arrived at the doorstep of free-thinking comics. In September, at the Small Press Expo's Ignatz Awards ceremony in Bethesda, Maryland, Crumb's successor generation of alt artists let the 75-year-old have it with both barrels.
While presenting the award for Outstanding Artist, the cartoonist Ben Passmore, who is black, asserted that "comics is changing... and it's not an accident." He lamented the continued industry presence of "creeps" and "apologists," then called out the godfather by name: "Shit's not going to change on its own. You gotta keep on being annoying about it.... A while ago someone like R. Crumb would be 'Outstanding.'"
The room erupted with both "ooohs" and booing. "A little while ago there'd be no boos," Passmore responded. "I wouldn't be up here, real talk, and yo--fuck that dude." The crowd burst into applause.
The brief against Crumb is both specific to his famous idiosyncrasies and generally familiar to our modern culture of outrage archeology. His art has trafficked in crude racial and anti-Semitic stereotypes, expressed an open sense of misogyny, and included depictions of incest and rape. Crumb's comics are "seriously problematic because of the pain and harm caused by perpetuating images of racial stereotypes and sexual violence," the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE) explained last year when removing Crumb's name from one of its exhibit rooms.
Such talk alarms Gary Groth, co-founder of Fantagraphics, the premiere American publisher of quality adult comics, including a 17-volume series of The Complete Crumb Comics. "The spontaneity and vehemence" of the backlash, Groth says, "surprised me--and I guess what also disheartened me was, I'm pretty sure the vast majority of people booing Crumb are not familiar with his work.... This visceral dislike of him has no basis in understanding who Crumb is, his place in comics history, his contribution to the form."
Key to the misunderstanding is Crumb's willingness to probe human darkness, including his own, and his sheer maniacal delight in transgression. (Crumb's own explanation for one of his more notorious incest-related strips was, "I was just being a punk.") The Ignatz Awards crowd, Groth worries, "will not tolerate that kind of expression, and I think that's disturbing. Cartooning has a long history of being transgressive and controversial and pushing boundaries, and now we have a generation very much opposed to that, who want to censure fellow artists from doing work they don't approve of--even though they are able to do what they are doing and want to do precisely because of trailblazing on the part of artists they now abominate."
Crumb blew minds and inspired a generation with his eagerness to portray and explore "the stark reality at the bottom of life," as he put it, delivering "a psychotic manifestation of some grimy part of America's collective unconscious." In pursuit of that goal, he produced many comics, sometimes with reasonably clear comic grotesquerie, sometimes with undeniable--Crumb himself never denied it--truly dark personal expressions that would strike most people now (and many even then) as unacceptably hostile toward women.
Two of his most notorious stories were titled "When the Niggers Take Over America!" and "When the Goddamn Jews Take Over America!" His fans insist they were obvious pitch-black...