"...From 60s hippies to 90s film-makers and 21st-century art galleries, each generation has rediscovered the misanthropic, sex-obsessed cartoonist Robert Crumb. Simon Hattenstone interviews him at his home in the south of France..."
The Guardian, Monday 7 March 2005 10.39 GMT
'When I was four, I knew I was weird'
From 60s hippies to 90s film-makers and 21st-century art galleries, each generation has rediscovered the misanthropic, sex-obsessed cartoonist Robert Crumb. Now it is to happen again: in coming days he will be the subject of two retrospectives, a film season and a new biography. To celebrate, the Guardian this week will publish a selection of new and little-known Crumbs, along with some more familiar works. Today, Simon Hattenstone introduces the series by interviewing him at his home in the south of France.
'Everything that is strong in me has gone into my art work.' Crumb, at home in the South of France. Photo: Eamonn McCabe
There is a tiny sign by the front door saying Crumb. It is handwritten in a familiar style. The door is unlocked. We walk in. It is dark and gloomy and not a little eerie. There are lights on but somehow they seem to emit darkness. We go up the first of a series of staircases, past guitar and banjo cases, and disturbing pictures of sexualised dolls and distressed cubist paintings. The room is also dark. Cabinet after cabinet is filled with pedantically labelled 78rpm records in brown cardboard sleeves. They look more like an installation than a record collection. Surrounding the latter are myriad other collections - bottle tops, toy cars, tiny musical instruments. In the corner of the room stands a man - tall and thin and slightly stooped - with his back to us. We are in Crumbland.
Crumbland is a physical place - a huge house in a medieval village in the south of France. It is also a state of mind. Crumbland is the inner head of the great American cartoonist Robert Crumb, where characters such as Devil Girl, Mr Natural, Fritz the Cat and, most importantly, R Crumb himself were devised.
Crumb has chronicled our basest desires for 40 years. He is the professorial pervert, the shameless monster who let it all hang out in his cartoons. He lusted after women with big butts and big muscles; he showed his wise old Mr Natural, a man desperate for spiritual transcendence but thwarted by physical desire, having sex with overgrown babies; he drew cartoons about incest in model nuclear families - "The Family That Lays Together Stays Together"; he fantasised about sex with headless women; he portrayed a black woman, Angelfood McSpade, the incarnation of pure lust, as the ultimate jigaboo jungle bunny. He took LSD and pot, and celebrated the excesses of his imagination. But he did more than that. What made his cartoons so powerful was their ambivalence - while embracing his fantasies, they also reflected a disgust and fear of what he exposed about himself.
Crumb also chronicled the life of the ultimate wimp (R Crumb), the misanthrope (R Crumb), the dysfunctional family (the Crumbs). He says, with approval, that he was once described as a combination of the meek and the mean-spirited. He developed a cult following in the hippy-dippy 60s, and his influence spread to a number of different art forms (the comedian and actor Steve Martin, for example, says that he learned his comic walk from Crumb's characters). In a way, his work represented the hopes and fears of that generation. He was never political in an overt sense, but he explored social and sexual politics and risked everything in his satire. Some people call him a genius; some call him a sexist and racist; some say he is all of these things.
In the 1990s he became famous for a second time when the director Terry Zwigoff made a documentary about his life, Crumb. The film put Crumb's life in context - yes, his foot fetish, his piggyback fixations and his urge to dominate big, dominant women (in a pretty submissive way) were weird, but not half as weird as those of his two brothers. The Crumbs must surely rank among the strangest families ever committed to celluloid. The film showed Crumb and his wife Aline, also a cartoonist and artist, preparing to leave America for France. He seemed to be dogged by fame and despair about modern America, and Aline was determined to drag him somewhere he would find it easier to live a reclusive life. The strangest thing was that he had agreed to the film in the first place, but then again Zwigoff was a friend and Crumb never expected a little movie about himself to be an international success.
After Crumb, Zwigoff's career took off, as did Hollywood's interest in comic books. In 2000, Zwigoff made Ghost World, based on a comic book by Daniel Clowes. In 2003, a comic book written by Crumb's friend Harvey Pekar, and illustrated by Crumb, became the film American Splendor. Now Crumb is about to become famous again. The Whitechapel Art Gallery in London is hosting a retrospective (Crumb is revered in the fine art world, the critic Robert Hughes comparing him to Brueghel), a series of films based on or inspired by Crumb is about to be shown at the National Film Theatre, and he has just published a compendium-cum-autobiography, The R Crumb Handbook.
When Crumb and Aline started to draw a strip about themselves (he drawing himself, she drawing herself), art began to imitate life. Now, it's gone a stage further - life is imitating art imitating life. They look like cartoon characters - Crumb, the bearded stick insect; Aline, all short skirts, bulging biceps and big hair. She does most of the talking, he does most of the silence. The first impression is of her overbearing self-confidence and his paralysing reticence. But, as with the cartoons, it is more complicated than that.
Crumb listens quietly, affectionately, as Aline talks. Then something sets him off. He mentions Serena Williams's body and I nod and say that it sure is a fine body, and he rushes out of the room like an overexcited schoolboy. He returns a second later with a cute, hand-made book. He shows me the photograph he has pasted in of Williams in her tight black tennis outfit. He analyses the image with unrestrained passion. "This butt is just bionic. It's beyond anything. It's unbelievable. Imagine having access to that?" he says in his creamy whine - part Woody Allen, part Jack Nicholson. "That kind of woman is very underappreciated in the western world. Look at the type of women that are touted in the media."
On the right-hand page is another idealised big woman - this time explicit and pornographic. He seems embarrassed when I look beyond Serena, and takes the book away.
"He doesn't get that out for everybody," Aline says, every bit the proud wife.
"What's funny is that he draws the same body over and over," she says. "Some people don't think that has anything to do with his taste, they just don't get it. They don't actually believe he likes women that look like that.
"I have always had an abiding interest in that type of female anatomy," says Crumb. He tells me that Aline is both physically and mentally strong; his kind of woman. "She's very dominant. She has complete alpha energy. I'm just a vacillating, ineffectual individual."
Aline shakes her head. "I don't think you're like that."
Crumb: "Yes, I am. Everything that is strong in me has gone into my art work."
Aline: "I think you're really strong minded and dominating about what you think"
Crumb: "That's my work. When I come up against the real world, I just vacillate."
Aline: "You don't care enough, that's what it is."
Robert: "I do care enough, but I just can't fight it. Aline does battle for me."
I ask if that is really him or more the image he likes to have of himself - a little boy piggybacked through the world by ever-willing Amazons. "I think that's part of it," Aline says for him. "And it appeals to me, too." Has she ever wanted to stop piggy-backing him through the world? "Well, we have separate lives and we've had various adventures which keep our main relationship interesting. But we've always had a very strong commitment to each other on some level."
Crumb nods enthusiastically. "We're bohemian," he says with pride. What does he mean? "We don't subscribe to the standard bourgeois values, we see the possibility of life being open. Things are open-ended."
In what way? Aline, as usual, is the one to get down to business. "He liked to have a lot of girlfriends, and I used to like to go to exotic, dangerous places, for example. He only has one other girlfriend now - that I know of."
It's a typical exchange - loving, bickering over details. They finish stories off for each other. Crumb likes to talk about Aline's evil father, even though he never met him. They often compare notes about the damage inflicted on them by their monster parents. Crumb is 62; Aline is 57.
Robert Crumb was born in Philadelphia, the middle of five children - Charles, Carol, Sandra and Maxon. His father, Charles Crumb Snr, was a master sergeant in the US Marine Corps who later struggled to adapt to civilian life. He was a violent authoritarian with a fixed smile at work and a grimace at home. "He fought in world war two, killed people, saw a lot of death and came back from the war a very hard man." And his mother? "She was certifiably crazy. My father actually had her committed a couple of times."
His childhood was miserable and oppressive. His only escape was drawing, but even then he was coerced into it. "My older brother Charles bullied me into drawing. Before Aline, my brother Charles dominated my life. We had our make-believe publishing company and he was the president." Sometimes Charles let him be vice-president. Charles forced Robert to draw for the comics. "I guess I didn't enjoy drawing very much. It was like homework."
Crumb has always said Charles was the more talented artist. But before long, Charles's work became obsessive; a reflection of his failing mental health. "As he got crazier and crazier, the words and the shape of the words took over. It became a sickness." Charles spent his adult life at home with his mother, terrified of the outside world, and terrified of his longing for young boys. He killed himself in the mid-90s. His other brother, Maxon, became an artist and sex pest. "He went up to women in supermarkets and pulled their knickers down. Eventually he was imprisoned. They gave him aversion therapy, and that changed him. I guess it must have worked." Maxon has lived in the same hotel room for 25 years, but over the past decade he has stabilised - his paintings now sell for decent money.
By the time Crumb was nine, he had become an obsessive collector, obsessive cartoonist and obsessive nostalgic. He already had a sense of yearning for an America he had never known. His mother used to tell him he was like a little old man. Did he think he was weird? "Oh, yes. I knew I was weird by the time I was four. I knew I wasn't like other boys. I knew I was more fearful. I didn't like the rough and tumble most boys were into. I knew I was a sissy."
He became more and more miserable as he went through his teens. He felt displaced; as if he didn't belong anywhere. By the time he was 19 he was contemplating suicide: "I had no prospects, I had no idea how I was going to get through my life. I was very serious about suicide, but I didn't have the courage to go through with it." You need to be brave, incisive, to kill yourself, he says. "Killing yourself is a major commitment, it takes a kind of courage. Most people just lead lives of cowardly desperation. It's kinda half suicide where you just dull yourself with substances." Which is exactly what he did with LSD and pot.
Compared to his brothers, though, Crumb was a regular guy. He even managed to get himself out of Philadelphia, find a job working for a greetings card company in Cleveland, Ohio, and win himself a wife, Dana. Unbelievably, his Fritz the Cat character and a drawing entitled Keep on Truckin' became hugely successful, and he found himself a leading figure of the counter-culture. Even more unbelievably, as far as he was concerned, he found himself an object of desire.
Didn't that cheer him up? No, he says, it made him more cynical. "It was so obvious, it was shocking. In the fall of 1968, I became attractive to women. One day I was an ignored schlub in the street, then suddenly all these good-looking women were interested in me." A similar thing, he says, happened with newspapers and magazines and is now happening with the fine art world - they embraced his fame, not his work.
It's strange talking to Crumb - his words are depressive and lugubrious, and yet he appears mellow, laughing easily through his existential nausea. The most terrible stories amuse him as much as they pain him. He tells me how a best friend killed himself by swallowing four bottles of paper correction fluid, and he chortles. He talks of his own despair, and giggles. He admits that he could never have imagined a life quite so fulfilled - with Aline, and his beloved daughter Sophie, also a cartoonist, and success and money - and says he's still miserable as hell, and laughs.
He tried to thwart his own celebrity in the late 1960s. He hated being labelled "America's best-loved underground cartoonist". So he determined to make himself less loved. He exposed his darkest side on paper, presuming the world would run a mile. But it didn't work out like that. "I decided to be more brave about what was coming out. I used to draw that stuff in secret and throw it away. Flush it down the toilet. I wanted to see what the readership could take. Over about a period of a year I got more strange and crazier and finally I came out with this totally weird sex fantasy comic: Big Ass comics." Sure enough, it alienated a lot of women, but it also won him plenty more fans who hailed him as a great satirist.
He so often portrayed himself in his work as naked, lubricious and priapic. In real life, he says, he's neurotically inhibited. He claims Aline has only seen him naked a couple of times, and if she walks in when he's in the bathroom, he instantly covers himself up.
I ask Aline, who depicted herself losing her virginity in her first cartoon, who she thinks is the less politically correct of the two of them. Erm, she says, tough one - he just about edges it. "Well, he is a sexist, racist, antisemitic misogynist," she says.
Does he agree? "Oh, I guess all that stuff is in me, sure. I wouldn't say I'm an out and out racist or proud or amused by the idea of racism but we all grew up in this culture and we all have those tensions and I just feel it's something that's got to be dealt with and I try to deal with them in a humorous way and poke at the most tender spot that people are most nervous and uncomfortable with."
He talks about a cartoon he did, advertising a fantasy product called Nigger Hearts. "This cute kid says, 'Hey, mom let's have nigger hearts for lunch!' with this kinda jigaboo image on it. And it's like canned nigger hearts. It looks like a straight newspaper advertisement. It's actually about all the sordid murky stuff going on in the real world, but some people thought it was a racist image. Those things are complex, y'know. They were as much about what was going on inside white people as their attitude to black people. I liked the idea when I was doing that stuff of making things that looked as if they were one thing but were actually something else."
Actually, Aline says, he is a true egalitarian. "Yep, everybody's fair game. Y'know, he spares no one."
When they lived in California he worked for free for a leftwing newspaper who loved the idea of Crumb but couldn't cope with the actuality of his work. Often, he says, they would commission him to do a piece, then not run it for fear of offending people and finally, to add insult, they would sell the original artwork to keep the paper going. So why work for them? "I had those ideals. I wanted to help the cause, you know. It was very disillusioning." He accepts, reluctantly, that his misanthropy may well be rooted in idealism.
It's evening. The Crumbs have decided to give us a taste of proper French cooking. Their friend Christian has cooked a magnificent meal, and another friend Raoul, whose family runs a local vineyard, provides bottle after bottle of red wine. Aline chats to her friends in French. Robert sits quietly, occasionally interjecting in English, often singing to himself. He says he doesn't speak French and seems content in his role as outsider.
I ask him why they left America. Ach, it was Aline's decision, he says, and he just went along with it. But yes, it did have something to do with him. "Most of my adult life I had this towering contempt for America." What was the contempt based on? "Familiarity, I guess. I'm just a negative person, a deeply negative person. I see the worst aspects of everything. Aline used to roll her eyes because she thinks I ranted and raved about everything that is wrong, so she moved us over here and got us outta there." What did he think was wrong? He doesn't know where to start - corporatism, Coca-Cola, George W, intolerance, Christian fundamentalism, red tape, prices, logos, environmental destruction, property developers. "Oy!" he says. He sounds like an elderly Jewish man with his oy-yoys. In fact, it's Aline who is Jewish; he is an eternally lapsed Catholic.
Does he miss anything about America? "For one thing, I guess I miss all those large-butted American women. But also my role as a commentator on that culture. I mean, I can't comment on French culture. I can't tell what the hell's going on here." Has that given him an identity crisis? "A little bit, yeah, a little bit."
The Crumbs watch with pleasure as we drink. They don't touch alcohol. It's been 30 years since they gave up drugs, and almost as long since they drank. In my drink-sodden eyes they now seem like sweet ageing conservative Californians bent on healthy living and self-improvement.
As the evening draws on, I notice Crumb talking French to Raoul. He doesn't seem to be struggling.
Next day we are back in Crumbworld. Aline says we have to come upstairs to see the house in its full glory. She has a glint in her eye. The more floors we go up, the more rooms there seem to be. She claims not to know how many there are. While Crumb's office contains most of his life, the rest of the house is largely dedicated to Aline's collectables - dolls, paintings, objets trouvés from Indian dustbins, a shrine to all gods, a shrine to their daughter Sophie who is now living in New York, more dolls. Eventually we reach the top, which looks over the medieval village. Presumably, several hundred years ago when the house was built, people could shoot arrows from here with impunity.
Down below I hear some wonderful 1920s country dance music - fast and parping, all violins and train whistles. Robert is playing one of his 78s. When I walk into the room, I expect to see him swishing round a dancefloor. But, of course, he isn't. He doesn't dance.
He asks me questions about my state of mind and well-being. "I would strongly recommend meditation," he says in a jokey, Indian guru accent. But he means it. He sees things so much more clearly these days. He knows that he wouldn't have been able to create the work he has done without the drugs, but he says he is still suffering the consequences. "I know when I meditate I'm still dealing with the effect of the drugs. Kids play around with them without realising they have serious effects that you have to deal with for the rest of your life. They think it's casual, recreational. And we have this wonderful gift to be aware, to analyse, to perceive, to remember, and we just fuck with all that ..."
He is talking about art, and takes out massive art books to show his influences. He's talking with such love about Gillray and Hogarth and Bosch and Daumier and the Dandy and 14th-century comic strips, and he is salivating every bit as much as he was over Serena Williams. He jumps up every couple of minutes, and returns with a new book to give me a wonderful off-the-cuff lecture on art history.
Aline says meditation has made him far more balanced and slightly eased his self-loathing. Despite their many varied passions and loves, they are both vocal self-loathers. "He probably hates himself even more deeply and more pervasively and is harder on himself." Why? "He hates his physical self more than I hate my physical self. He hates himself on a visceral level. He's one of those spirits who feels trapped and limited by the human body."
It's time to leave Crumbland. He doesn't think he'll be giving any more interviews for a good while. He is retiring to his pen and ink, his music and books, Serena Williams and his fantasies. We leave the house and shut the door. In the outside world, the light is blinding and it is very quiet.