R. Crumb and his Woman Problem

Note: I meant to publish this ages and ages ago, and I’m not sure why I never did. Originally written around June of 2008; published here on Nov. 9, 2008.

A couple days ago, I went with Fes to go see the R. Crumb exhibit at the Frye Art Museum. Hoo boy, it was an interesting one. I’ve already done some first-response writing on this, but I’ve realized that I still have more to say.

Let me back up a little. The Crumb exhibit was essentially a no-holds-barred retrospective of Crumb’s whole corpus, and it included an honest snapshot of the kinds of work he was doing at every stage of his life — nearly a 40 year span. Many other museums would have, I think, shied away from putting on this show, for Crumb’s work frequently falls into the category of “adult” content. Indeed, much of his explicit work, though it is all comprised of cartoon line drawings, would not pass US censors if aired on TV. Different strips are graphic in different ways: some just show explicit sex; a silly version of this shows a couple of erect penises competing for a “honeyhole” — a total distillation of the male sexual drive (as Crumb sometime characterizes it); other strips are much more macabre, and reveal violence against women, one in particular (Jumpin’ Jack Flash) showing a Charles Manson figure forcing a woman to consume his feces before ritually having sex with, and then murdering, her and a number of other women in a orgiastic cult setting.

When I write out the details of exactly what is happening in these strips — break out the details, who is doing what to whom, how, and even if you break out the gender, the races, oh, it’s terrible, terrible, terrible. Even just thinking about the details of the last one I described, when I think about it in a concrete way, as if it were happening to real people, it honestly does make my stomach turn. But — when I was reading those strips, I actually found them funny. Particularly in the case of the Jumpin’ Jack Flash story, I remember laughing and being shocked by it at the same time: the weirdo zonked-out cult leader, the brainwashed cheerleader girls, the crazy sloppy porn-star sex with the shit-eating to push it totally over the top, the Quentin Tarantino stab-fest at the end. It was all so much, so, so much, it couldn’t be anything but satire. Crumb provided a bit of commentary which you could listen to if you called up on your cell phone, and he remarked that he drew this strip to highlight the particular hysteria around the Charles Manson murders. I don’t know much (ok, anything) about the Manson murders, but I know that these strips made me laugh, and that I didn’t feel badly about responding this way at the time (they’re comics, right?)…but that I was made to feel guilty about this response later.

Shortly after Fes and I got there, a tour started, and the woman who led the tour gave a brief overview of Crumb’s life and work, and gave us a bit of context. Generally, I’m of two minds with tours: they’re great when you know *nothing* about an artist, but sometimes the tour leader can give you too much of his or her own opinion and end up coloring your reading of the exhibit, which is what happened. She said that Crumb drew the world (of the 1970’s) with an “unfiltered” view, and we saw, on paper, a snapshot of both the culture of the time — in terms of racial and sexual diversity — and absolutely everything that was in his mind, the good, the bad, and the ugly…and she lingered on the “ugly.” We looked a bit at one of his strips on Angelfood McSpade, a wicked caricature of a native African black woman who wants nothing more than to be sexually pleasured. (Side note: much of this stuff was produced in the 60’s after a couple bad hits of LSD.) Un-PC? Uh, yes. Without coming out directly and saying so, the tour guide seemed to suggest to us that this piece was a blight on the collection, that it showed Crumb at his narrowest and worst, as an artist. (The most praise was naturally reserved for the much more recent works, where his draftsmanship was much finer, much more elegant. Pishposh.)

Reading around on the web about Crumb, others are quick to condemn him, too, because he is part of a bastion of an old boys’ club of male comic artists where women were largely excluded until the 80’s, and Crumb in particular made it acceptable to publish art that demeaned and degraded women sexually. During the 70’s, he fights back periodically — the Frye exhibit includes a strip he drew in self defense towards the feminists who had condemned him so harshly. (Ending with a resounding, “Well, fuck ’em!” probably didn’t help his cause.) This retrospective show has brought a new chorus of naysayers, and renewed criticism can be found without looking all that far:

No Girls Allowed!: Crumb and the Comix Counterculture

You can go read the whole article if you want, but I think the final sentence pretty much sums up the author’s perspective: “R. Crumb spoke loud and clear, and his speech was full of sexism, violence, and hatred.”

I spent some three hours in that exhibit, and that statement just seems so, so wrong to me. When Crumb was uninterested in being amusing or masturbatory, or had a real, compelling story to tell, there was no sexism, no deliberate racism. I am thinking of his series about blues musicians (so beautifully drawn, with such care, such love), or the series he has done with Harvey Pekar, American Splendor. The strips he has done with his wife, too, have a charming, gentle domesticity to them, too. There is one image from the show, a recent drawing, of himself, totally naked — he must be near 60? older? — and it’s as if we see him standing before a mirror, about to get dressed. He is scratching his balls with one hand, his other hand is at his shoulder, and his head is turned to the side, his eyes a little screwed up, as if his attention has just been called, with the speech bubble, “huh?” There is no anger here, just Crumb showing us how he sees us — a little frail, getting older, absent-minded, the kind of man who still scratches himself and thinks about sex a great deal, but is willing to appear, in pen and ink, anyway, naked and fragile and the same guy as ever.

There are many positive images of him (and others) making love to women, too. I think my favorite strip from the whole show was How to Make Love to a Strong Girl. It’s a series of images that show Crumb (drawing himself) making love to a glorious Amazon of a woman, nearly twice his size. He is a dweeby, scrawny Jewish-looking man with glasses who leaves his socks and boxers on, and he gets off on the fact that this woman is so lovely and strong she could totally overpower him. The imagery is graphic but so sensual and joyful! It is so rare to see images that glorify women who are anything other than a size 2-6, and to see something like this, where Crumb so clearly lusts after these women, and takes such delight in them and their bodies; there’s no hate there! If anything, he is the one who is being hard on himself, showing himself as so small and weak. But, all things considered, the sex isn’t as kinky as it might be, and the worst I’ve seen is a bit of play-choking.

So, really, the question here — and what I initially wanted to talk about — is whether I should feel guilty for finding Crumb’s bleaker, darker work amusing, considering that I am a woman, and if I were more sensitive, the more appropriate response (according to my peers) is to be mightily offended. I have decided, after careful consideration, that not only do I feel no remorse, I will feel no remorse. As I explained it to Fes, we each carry a small bit of foulness and darkness in each of us, and sometimes that needs to come up for air and breathe a bit. It is the equivalent to having fantasies and actually acting on fantasies. Crumb’s messages around women, and race, and sexuality are so mixed — in that it really depends on the story and the characters to read what the relative morals are within that strip. I think you have to read many of his comics, especially the most outlandish, satirical ones, as products of pure fantasy. Indeed, by using the most extreme examples that come to his mind, Crumb makes the moral and ethical choices starkly clear; he plays the devil’s advocate, and he is a bit of a trickster. I’m sure his expectation is that you should be a little bit (or a lot) offended, and laughing only heightens the dissonance. Overall, the effect of reading this stuff is that it provides a release valve: it can be bleak and dark and sexy, but it is also funny — his characters get a lot more action than most of the rest of us. It is deeply satisfying to read comics that hit these base notes, that tread on ground where others are too polite to go.

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~ by ecp on June 15, 2008.

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