A collection of interviews and articles on R.Crumb's life and work, written by Crumb himself.

THE CRUMB BROTHERS ON
TREASURE ISLAND
by Maxon Crumb

Robert's brother, Maxon, reflects on their childhood fascination with Treasure Island, and the inspiration for Robert's famed Treasure Island Days story


Robert, Charles & Maxon Crumb

Charles / painful awareness
Others' opining negatively toward himself?
Them electing to paste upon him negative labels: the label "dirty", the label "smelly", the label "dumb actor", repulsive fool, idiot and scum --
These either

Had little or no effect on him.
Held little or no possibility.

The real answer: X.
X-label reads "Charles' Effin' Mother!"
Woman hard sap loved him.
And he would not accept it that the world around him has its objective bestiality. That lucid and heartless causality was the world that all men lived in and not the constant positive feedback of an adoring woman's heart.
Amazing.
Little or no effect. Little or no possibility.

REGARDING ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON...

Stevenson wrote his first three novels one directly after the other: Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Jekyll and Hyde has rank. It's one of the highest quality pieces of English Language writ. Of novels, 1800s, done by a Brit: most possibly the best. Kidnapped is nearly that good.

Treasure Island was the first of the three. Its literati art quality, less. Its construction somewhat clumsy. But...

But with Treasure Island.....

Hmm.

Let's dig into the story line to get a real live example of what I wish to say.

Smollet, Lindsay, Trelawney are abandoning the ship: with them, loyal crew members. This is their best tactical move because the pirates have mutinied prematurely. From ship's deck, Isreal Hands, Flint's old gunner, aims the cannon on the fleeing lifeboat filled with the good guys.

Smollet sees what Hands is up to with the gun.

He exclaims, "Carpet bowls: my lady's maid couldn't miss!" Smollet's exclamation is good, but dubious to you. The syntax of the quip is antique lingo.

Hearken to a translation:

"Carpet bowls" doesn't mean dishes laid out on rugs. It speaks of the gentrified sport of "lawn bowling" (not exactly like modern "alley bowling", i.e. no pins). "Carpet", in its 1709 usage will describe the sod (grass) on a well-manicured portion of a yard where the game is played. A lawn, dig?

What he said was "If this were lawn bowling, my lady's maid couldn't miss!" Maids, in those days, were shut-in, inept and physically awkward girls, some ugly and pimply, but essentially feminine to extreme. Thus, there's not much to Isreal Hands, if the boat is not hit.

This seems an insignificant detail, labored over much, but it's the secret of Stevenson's book. He takes us back into Old England through an authentic, accurate enough to spook, employ of language as spoken in the past, specially that highly esoteric variation used upon the sea. This was an improved way of writing initialized by Stevenson. Don't put yourself in an adolescent overt-conscious state of mind and rack it to concoct a unique literary style. Goof the vernacular of the lingo's native adepts and write that.

DISNEY'S TREASURE ISLAND...

Robert told you, but I will re-iterate.

Robert Newton was the actor who did the effective, popular John Silver portrayal in Disney's movie.

Different versions:

My facts will not conform with brother Bob's comic, tho' contradict not much.

He illustrated us Crumbs, when grade school brats, watching the Disney Show: us, watching Treasure Island thereon. I, sitting next to little sister, S., was mesmerized thoroughly: hardly knowing it when reality tried coming back on after Long John Silver was turned off, Disney showed his foolish mug, NBC chimed thrice and a commercial began playing.

Nobody said anything.

Neither Charles nor Robert nor little S.

After a genuinely good show, for reasons unknown to you, you wanted to get away from the TV screen and see no more. One had no desire to distract the imagination from relishing those enticements which had been pumped into it.

Silver.

This one legged guy...

I wanted a crutch.

My brain was buzzing with this flick. If my brain buzzed, what buzzed it was if you wanta' have anything, how do you make it? What buzzed was either how to take something apart or how to put something together from scratch. The greatest guy was the guy with the crutch. If you wanta' be that guy, you gotta have a crutch. How do you make a crutch and become this great one-legged guy?

The first of the two-plus-twos:

I was just a media-mesmerized kid: a gullible nerd under a temp job of hypnotism and this not serious for me. But older brother Charles would not get over the self-redefining, neither easily, nor quick.

The second of the two-plus-twos: "Yes! that would do that. It's somewhere in the garage!"

Watch, learn, listen.

THE CONSTRUCTION...

To make anything; you seek for and comprehend the real nature of it; John Silver's crutch. Watching the man going through his act, I'd analyzed how his crutch had been made.

Yield of my analysis: a crutch was a "T"-constructed thing: one long stick going from armpit to floor, and a short length across the top. This short length cushioned the armpit. If the end of the stick had to go directly into the armpit: the user gets hurt.

The stick was easily found. It had been in the garage, as assumed. Setting it against my physiognomy, I assessed the lumber's acceptability. The thing separated from my left side in a wide acute angle. It would have to be cut.

As for the "T", you could merely nail the two lengths of wood together, but that would hold poorly. The way it was to be done: drill into the short cross-piece, diameter enough that the long stick (meanwhile, with a dull saw, I was cutting it to size) would fit inside the other, for maybe one inch. Nail and glue that: then you'd have strength. A crutch of this nature, could be hobbled on, here, there, and every place. And besides, magical English could be spouted from the hobbler.

With the aid of such a superiorly made crutch, rich mental images and deep imaginative dreams could be conjured by English speech. A speech delivered by one thus made gifted, would be an English melodically spoken, one finger held aloft and complemented with deep husky tones.

Did I have a hammer in my hand? Or was I to write Hamlet?

It had occurred to me, that I should now scrounge out of somewhere, the second, shorter and thicker piece necessary for the cross section of the "T". And from that observance, that obligatory thought, I stopped the image of the actor reciting glorious poetic Stevenson.

I interrupted him.

"If sailor tales to sailor tunes, storm and adventure, heat and cold, and all the old romance, retold exactly in the ancient way, can please, as me they pleased of old --"

...with this

"Won't work."

I didn't even look for the other piece, because -- and this was the bane of my existence as a kid -- my father had the lousiest and most inadequate tool collection of any man in the neighborhood. The bit & brace I would've needed to drill the required hole in the cross piece, might as well have been on the surface of the goddamn moon. In our house, if you couldn't do it with a tin blade five & ten kitchen knife, you couldn't fuggin' do it.

What a black disgusted face I made for a kid!

I'd have to do another half-assed job on something and get laughed at again. I'd have to fashion something that could be made with a tin blade, dime store kitchen knife and that's all.

My mind clicked: I had noticed when took a piss before the Disney show started that the toilet paper hanging there was virtually an empty roll.

I shelved the saw, took my stick and bee-lined it to the family bathroom. I got the cardboard thing that came left over at the end of every roll of toilet paper, and then bee-lined it to the kitchen for one of them knives. With skill, I cut a round hole in one side of the cardboard cylinder (from the toilet paper roll), and in this round hole fit the end of the long stick. Back into the garage, I put a nail in through the top to hold it on, the cylinder, the length of cardboard pipe, the cross-piece of the "T", that should've been so sturdy.

It was shitty and flimsy, because it was cardboard and not wood.

I had opted for the former because, constructed in this way, it was engineered properly. If someone wanted to give me the benefit of the doubt, they would've understood my work as correct, would've seen the hand or mind of the adept. A sure sense of "know-how" was there, but without the proper effects.

If they wanted to give me the benefit of the doubt, but none of them, of course, would want to. "They'd rather the opposite", I mumbled and stuck the hand--manufactured implement under my arm, other end on cement floor of garage, and leaned on it, cautiously.

"Hmmm," said I, feeling some support from the flimsy makeshift.

Then one did the thing. I lifted the leg beside the crutch, and bent it at the knee until, prodding the non-existent cheek of my white boy's chimpanzee butt with my heel. I walked on one leg.

Amazing.

I was nearly Long John Silver already.

To complete the job, the face should be half twisted and then the attempt made to jam deep into the throat, a hearty raspy chortle. I squinted one eye, stroked my chin...

And said, "Flint. Now 'e wuz a man, 'e wuz!"

Next! -- reveal these discoveries to Charles and Robert.

THE PRESENTATION...

I went back in the warm, well-lit and noisy resident area of my family's home.

That was done while, grasping the crutch inconspicuous in hand, and walking upon two legs. These were the early days and I was not yet regarded as the real and deep oddball of the Crumb Family. In those days, I was regarded as a non-descript, non-individual poke-easy of bland emotional constitution. The Crumb family had resident rules: thus if the house we lived in had three bedrooms, Charles, Robert and I were all jammed in one, But if there were four of 'em, somebody had his own bedroom and the other two shared.

Thus, here, when we were still younger, Charles had the single room and Robert and I shared. As we matured though, as we grew into our respective demons, our parents recognized that Charles and Robert got along more than I with either and that I was the genuine lone wolf and would thrive better in the solitude. The parents were long in coming to it, in ascertaining that my epileptic seizures as well as the constant heckling and ridicule the older brothers placed upon me, were significant of something: the true and deepest oddity is in Maxon.

I found Charles and Robert standing together in the middle of Charles' bedroom. They were confabbing in a serious personal manner, in a way which they often did, imitating two aged men who held great responsibility over the inhabitants of a confused and damaged world.

Like a mad genius with a miraculous invention, I came. To them; as if they were men who could gauge with rare discriminatory powers this invention of mine; who could discern if it were true enough an object to merit the respect of our common life, I submitted my application.

They turned and looked on at my entering.

"Presentation," my brain said to me firmly.

Entered. They turned and looked at me.

"Presentation," my brain sent to me firmly. Holding up a finger, I said to their questioning eyes, "Wait!" Then I turned and passed quickly to the hidden position behind the half-open bedroom door.

"Presentation," I grumbled inaudibly as I placed the crutch appropriately, apprehensive at the intention I was to execute. I...

I, I, I did not know.

Charles, I mean. That I, with my simple invention was to so profoundly move, influence, change him. That I was about to baptise my older brother with a mad case of cross-identity and to pass to him its ticket to his "alter ego".

But I extra-lived momentarily, instantly recalling the flick played on the Disney show; it and those activities just acomplished which followed. Leaning my weight on the crutch, I kicked my leg rear-ward, foot into butt, and hobbled back into the room on one leg.

"Ar-Har," I exclaimed. Then, nervously, with a mouse squeak in it, "What be this, mates?!"

I squinted and growled, "Eeyah!"

Charles' face expressed... what?

Would Buddha, shocked at the first time took over by Enlightenment, wear such an expression as Charles' here? Did his eyes screw up like two tin pinwheels turning with sparkles and grinding noises?

My voice had been, as said, uncertain and weak; his was like the report of eight shotgun rounds at once. "Avast there, George Merry, be you standin' for Cap'n here? By the Powers, I'll teach you better!"

THE TRANSFORMATION OF CHARLES

What had I done to the man? What had I started? He had the crutch. I stood like a vacuo-wasted nerd on my own two feet, on my busted-out and soggy U.S. Keds. Charles began stomping about the room on my crutch and one leg. Suddenly, with amazing and shocking violence, Slamo, his hand on the top of a chest of drawers, he pulled a scrap of paper off it. That paper wa inspected with a squint and an awesome frown.

"The Black Spot!" Where might you've got the paper? Why Hillo 'ere! This ain't lucky. You've cut this out a Bible? What fool here's cut a Bible?"

"It was Dick."

"Dick was it? Then Dick can get to prayers. He's seen his slice of luck, has Dick."

He really did it strong.

Me and Robert looked at each other.

Amazing!

I fell on the bed and had to grip my stomach for all the laughing. I was out of control with delight.

But what had I done?

Goddamn! What opened up for Charles, a new world?

Was he now privileged to become a distinctly new person (did it have to matter that this new person happened to be fugitive: a specimen from an "imaginary world" ) and to enter a distinctively other world (did it have to be important that instead of into a real one, into an "imaginary world": motion pictures, TV, 19th-century novels). It was possible that in there, he could more effectively live out the role of hero he was always failing in out here, get the big-liver ride he was always losing his ticket for out here, grasp those romantic ambitions not in this location.

Why?

Why? The more he would do the John Silver imitation, it seems, the more he did the ultimate comprehension of himself.

How was it that the more he commanded his brain to get out of its normal life function phases, the more he'd be shoving it into Stevenson-prose-formatted processes this side of cloud nine? Did men live more in imaginary worlds then, than they do now? Was this the reason they lived so violently?

And as it goes in a world where men's souls and intelligences cultivate, more staid actualities attempt to restrain characters like Charles Crumb. All his violent emotion and all his imagination ruled ancestors, we have for the defaming of them, the modernistic adjective for modernistic matter-of-facting:

Pragmatism.

That it is your argument and your axe to grind: pragmatism. It is the most powerful dogma of our times.

Pragmatism is reality.

When it is not.

And is it not for those who are so inflicted on by this dogma and stifled, that there needs be a carnival, that the play must go on? For guys like Charles Crumb, the audience is beside itself with applause.

REFINING THE CHARACTER...

He needed costuming, props and stage sets.

I've told you about the crutch. What described was my first attempt. I then made some more authentic 18th-century-style wooden crutches for brother Charles.

Pistols.

John Silver thing, much more effective if there were an old flintlock stuck in the belt. I had acquired two toy flintlock pistols which he, Charles, put to use. One had two barrels, two triggers and two locks and shot caps. It was cheap cast metal, chrome plated with an imitation wood, plastic handle. The other was as authentic looking and sized as desired. But unlike that one, not a sturdy toy, but a plastic model you built from a box with razor knife and cement.

I had built it.

Robert illustrates some also, how Charles got his pirate costume. It consisted of regular jeans and sweatshirt all us kids wore. Added on were an old green-dyed camel hair overcoat of my Mother"s and a red (with white pinstripes) straw spring hat, stripped of its femme decor and with its wide brim pinned up in three places to fashion an 18th-century three-corner hat.

For stage props we had a couple of wood boxes and cheaper crates. On the wood boxes, Charles wrote receiving notices as if sent by a delivery agent from Bristol, England. We even found two or three small wooden kegs in a plowed field somewhere that had wooden spigots on 'em and as yet, contained an inch of water.

Charles put a promo and logo for "Jamaica Rum" on one.

I spoke to you of the applause.

The neighborhood kids, plus Robert and myself, our friends could not get enough.

He was okay with kids younger than himself. He was a hit with them. My and Robert's personal friends, who, being our ages, were younger. Charles was now a teenager and other guys his age or older had no toleration.

And tho' an entire epic of our lives was built around Charles in his ragged old pirate costume, hobbling around the neighborhood on a crutch and bellowing orders...

He was not alone.

This was an initializing

This phase of backyard staging and acting out. Further on, it entered into what he drew. John Silver, Hawkins, Smollet, et al, got into the comic books. The fine art quality work of his comic pages (six or eight panel) was absolutely remarkable pencil stuff about the subject of pirates and boys. Yeah. beautiful stuff: you'll never see it.

All you get to see is culture in marketable format. You'll never get to see the original object, directly drawn upon the personal experience as such, so complete, so intimate, devoid of the cheap and stilted social structuring that rips it, enlightenment, from Art.

Back to Charles: then he started writing, and the style was terse, and like all high-quality prose able to make sing or vibrate that thread along which it's sweet void mysticism might run the gamut of...

and through the fizzured mazes that...

define the reader's brain.

These writings featured mature characterization of intellectually sophisticated types working through profound issues and complex adult problems: types with names for some distant reason lifted out of --

Of Treasure Island... Disney or Stevenson...?

One, a novella, using the name Isreal Hands detailed the awakening of Buddhism in a man who was drawn as having a head clear as water. Not a thing in common likeness with the guy Jim Hawkins shot in the face.

Again Charles; familiar John Silver images regularly appeared among his papers up to death.

He was the most fanatically obsessed, but not alone.

As a re-occurring incident of my life, some guy would show. He had a secret, a dirty one of kind. It was like his guilt, like his genitals: a childish artifice inside him, costumed as a secret longing of which he was ashamed.

Of which he was ashamed, and yet...

He'd show me his own imitation of Newton's John Silver.

It never happened that I'd have previously spoken to them of Charles. Possibly after? There was Fred M., the guy I house-painted with and personal friend: him, reducing a wipe to shreds with a putty knife while grimacing and squinting and growling out the Stevenson-Newton Gaelic.
A talk radio guru exists who is attached and has his rendition. There is many. Are you one? Maybe, your father was?

Is it a phenomena or what?

THE POWER OF LANGUAGE

We explained that Stevenson ably adapted an incredible technique to authentically record antique forms of English lingo.

"Carpet bowls, my lady's maid couldn't miss!"

Where hell did he get it?

We also stipulated or expressed that this was especially true in instance of this novel, Treasure Island. Here this lingo oddity, this vernacular was peculiar to sailors and such. It was identifiable as sea jargon.

Stevenson was a Scot and, of the legendary British maritime ethnic, the Scots were the deepest in.

Half o'er, half o'er to Aberdour
It's fifty fadom deep,
And there lies guid Sir Patrick Spens
Wi' the Scots lords at his feet.

Stevenson came in late, perhaps, too late for catching characters like John Silver. Though snapshots that were in his possession were proof otherwise. Some there were then, in this Later World that Stevenson grew up in, who were antique, ex-seamen, full of lore.

If sailor tales to sailor tunes,
Storm and adventure, heat and cold,
And all the old romance, retold
Exactly in the ancient way,
Can please, as me they pleased of old --

Of that World, of that Scotland above mentioned; the stifling conventions brought on by social and industrial development had already taken a toll in stabilizing both the appearance of men and their behavior. And made doubly glaring those attributes in men not affected by that conversion.

These fantastic characters, whose company young Stevenson had stumbled upon, were outstandingly unconventional in manners, attitude, dress, because, after all, they hadn't come directly from the office, club or exchange, but from Tripoli or Madagascar or Barbados or Manila or Gibraltar, via that pinnacle of madness and uncertainty: common element, the wind --

And riding on wood --

Way across the wild unknown sea with its sun bleaching and salt spray...

He was a little wise-ass, this kid Stevenson. And he likely had his school or neighborhood siblings with him in his bein' a little wise-ass. They or he would work themselves up a case while in the company of these fantastic old dudes. They would separate themselves and watch him from a removed vantage point as if they were in the zoo, spectating an exotic beast. They'd marvel and rejoice at the man's speech, at the remarkable gestures and expression in dialogue. They'd marvel at him like the simplest children would marvel at the plumage of a parrot or the spots on a wildcat's fur coat. Possibly their amazement got mixed in with what would be ridicule. And more possible it was with these brats that. being adolescents, they could not separate affection from ridicule.

When Stevenson and his accomplices finally quit the company of this over-salted, old and rugged fogy, they'd head toward their hideout. There, or on the way there, each would crank up their performance engine. Each had their individual imitation of the old man's comportment.

Once tucked away in the sanctity of their lair, they'd get further carried away. With fanatic laughter they'd repeat and repeat their imitation, the entire group would. They'd exaggerate their act, again and yet again. And when did, more would they twist and distort the cadences that satired, especially, his grimacing facial, expressions, his musical mode of vocal intonation. Enough of this, they could not get. Soon they were enraptured in a Ramakrishnan kind of ritualistic ecstasy, barking like dogs, howling like epileptic owls, cooing with utter perversity or projecting by a method of crooning, long melodious wails.

They'd be rolling on the floor like dervishes, these Brats, so wildly guffawing that need must have them holding their pulsating bellies like that which inlaid in their fleshy middles, that which bouncing was the bellybutton of the Hindu God, Vishnu, from which emanated the Entire World.

Brats were as spastic and loony all through history as they were in the days when they watched too much fuggin' TV. And that is what, years later, Mr. Stevenson grabbed upon to begin his legendary literary career.

Stevenson kept this thing as a secret side of his person. When alone he'd start himself up -- play his "imitation". When becoming intimate with another, he'd tease them and his cover with a glimpse.

In thorough intimacy, he'd blast them away with it.

Long John Silver by Maxon Crumb
Copyright 2004 Maxon Crumb

This article originally appeared in shortened form in
Graphic Classics: Robert Louis Stevenson

(2004, Eureka Productions) www.graphicclassics.com
Copyright 2004 Maxon Crumb

Click to read Robert Crumb's Treasure Island Days

Maxon has recently illustrated Poe's poem "Alone" for Graphic Classics