This is the eighth in a continuing series of discussions. In March, 2014, I asked Robert for his comments on another list of celebrities and artists, including comments on his family members. -- Alex Wood, Wildwood Serigraphs
Robert: Thomas Nast is one of my favorites, one of my main sources for visual inspiration for my drawing since I was a teenager. I first discovered his work in high school history books, you know, they would use his drawings to summarize what was going on at the time. I remember reading a book in the school library called The Presidency, it was a history of the US presidents, and it used lots of Thomas Nast cartoons at that period—the 1870s and '80s, when he was at his high point. I just loved the way he depicts people, and his cross-hatching style. To me, it's just the strongest visual reflection of that time other than photographs that I know of. I love that stuff. Also, at that time, when he was working at Harper's Weekly, before the invention of photo offset printing, those cartoons were the strongest visual media there was. So for a while, he had a huge amount of political power. He helped break the Tweed Ring with the cartoons he did at Harper's Weekly. The Tweed Ring tried to bribe him and they even threatened him, but Nast just wouldn't go for it. But then he became so successful that that he became stuck, as a loyal adherent, to the Republican party. And he later defended Republicans who really didn't deserve to be defended; he was stuck on that party. He was really down on the Democratic party. At that time the Democratic party was very corrupt. The Tweed Ring were Democrats. They robbed New York and the city treasury in the 1870s. There was a huge amount of graft and kick-backs going on. So that part of what he did was righteous, but later on, through his misguided loyalty, he supported some of the wrong people politically. But the visuals are just wonderful. I have a big stack of the old Harper's Weekly from the 1870s and '80s and sometimes I get them out just to look at the artwork. Wonderful! The strongest visual stuff from that period in America.
And yes, he was the best at cross-hatching, but the unsung hero is his engraver. The engraver took his original drawings and then engraved them onto the plate for printing. Nast didn't do the engraving himself. His engraver had this incredible, strong way of translating the drawings with this engraving cross-hatching technique. When the photo-offset technology came in the 1880s, then Nast started inking the cartoons himself. And it's good, they're good, but his inked cross-hatching is not as strong as the engraved cross-hatching done by his engraver. And I think it had to be the same guy, this engraver, for about 20 years because the style is very distinctive and similar. You look through these old Harpers Weekly, or any other 19th century magazines that are full engraved pictures, and his are by far the strongest. The next guy down the line from him is a guy named A.B. Frost, and he had a very pleasing style. And of course there was John Tenniel who worked for Punch in London. He did the illustrations for Alice in Wonderland. Tenniel's also very strong and I think Nast was very inspired by Tenniel. Tenniel was slightly earlier than Nast, like the 1860s and the 1870s.
But the cross-hatching Nast did in those cartoons, when you see the originals, they're so powerful. They pop right off the page. There's a lot of depth and volume. And they're big, you know, the drawings are big and bold. Sometimes he did center spreads for Harper's Weekly, so you open to the middle of the magazine and the drawing covers two pages. Like his famous cartoon of the Tammany Tiger. This tiger was a symbol of Tammany Hall, which was the Democratic headquarters in New York. A lot of Irish, and they were very corrupt. Their symbol was this tiger. So Nast did this cartoon in 1871, at the peak of the corruption of the Tweed Ring – Tweed was the political boss of the Democratic party. The cartoon takes place in this Roman arena where this tiger is mauling this woman who is lying prostate on the ground in the middle of the arena. She stands for democracy, liberty and justice and the tiger's mauling her while he's glaring out at the viewer. The caption underneath reads: "What are you going to do about it?" Sitting in the arena you can see fat boss Tweed is like the Roman emperor and all his cronies around him are dressed as Romans. They're just sitting up there enjoying watching the tiger maul Lady Justice. The caption is in reference to what Tweed actually said, when he was confronted by a reporter about robbing the city treasury, he said, "Well, what are you going to do about it?" So Nast used that quote for the cartoon. Great, classic cartoon, 1871.
When Nast got older, he was sent to some Caribbean island as an ambassador where he contracted some disease, malaria or something, and died. He wasn't that old. I think it was 1902 or something like that.
Robert: There's some great tattoo art. I have some books and magazines that show it's reached a really high point of art right now, like a golden age of tattoo art. Some of the best art going is this tattoo art. These guys have achieved a very high level of stylization of lettering and ornamental design. It's very classic. It's not sloppy and modern, it very classic and tight. Some of it is really beautiful and quite marvelous to look at, actually. It's the great, golden age of tattoo art [laughs].
Alex: OK, you're looking at the tattoo designs in a magazine, but have you ever seen a tattoo on a human body that you've liked?
Robert: Well, yeah, they can be spectacular, but on the other hand, having something tattooed on your skin for life is kind of crazy, I donno. My daughter Sophie got into tattooing and she started practicing as a tattoo artist when she was in her early 20s. And she practiced on herself! One day she came home and she had this big ugly black thing tattooed on her thigh. I said, "Sophie, what's that?" She said, "Oh, I was just practicing." Now it's there for life.
Alex: She can get it removed.
Crumb: I know, it's this hideous process.
Robert: The only thing I know about Socrates is what I read in one book. So I don't really know that much about him or what he was up to. But I liked what I read about him in that book; that he would go around and engage people and discuss with them the idea that two people, when working together, can learn something new. That neither of them would have arrived at that on their own. That two people in discussion can raise the understanding, comprehension and knowledge of both parties. I read all this in a book about the art of conversation. This book said that early humans didn't actually converse. You had hierarchical societies and the people in power would talk down to the people below them. So in primitive society, there were never any conversations for the purpose of both parties arriving at some new level of knowledge. Even today, it's not that common. Mostly, people talk at each other. They want to show off what they know, or they want to dominate or impress the other person. So Socratic conversation is still rare. I would consider it a high level of conversation that's not achieved very often. The debates that I've had with people, on the phone or internet, often people get, not really insulting but defensive or aggressive. I'm always saying, "let's keep this conversation Socratic!" [laughs]
They later forced him to take hemlock. Supposedly, he was a homely man, and also very democratic. He supposedly would talk to the highest or the lowest, he wouldn't make any distinction as long as he could learn, learn something from everybody.
Alex: Yeah, what an interesting person. He didn't write anything. All of his conversations were written later by Plato.
Crumb: That's right.
Alex: But what I find so interesting about him was his revolutionary concept that it is better to be wronged than to do wrong. That instead of "an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth," he moved on from that and promoted the idea not to lower yourself to their level, but to maintain your integrity, even return hate with love. So that was revolutionary concept.
CHARLES CRUMB (Robert's Older Brother)
Alex: Was he 1 year older than you? 2 years older?
Robert: I would never have gotten into drawing comics if it hadn't been for him. He had this burning obsession with comics from a very young age. He kind of lived in the cartoon fantasy world. He was completely in the thrall of the whole Disney thing, completely under the spell of the Disney thing. And then later, when he became a teenager and started reading a lot and became sort of intellectual, then he rebelled against Disney and hated Disney for being so powerful and dominating children's imaginations for profit. But he always kept his loyalties to Carl Barks, the guy who created the best Donald Duck stories. Yeah, the big Disney thing, he turned against it. But he once told me that the happiest day of his life was the first time we went to Disneyland. He was about 12. We went to Disneyland just after it opened in 1955, there in Anaheim. My parents took us. The whole family went in the family car. At that time you had to drive through these orange groves just to get there. Disneyland was surrounded by orange groves. Now it’s surrounded by suburbs, but then it was still out in the country. It wasn’t very crowded, there weren’t that many people there. I have this photograph of us at Disneyland in the evening, and most of the people have left and we are sitting on a bench there on the Main Street in Disneyland and there’s hardly anybody there. The last time I went to Disneyland was with Sophie, I think it was in 1989, and it was just jammed with people, it was just packed. That same Disneyland in Anaheim, packed with people. Sophie loved it even though it was packed with people. Disney was good at creating a good fantasy but Charles had this overheated imagination. When we were very small, my parents took us to an amusement park in New Jersey, Riverview Beach, and they had one of those scary houses. You see this in some amusement parks where there is a window above the entrance of the haunted house with the mechanical laughing lady that’s like laughing and shaking. That just terrified my brother Charles. He ran screaming from that thing, it just became too real to him. And I was younger than him, but I could already see that it’s just a mechanical doll. It puzzled me the way he was, that things like that would terrify him. His imagination was easily inflamed. He had a rich fantasy life very early on and he was awfully domineering and controlling of me and my younger brother so I was pulled in whether I wanted to or not. But I was a passive kid anyway; passive little dufus. My mind was vague and dreamy. [laughs]
Robert: Yeah, a year and a half. And then my brother Max is a year and a half younger, so we’re all very close in age.
Alex: And you had a sister that was older than Charles and you had a sister younger than Max?
Alex: So the boys stayed together and you never did too much with the girls?
Robert: There were shifting alliances. My brother Max had a strong relationship with my younger sister Sandra when they were in their teens, they were very close. I got very close with Charles and distant from Maxon there for a while. Charles and I were very close, we were like soulmates when we were kids and in our teens. And you know, he was a very spiritual person, but he was also kind of twisted, malicious and stuff. It’s hard to characterize it exactly. He was the one who first started reading about mysticism and stuff like that when we were teenagers. I didn’t know about that stuff. He went through this catholic mysticism, then he rejected the catholic church that were were raised in and then went onto Buddhism and stuff like that. He was kind of a young, adolescent mystic.
Alex: I was reading My Troubles with Women Part 2, and you spend a couple panels talking about Charles and his experience about being bullied by Skutch in high school, and how that changed his life.
Robert: My brother was kind of good looking, ya know. When we first went to that high school in Milford, girls kind of liked him and everything. But he wasn’t a fighter, he just wasn’t a fighter. So then these bully boys had to show the girls that he was a weakling, and so they’d beat him up. They would beat him up publicly, in front of everybody. There’d be big crowds standing around. He became an outcast. I’m not sure whether he was ever that heterosexual. He claimed later, when he started being open about his sexuality, that he was not strongly heterosexual. In his early teens he was kind of on the borderline. And then that whole "Skutch" thing in high school just kind of pushed him into a weird kind of homosexual fantasy about young boys. It was very weird. It pushed him back towards to a pre-pubescent sexuality.
Alex: When you wrote My Troubles with Women Part 2 (mid-1980's), you were very angry at Skutch. Are you still angry at him?
Robert: I still have a generalized anger about that aspect of human nature. The bullying aspect of human nature is just an ugly part of what humans are but it’s also part of nature. This is the way nature is. I just got a letter recently from some very young guy, he just graduated high school in 2007 saying that he really identified with my work because he also was picked on by bullies in high school. So this goes on, its always been there and it always will be there. Teenagers, there’s always going to be some bully boys, some alpha male bullies who pick on the weaker ones to show how tough they are. It’s just the way the world is. And I realize, about that high school in Millford, talking to some of these people much later, even recently, talking to some of them, some of them actually got over that, being bullies and turned out to be very decent people. It’s just part of adolescence. This one guy I talked to said, “Yeah, I was just really messed up back then.” Some of them just got over that. Even that Skutch guy ended up opening up a recycling center somewhere around there. [laughs] I found this out later, when Terry Zweigoff was doing the Crumb film, he investigated and found this out. But Skutch in high school, he was awful. And it was doubly stinging and painful because there were so many girls that liked him. I remember this one girl that I really had a crush on, I overheard her having a conversation that she had got a date with Scutch and it was like, ‘Wow, you’re so lucky, you got a date with Scutch, wow’. Oh, it was just really hard to take. He was good looking as well as a bully.
Alex: After Skutch publicly humiliated your brother, how did that affect your relationship with Charles?
Robert: It made us closer; him becoming an outcast made us closer. Because he was much better looking than I was. I was a total geek in high school: thick glasses and homely and gawky, tall and skinny, really gawky looking. They used to call me Ichabod Crane. But he was good looking, so for a while he was kind of stylish. He looked like Rick Nelson, he had that style like Ricky Nelson. He was kind of hanging around with this crowd of kids for a while, until he just couldn’t make it. It was kind of a tough-ass high school, it was not a real classy place. The heroes were the football players. There was a crowd of jocks, then there were the crowd of greasers, hoodlums, you know, Fonzi types… Scutch Kenton was more in that crowd, the greaser hoodlum crowd. It was kind of a class difference. The jocks were mostly upper-middle class football players, and the greasers, they didn’t go out for sports much. And there were certain types of girls that liked those hoodlums with their greased back hair and jackets with their collars turned up and all that. Now, from a historic perspective, it was that class of guys that produced all the best rock and roll, those greaser hoodlums. [laughs] All the best rock music came out of that class.
Alex: So you and Charles became closer?
Robert: Yeah, after his social rejection he became a much more serious person. He started looking and analyzing and thinking about things, and then I followed that, because I, too, was an outcast. And we both ended up extremely alienated from that town. It was Smalltown, America in the ’50s. It was racist, it was willfully ignorant. If you used big words, they were suspicious and hostile towards you. So we developed this snobbish attitude that we were intellectuals and they were ignoramuses.
Alex: Why didn’t Charles go to college? He couldn't afford it?
Robert: Our family, you know, you had to do it on your own. Charles actually went to Delaware State College for one year, and it was an all black college. There were two white guys there, him and this other guy. He went for a year but he was just completely unmotivated to any kind of career track that involved going to college. It was just alien to him. Neither him, nor me, nor my brother Maxon nor Sandra had any interest in any kind of conventional career in the world. The only one that did was my oldest sister Carol. She went to school, she paid for it herself by working. She got some kind of job with a pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia where she was a secretary or something for a long time. She worked her way up to being a market research person. She did that for a long time. But none of the rest of us ever had anything close to any kind of conventional career like that. My brother Maxon had told me recently that I was actually the most entrepreneurial one in the whole family. I made a successful career out of my cartooning.
Alex: How about your relationship with Charles once you left for Cleveland?
Robert: Well, we started a long correspondence. I still have all the letters he wrote to me — they’re great. His best work were these letters he wrote to me. They’re great. I would go home and encourage him to leave because it was so depressing at my parent’s house. My parents were always fighting, it was awful. So I’d try to encourage him to leave. He would be up for the idea of leaving, and I’d say, “Come to Cleveland!” I was living with Marty Pahls, “we’ll put you up and I can probably get you a job at the greeting card company and you’re a good artist." He’d say, “Yeah, yeah, ok I have a few things to work out and then I’ll come.” He never left, he never left.
Then in 1970 or ’71, he had his first suicide attempt and then they put him on medications after that, which basically destroyed his life. They were strong medications, strong stuff, which kept him in this stupor. And he got fat and he lost his teeth, it was awful. My mother took him to a state psychiatrist for really low grade treatment. Just put him on drugs, it was the easiest thing to do. But it put him in a stupor, yeah. And he knew he was in a stupor, but he just couldn’t get out from under it. When he finally committed suicide in 1992, he did it by overdosing himself with his pills that the state psychiatrist had given him. He just ate the whole bottle. And he told me before that in the last few times I saw him that he didn’t feel like sticking around much longer. He said he either has to get out of the house, away from my mother, or kill himself. And my mother didn’t want him to go, she didn’t want to let him go. And he really had no other place to go.
He was actually talking about going back into the mental hospital just to get away from my mother, but she kind of discouraged him from doing that because she didn’t want to be alone. After he committed suicide, the first thing my Mother said to me when she called me and told me that he had killed himself was “How could he do this to me?!”
NOTE: For Robert's comments on brother Maxon, please see Crumb On Others Part Three.
BEATRICE HALL CRUMB (Robert's mother)
Robert: In certain ways, she was a classic American female of her time. In the ’40s she had one of the typical ’40s hairdos, dressed like the classic ’40s style. She grew up in Philadelphia and her family was working class. They were kind of an aloof family, just a dissolute bunch of people. Her parents divorced when she was ten years old, and her mother remarried. They were protestant before her mother divorced, and then her mother married this Catholic guy O’Connell, this irish plumber. And then they became Catholic. Her original father, Hall, was some kind of Protestant, I forget.
My grandfather Hall died when I was a year old. Which was kind of unfortunate because he was a musician, he had been a professional musician in his youth. He was born in 1880, so in the early 1900s he played in vaudeville theaters and dance bands and stuff like that, and he got together with my grandmother basically around music. My grandmother’s side, the Jacksons, were a very musical family. She had a brother, my Uncle Frank Jackson, who actually had a dance orchestra in Philadelphia in the ’20s and early ’30s.
I didn’t even know that until recently. The way I found out was I was looking through an old issue of Metronome Magazine from 1931. There’s this picture of my Uncle Frank holding his banjo; a young Uncle Frank. I knew it was him because I’ve seen this other picture taken at the same time in the same studio holding his banjo and there’s a little article about this orchestra that he had and it was very popular on the radio and played around Philadelphia. Nobody in my family ever mentioned this, that my Uncle Frank had this dance band: The Jackson Serenaders.
That family, they were very aloof and proletariat. My Uncle Merel, my mother’s younger brother, had been involved in various low-level criminal activities. Then he was a cop for a while, then he went to jail for forgery, then he became a prison guard. He had a very checkered career. My Uncle Phil, too, was a very shady character. Nobody wants to talk about what he did. My father’s family, they are very upright farmers in Minnesota. My father, when he started to find out about my mother’s family, he was horrified, but he was already married to her. It was too late.
Alex: Do you think your Mom was attractive when she was young?
Robert: Not very, no. She was kind of homely. I think she wasn’t very well nourished as a kid. My grandmother would bully her. My Grandmother Viola Jackson was a pretty awful person. She was a foul-mouthed, alcoholic bully. My mother had to do all the housework, and my grandmother would bang her head against the wall if she failed to do it properly. She was a very violent woman. My Uncle Merel told me, the last time I talked to him, that he was caught stealing. So to punish him my grandmother held his hand over the burner on the stove; a lighted burner to punish him for stealing.
They were racist, they were taught to hate black people and so when this black family moved into their neighborhood in Philadelphia, a working class, row-house neighborhood, Merle and his friends, they were all young Irish guys, threw bricks through the windows of that house. The family moved out. He said he felt bad. He turned out to be a reformed racist. When he was older, he said he felt bad about how he behaved as a kid. He said his parents were deeply racist. I kind of portrayed that in this one story I did. ‘Walking The Streets’, one of the last autobiographical stories I did, how my grandmother, embarrassed us all, and my brother Charles brought home his friend Tom Freeman, this black kid that he met at Delaware State College, he brought him home one day and my grandmother’s reaction to seeing Charles hanging out with this black kid was not pleasant. Racists. My Uncle Pete, my mother’s youngest brother, half brother, Pete O’Connell, he was a racist and he had this routine where he would imitate these Philadelphia black accents. I’m embarrassed to admit, but we used to laugh at him and his imitations of black people.
And my mother, her upbringing was sordid. My half-sister Catherine, she is still around. She is the last of that family that is still alive, she told me some really sordid stuff about that family. She said she was molested as a kid by O’Connell, the plumber that my grandmother married when she divorced my grandfather Hall. Hall was a shy, timid man. My grandmother used to brow-beat him. He finally left and moved to a hotel. My mother described her father as a shy, very modest person. My grandmother would yell at him and he would just quietly leave the room, go upstairs and close the bedroom door and play his mandolin. It’s too bad he didn’t live long enough, I could have learned something about music from him.
Alex: And how about when your Mom got older and got married and had kids, what was she like?
Crumb: Well, when we were really little my father was still overseas. He didn’t come back from occupying Japan until 1947. They got along okay for awhile, but then they started fighting.
My mother was kind of unstable. And then in the mid ’50s she got a job at a hamburger joint, where she was working the night shift and she was hanging out with these young waitresses and they turned her onto amphetamines. On to Bennies and Dexies, and that kind of stuff. And she would start taking those, and she got hooked on those and basically she was hooked on amphetamines until the late ’70s. And that just completely fucked her up. She was a screaming harridan and she was just awful. Horrible.
In 1958 my father actually had the men in white literally come and tie her down on a stretcher and they took her to a mental institution and gave her shock treatments, and then she was kind of well-behaved for about six months after that. But then she started doing them again, taking amphetamines again. That was awful, it was really depressing. It was widespread in the ’50s and ’60s among housewives in those days, taking Dexedrine and Benzedrine. They were called diet pills. My mother was getting them from two different sources; two different doctors were giving them to her. I don’t think the two doctors knew about each other. She had them both going. By the time she stopped, her brain was destroyed. She was a wreck from taking those for over twenty years. She was extremely paranoid. She had all kinds of delusions about my father, that the house had been secretly wired up so they could spy on her. She used to spend all her time in front of the TV when she was old, and I would go home to visit. I only witnessed this when I was home visiting which I never did, I couldn’t stand it for more than a couple days. She’d say “look, see that TV? that white wire on the screen? that’s a secret wire.” She went up into the attic and tore up the floorboards because she thought there was secret wiring hidden under there. She had this big paranoid thing about my father spying on her.
And towards the end of her life, she became very difficult to deal with and her house got very foul and filthy, and my older sister Carol and my half-sister Katherine both volunteered, actually urged her strongly to let them come in and help her clean the house.
My half-sister Katherine had a whole crew of carpenters who were going to go there and repair the house, but my mother just wouldn’t permit it. And the house got worse and worse, and she would still drive, but she drove real crazy, and they finally took her license away and wouldn’t let her drive. Then she was getting Meals On Wheels, but she was so difficult.
Then, she stopped paying taxes on the property, on the house, so the state then sent in a lawyer to examine her competency and this lawyer, I met him, he was actually very nice and concerned about her and used to go over there and visit her. He figured out all her problems with her finances. She was getting state assistance and finally she was no longer competent to live in her house — the State decided this — and my sister offered to bring her down to Maryland where she was living and put her up there, in this little house that my sister had bought. Just for that purpose, for taking care of my mother. And she refused. She was so crazy. She said, “I don’t want anybody to run my life. She’d be telling me what to do all the time and I don’t want that.” So finally the State took her and put her in a state run geriatric center, the Fair Acres Geriatric Center, where she lasted about 6 months and died.
Alex: Where was this house she was living in?
Robert: It was in the suburbs of Philadelphia in a suburb called Wayne. They moved there in the ’70s, in a nice house, a two-story old house. But after my father died in 1982, everything just went to hell. My brother was still living there until he died in ’92. And then my mother died in ’97 about five years after my brother. The house was just an awful, foul pit by that time.
Alex: When your brother died and your Mother said, “How could he do this to me?” did she start leaning on you for more attention?
Robert: No, she didn’t actually. She was so untogether, she just became a recluse in her house. I remember one time when I was visiting there, visiting her after my brother died, going through my brothers stuff and seeing what I wanted to take before it all went to the dump. They had piles and piles of books and some second-hand bookdealer came out and took all those. It was pretty morbid. Anyway, while I was there these Catholic do-gooders came over there. I guess they knew about her because she had been a Catholic. And they were being real solicitous and talking to her, and they wanted to help her, and this grey-haired distinguished older looking man took her by both hands and said, “You have to meet with Father so-and-so” I forget the name of the priest, “he’s such a nice man and he really wants to come over here and help you and he’s really a nice man.” And my mother kind of looked aside and said, “Yeah, that’s yet to be seen.” That’s how she was. She became more and more resistant to everybody.
The last time I saw her at the Fair Acres Geriatrics Center, she was really afraid of dying. She told me they were trying to kill her in that place. She said, “Robert you’ve got to get me out, they are trying to kill me!” and I said, “I really don’t think they are trying to kill you.” But now I think maybe she was right. Maybe I’m getting more paranoid in my old age. But anyway, I said, when she started talking about being afraid of dying, I said, “Maybe you should think about God, maybe death isn’t the end. Think about God.” And she said to me, “Ah, I don’t want to hear that crap.” [laughs]
Alex: Who do you think was her favorite child? Did she have a favorite child?
Crumb: Well, I think her two favorites were Charles and my younger sister Sandra. Sandra was her last baby. After she had Sandra, my father kind of made her get her tubes tied. She just wanted to have babies! She could have kept having babies forever, she loved babies. Every time an Ivory soap commercial came on she’d just go, “Oh! Look at the baby, so cute. Awww…” So she doted on my younger sister, treated her like a baby until she was quite grown. It was kind of sick. And my sister Sandra was very attached to her, very deeply attached to her. It’s funny though, my sister Sandra became this fierce lesbian. She developed this real dislike and anathema towards men. Very strange.
Alex: How was her relationship with Maxon?
Robert: Max claimed later that she did not love him and that he was the most unloved one and blah blah blah. I don’t know. Charles was doted on by my mother, too, and I don’t know. Charles said that he told me later that he was deeply emotionally tied to our mother when he was a kid, that he kind of worshiped our mother when we were kids. Which I never noticed and I never had those feelings towards my mother. I don’t think she was nice to me and she could fluctuate between being very emotionally loving and demonstrative and hugging and then just turn into this screaming harridan.
She was a real elemental person, my mother. She wasn’t very cultured. She watched TV, listened to pop music on the radio and read romance and detective and movie magazines. She didn't care about anything intellectual. She didn’t care about politics. She never read any serious literature or anything. She was a real basic, working class person. She worked very hard when she was young. My grandmother put her to work in a steam laundry when she was about fifteen. And then she had to hand the money over when she got home. It was during the Depression. But my half-sister Katherine says that my grandmother, when my mother would hand over the money, she just went out and bought booze with it, or gave some of it to her youngest son, who she doted on, Uncle Pete. She doted on him. It was terrible.
And then my mother was working in a hamburger joint in Philadelphia when she met my father. My father was stationed there with the US Marines, it was 1939, the Philadelphia Navy Yard. He used to go in there and my mother was staff. Later, when she was all bitter towards my father she would say, “I was so stupid. I was just dazzled by the uniform. I thought he was such a handsome man in his uniform! What a stupid young kid, I was.”
The way I portrayed my mother in “Lap a’ Luxury” was not really about my real mother at all. I never had any erotic attraction to my mother. I had erotic attractions to other adult women as a small child, I remember that.
Alex: But that translates in the piece. I didn’t assume that you were attracted to your mother in that piece. You were just climbing on top of her just to play. But that’s an interesting piece, because you’re looking back on your childhood now as a parent, as well as your own memories as a child, so it’s from different viewpoints. In a way, we’re spoiled, American kids, and you see that, and you portray that.
Robert: My father was always telling us how spoiled we were and how good we had it and then he would tell us how tough he had it when he grew up on the farm. Walking five miles to school in the snow, and all that shit.
Alex: Hey, your dad was a tough guy.
Robert: He was a tough guy, he was a hard man. A tough man. It’s funny though, about my brother’s books and all the books that were in her house. After my mother died, I had no idea what happened to all the stuff in the house and what was left there was pretty much left. And then I don’t know if it was about five years later, after my mother died, the gallery guy Paul Morris that dealt with me said that he got a call from this secondhand bookstore in Philadelphia and they got a book in there that had some cartoon drawings in pencil that looked like they might have been done by me as a kid. And I said, “I have no idea what that is,” and it turns out it was this US Marine Corps yearbook or book about the force divisions and experiences in the Pacific islands during the war. It was put out right after the war. And I said, “Oh my God! I’ve been looking for that book! I’d been looking for that.” So I said get it from these people, and hold it for me. I’ve got to see that. And they said “Well, they think it’s valuable because it has these drawings in it that’s supposedly by you, and they are difficult to negotiate with,” so I arranged to meet with these people from the bookstore at Paul’s gallery in New York, the next time I came there, which was going to be about a month later.
So I went there, and they came. It was this Japanese man, this middle-aged Japanese man who owned the store and this young woman, I don’t know, about 21 years old or something. And it was her who noticed the drawings while looking through this book and connected it with me. And what the drawings were actually drawings by my brother Charles of ‘Fuzzy The Bunny’, and he was drawing in the corner of the pages and made a little flip-book animation that cornered the pages of this US Marine Corps review of the experiences of the Fourth Division – which was my father’s book.
I didn’t even remember seeing that book at the house when I went through all the stuff. I had been looking for a copy of it, I had been doing a search trying to find a copy of that book. And there it was. I said, “this is incredible that this ended up in your hands, I don’t know how it ended up there” and they said, “Well you know, when somebody dies they go through their house and they get the books and they come and bring them to us. So somebody brought it to us.” And this young woman noticed it. But the Japanese guy was very difficult, he was very reluctant to hand this thing over unless he got a lot of money for it or something. I forget what the final negotiation was. And the fact that I was like, praising this young girl for being so astute to notice that and to make inquiry and find Paul Morrison, I could tell her boss, he didn’t like that I was praising this young girl. I could tell he was pissed off.
Alex: Did you end up buying it?
Robert: Yeah! I got it. Now I have it, yeah. It’s all the places where my father was with the US Marines. Siapan and all that, he was involved in all that horrible shit.
CHARLES CRUMB (Robert's father)
Robert: My father was the fifth of fourteen children; five girls and nine boys. He grew up on a farm in Minnesota. The Crumb Family Homestead was founded in 1878 by my great-great grandfather. It might have been my great-grandfather, I forget. I think it was my great grandfather.
Alex: I read that piece that he wrote about his his father, your grandfather. I thought it was really well written. I thought it was interesting. I even asked you ‘can we put this on the site?’ and you said, ‘Oh, no one’s gonna care about that.’ But I was very impressed with the guy.
Robert: He, like many people of his generation, had ideals and aspirations when he was young. He read Jack London and he loved that kind of writing. He wanted to go out and see the world, get out of Minnesota and see the world, and be a writer, you know, write about his adventures. But life just ground him up. He was a restless young man, and he grew up in the depression. Most of his education was in a one room school, and the teacher’s name was Miss Brady. He always used to talk to us when we were kids about Miss Brady and how she used a buggy whip on the boys. So, he wanted an education and education was very stressed in that Crumb family by my great-grandmother. She was a schoolteacher and believed in literacy and education. Anyway, he went to this local teachers college somewhere nearby (Albert Lee or someplace) for two years, but the only job available was, guess where? In the same one room school where he went when Miss Brady retired. [laughs] So he did that for a little bit but was so restless that he went and joined the Marine Corps in 1936. I just recently was looking at his service record, I was looking at a bunch of stuff I have on my father in his file, all the shit he went through in the US Marine Corps. He was sent to China just a couple of weeks after he enlisted. He was sent to Chicago or someplace after he enlisted, and it must have been no more than three weeks later, they shipped him to Shanghai where the US Marines were guarding the American interests there, in Shanghai.
Because the Japanese were trying to take over parts of China at that time and he wrote letters home. My Aunt Dorothy sent me these three letters that he wrote home, which are very interesting. And he had only been in the marines a few weeks and so he’s all dazzled when he first got there, he’s in this completely foreign place. He’s talking about how beautiful his uniform is, and how good the training was and how China was so exotic and everything. And in the second letter, which arrived a few months later, he’s seen terrible things and he’s really traumatized; he was quite young he was only 23 in 1936 or ’37. In the second letter he describes the horrible things he’s seen: the Japanese are bombing Shanghai and he’s seen the starvation and famine. There are corpses in the streets and he was quite shocked and horrified by all of this. And then a few months later, the third letter arrives and he’s already past all that stage of shock, and the third letter is very grim. He’s obviously gritting his teeth, and hitching up his pants and doing his duty. They had made him a “Special Duty” man. He had done something, some kind of thing for which he was rewarded with this special duty.
And my brother Maxon, I don’t know where he got this idea, but he thinks these starving Chinese were coming to the US Marine Corps base, the military base, and trying to get food, looking for food, and making a nuisance of themselves, and the captain or whoever was in charge asked for a volunteer to go out and to shoot one of them to get them to go away. My brother Maxon thinks my father volunteered to shoot a beggar, and all his karma comes from that. My brother Maxon deeply believes this.
I don’t know what Maxon’s ideal is based on but it struck a bell with me. It struck a bell. And I remembered this story my father used to tell when we were kids about how when he was 14 or 15, they had an old family dog that was dying, he was just feeble and blind and everything and my grandfather asked for a volunteer among his sons to take the dog out behind the barn and shoot him, put him out of his misery. And nobody had the heart to do it, but my father said he stepped up and he went and took the dog behind the barn. He described a tearjerking description of how the dog looked up at him with these big, sad eyes and knew that the end was near. My father shot him, tears running down his face. But he said that day he became a man, that type of thing. I think he thought that was the manly thing, that you had to harden yourself and do the manly thing. So, I don’t know. I don’t know.
I remember when I took LSD in 1967, this one time, and I was going along and the LSD had the usual hallucinations and everything and then I started getting this like negative energy from this Asian source. It started to take a visual form in my LSD saturated brain of this angry crowd of angry, far-east Asians, like far-east Chinese types. Just angry faces, thousands of them. And it became stronger and stronger and became very, very oppressive and painful. This feeling was like killing me. This feeling of just anger from these Asians and I thought well, it’s the Vietnam war so there’s got to be a lot of angry Vietnamese people at Americans, and the Chinese at that time were under Mao and had this focused extreme anti-American campaign going on there. I had seen these magazines and books in this Chinese bookstore in San Francisco, just filled with anger and hatred towards the United States and American Imperialism. So it could have been that, too, this collective anger towards the US, but it felt deeply personal against me. I started screaming in my mind “It’s not me! I don’t have anything to do with it — I’m not part of that, I don’t believe those things! I’m against the war!” But still it got like stronger and stronger until I felt like it really was going to kill me, this hatred. And then, I suddenly had this vision. Suddenly I had this vision, it’s my father. This anger is directed at him. And I saw this vision, of these Chinese people cursing, putting a curse on my father. And I remember later, when Maxon told me the story about him shooting the beggar, ‘ohhh yeah…’
Alex: What was Maxon's relationship with your father like?
Robert: Well, he was actually my fathers favorite of the three sons.
Crumb: Yeah, he was more manly as a boy than Charles or me. Charles and me were both sissies. Max was more masculine; he played sports and just had a more masculine way about him. But, when I had that vision of my father on LSD, and this hatred of him and the curse, I suddenly was free of it and it went away. The whole thing just kind of evaporated. The anger was no longer there, and I realized this anger had been passed down to me through my father somehow and was hidden under the surface of my consciousness for all those years. I don’t know how those kind of things work exactly, but there’s these undercurrents in consciousness. I don’t know how it works but it’s all very strange. And so my brother Maxon and I, we started calling this The Chinese Curse, that had been put on my father and handed down. Probably, the curse might have involved, if it’s a real thing, I don’t know, this curse would involve the first born son; the number one son, which is my brother Charles, who indeed was cursed; terribly cursed in his life. And aside from his artistic brilliance in writing and all that and passing that to me, his life was really a big, terrible miserable flop. His sexuality was all screwed up, he never left home and he ended up committing suicide. He was there to haunt my father and until my father's death my brother would sit in his bedroom up there, a complete and utter failure in the eyes of my father.
Alex: What year did your father die?
Robert: He died in ’82. Charles died ten years later, in ’92. It’s funny, my father always had this contempt for Charles. And Charles just couldn’t get out in the world and get his life started. My brother Maxon and I both somehow managed to do that, but Charles couldn’t do it. And my father tried to get him a job around 1970, he got him a job at the Philadelphia Enquirer, a daily paper in Philadelphia, as a phone solicitor, soliciting subscriptions over the phone. This job had such a bad psychological effect on Charles that after six months he tried to kill himself. Having the phone slammed down in his ear all day long, day after day, he just couldn’t take it. My father got him that job, ya know. And there was always this antagonism.
My father got sick about a year before he died, he got very sick. To this day we don’t know what it was, no one was able to figure out what it was, but he had to lay in bed and my brother Charles had to nurse him. And Charles told me after my father died that he derived a pleasure from nursing my father. He got some kind of satisfaction out of that, and that for the first time in their relationship ever that they had any kind of feelings towards each other. My father died mysteriously in the Veterans Hospital in Philadelphia. My mother couldn’t get a straight answer out of these doctors as to what was wrong with him and what killed him. She never got a clear answer and then one day on the phone about a year later, I asked her about it I said, “Did you ever get any kind of answers out of those doctors?” and she said, “No, but you know, I thought maybe it might have something to do with the fact that he was sent into Hiroshima five days after they dropped the atomic bomb there.” The marines were sent in there to keep order or something, I don’t know. Maybe he got radiation sickness or something. Who knows. But, if that’s what harmed him it took a long time. It was 1945 to 1982, that’s almost thirty — 27 years.
Alex: But he had seen some things: the late ’30s he was in China, which by the way the Japanese were absolutely brutal and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Chinese people —
Robert: More than that. More than hundreds of thousands. One book I read said they think the Japanese might have killed in the 1930s and ’40s combined, 19 million Chinese all together. I read this book called the Rape of Nanking. Oh! One of the most horrible books I’ve ever read. Written by a young Chinese woman whose parents were there as eye witnesses.
Alex: So where did he go from there, after China where did he go?
Robert: Well, he came back and he was working in the recruiting office for the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1938, ’39. Because all the marines had to get out of China in, I think, 1938 or ’39, the marines withdrew from Shanghai. The Japanese took it over completely. So, he was in Philadelphia, that’s where he met my mother. My mother was working in a hamburger joint and my father would come in, in his uniform, and my mother just thought he was the handsomest thing she had ever saw in his marine blues. I’ve told you that before.
Alex: Your father grew up in this very decent, hard working family in the middle of Minnesota and was a decent, honest hardworking man who really wanted to do this job.
Robert: All the Crumb family, all the Crumb side are all those honest hardworking people. There wasn’t a single one that had any criminal tendencies whatsoever, not a single one of them. They had no scheming, con-artist in that family ever. They just believed in hard work, that’s it. You just work hard and that’s what you do. My father used to tell us when we were kids, ‘Life's mostly hard work, as you’ll learn.’ But he had problems. He had a red-hot temper. He exploded at me when I was five or six years old and started beating me and broke my collarbone accidentally. He used to beat Charles unmercifully. Charles got it the worst. So, I learned to steer clear of my father and stay out of trouble just watching what happened to Charles. Charles had a problem with all authority figures though: teachers, cops, store clerks, anybody with authority like that he always wanted to get under their skin and annoy them somehow. So he always got in trouble. My father would get reports about Charles and would beat him terribly. And that just made Charles worse, it just made him more and more twisted.
Alex: How did your Dad get along with your sisters?
Robert: Well, my older sister, she was the first one. She was Daddy’s little girl, and my older sister Carol still had this great fondness for my father and kind of had this worshipful attitude towards him. When we were adults, much later, I would talk to her about the family situation, she shed a light on it that I’d never thought of. She said that my mother, I always thought that my mother was persecuted by my father, but Carol kind of felt the opposite. That my mother persecuted my father, that my mother wasn’t very good looking, that she was crazy jealous that my father was very handsome and women were attracted to him all over the place. So my mother was insanely jealous and thought that he was having affairs. I don’t think he did, I just — I think he felt cruelly accused, unjustly accused. And my mother grew up in this kind of low-life, dissolute family. And she knew how to hurt him, to stick the verbal knife into him. It was awful, awful. He would get angry, and hit her and, you know, things would be flying around the room. My mother threw an ashtray at my father once, a big giant, heavy glass ashtray and he dodged out of the way and it hit me in the head. I just happened to be standing in the doorway. My mother came up running, “Oh! I’m so sorry Bobby. I didn’t mean for that to hit you!” I had a big gash in my head. [laughs]
Alex: But you're just a product of your parents, and you’re a highly sexed person, why can’t he be highly sexed? Why do you say he didn’t cheat? If he was handsome, most men who can, they will. So, why do you say that you don’t think he cheated?
Robert: I think he had a very rigid sense of honor about that kind of stuff. By the time I was like fifteen years old, they were fighting all the time and my mother would always start these fights with him and he’d come home from work and she’d start a fight with him. And he would always say, “I’m not going to get a divorce because nobody in the Crumb family has ever got a divorce and I’m not going to be the first one.” I don’t think he had time to have affairs, he just worked his ass off. He had two jobs, you know, a huge amount of the time I was growing up. A large portion of that period he worked like sixteen hours a day. I think he preferred work to being at home. For a while he had a job at a chicken plucking plant, talking about having to dunk these chickens in boiling hot water all night long.
He did have a hard life. That’s what ground him up. He had all these aspirations for being a writer, he still kept trying. He’d send stories to Readers Digest and stuff, but he wasn’t in the writing scene enough to really make it as a writer. Finally, the last thing he wrote was a booklet called “Training People Effectively.” Because after he got out of the Marine Corps, my mother finally like screamed and hollered and made him quit the Marine Corps, in 1956 after twenty years, and then he tried to make it in the corporate world, and he just, I don’t know, he never quite really made it in the corporate scene.
I don’t know. But, he worked as a trainer of supervisors and people like that. And there was a lot of talk of employee motivation and everything, and stuff like that. He wrote this booklet about training people effectively. He had a smile on his face whenever he was out in the world among his colleagues in the business world. He had this real rigid clenched jaw grin on his face and then when he came home he would immediately drop that. He didn’t have that at home.
Alex: So growing up and seeing your mother the way she was, and seeing your father the way he was, how do you think it made you?
Robert: Well, it’s hard for me to answer that without, you know, having some Freudian analysis. All I know is that me and my brothers and my younger sister, not Carol so much, but my younger sister and my two brothers, all became extremely alienated and disassociated ourselves in our minds from our parents. In my mind, I was not like them at all. I was not. As far as I was concerned, I had landed from Mars and they adopted me or something. Aline said this about her parents too. She disassociated herself so totally from her parents because they were so fucked up and crazy. I kind of had some, a few little marginal things in common with my father. When I was a kid he was interested in history, he read a little bit like popular history, things like James Michener and stuff like that. And he would talk about that, and that would interest me a little bit. And sometimes he would talk about the ’30s or the war in a way that was interesting to listen to. He was a good storyteller in that way. But he was such a hard man and so cold, and removed and so stern and strict. He was a US Marine from central casting, he was like Lon Chaney in that movie “Tell It it to the Marines,” the silent movie. My father was totally that mold. He used to line us up on Saturday and walk us up and down and give us lectures. It was classic. My brother Charles got to this point of seeing my father as a big phony. Because when my father was out in the world among his peers he would put on this brisk sort of, “Hey! You bet! Hey! How you doin’?” kind of behavior, classic in his generation. But at home he was just grim and stern. By the time I left home, I was already so totally disassociated and alienated from them and their world they lived in and their values. My father was such a gung-ho loyal American, and in my late teens, I started becoming very left wing and socialist and all that. But he could not tolerate any talk like that and he just would blow his stack. He would start yelling in this booming, stentorian voice that he had that was scary. He had been a drill sergeant for a while in the US Marines.
Alex: So was there ever a point towards the early ’80s, or before he died, did you ever have a good conversation with him? Was there every any reconciliation or anything?
Robert: No, there wasn’t. The last time I saw him alive, he was in bed in this hospital and he had a tube down his throat and they had these mittens on his hands so he couldn’t pull it out. And he was like begging the nurse with his hands, in a praying position, to take a tube out of his mouth because he wanted to tell me something. And I would tell him about how I was married and had a kid by that time and Sophie was like, a year old. And he smiled at that, he was very happy to hear that. For a while he was kind of proud of my success, this was about ten years earlier, he had heard that I was successful with my comics, and all that. And then one of his colleagues showed him one of my comics with some obscene drawings that had something Snatch or Big Ass or something and he was so shocked and horrified by that that he wouldn’t speak to me for about five years or something. He was so embarrassed and ashamed that his colleague had came to him and said, “Is this your son who drew this?” He was from another world. My father was from another world. He used to talk about his childhood to me, it was like somebody talking about life in the nineteenth century or something. He would say “Yeah, you kids don’t know how soft you have it, how good you have it. When I was a kid, I had to get up and milk the cow at five in the morning and the water in the washstand next to the bed would be frozen solid,” and blah blah blah. He lived in a different world.
Alex: Yeah, I think maybe had he lived another ten years, maybe —
Robert: Yeah, I probably would have resolved things with him. I kind of regret that I never got to resolve things with him because yeah, if he had lived I would have just gotten to the point of drilling him for details about his life experience; the war and everything. I would have just interrogated him in depth about that. And not in a challenging way, just want to know, I want to know what he experienced. There was certain things he didn’t talk about. He mentioned very obliquely about being in Japan after the bomb, very obliquely; very little was said about that.
Alex: and you kind of skipped over World War II, I mean, he was in charge of enlisting before the war but the recruiting, but then, from ’41-’45 where was he? Stateside, or was he serving overseas?
Crumb: he didn’t actually get shipped overseas until he must have been very good as the recruiting officer because they kept him there until, I don’t know, something like early ’44 or something. And then finally he was over there in the islands, he was in the battle of Siapan, one of the worst battles of Pacific theater, he was in that. We used to watch “Victory At Sea” on TV when we were kids, and my father would be sitting there and he’d suddenly sit up “I was there, I was in that scene right there!” ‘Victory At Sea’ was this documentary TV series about World War II and they showed all kinds of footage, shot-during-the-war film footage and often about the Pacific theater, and fighting the Japanese, and he would talk about that sometimes, how terrible it was.
Alex: Did you ever see your parents being affectionate together?
Robert: Yeah, they would go back and forth between having like an adolescent, teenage sort of romping kind of affection and horsing around flirtatiously to screaming at each other. You know, they went back and forth. And I used to hear them having sex at night, sometimes. I could hear my mother, I couldn’t hear my father say anything but I could hear my mother. She was very expressive. She would say “Oh no, no, Oh no, please, oh no.” (Laughter) But even as a kid you could tell that she wasn’t actually being hurt or anything, you could tell it was something else. You could tell it was something else but you didn't know exactly what. Well, you know they had sex, they had five kids.
Alex: Going back to what Maxon said of you, that you were the only entrepreneurial one in the family, where do you think you got that entrepreneurial spirit?
Robert: I must have got that from my father. When I was 13 or 14, he made me go out and draw people’s houses and then his whole idea. He gave me this whole idea, he made me do it. You go out and you draw these houses, and you go up to the door, you knock on the door and you ask the person if they want to buy the picture, and you just take whatever they give you for it and say thank you. So I’d do that. I hated doing it, but my father used to make me do it when I was in my teens.
Alex: Did you ever sell pictures?
Crumb: Oh sure, they always bought them. I think there was only once or maybe twice when the people didn’t want to buy the picture. They would say ‘how much do you want for it?’ and my father told me to say ‘Just whatever you feel like paying.’ So sometimes I’d get a quarter, and one time this rich old lady gave me five dollars. So I quickly realized I had to draw rich people’s houses. (laughing) Don’t draw an ordinary family home, they don’t have any money. In recent years, a couple of those house drawings have come up on eBay. I hadn’t seen those drawings, you know, since 1959, 1960. I don't think they were particularly outstanding or anything. They were okay, nice drawings. It was interesting to see them again, to see the level of my skill at that time. I hadn’t seen them since I did them. I seriously doubt if they sold on eBay, but maybe. Who knows?
The old man was a firm believer in everyone pulling their own weight in the world. Put your best foot forward and your shoulder to the wheel. Don’t expect a free ride. I remember one time he was watching me draw – I must’ve been about 16 or 17. He quietly remarked, “Robert, you’ll never have to do a hard day’s work in your life.” Drawing couldn’t possibly be hard work in his book. Okay, it’s not like bailing hay. It’s clean work – you’re not sweating out in the hot sun. But I got the point. I made the most of my talents and inherited that thing about working and carrying your own weight. I got that from him, I guess. I could never bear the thought of mooching off others. Also, like my father, I can’t stand to have debts. Debts drive me crazy. I gotta pay it off as soon as possible. My mother was always buying stuff on the installment plan, which just annoyed the hell out of the old man. It was one of the things they fought about. He always talked about how reckless it was to live “beyond your means.” He was the opposite of my mother, very tight-fisted with money. When I graduated from high school, my mother gave me two gifts, a watch and a radio. My father, when he saw the watch and the radio, said, “We can’t afford it.” He took them back to the store, got the money back. My mother raved about what a mean, stingy miserly thing it was to take back my graduation presents. I said nothing. In truth, I didn’t care about the watch or the radio. There was nothing on the radio that I cared to listen to.
The U.S. Marine Corps was the real love of my father’s life, and the war was the high point. I think it was all down hill for him after that. And marrying my crazy, truly mentally ill mother and having five kids with her… It just went down and down and down for him ‘til life was really a living hell. You know, I hope he had a few love affairs on the side, to relieve the unremitting grimness. I hope he did, but I dunno… When would he have had the time?