This is the second in a continuing series of discussions with Crumb. In September 2011, I asked his opinion on another list of people in the news past and present, many suggested by our readers.
Robert: "When I was a kid, I saw Eisenhower in person in Ames, Iowa when he was running for president in 1952. He came through standing in the back of a car waving to everybody right past our house on Lincoln Way. I saw him. My father told us while Eisenhower was in Iowa campaigning, the mayor in Ames kept asking him, 'What do you think of Iowa? What do you think of Iowa?' And Eisenhower said, 'What do you want me to do, sing it?' Eisenhower, he wasn’t a bad guy, he was just completely overwhelmed by the politics of the time. I remember when he ran against Stevenson in ‘56 -- he ran against Stevenson twice actually -- but Stevenson was a much better politician than Eisenhower. Stevenson was a democrat, a fairly competent guy, and you know, sort of a liberal and everything. But there was a famous photograph of him published in the paper of him sitting with his legs crossed and you could see there was a hole in the bottom of his shoe. That was the end of his run for the presidency, when people saw he had a hole in his shoe. [laughs] Also, Eisenhower was the one who warned us about the military industrial complex when he left office. But at the time, it was only published in the back pages of the newspaper. They didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. But you know, he was on the money with that one."
Robert: "Spain’s my buddy, my old pal, one of my best friends. I’ve learned a lot from Spain. I greatly admire his artwork. He is such a strong, committed, communist, left-wing guy. I know I can always count on him to give me a clear, concise Marxist theory or reaction or viewpoint on whatever’s going on in the world, which I appreciate very much actually. I’ve learned a lot from him in that way. He’s a little too pro-Stalin for me. But I’ve argued about that with him. He once got very angry at me for saying that Stalin was as bad as Hitler. He didn’t like that.
"I said, 'Why? What’s the difference?'
"He said, 'Stalin was murderous but at least he stood for something, some kind of decent ideal. Whereas Hitler’s ideals were just completely nutzo.'
"Which is true. But my comeback to that was, in the process Stalin greatly discredited and scared people away from the idea of communism, because he was so murderous. Same with Mao. Stalin and Mao both had great things to say, but the fact that they were so murderous put people off on the ideal of communism."
[Note: Sadly Spain Rodriguez died of cancer in November 2012. He will be missed by his fans worldwide.]
Robert: "Robert Williams’ work I also greatly admire. I don’t have much contact with him anymore, but I really like him and, you know, way back in the old days, I hung out with him a lot and enjoyed being in his company. He’s a funny guy, good sense of humor."
Robert: "I like what he did, mostly back in the old days; lately, not as much. And Moscoso is the guy who's willing to take on and take care of all the business for Zap Comics, and I appreciate that about him. He’s good at that. He was the guy who, when we originally made the first Zap comic collective, made sure we got a lawyer, that we got everything down on paper and we did it all up properly. He was the guy who took care of that."
Robert: "Well, you know, when I was a little kid in the 50s, we were (my brother Charles even more than me) profoundly enthralled by Disney, and profoundly affected by the Disney vision. It was a collective vision created by the whole Disney studio crew which made all those fabulous full-length animated cartoons in the '30s and '40s. But to my taste, the whole thing starts to decline in the early 1950s. The last one that I think is a truly visionary work is Alice In Wonderland. Beginning with Peter Pan circa 1953 it starts to slide into something too corporate -- actually before that. I mean when they did that South American propaganda thing – that came out in ’45, I believe. During World War II, Disney started working very closely with the government. They made propaganda cartoons and everything. But those full-length animated movies, Snow White, Pinochio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Song Of The South, Alice In Wonderland – they’re fabulous stuff.
"The short Disney cartoons are not as creative as either Warner Brothers or Max Fleischer, in my opinion. Max Fleischer of the early '30s is my favorite of all the short animated cartoons – Betty Boop, Popeye, and all the other early stuff they did. Disney’s studio was the first to consciously contrive to be clean and wholesome. Disney himself was very conservative. And in that process, the cartoons became bland and cute and not that interesting. There still was some good Donald Duck and all that, but they’re not as sharp as the Warner Brothers or Max Fleischer cartoons, as far as I’m concerned."
Alex: "How about MGM? Did you you like Tom & Jerry?"
Robert: "They’re alright, but I don’t like them as much as Warner Brothers. Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, that’s the best stuff. But the early Fleischer, to me, is the best of all, the most creative and imaginative. Tragically, Max Fleisher was swindled by Paramount, the studio that distributed his cartoons, all through the 1930s, and then they secretly sold the rights to all his cartoons to some TV distribution company in the 1940s. They robbed him blind. He was never compensated. Hey, that’s show biz."
Robert: "I never could get interested in Al Capp. People say he’s great, he had a big, big influence on Kurtzman and Elder and those guys, but I could never get into it. The humor didn’t appeal to me, the satire -- I don’t know. Denis Kitchen’s a big fan of Al Capp, but Li’l Abner never did anything for me. Dunno why. Can’t explain it."
Robert: "I admire Herriman’s stuff, but you know I’m not as crazy about him as some people. You know, that kind of funny, little esoteric thing he does in Krazy Kat, it doesn’t grab me that deeply. It’s beautiful to look at, like many comic strips of that era. A lot of those big Sunday strips, the style is so nice and charming. But a lot of guys had very charming drawing styles back then. Yeah, Herriman was innovative and inventive with the layout of his strips, and all that stuff, but the content never grabbed me that deeply. It’s poetic and whimsical and everything, but [makes a spitting sound, then laughs]. I prefer Popeye and The Bungle Family, and a couple of other strips from that period."
Robert: "Love Kelly! Love his early stuff. I still actually like to read the early Kelly stuff – late '40s, early '50s. He starts to go downhill in the late '50s. He tried to do too much. At one time, in the early '50s, he was doing a daily strip as well as doing periodic comic books for Dell, and at the same time he was doing those fancy books like Uncle Pogo’s So-So Stories and all that stuff. He was incredibly prolific for a period of time but I think he burned himself out. Also, I think he started drinking heavily... I think. I only heard that about him so I’m not sure. But, oh yeah, I still love his work. I was very inspired by his stuff when I was 13, 14, 15. And then that was kind of eclipsed when I started getting interested in Mad and Kutzman’s stuff. But I still greatly admire Kelly’s work."
Robert: "When I was a kid, John Stanley, who did Little Lulu,and Carl Barks were our favorites. John Stanley was a great storyteller; just great. Little Lulu stories were powerful in that period – late '40s early '50s. He’s another guy, who, because of the industrial realities of the business, had to churn that stuff out every month. They burned him out. They burned them all out. They had to keep cranking constantly due to the relentless, periodical nature of the comics and daily strips. But Little Luluwas great. I still have my Little Lulu collection. I have every issue from the beginning,1944, up to 1954. After that I start to lose interest."
Robert: "Naaah, doesn’t excite me that much, that style. It’s all right, but it doesn’t do much for me. A tad too arty, perhaps. I dunno, just my taste."
Robert: "Zero interest in Kirby. Zero. I tried and looked at it, but I just couldn’t get interested in it. But he’s an interesting character. There was a great interview with him in the Comics Journal, back in the ‘80s I think. He was kind of a tough guy who grew up in New York City in some tough neighborhood. I know he’s considered the creative genius of Marvel Comics and all, but I just could never get interested in it."
Robert: "I don’t know, I’m not that crazy about her work. You say she’s nice to work with?"
Alex: "Oh yeah, she’s great. Great sense of humor, wonderful person."
Robert: "Well, I’ve liked some of her work over the years, but to me she’s not one of the top women cartoonists. The drawings were not that interesting to me."
Robert: "Ooh, problematic. A problematic person for me, since she hates my guts. She used to anyway. And she used to set herself up as the spokesperson for women cartoonists, you know? She was the authority, the expert on women cartoonists. On the positive side, she’s done some very good articles about obscure women cartoonists from the old days. You know, she kind of dragged these women out of obscurity and did interesting articles about them. Women cartoonists from the '30s and '40s who were sort of buried and forgotten about. But she caused a lot of trouble, back in the old days, not anymore, she’s old now. But back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Jesus what a pain in the ass she was; a royal, pain in the ass. [laughs]. Her sensibilities are so different from mine – kind of polar opposites. She never liked autobiographical comics, she says they’re generally boring and tedious. There was an interesting interview she did with Alison Bechdel, the lesbian cartoonist who does autobiographical comics, and at some point Bechdel brings me up and praises my work and that was a shock to Trina, that Alison Bechdel would like my work. 'God, how could you like Crumb? He’s so awful to women' and yada de da. I can’t argue with Trina about how terrible my comics are to women because I have no defense. But I was touched that Allison Bechdel defended me. Made me feel a little less, you know, threatened."
Robert: "I liked Peanuts for a while. In the late '50s, early '60s, I read it. It was good; well written and funny. I didn’t mind the minimalist drawing style. He caught on because his stuff was so cute and still kind of poignant and meaningful that everybody liked it. Everybody! How could you not like it? Who could dislike it? [laughs] There’s not a thing unlikeable about it. And because of that, Shultz became the richest cartoonist – one of the richest men in America. I met him once actually, at a book fair in San Francisco. He told me he liked my work, which took me aback."
Robert: "He made some great films. I love some of those films he made. I talked to somebody who knew Kim Novak, some older woman, and Kim Novak told her shocking things about Alfred Hitchcock and his sexual proclivities. That kind of surprised me. I don’t know why. I guess when you look at Hitchcock you don’t see a guy with an aggressive sexual libido. Just goes to show you can never tell a book by its cover. I ought to know that by now."
Robert: "Reagan? Hated him; a silver-tongued liar. He was either a liar or really stupid or both. You know, basically he was a shill for corporate America. 'The great communicator,' what bullshit. And now when they drag that guy out and prop him up and try and make him look like a great president, to me it’s nauseating. It was the beginning of the end when he became president. And the people around him were such a bunch of scoundrels. Remember these guys, like Edwin Meese? Just awful, evil people."
Robert: "Beatles? [heavy sigh] You know, back in the day, back in the '60s, I was involved in this group of people, this subculture, who just listened to the Beatles – Sgt. Peppers and that stuff – all the time. We used to get high and listen to it and Sgt. Peppers seemed deep and everything, but I can’t listen to it now. Just can’t listen to it. Some of the last stuff they did, you know, it kind of gets dark, and that’s more interesting to me, the last stuff they did before they broke up. And even the stuff John Lennon did after they broke up is interesting to me. Well, that and the music they did before they actually started recording under Brian Epstein. The only way you can hear that, I think, is to see the documentaries where it shows them playing in Hamburg and the Cavern Club. Before Brian Epstein got ahold of them and cleaned them up and made them over into those cute mop-tops and put them in those mod suits. Before that, they were greaser guys – leather jackets and greasy hair. And they just played this sort of driving, hard rock-a-billy music. And they were really good at that. That style was popular in England in the late '50s and early '60s, that rock-a-billy sound. There were a bunch of good rock-a-billy bands there, as good as the American ones."
Alex: "But we were talking about the Beatles about a year ago and you said, 'If you take their songs apart, you’ll see they’re well-crafted songs.'"
Robert: "Oh they are, yeah. They’re well-written songs."
Alex: "Pretty amazing considering how young they were, putting those songs together at the rate they did."
Robert: "Two of those guys were very gifted composers of songs, McCartney and Lennon, both of them. But the Beatles, they became a plague, you just couldn’t escape it. Wherever you went, public address systems, either the original versions or the Muzak versions [sings Eleanor Rigby in the most irritating way possible]. Oh please! But Aline loves the Beatles. She’s very nostalgic about them. Sometimes she plays Beatle records or sometimes Beatle CDs in the car. [laughs]"
Robert: "I love early Louis Armstrong. Great music, in the '20s, great, great stuff. But when he became popular with white audiences circa early ‘30s and crossed over, I lose interest in him then. He becomes kind of a show-off. He’s a very interesting character though. He wrote his own autobiography, I think it’s called Satchmo. Very interesting. The New Orleans that he grew up in, early 1900s, was a very violent, kind of ghetto-culture. He describes the violence that he had to endure and how he had to learn how to maneuver in that world by being the most agreeable peacemaker that you could possibly imagine. And he kind of remained that way his whole life. Smart guy, very smart guy and a creative individual. And now he’s looked upon as possibly the greatest jazz musician of the jazz era. The most creative and innovative player of all of them. Not as a composer, like Duke Ellington is credited as being such a gifted composer, but as an instrumentalist. Everybody looks to Louis Armstrong. But there was lots of great jazz at that time, you know, to me, in the '20s, but Armstrong is right up there at the top."
Robert: "I know quite a bit about Bettie Page actually. I had a friend named Jeff Rund who was involved in trying to compensate her when she was old and broke and living in some trailer, in poor circumstances somewhere in the Los Angeles area, I believe. In the '80s, some people started putting out books of photos of her and everything, and Jeff dug her up and tried to make sure she got paid for all the books. Cuz you know, she went crazy in the '60s, I think it was the '60s, when she tried to kill somebody. So she was institutionalized for a while, and then she got religion. I think she just had her picture taken so much, that it drove her insane. But guess what? She had the most perfect body and the cutest face of all in that pinup era of the 1940s and 1950s. She was the gold standard. There was nobody superior to her physically. And her poses, she always looked cheerful and wholesome, she never looked sleazy. It didn’t matter if she was posing in a sadomasochistic setup with those high heel boots and whips, it always looks like it's just a funny game to her, you know? She could have a ball-gag in her mouth and she looks like the girl next door just having fun. 'Isn’t this fun, playing at sadomasochism?' [laughs] She always comes off as this wholesome, lighthearted gal. But God was she healthy. Omigod! Perfect proportions, her whole body. Can’t go wrong with Bettie Page. Every photo of her is good – never took a bad photo. And they took thousands – tens of thousands – of photos of her. Poor woman. What a life! I wonder if she’s still alive..."
[ed: Bettie Page passed away in 2008, at age 85.]
Robert: "I have zero interest in boxing. But you know, when he was young, he was such a madman, and so full of, like 'I’m the greatest.' So full of this kind of like, hubris. I found that rather offensive myself. But he came out and knocked out Sonny Liston in 1964 and that was a big moment for a lot of people because Sony Liston represented all the rotten, mafioso corruption in boxing. And Cassius Clay was like the fresh, rebellious youth who took over. That was very significant for a lot of people. But it was sad what happened to him. He became punchy like all of them do. He didn’t know when to quit. They wouldn’t let him quit. He should have stopped before he actually did."
Robert: "Naaah, no interest. Many other painters that I like much better from that period, like Van Gogh, or Lautrec. I greatly admire Lautrec. I like Monet’s stuff. Degas’ all right, you know, and it’s definitely some kind of golden age of oil painting but... and I can’t get too worked up about Cezanne either. I like Renoir better."
Robert: "[laughs] Well, you know, he made some good records in the early days, but he wound up being another sad case. Aline saw him perform in Lake Tahoe, I believe. It was like in ‘75, and Aline said he was great, still charismatic, still a great performer. But to me, his stuff on the Sun label was the best and then after that he starts to go downhill. I actually have a couple of his 78s because they’re icons from my childhood – Heartbreak Hotel and stuff like that. I remember when he was first coming up, the splash he made in ‘55 and ‘56 and how sad everyone was when he was drafted into the army and they shaved his sideburns off. [laughs] A very symbolic moment for 1950s American youth, all those teenage 'rebels without a cause.'"
Robert: "His earliest period is great, 1930 and 1931, when he was at the first flash of his popularity at the Cotton Club. He had a great band. His singing was great. He was a wild man. He was innovative. He brought something new that turned people on. He was a great dancer and performer. And then, you know, he became somewhat hackneyed, he became predictable and formulized. And other people started imitating his singing style and that was a disaster, having all these Cab Calloway imitators who couldn’t do what he did, the same way he did it. And then he just became a caricature of himself, as a lot of performers do. But he had a great band though, at the Cotton Club. They made some records in 1930, 1931, that I have, I have five or six of them and they’re just great."
EDGAR ALLAN POE
Robert: "I’ve never spent much time reading his stuff. But he was an interesting character. My brother Charles used to love his stuff. When he would get drunk, that was one of the authors he would recite. [Overly dramatic reciting voice] 'I think it was his eye. Yes it was this, he had the eye of a vulture.' My brother Maxon did an illustrated publication of Edgar Allan Poe. He likes Poe also."
Robert: "Max, my brother, is a great artist. He’s doing great work. It’s possible that in the future he’ll be considered a better artist than me. His stuff is so crazy and intense and so individualistic. He works at it very intently. You look at it and it’s psychedelic. You get lost in it; the textures are all so intensely worked. So much focus on each piece. The people who are buying his stuff now are getting bargains. It’s all going to be worth a lot of money some day, when he’s dead. But he’s been living in this flea-bag hotel, this broken down, skid-row hotel room since 1980. He works in there. The ceiling is falling down. The lathing is all showing like in a cartoon from the old days showing a slum room."
Alex: "It’s interesting how you and your brother have similar styles in a way, such controlled, detailed styles. Do you think that’s a genetic thing?"
Robert: "Yeah, probably have similar neurology, kind of obsessive-compulsive nervous systems that we all had. But Maxon, the way he lives, the way he thinks, is so individualistic and removed from most people’s lives. He’s really out there. He’s on the fringe of human thinking and endeavor."
[Crumb brother Maxon illustrated Poe's poem "Alone" for the 21st volume of the Graphic Classics series.]