A discussion between artist Robert Crumb and Wildwood Serigraphs' Alex Wood, July 2010
EARLY vs. LATER WORK
Alex: It seems the readers who read and appreciated your early stuff, the majority of them, aren't familiar with your work after the early '70s.
Robert: Yeah. That's true...
Alex: Your later stuff, like Hup, Boswell's Journal, Cave Wimp, they don't know anything about.
Alex: All they know is the stuff that they read when they were young, which is probably the reason why they love it so much.
Robert: Yeah, when they were in college, there were lots of outlets where they sold underground comics, up until 1973. There was kind of a big change in 1973, a turning point.
Alex: But they don't really know your work past that point. Do you get that same impression?
Robert: Yeah, I know that. It's the same in France.
Alex: That's a little irksome to me because no matter how great all that early work was, your later stuff is just as good, if not better.
Robert: Yeah, I don't know. I can't even judge that. I have no idea. But, my work in the early days -- late '60's, early '70s -- was definitely much more a part of the general trend of the whole hippie, counter-culture-thing and all that. Definitely much more a part of that. Then later, that whole thing kind of disintegrated in the late '70s, and into the yuppie era of the '80s. It all changed. And then the comic scene became really a subculture of its own that, you know, only people who were really comic fans appreciated. And yeah, I remember reading lots of irritating articles back then saying that the underground comics movement was dead and everything and thinking, "Hey, I'm still here, I'm still drawing comics." But you know, it was never part of the mainstream culture.
Alex: Don't you think all those people who loved your early stuff, don't you think they would really enjoy your later work?
Robert: I have no idea. No idea. Maybe not.
Alex: It's kind of frustrating because I think that if they really enjoyed the early stuff, then they would also enjoy your later work, it's just so interesting on several different levels. And they're middle aged now, they would be able to relate to it.
Robert: I don't know.
Alex: Now let me ask you this, who do you think is reading what you did in the '80s and the '90s and even the stuff that you're doing now? Who is reading it?
Robert: Yeah, that's a good question. I think it's a real scattering of people. It's not any one group. You can't... it's not a simple matter of saying who they are. You'd have to do a marketing survey.
Alex: From all different ages. From all different --
Robert: Yeah, it's partly people who are just into comics. It's partly old hippies, it's partly just curious types who scan the culture for off-beat and odd stuff. They're looking for something outside of the mainstream. But you have to search to find those comics, they're not easy to find. None of that stuff is -- Fantagraphics, Last Gasp -- none of them. Where do you find that stuff? I mean Genesis is gonna hit the mainstream more than anything I've done in recent years.
Alex: Speaking of Genesis, I know you've taken a lot of interviews about it but I have to ask you a couple questions about it.
Robert: Sure. Go ahead.
THE BOOK OF GENESIS
Alex: A lot of people were surprised by the serious approach you took to that book. They were expecting you to be satirical.
Robert: Some people were disappointed that I didn't do a sendup of it -- my own scathing take on it. I fooled around in the sketchbooks with those ideas and I just, I didn't like how it was working out so I just decided to do a straight illustration job of it. It seemed to me that the original text was so strange in its own way that there was no need to do any sendup or satire of it. My trial efforts to do that seemed lame, it wasn't working out.
Alex: So as you got more into the book, did you sort of approach it as a historical project?
Robert: Yeah kind of. I mean, the text itself is so lurid and barbaric, you don't have to alter the text, you can just illustrate as accurately as possible the text as it's written. Somewhat historic, but its not real history. But, you know, it is part of history, but in and of itself it is myth. It's legend. It's stories with all the same elements that modern storytelling uses to keep people spellbound. It's the same kind of thing. Except for the priestly aspects like the "begots," and all those tedious and legalistic passages. But, as far as, like, how people react to my version or... I said in a lot of interviews that I had no idea when I was doing it how people would take it. I knew that probably some of the Crumb fans -- it's really true here in France, even more so in Germany -- it didn't sell well at all in Germany -- a lot of the Crumb fans were very disappointed because it wasn't this outrageous takeoff. I had no idea how they would take it. And you know, people ask me if there's been a lot of hostile reactions from religious people and I really haven't gotten much of that. I got invited recently to come to the San Diego Comic Con. There's some Christian comic fans that have a conference every year and discuss, like, spiritual aspects of comics. And they wanted to invite me, they wanted to have a panel about Genesis. And the guy that wrote to me, his name is Buzz Dixon. He said that not all Christians are happy with my version of Genesis. And I wrote back to him, I said, "I'm very curious, what do they object to?" I have no idea what they object to. I'm just doing a straight illustration job there. I'm curious to see what he'll write back.
Alex: Have you ever thought about dividing your work into periods? Like I think there's one of your books -- The R.Crumb Handbook -- it has a timeline of your life.
Robert: My depression graph.
Alex: Yeah! That's great! That's a great graph, but looking at that, have you ever thought about breaking your work into periods so people can talk about a specific period? Like the psychedelic period? The IRS period?
Robert: I can kind of do that. I always have. I've always seen my life in phases. There's the phase up to the time I was 19 and left home... even there's phases in my childhood and adolescent stuff, but then from the time I was 19 till the time I started doing the psychedelic comics, that's one phase. Like Fritz the Cat and all that. And then after I took LSD in '65, that's another phase, when I was 22 up to about 1968. And when I became famous, that starts another phase -- '68 to '73 when I burned out. '73 and through the late '70s... up to I guess that Weirdo period that's kind of a murky period of uncertainty. And then from like '81, '82 when I started doing Weirdo, up until I left to come to France, that's the Weirdo & Hup period, generally speaking. I guess I did a couple of those Hups in France. And after that --
Alex: Then it's your French period?
Robert: Well, I did a couple issues of Hup and then the three issues of Mystic Funnies while I was in France. And that all ended in, like, 2001, the last Mystic Funnies I ever did. I really haven't done much comics since then, actually. Very little.
LIFE IN FRANCE
Alex: Let me ask you about that. Living in France, being so American and having been so affected by 20th-century American pop culture, how has living in France affected your work?
Robert: I don't know. I can't really say. I haven't... I can't... get enough distance to really say how it's affected my work. I'm still steeped in American culture. I'm not that steeped in French culture. Never will be. I like living here, but I'm never going to become French or become that deeply involved in the French culture. So, I don't know. I don't know how living here has affected me.
Alex: What do you miss most about living in America?
Robert: What do I miss most? [pause] It's not that I miss it, but I had a role there, in my reactions to the place, that played out in my work. I had such a visceral reaction to being in that culture. It's so familiar and yet there are so many things about it that I really despise and think are hateful. And yet there is also something... you know the love-hate relationship. And that's been weakened by living here in France. I've become kind of detached... detached, I don't know how it's affected my work. I probably never would have done that strip When The Niggers Take Over America if I hadn't left there. [laughs] I did that in '92. I hadn't been gone very long. I don't know if I would have done Genesis if I was still living there. I don't know what I'd be doing, I have no idea.
Alex: You don't miss the diners? You don't miss the --
Robert: Food sch-mood. The food is so great here, you know? What's to miss? American culture. When I go back there, after I'm there for a couple weeks, I start to feel that same old disgust I felt when I lived there, only it's even more advanced now. The corporatization of American culture, it's in such an advanced stage, it's really a sick culture. Sick. Although there are a lot of people there that I like, you know, I have lots of friends and I like certain things about the way Americans are. Certain aspects of Americans that are very different from here. Americans are kind of more straightforward and simple in a way than Europeans. They're simpler. [laughs]
PEN, BRUSH & BABYSITTING
Alex: Let me ask you this, I've never known anyone to ask you this and I don't know the answer so I want to know. Do you have any favorite pieces that you've done? Like Cave Wimp or Where Has It Gone, All The Beautiful Music Of Our Grandparents? Or any piece that you've done that are favorites?
Robert: Not really. There's some stuff that I feel works better than other stuff, but I can't think of really any favorites.
Alex: Do you think Footsy works?
Robert: Footsy? Yeah. Yeah, that works.
Alex: And what makes you decide to use a brush sometimes as opposed to a pen?
Robert: I went through a brush phase in the late '80s. I decided to try brush because I wanted... I was studying these crime comics from the '40s and a lot of them are done with brush and there's just a dark mood, like a film noir mood. With lots of shadows and darkness, and you get that with a brush. Just filling in with the black. You don't do that with a pen. So I decided to try that and I kind of took to it I was actually getting pretty good at it and then I stopped. I don't know. Old habits die hard and I went back to the pen and I kind of regret that now, that I didn't stick with the brush. If I had done Genesis with a brush, it probably would've taken me about half as long.
Alex: Yeah, that's a lot of crosshatching.
Robert: You know when you're doing comics people don't wanna really get bogged down in that crazy crosshatching. Comics should keep the eye moving from panel to panel. A brush really lends itself to that. I kind of regret that I didn't stick with the brush. I could always go back to it I guess.
Alex: Yeah you can always go back to it. I guess that's good for now Robert, I've got enough to work with here. You wanna add anything? Is there anything else that you wanna talk about?
Robert: Well, all I can say right now is that the baby is kind of starting to fuss. I think I better go over and tend to him. [laughter]