Crumb on LSD, the creation of his most famous characters, and his move to San Francisco in 1967
..So, it's early in the year 1966. I'm 22 years old and I have no idea what I'm doing. I've just broken up with my wife Dana. She went back to Cleveland and I stayed in New York. My big career as a commercial artist was just one more cardboard cut-out dream forgotten in the dust after many heavenly trips taken on LSD. I feel like I'm back in kindergarten, it's all new to me... I've been stumbling around in a delirium since I took some weird psychedelic drug... the stuff came on like normal acid... the usual trippy sensations, the visual effects, the expanding consciousness into infinity-like WOW -- then all the sudden everything went, like, fuzzy-like; the reception went bad -- I lost the picture, the sound, everything -- it was so WEIRD, but not particularly frightening. For the next couple of months I felt like the guy in Eraserhead... everything was dreamlike and unreal. It was rather pleasant in a certain way except that I was helpless and barely able to cope.
One morning, after being up all night tripping on a mild dose of LSD with this girl Bobbi Fox at her place (all I remember about it is sitting on her bed, and holding her by her mop of curly hair and flopping her head around, and later her talking to my bare feet like they were two little critters.) I went into the subway and saw an attractive young girl lying dead on the platform. A crowd had gathered, police were there. I took this as an omen that I must leave New York. I decided I'd go to Chicago, stay with Ol' Marty. He'd give me shelter from this harsh world. He had a job, he was stable, he didn't take mind-altering substances, so I abandoned the apartment on East 11th street in my youthful, irresponsible way, and took the Greyhound to Chicago, Marty was a little bewildered by the sickly green psychedelic aura that buzzed and crackled around my head, but he was fascinated by the strange images that began to appear in my sketchbook.
A whole new thing was emerging in my drawings, a sort of harkening back, a calling up for what G. Legman had called the "Horror-Squinky" forces lurking in American comics of the 1940s. I had no control over it, the whole time I was in this fuzzy state of mind; the separation, the barrier betwixt the conscious and the subconscious was broken open somehow. A grotesque kaleidoscope, a tawdry carnival of disassociated images kept sputtering to the surface... especially if I was sitting and staring, which I often did. It was difficult to function in this condition, I was certifiably crazy, I sat staring on the couch at Marty's apartment, or on long aimless bus rides around Chicago. These jerky animated cartoons in my mind were not beautiful, poetic or spiritual, they were like an out-of-tune player piano that you couldn't shut off... pretty disturbing... this strange interlude ended as abruptly as it had begun in the next time I took a powerful dose of LSD in April '66. My mind suddenly cleared. The fuzziness was gone, the fog lifted. It was a great relief... a weird drug, that was. But what the heck -- "minds are made to be blown."
And what a boon to my art! It was during that fuzzy period that I recorded in my sketchbook all the main characters I would be using in my comics for the next ten years; Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont, Schuman The Human, The Snoid, Eggs Ackley, The Vulture Demoness, Shabno The Shoe-Horn Dog, this one, that one... which is interesting. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, like a religious vision that changes someone's life, but in my case it was the psychotoic manifestation of some grimy part of America's collective unconscious.
On those cold days in Chicago, Marty and I wandered the streets talking and looking, we found a drab, un-named storefront, which was filled with remaindered old magazines and comics with the covers torn off. The comics were all Brand-X, low-grade stuff from the post-war era... a nickel apiece. We purchased a big stack and lugged them back to the apartment. I studied these funny books closely... I got into them... lurid funny animals that tried to look cute, but weren't, lived in a callous, savage, world of cold violence and bad jokes, exactly as Fredric Wertham and G. Legman had said. They were very much akin to the nightmare visions spewing up and out of my fevered brain. Marty observed this phenomenon with detached fascination. He encouraged me to continue with this line of exploration.
BACK TO CLEVELAND
I began to miss Dana more and more. I saw her weeping face in my dreams. I was lonely. I had terrible cravings to kiss her oval Krishna face, to climb on her robust young body -- young love, first love, the pull was too strong, good sense gave way. I needed her like the addict that needs his fix. I bid farewell to Marty and got on the Greyhound back to Cleveland. Oh my God, CLEVELAND again! I was overjoyed to see the wife... she looked great -- the best she ever looked. I couldn't believe I was really there as I stood transfixed before that Krishna face. She'd lost some weight. Her long dark hair was in braids, she wore tight-fitting blue jeans on her big shapely legs, and cowboy boots. My whole being lusted for the big Jewish Goddess. (This awe wore off quickly after a couple of good Shtuppings -- ain't I awful?) Ironically, she wasn't all that eager to take me back at first. She was doing just fine without me. She had a little apartment, a little scene going, she even had cute boys mooning around after her. She'd gotten a job at a hospital pharmacy and was passing out methedrine tablets like candy to all her friends. This endeared her to a host of young ne'er-do-wells who were always hanging around. I moved in with her and we immediately fell back into our old pattern. I went back to work in the "Hi-Brow" department at American Greetings for another stint of eight months. It was the last time I ever held down a nine-to-five job... I've been lucky. Secure in the marriage situation, Dana sunk back into her role as the fat housewife. She stopped messing with pills. Her little fan club drifted away. We continued to take LSD and popping those high quality meth tabs occasionally. More and more people were taking psychedelic drugs. Even some of the less-conservative artists and writers at the card company experimented with it. The wave of the '60s was beginning to have its effect on everyone.
I began seriously regretting my return to Cleveland. It was a big mistake; I was a coward... I'd opted for security; the wife, the job... now I was restless again, itching to escape. I felt as if I was living in the past. There's GOT to be more to life than THIS, I kept thinking. I was drawing all the time, still filling up those sketchbooks. I made several attempts to start some kind of comic book but couldn't get it off the ground. I saw Shelton's "Wonder Wart Hog" in the Texas Ranger. A college humor 'zine. Hilarious, hip stuff, someone brought some psychedelic dance posters back from the San Francisco. You could tell right away those California artists were inspired by LSD! Clevelanders who'd been out there said San Francisco was THE happening place!
Dana's mother knew this guy who was the curator for the art museum in Peoria, Illinois. He said he'd give me a show if I'd do a bunch of large pen-and-ink drawings. I quickly turned out sixty-some drawings of varying subject matter. The guy in Peoria had them nicely matted under glass. We drove to Peoria to attend the opening. A very impressive show, I thought... I was in for a rude awakening. The crowd at the affair was made up entirely of older Peoria businessmen and their wives. It was unbelievable, there wasn't a single young or "hip" looking person in the room! By the time we got there the Peoria booshwahzee were all huddled together in the middle of the room with their backs to the art, talking and sipping their drinks. The curator tried his best to make me feel at home. He introduced me to a few people. They remained distant, cold. One Margaret Dumont-type Matron in a fur stole made a brave attempt to communicate. "Why do you hate us so much?" she asked with a polite smile on her rosy, Midwestern face. Interesting question -- I'll never forget her... I said nothing, I looked down, chuckling nervously. She was right. I wanted to march her to the wall and squash her smug, rosy face against one of my psychotic drawings. It's complicated -- attraction and repulsion at the same time... the "Boho Dance," as Tom Wolfe called it.
SAN FRANCISCO AND THE GARDEN OF EDEN
Then in January '67 I ran away again. I'd gotten in the habit of going to bars after work. One happy hour evening I ran into a couple of characters I knew, Tim and Skip, in Adele's Bar. They told me they were about to set out for San Francisco. Skip had an old broken down Fiat. I asked them if they had room for one more. They said sure, come on along. I asked another friend if he'd do me a favor and tell Dana I'd left. I dreaded another traumatic scene with her.
By some miracle the old Fiat made it across... it was a cold, cold journey but we got to the land of milk and honey at long last. Three weeks later I called the wife from San Francisco and invited her to come out and join me. I was lonely and guilt-ridden again. Hey, this pattern of behavior still had several more years to play itself out... She came, of course, and there we were, neurotic bag and baggage, in a nice apartment in the "Haight-Ashbury" smack dab in the middle of the wild and wacky '60s San Francisco hippy scene at its high noon of acid-induced euphoria! Everybody in San Francisco seemed to believe that the world had been permanently transformed! As soon as all those nasty uptight old farts over thirty died off we'd turn this planet back into a garden of Eden. Nothing to it! Skeptical though I was of some excesses of hippy behavior, I, too, was swept up in the incredible optimism. It was a breath of fresh air in the weary world, no telling when we'll see the like again...
It's hard to have a clear memory of events from that period. Everybody was stoned, high all the time. Life was unstructured. "If you can remember the '60s, you weren't there," an old hippy said recently. Misty memories of clusters of people hanging out -- always hanging out -- smoking dope in living rooms -- gurgling water pipes -- roach holders -- pipes made of stone -- pipes made of brass -- listening to the latest Beatles or Stones album -- these records were very important. Hanging out in the woods smoking dope -- on Haight Street -- at the beach -- most people had no money to speak of, but rents were cheap and necessities came easy -- it was considered unenlightened to fuss and fret about a little matter like survival.
It was actually a little nerve wracking.. Nobody ever knew what to do next. Oh well, here we are, we're beautiful, now what? Too much freedom? I dunno... some people made better hippies than others... they lived in magic kingdoms, these golden ones. We looked at them, trying to figure out what it was they did and we didn't. I think they were all taken up in spaceships to some more highly evolved planet around 1970. Personally, I couldn't pull it off, I had too many hang-ups... I was cursed in some way, banished from the magic kingdom.
DOMESTIC LIFE AMONG THE HIPPIES
Dana got a job as a counselor in an unwed mothers home, until she caught the bug and got pregnant herself. I did a little freelance work. I was free as a bird, generally speaking. This was the summer I went "on the road," attempting to hitchhike cross-country. I had a lot of interesting adventures. The times were very loose, we had a succession of people staying with us. Refugees from Cleveland, mostly. They ate our food and lounged around, noodling on their recorders and writing poetry. They were nursing their neuroses, recovering from a cruel upbringing in the upper-middle class Cleveland suburbs. Dana always kicked them out eventually. They would've stayed forever otherwise.
One set of visitors who never left until Dana gave them the boot was Joel Deutsch and his wife, Jane. Joel and I spent a lot of time hanging out together discussing spiritual and artistic matters, coupla dreamers. Joel was a pretty funny guy, one of those sensitive Jewish Boys who was trying to find himself... Dana found him very irritating. Jane was a beautiful, statuesque shiksa from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, rather distant and repressed. She was in indolent creature who laid around all day. I'd come home and see her sprawled on the bed on her stomach reaching. Dana was at work. Joel was out somewhere. She always wore tight-fitting pants and these high-heeled black boots, her big, pert butt jutted boldly up into the air. Oh man, It was all I could do to stop myself from going over there and leaping on top of that nubile, angel-faced thing! But she was out of my reach, she might as well have been a thousand miles away. "Free love" seemed to be happening everywhere except our house. Boo-hoo...
Hippy guys I knew would come over and take me along on their wanderings. They'd go up to girls in the park and the next thing I knew they're tripping off together. It was a wonder to me. I have no idea how they did it. I guess you have to have the right look, the right line of talk. One of these guys, Alan, once looked at me seriously and asked, "Crumb, don't you like girls?" I laughed nervously. "Sure I like girls," I answered meekly. "Then why do you stay with that fat woman when there's thousands of beautiful girls out here?" It's true... there were. It was unfathomable to him that any red-blooded male wouldn't be out there taking full advantage of a very unique opportunity. Easy for him to talk, with his bamboo flute and Christ-like appearance. He could have all the hippy-chicks his heart desired. Every day was filled with new beautiful experiences for Alan, Joel and Jane. Dana didn't like him very much. I didn't either, for that matter. He was a cocky, swaggering little shmuck, basically. But we were all a little intimidated by him. He was such a PERFECT hippy. He LIVED the dream. Once at our house he said to Jane, "You should fuck Robert." Heavy... we all stood there awkwardly, not talking, while Alan turned and went on his merry way, playing his bamboo flute.
My comic thing flowered in this fertile enviroment. I figured it out somehow -- the way to put the stoned experience into a series of cartoon panels. I began to submit LSD-inspired strips to the underground papers... not for pay... never gave it a thought... but they loved them. These 1967Ã‚Â strips of mine contained the hopeful spirit of the times, drawn in a loveable "big foot" style. The stuff caught on, they wanted more. Suddenly, I was able to churn it out. Joel gave me a lot of encouragement. He was always knocked out by the strips I was doing in my sketchbook. He walked around quoting them.
COMIX AND LEGEND
Late that summer one of the underground paper publishers asked me to do an entire issue of his paper Yarrowstalks (corny hippy spiritual stuff -- "yarrowstalks" are what they used to use to throw the "I Ching" ).This went over so well that he suggested I draw comic books and he would publish them. This was a thrilling idea to me -- a dream come true. I completed two 24-page issues of Zap Comix in two months (I worked faster and more spontaneously in those days -- hey, I wish I could still do, comic fans! You know, you get older, things get more complicated -- it can't be helped). I sent the artwork for the first issue to my would-be publisher, but never heard from him again. Months later, in a state of frustration, I called and was told, "Oh, he's gone off to India, man." Lucky for me I'd made a Xerox of the original pages, something I didn't usually do. Then Don Donahue came along. He was guy about my age who was born and raised in San Francisco, quiet, soft-spoken, good sense of humor. We're still friends. He got all jazzed up about putting out Zap Comix. As I recall, he traded his hi-fi to this small time printer, Charles Plymell, in exchange for printing the first issue. Plymell, an older hipster from Wichita, owned a small press, a Multilith 1250. Soon after that, Donahue bought the press and learned how to run it himself. Many of the early underground comics were printed by him on that thing.
The first issue was printed in February '68. We folded and stapled all 5,000 copies ourselves and took them out to sell on the streets. At first the hippy shopkeepers on Haight Street looked down their noses at it. "A comic book? No, I don't like comic books." It looked just like the traditional comic book. It had none of the stylings of your typical psychedelic graphics -- the romantic figures, the curvy, flowing shapes -- it took a while to catch on. It was beginning to take off by the fall of '68, and so began the saga of my name becoming legend... the phone began ringing all day long... people who I didn't know were showing up at my door... All my friends were beginning to look at me differently; it seemed I suddenly had a lot of NEW friends... I was this fascinating individual, no longer just another bland, bespectacled nerd. I'd always known I was a hell of an interesting guy -- now others were beginning to realize it! LOTS of them! MOBS of them! Someone was forever handing me a lighted joint as I talked on the phone to yet another hip media hustler. Oh, it got crazy... inevitably I handled it like a complete fool... I ate it up... I bought the sycophantic flattery... I let them hustle me straight into the ground... my excuse is I was still very young, 25, 26, when all this happened... I had a lot to learn yet... in short, my life was turned upside down because I was in the right place at the right time with my lil' ol' funny book... read all about it in the future chapters of this epic series -- it REALLY gets interesting from here on -- a classic story (especially the sex part!)