Crumb and Dana attempt life and "free love" in a California cabin in the early '70s, and Robert expounds on the demise of underground comix.
(This article originally appeared in The Complete Crumb Comics - Volume 7 (1991, Fantagraphics)
The work in The Complete Crumb: Volume 7 was all done when I was 26-27 years old-still a punk, but I already felt like I was an old man… A veteran, a venerable elder of the thriving underground comix scene, the counter-culture revolutionary youth movement scene. A helluva lot of psychedelic drugs had passed through my battered brain cells… I’d smoked enough marijuana to fill a train car. Fame was old hat… I was now used to the phone ringing every five minutes. The thrill was gone. It was tiresome, having to listen to yet another fast-talking wheeler-dealer, having to talk to another journalist, another fan-boy. Man, I was OLD!
A CABIN IN THE SKY
I had a little cabin up in the mountains, three hours north of San Francisco. My first wife had taken that 10,000 bucks from Ralph Bakshi for the rights to use Fritz The Cat in his big animated movie, and made a down payment on this place in Mendocino County. The previous owner was a hippy jewelry maker who spent most of his time in San Francisco. His house in the country had been taken over by a bunch of young drop-outs who had no money. The bathtub was full of dirt. The walls were painted purple and orange. A big flag with a peace symbol waved from a pole in the front yard. Local teen-age rednecks in dune-buggies would drive by and throw their beer bottles at the flag, screaming curses.
When we informed the squatting hippies that we were going to buy the property they, of course, tried to welcome us into their happy family, waxing eloquently about how beautiful it was going to be, all of us living together. My wife had other ideas, the freeloaders would have to go. No ifs ands or buts. The idea of throwing a bunch of people out of a house so that we could move in was horrible to me… bad karma. I didn’t particularly want to live with those people, but I certainly wanted nothing to do with kicking them out, either! I told Dana, let's just forget the whole thing and look for some other place to buy. No, her mind was made up. She liked this place and no spaced-out hippy bums were going to stand in her way. She could be hard as nails sometimes. She got our team of lawyers on the case right away. Those hippies were out of there in no time! Gone! Over the hill! Never heard from again! All very clean and efficient. Power and money and work, for me and my wife! The whole business deeply troubled me. Our retreat in the mountains was off to a bad start, and it never did settle down up there… it was an endless succession of crises, conflicts, psychotic flip-outs, guns going off, kicked in doors, car wrecks, fires, bad trips, smashed furniture, food fights, runaway cows, runaway horses, warring factions, chaos… anarchy… and lots and lots of dope smoking…
It was shortly after we moved onto this property that I became involved with Kathy Goodell (see my introduction in Complete Crumb #6) and Dana got herself a new boyfriend, Paul, who soon moved in with her in the big house. So then we each had our own domain on the place. Hers was the big house, mine the little cabin.
Hell, we were liberal, we were hip… the avant garde! Why couldn’t we all still live together in harmony, in an "open" situation? What’s to get uptight about? I liked her new boyfriend…he was an alright dude. My girlfriend(s) would come up, stay for a few days in the cabin. We all had big communal dinners together in the big house, and sat around smoking dope in the evenings. Somehow it didn’t work out. Resentments built up until there was open hostility. I shoulda left that place for good way sooner than I did, but I couldn’t “get it together”, man. I was very passive. I allowed things to deteriorate badly. Besides, I didn’t want to be completely cut off from my son, Jesse. I loved him and wanted to be with him, at least part of the time. I admit I was pretty much an irresponsible bum when it came to parental duties. Dana carried most of the burden, by far. That had a lot to do with her anger towards me. I was off running around with the hippy floozies, while she got stuck with all the work. That’s how she saw it. She was right, I s’pose.
The cabin was your basic shack in the mountains, with a crudely built brick fireplace. I had all my collections in there -- my 78 records, old comics, old toys. That’s where I worked, when I wasn’t running off with hippy floozies. I spent a lot of time in San Francisco, and also made trips to L.A., New York, Chicago, etc, etc. and still managed to be amazingly prolific in this period… A regular one-man comic-book factory. I churned the stuff out. Now that I was famous, it was expected out of me. The world cried out with outstretched hands, “Give us comics! We want comics!”… so it seemed to me. All the small publishers of underground comics of that time pleaded with me to supply them with comics. They always sold well. I felt it was my sole responsibility to keep these several little companies in business. Isn’t that what they call “co-dependency” now? I had a huge ego, I thought they’d all go under if I didn’t keep feeding them R.Crumb comics on a regular basis. The whole world would come apart at the seams. Civilization would crumble, if I didn’t keep those comics coming!
I’m afraid the consequence of this pathological hysteria was a decline in the quality of my work. My vision got blurred, distorted. I tried to maintain a high standard, but quantity became my main concern. Plus, it was getting harder and harder to concentrate. There was always this crowd of people hanging around, and the phone was always ringing. The pure, white-hot inspiration of '66-'67 was getting lost in the shuffle... oh well... I was very young after all… I wasn’t so old as I thought I was… there was still plenty to learn…
COMICS AS COMPULSION
I have this generic memory of being in my cabin, sitting at my desk, a work in progress in front of me… A comic page half inked or something… but there’s this group of people sitting around in there… three or four of them, lounging around the cabin, getting stoned… they pass me the joint… oh well, that’s the end of working… now I had to relate, keep the ball rolling, be amusing, tell some funny anecdotes… they found me fascinating… a real character, the legendary R.Crumb. A lot of times we’d drink beer, too… I played some old records for them, tried to turn them on to America’s great lost musical heritage. They could care. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them I needed to work… ask them to leave… It might hurt their feelings… they were nice people… usually I liked them, and I wanted them to like me… I was flattered that they chose to hang out with me…. I wanted them to think I was the nicest guy in the world.
Eventually they’d drift off. Often I worked into the middle of the night, when I was finally alone, and everything was quiet. I’d work feverishly through the wee hours, and fall in my bed at dawn. My sketch-books of the period are all full of frantic, hurried attempts to come up with new ideas -- ANYTHING I could turn into comics… sorta pathetic…
I don’t think it’s all that bad, my work of this period… some of it holds up… though personally, I think the stuff I did in ’67-’68 is stronger... more cohesive and whatnot. All the attention and flattery I was getting had a two-sided effect; It confirmed, on one hand, what I already knew -- that I was a great artist, destined for immortality and all like that. On the other hand, it plunged me into the grip of a paralyzing, crippling self-consciousness that for years became increasingly harder to push past whenever I took pen in hand. Eventually I struggled through this tangled briar patch of problems. I managed to get it all in perspective, finally, after years in which the work suffered from my confusion… most of the seventies, I’d say. If I hadn’t come to terms with the fame thing I would've had to give up the whole comics thing, do something else. I was seriously contemplating getting out of this business in the mid-seventies. But then, I’m completely useless for any other kind of work. I have to draw comics or DIE!
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE COMIX EMPIRE
1970 -- the peak, the high-water mark of the hippy lifestyle as a popular fashion among the youth of America… The counter-culture “rebellion” had penetrated deep into every college campus and high school. Even the redneck kids were getting in on it. It looked liked too much fun to resist… all the loose sex and dope. And underground comics were right in there, an intrinsic part of the “scene”, an accoutrement of the lifestyle. Kids got high and grooved on their lil pile of Zap Comix, got their yuks on Mr. Natural, the Checkered Demon and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. We were heroes, man! Every college town had its head shop or two. Most of them sold underground comics. Im always meeting people who were in high school or college then who tell me what a significant part my comix played in their wild 'n crazy stoned out youth. They always ask me, “So, what are you doing nowadays?” they look surprised when I tell them I’m still doing “underground” comics. “Really?! Man, I haven’t seen one a’ those things for, like, fifteen years!” “It’s a lot harder to find them now,” I tell them, “You know, all the head shops were forced to close down… things are a lot more conservative… distribution is very limited now for this kinda stuff.” “Oohh,” they say. It’s all news to them. “Even a lotta these comic book shops won't carry my comics. They’re afraid of getting busted, it’s a limited market anyway, why take the risk of going to jail for so little money?!” I end my speech by telling them that, well, even though the comics business is on such a small scale these past years, I’m still able to make a decent living from it, what with reprints of the old stuff, all the European translations, the good prices I get for original art. I’m content to keep doing these little comic books as long as I can. I enjoy the complete artistic freedom. I’ve had my own way for so long now, I can’t stand to be told what to draw. I really balk at doing any commercial job in which I have to draw someone else’s idea, or change something I did because some art director didn’t like it… man, I HATE that! I’m the “underground”! I draw exactly whatever th’ hell I want and they publish it, no questions asked… Who needs the big time?! They can keep their filthy money!
I think a lot of people, even former hippies, people who lived on the fringe and held those anti-establishment beliefs, have the impression that the whole ‘sixties’ magilla just kinda faded away, fizzled out, died of its own weariness and excessive foolishness. Which is not entirely true. There was organized, systematic, repressive action taken against every aspect of that outburst against “the system”, including alternative print media, by the powers, agencies, institutions of the “corporate state”. It is not paranoia, but the facts of history, to say these things. “They” didn’t sit back and passively watch while Abbie Hoffman and Huey Newton strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage. They had their think tanks staying up nights plotting and scheming new techniques to squash, neutralize, co-opt this threat to everything they held dear. They constructed sophisticated strategies for instilling fear into the general population. You could watch it happening. All through the seventies and into the eighties, fear was a weapon the bastards used very effectively. Like, take f’r instance, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling saying that local communities could decide for themselves what would be considered “obscene”, thereby unleashing vigorous forces of conservatism, right-wing Christians, etc., riding the wave of panic over “pornography”. The pressure was on all “explicit” material. The mafia and other large scale disseminators were able to shield their stuff, but shopkeepers who carried underground comics were running scared. The business took a big nose dive, and never did recover. The “fad” was over. But yeah, sure, it was a sign of the times… it wasn’t ONLY a government conspiracy… the “folks back home” were fed up… they wanted a crackdown on all this liberal-humanism-permissiveness crap!
It must be admitted, also, that circa 1970, those “UG” publishers like The Print Mint, Rip-Off Press, Last Gasp Eco-Funnies and others would publish anything that faintly resembled an underground comic, glutting the market with a multitude of unreadable, incoherent books, many of which are rare and valuable collectors items today. They behaved like any other business in the throes of a trend… pump it for all its worth ‘til the bubble bursts. Among these badly executed comics were many embarrassing R.Crumb imitations. But the openness and willingness to print anything also allowed many young artists to see their work in print, an experience which can be highly motivating… some of these artists are still at it, and doing excellent work. In the more closed and less experimental atmosphere of this age, it is much harder, if not impossible, for young amateurish “underground” cartoonists to get published in anything above the level of Xerox.
So, what you’re looking at here is “vintage” Crumb from what was really the “heyday” of underground comics, but not necessarily the “golden age”. That just might be… only history will know for sure… but just might be… this very moment! Look SHARP!
-- R.Crumb, Winters, Calif., Feb., 1991