CRUMB INTERVIEW, Oct 2015
This exclusive interview was conducted by phone between publisher Alex Wood and Robert Crumb in October 2015. Alex asks Crumb about issues including the perception of racism in his work.
ALEX: If you just look at your work, and a person doesn't know you personally, well, I think they'll get a completely different impression of who you are.
ROBERT: Yeah, that's partly true, yeah. I'm nicer in person, right?
ALEX: If someone were black and they looked at that character 'Angel Food McSpade', they might consider it a racist and derogatory character.
ROBERT: Yeah, yeah. Sure.
ALEX: And I've spoken to you about racial issues for over 20 years. I think it's pretty fair to say that you're not very racist at all. Do you want to talk about that and help clarify?
ROBERT: It's a hard thing to articulate, to explain why I don't think I'm a racist. Some people get it, even some black people get that it's not racist. They get what it is, what I'm trying to do there. But you know, that kind of stuff's not for everyone. Any image that has been used as a derogatory, stereotype -- anti-Semitic caricature of a Jew or whatever -- you draw that with the purpose of making some kind of ironic satirical take on it, that's going to be lost on a lot of people who just look at the image and all they see is anti-Semitic or racist, that's all they can see. They can't get past that. And I understand that. That's why I say that kind of stuff is just not for everyone, that's all. But there are those who get that type of thing. And I'm sorry if some images I've drawn are hurtful to some people. I truly am sorry. I feel bad about that. But, somehow I almost feel like it has to be vented. Somebody had to do it, put that shit out there. Otherwise, it's just stewing and boiling under the surface all the time in the culture in a way that's just, ugh, just so ugly. You know, the white people and the black people, the guilty liberals, the ignorant bigots. A big boiling pot, an ugly underbelly of the collective consciousness. It just has to be released somehow, in some way that's not murderous. It might be hurtful to some people, but it's not murderous. To anybody that looks at those images for more than 3 seconds, you can see that I'm not promoting racism. So what's your reaction to that explanation, Alex?
ALEX: I think that's one aspect of it. But I think your work is more complex than that. I think that if you look at your work from the late 60's on, I think there have been some instances, at least the way I read it, where you are being critical.
ROBERT: Critical of what?
ALEX: Well, critical of the bullshit, ''jive'' elements of black culture.
ROBERT: Well, yeah, that's true, I have. I reserve the right, even as a white male, to make fun of the behavior of oppressed minorities such as black people, Jews, women, Mexicans. But, sure, it's a touchy area. One has to be continuously examining one's self, one's own prejudices, beliefs, fears. You know what, I've probably been guilty of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, in my work, not to mention misanthropy and general insensitivity. I believe racism is a quite natural animal reaction, but, as humans, we can work to transcend our animal reactions. We can do it. You see examples of it all the time. People nowadays no longer throw stones at cripples, stuff like that. It needs work. Meanwhile, racial tensions still hang in the air in America. It's like a thick, heavy humidity in the air.
You can't use the word 'nigger' anymore, even in a neutral setting, in the sense of saying, you know, ''Somebody called him a nigger.'' And even if you're criticizing that, you've got to say 'n - dash - dash - dash - r' or whatever. It's become such a taboo word. The whole racial thing is extremely sensitive. So there we are, we're in a touchy situation. So just letting off any steam about it can appear racist.
A southern friend of mine from Texas once said to me in an exaggerated Southern accent, ''Hayull, you can't even say chiggers anymore, you have to say ''chegroes.'' Lenny Bruce had a routine that I think they reenacted in that movie about him called Lenny. He was doing a monologue in a nightclub and he starts saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger' And some black people in the audience were were really getting annoyed. Then he went on to give a lecture about the power of words and language to incite strong emotion. A lot of black people just say, 'White people, if you have any consciousness at all, you just can't be throwing that word around. You can't just throw the word nigger around even if it's in the most hip, ironic sense because it's a word that just strikes a sore spot in black people.' So then what happens is you get a political correctness that can become so extreme that it's like a wet blanket over the culture and you have to watch every word you say. You can no longer say someone's retarded because that's hurtful. That's a critical, hurtful word. Retarded. I had this discussion with someone recently, a woman I know who's very smart, whom I respect a lot but she's extremely politically correct, partly because of her job in an arts organization. She has to deal with the public so she has to be very careful about the words she uses. So, we were talking and I said something about an article I'd read about retarded people and she said, 'Oh, you shouldn't use that word. That is hurtful' I said, 'Well, what's the word I should use?' and she told me some term, 'Otherly' I can't even remember. Some really awkward, bending over backwards terminology. And I started thinking about it. I'm sure the word 'retarded' actually originally was a way of trying to be polite about people that used to be called 'idiots' or 'imbeciles.' So they started using 'retarded' to be more polite. So I said, 'What about sub-normal?' and she said, 'Oh no, no, that's very negative. Those are negative terms, sub-normal, and retarded.' But I'm sure those were originally instituted as polite words to replace these older terms really, 'â€˜idiot', 'imbecile, 'moron.'
ALEX: It's interesting about America's relationship with black people. Each generation keeps changing the word Americans are supposed to call them. It went from 'nigger' to 'negro.' Then the more polite term was 'colored'. My grandmother grew up with that, so she used that word all the time: 'He was such a nice colored man.' And then.
ROBERT: Yeah, 'Colored people,' as in the 'National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.'
ALEX: Right. And then in the 60's it was like, 'I ain't green, I'm black.' And then the whole 'Black Power' thing, so then they want to be called black and then...
ROBERT: Then it was Afro-American.
ALEX: Yeah. I grew up with 'Black,' that's a nice one syllable word. No one had a problem with it. But then, all of a sudden somebody somewhere said, ''We want to be called African-Americans.' I said, 'What? I ain't doin' it.' African-American? That's too damn long.'
ROBERT: Or Indians gotta be called Native Americans now. But all those words, all the language, the English language comes from white people. So OK, we're all stuck in the United States with the English language. Ok? So, these terms have an English slant, unless you come up with an African word that black people ought to be called. Maybe there's an African word that they could institute. And say 'No, you've got to use the African word now.' It's like Mexicans, you can't call them Mexicans anymore. They have some other term for them now, Hispanics or something. I forget what it is. I've been living in the land of the Frogs too long -- oops, I mean, the French.
ALEX: How about that one strip that you did of that big black woman and Snoid. Remember? She's working for him and he's got her on the monitor system? And she's not working in the kitchen and he's like, 'I'm gonna fix her.' And then-
ROBERT: Yeah, that was something. He gets her really pissed off and she goes crazy with a couple of butcher knives. [laughing] Yep. Yeah, I don't know. I don't know about that stuff. [laughing] All I can say is, I'm not a racist. But people say, 'Oh there's all this sub conscious racism in the culture.' Yeah, it's true. Ok, I'm a white male, I'm sure that there are certain things like 'none of us can know the pain that black people have suffered in the United States if you're not one of them. You can't know it.' So yeah, OK, I'm sorry. What's the solution? Just don't ever do anything about it? Maybe so, just let them do whatever they need to do about it. And don't ever do anything that you think is funny or satirical or anything. I don't know. I've got no answers. Lock me up, take away my pencils. I don't know. [Laughing]
ALEX: I wanna talk about the things you did as a young artist in your 20's that you wouldn't necessarily do now. Like, the Joe Blow strip. I know a lot of people have confronted you since then, and said, 'Nothing but a sick mind would do stuff like that.' Could you kind of try and respond to that, and try and explain as best you can all the different elements at the time that went into why you would do something like that?
ROBERT: I don't know. I don't have a glib explanation for it. But, maybe I was sick when I was young; I did have a sick mind. (laughs) I was a product of America. There it is, ok? (laughs) For better or worse. It's not my fault, it's America's fault, okay?
ALEX: But Robert, there are rational explanations for certain things. There are inexplicable reasons, sure, but there's also very rational reasons like, for example, you were part of a group of young male artists trying to push the boundaries and maybe there was a certain amount of bravado and competition between you.
ROBERT: Absolutely, sure. In my 20's, yeah, there was a certain amount of 'shock the bourgeois' sensibilities. Also, we were all breaking out of the straight jacket of the 50's, you know. It was so shut down and our sources of inspiration were like Kurtzman and his satire. Kurtzman and company pushed it as far as they possibly could in the main stream media of the time. So, then along comes the Hippie era -- a cultural revolution, everything's getting turned over. I learned that you could publish anything in underground papers, it was completely uncensored. Wow! Then in 1968 I got to know S. Clay Wilson, who came out of the Midwest with this thing that nobody had never seen before, totally cut-loose. He had no restraint, didn't censor himself at all. I'd never seen anything like it in my life. So I thought 'Wow!' So I let loose too, kind of let it all out. Plus, the whole sexual freedom thing was going on, and breaking the boundaries of censorship: the big fuck you to Bourgeois America. Fuck you Leave it to Beaver, fuck you Father Knows Best and all the repression that came with it. So we just pushed the boundaries as far as we could. But it's just lines on paper, we weren't propagandizing a political movement or anything, it was just anarchy.
Later on in the 80's when Franco died in Spain -- you know, General Franco, who was this very repressive dictator in Spain for like 40 years. Well, an underground comic movement started after he died. For about 5 years after he died, they put out the most obscene, filthy comics I've ever seen. It was so extreme for about 5 years, every issue was filled with the most twisted, perverse sexual stuff. And they kind of got it out of their system. It started to level off after about 5 years. They put out a lot of highly sexual comics, some of them quite interesting. They just had to go through that, that outburst of freedom from censorship and the artists just let their imaginations go crazy. Another thing you have to consider is that all that stuff is boiling under the surface of the collective mind. It's all there, all the time, just stewing and boiling under the surface and if you have a really repressed society, in comes out in such evil, twisted ways. The things that people do to each other! I read an article about a year ago about this extremely repressed Amish group somewhere in South America. They were settled -- I can't remember exactly where right now.
[Robert, I looked it up and it was a group of Mennonites in Boliva. The incident is referred to as The Ghost Rapists of Boliva. They procured knock out spray from a local veterinarian (who was sentenced to 12 years for his role in the rapes).]
ROBERT: But anyway, it was like an Amish group. They were so repressed and they couldn't talk about anything and it turned out that for years, these women had been waking up in the morning with very sore vaginas and stained sheets. And they were ashamed to even talk about it for years, but finally the accumulation of these events, built up to the point that somebody, some women, came out and went to the police and they found out that a group of these Amish men, most of them young but one older guy who was kind of the leader, were going around at night and spraying some chemical into the windows of people's houses while they were asleep and knock them out so that they couldn't wake up. Then they would go in and rape the women. They were doing this for years before the whole thing came out. Initially the members refused to go outside their community to the normal police, since the community policed themselves. But the elders of the community just wouldn't do anything. It was just too horrifying and shocking to deal with. So, these women finally went to the normal police and the whole gang got put in jail. That's what happens when there's no way to express those things, to talk about sex or anti-social feelings or crazy sexual perversions, stuff like that. It just erupts in really weird, scary ways, in which people do real harm to each other.
ALEX: And beside from being completely intoxicated with your new freedom of expression that happened in the 60's, do you think that drugs had anything to do with or accelerated that quest for more freedom?
ROBERT: I would say what LSD did, for me anyway, was to break you out of the straight jacket, all the programming that we'd been brought up with in our youth. I'm talking about the children of the WWII generation, and this is through the 50's. So when you took those drugs, you suddenly saw through all that, in some way it all became kind of unreal and cardboard. So that just gave you a kind of cut-loose freedom in a way from that mental straight jacket. It helped you to break out of it. But you had to also keep up a kind of intellectual critique too, you see, you couldn't just let go of intellect completely. Some people who took LSD, they just completely went into the most crazy, mystical stuff, you know; like some kind of completely mystic dream world. They'd drop the intellectual critique and intellectualism itself became questionable and suspect. But, I think that the smarter people who took LSD felt that you still had to keep up some kind of intellectual critique. So, that was all part of it. All those things combined, actually. I'd already developed a certain alienation and critique before I ever took drugs. And the drugs just pushed me away, like a sudden boost -- but 100 times more so -- away from the mental conventions of the time.
ALEX: Looking back and having that understanding of yourself and how that development was necessary for you to get where you are now, is there anything that you look at today and say, 'Boy, I wish I hadn't done that. I wish that wasn't published.'â€¨
ROBERT: (laughs) I've gone through phases like that, of looking at that stuff and wincing with embarrassment like 'Oh my God, what was I thinking putting this out in the public? What is this, some sort of compulsive exhibitionism or what? Why did you do this? What did you think was going to be the reaction?' For example, Eggs Ackley and the Vulture Demonesses, I often look at that stuff and think, 'What? What were you thinking?' What did I think I was doing? At the time I just kind of took the chance, I just didn't know. I said, 'Well, this is a fantasy I have, like a sexual fantasy, I'll put it out there and see what happens.' I had no conscious rationale. At a certain point, I just could no longer be America's favorite Hippie Underground Cartoonist, you know? Couldn't just do jokes about the hippies, you know? I had to push it further, had to dig deeper into the subconscious. I still don't know if it was the right thing to do or if it was a mistake, I don't know. It was an experiment. To take the whole underbelly of your consciousness and expose it to the public? In a way, it's kind of a dumb thing to do, because it's not necessarily the most beneficial or rewarding thing socially for you to do. For one thing, it completely alienated 99% of the female readers.(laughs) And the other thing is that it was so bizarre and twisted and weird that it didn't even sell as pornography. It's so highly personal. It's not the common denominator of pornography either. It was just my personal, weird, sexual twistedness. My own sexual craziness that I put in the comics. Why? I don't know. It was in me, it was inside my head, swimming around in my fevered imagination since puberty, those fantasies. So I felt at some point I've got to keep doing these comics, and I couldn't keep on doing the Hippie jokes, like The Freak Brothers or something. Plus, it was fun to draw those sex fantasies. I was enjoying myself immensely. Yeah, okay, it was masturbatory.
ALEX: But at that time, you had to come up with a lot of material, there was a lot of pressure from all the publishers who were constantly saying, 'We need more comics! We need more comics!'
ROBERT: Yes they were, that's right. There were like 5 or 6 small publishers and since my stuff sold better than most of the other stuff, they were all just constantly hounding me to come up with stuff. Yeah.
ALEX: So it makes sense that you might have said, 'Well, I'll just do this then.'
ROBERT: That's exactly right, yeah. Let's see how this flies. (laughs) To this day I'm not sure, I still don't know what the general reaction was. The most extreme, sexually perverse stuff I did, probably the sickest thing I ever did was the thing I did for 'Funny Aminals' where I had these two cat characters behead this giant female bird creature and kick her head around. That was really twisted. Where'd that come from??
ALEX: How about the strip where you cut the nun's head off -- what do you think about that strip? Do you think it had much to do with your anger against all you had to go through as a kid in the Catholic Church? Or were you just flying off the cuff, you just started a strip and followed where it took you?
ROBERT: I never planned anything out in those days. I never planned a strip to the end, ever. In the early 70's when I did a lot of that crazy stuff, I would just start out, often just with a very simple single idea for a first panel and then see where it took me. That's the way I worked in those days. And that strip just led to that point, yeah. As I was drawing, I wasn't even thinking about what it was about or what it meant, it just came out. And I realized, 'Oh yeah, I guess I have a lot of anger towards those nuns.' (laughs). And you know, I was a rebellious youth, typical rebellious youth. I hated all authority figures: cops, teachers, churches, politicians, millionaire businessmen, you name it. And I had anger towards women too, so there you go. John Pierre Mercier, a comic scholar here in France, went through all my work and actually counted the number of times I drew beheadings of women. He actually told me the number, I forget what it was -- something like 5 times, or 6 or 7 or something. Scary. Who can blame the feminists!?
ALEX: Let's talk about you scripting things out beforehand. You originally started creating your strips by commencing with the first panel and seeing where it would take you. Then, in the late '80's, you and Terry Zwigoff wrote and rewrote a script for a possible film project in Hollywood. That writing experience with scripting, did that change how you created your strips from that point on? That you began scripting your stories before you started drawing them?
ROBERT: Not entirely. I almost never scripted all the way to the end. Often I did stories that I started as a doodling in a sketchbook. I would take an off-hand sketch, a kernel of an idea, and turn it into a story. But I almost never had the final resolve figured out until I got to the end, almost never.
ALEX: When you look back at your work, do you prefer the more scripted stories? Or do you enjoy looking at the earlier stuff that was not scripted? Do you enjoy one more than the other?
ROBERT: No, not especially. It all depends how much self-loathing I have at any given moment as to what I think about any work I did in the past. Sometimes I can look at it and it really looks badly drawn and lame. I think 'How could anybody like this?' I'm convinced that soon I'll go out of favor and everyone will realize that my work was never really that good to begin with. And other times, I'll look at it and think, 'Boy, I really was brilliant. What a genius.' (laughs) It just depends.
ALEX: You know, one story that I thought was very tight was 'White Man Meets Big Foot.' It had a beginning, a middle and an end. It was a tight story. You didn't script that right before?
ROBERT: No, no I didn't. Well, I had read this book about Big Foo, about how this incident that supposedly happened in the 1920's, where this man was hunting in the woods or something in the Northwest and was captured by some Big Foots and was forced to mate with one of the females and then he escaped. What a great idea for a comic story. So I kind of started with that idea, but I didn't know where it was going to go.
ALEX: Well, that turned out really nicely.
ROBERT: It did, yeah. It kind of worked out as a complete story, yeah. And it kept getting longer and longer. I had no idea it was going to end up being so long. It took up almost the whole comic. 'Homegrown Funnies' . I thought it would be maybe a 4 or 5 page story and then it just went on to something like 20 pages. It's one of the longer stories I ever did at that time in my life.
ALEX: There was another strip that you did later that was from a dream you had, that strip about Mr. Natural and The Devil Girl and her head was missing. Was that a complete story before you started it?
ROBERT: No, it wasn't. The idea came from a dream. The dream was nothing near as elaborate as the comic story. In fact, I woke up from that dream rather suddenly. I thought, 'Wow!' because it was so bizarre, it just suddenly woke me up. In the dream it was actually a woman who I had known in real life. And somebody -- I forget who it was -- some person brought her to me without her head, and her body was still alive. (Laughs). A big, tall, magnificently built woman I had known in real life years before who was always a very difficult and vexatious person. I was extremely attracted to her, but she was unattainable.
Somehow I felt compelled to turn this dream into a comic story, perverse though it was. The human mind is very depraved. And I was just fool enough to be more open about my depravity than most people. People either like that, or they despise it, depending on their temperament. When the Crumb film came out, the documentary, the reaction even among the critics was totally divided down the middle. Some just hated it, hated me, hated everything about it. They said that it was really negative and that I was a very negative, creepy person. The other half could completely sympathize with that position in society. It was very interesting. That's kind of the reaction to my work. People either can sympathize, empathize and identify, or they can't and it's just hateful and negative and disgusting. Some critic wrote about my work and said, 'After reading one of Crumbs comics, you just want to go take a shower. You feel unclean; you feel you've been sullied. Like you've been touched by something dirty.' (Laughs) Yep, there it is. But my stuff, that's somebody else's dirty mind, not your own dirty mind -- somebody else's. Ick! Like smelling someone else's shit, not your own.
ALEX: Let's talk about your reluctance to keep drawing comics. Why don't you want to keep doing comics?
ROBERT: As I'm sitting at my desk and drawing, I'm really aware that what I'm doing is so antique. It's even getting harder to find the materials to do this kind of stuff. But, it will go on. This type of thing goes on, just like people making stained glass windows and stuff, you know. Or fine lithography and stuff like that, use old style presses and everything because it's very fine, it's nice doing lithographs but it's certainly past its prime when that was the king of the mass media; lithography, in the 19th century. That was a very powerful medium -- lithographed illustration. All the advertisements and stuff were done that way; big beautiful color posters they put up, advertising beer or whatever, you know. It was just beautiful.
ALEX: Does it affect your will or ability to produce this because you feel it's antiquated?
ROBERT: I feel antiquated. It does affect my motivation. I don't have the high motivation anymore. I no longer have that urgent need to turn out artwork, especially because I'm through with comics almost entirely, except for the comics I do with Aline. You know, plenty of young people are doing interesting comics -- I don't have to keep doing it. I did my share.
ALEX: You don't really feel like doing comics anymore because you don't have anything contemporary to say? Or because you've said everything that you have to say? Or because you feel it's antiquated in some way?
ROBERT: There are still people doing viable comics, great comics. There's a young comics publisher somewhere in America --I forget exactly where. And he sent me a comic recently by a young artist named Noah Van Sciver. This comic is about his youth in the 90's. It's a great autobiographical comic. Hilarious. So you know, there's still plenty of room for comics as a viable medium. But, I just... when you get old, I don't know, it's different. I write a lot now, but I don't feel the need to put it into comics. I've kind of busted my brain trying to figure out how to put an idea I've had recently, I don't know, the last 5 years or so, into comic strip form and I can't think of how to do it. It's just too complicated, it's too complex. I can't -- I could not figure out some way to work it as a comic book.
ALEX: What topic is that?
ROBERT: It's a social critique. I just, it's so complex, I just couldn't figure out how to do it. I still nurse this idea, I should try to do this, but it's so complex I don't even know where to begin or how to approach it. So, I don't know. When I was young, I was spontaneous and crazy and I was highly motivated and I wanted recognition and dah dah dah dah. And that all kind of passed. It's not a bad or a sad thing, I think it's quite natural. I often see people in the arts who continue to push it just because they can't let go of it when they should have let go of it long since. That's just pathetic. You don't want to end up like that. Very rarely does anybody continue to really do their best work into old age, that's very unusual. It happens, but most the time people do their best work in their youth or in their prime of life. Often people do their best work when they're quite young. Someone like George Orwell, I was just reading his book ''Down and Out in Paris and London.'' He did his best stuff when he was young. Later, when he was older, he was just pushing this theoretical stuff. It happens to a lot of artists, writers, musicians. They do their best work when they are so young and full of enthusiasm, in the flower of youth, you know? The flower blossoms and then it wilts. That's the way it works.
ALEX: Yeah, but there are certain artists who are able to keep on going and come up with different styles and different ideas. Like Matisse, who came up with those beautiful paper cuts when he was an old guy.
ROBERT: Yeah. Yeah, those paper cuts don't thrill me. But a lot of artists, I think that in the fine art thing, in the modern art period, the 20's, 30's and 40's, 50's, 60's, that whole period, that a lot of those artists did their best work when they were quite young, before they became important and started making a lot of money and got self-conscious. When they were young and starving is when they did their best work, most of them. Picasso is kind of exceptional. He kept doing good work for a few decades anyway. From like the teens through maybe the 40's. After that, in his old age, his stuff was much less interesting, and he became quite cynical and jaded. Maybe he had too much money and too many girlfriends. (laughs) Sometimes success itself can spoil artists -- artists, writers, musicians. Recognition makes you become self-conscious, you become aware of your importance and you kind of lose the edge, whatever it is.
ALEX: Do you think that affected you at all when you became famous?
ROBERT: Absolutely. Absolutely. And then the other factor is the historical moment. Let's say the jazz music of the '20s. People like Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, on the crest of this wave of the times, the mood of the times, and the jazz revolution. It was a revolution in music. They were young, they were so obsessed with their music and they didn't care if they never slept, and they were just deeply in love with the music. But after a while they got ground down, the business reality just ground them all down. So then, after the Depression sets in and music becomes much more of a hard ass business than it had been before, the music lost that bright, spontaneous enthusiasm that it had that makes it so enjoyable still to listen to. All the later stuff is more formulized, even though technically it may have improved. Often those musicians were proud of their improved technique in their later years. They'd say 'Oh, when I was young, I had a lot less chops -- now I'm a much better musician' . And that might be true, but there's something, the feeling, the mood is lost. And I, too, was part of a historical moment. I recognize that. The 60's and 70's, I was part of that period, and even the 80's. My work kind of belongs to that period in that way. Probably my best stuff was all done in that period, the 60's and 70's and into the 80's. And I still do fine drawings. I can still draw really well. Almost everything I do now is from photographs. I draw from photographs. It's all about technique. It's about the fine technique and I am good at it. I'm proud of it. I look at it and it's good, it's really well done. But it's not the same as those comics. It's not the same at all.