Fritz the Cat. Mr. Natural. Flakey Floont. And, of course, the ubiquitous "Keep on Truckin'" dude. These are the 60s comic icons most readily associated with cartoonist Robert Crumbdrug-induced characters indelibly tied to a bygone era. And, thankfully, they have very little to do with Terry Zwigoff's intensely personal documentary of the artist and his family, Crumb.
Instead, Crumb is a revelatory probe inside the artistic process itselfhow R. Crumb's family, upbringing, social outlook, personality, and sexual obsessions have unavoidably influenced his work. This is a story of an artist who follows his muse for good or bad, wherever it may take him. And it draws him into very dark territory indeed.
Beyond the fact that this is a rare, in-depth look at an American family that is extremely imperfect ("dysfunctional" is the catch phrase), Crumb investigates a man well worth examining. R. Crumb subverted the very idea of what comics are in this country. Up until the '60s, comics were principally aimed at children (with the exception of E.C. Comics like Mad and Tales from the Crypt), chock-full of caped crusaders beating up caped marauders. Crumb (while admittedly under the influence of LSD) instead drew comics that came directly from his id, creating often-bizarre characters and tackling satiric themes. These weren't happy little critters meant to entertainthese were true artistic expressions in a comic idiom.
Remarkably, they became popular, single-handedly sparking a new genre of comics dubbed "underground" because they were drawn by untrained artists, dealt with counter-cultural material, and were mostly read by hippies (who, ironically, Crumb abhorred). Later, through the '70s and '80s (and into the '90s), Crumb's work became increasingly autobiographical, using himself as a character, nakedly revealing his neurosis, fears, and prejudices. An infamous misanthrope, Crumb's scathing cartoon stories revel in their distaste for "progress," American culture, and himself.
But why should you care about a cartoonist, of all people? Because comicssequential cartoon art that relates a storyare a uniquely American art form. And it's an art form still in flux; although infantile superheroes command the dollars and attention, there is a growing contingent of artists influenced by Crumb. They are creating true "adult" comics that have little to do with muscle-bound superguys drooling over bikini-clad space babes, and instead attack personal themes previously reserved for "literature."
Crumb reveals how it all came about, how R. Crumb became the world-renowned artist he is today, and why his work is so compelling. Filmed over a six-year period, Crumb interviews the artist's former lovers, fellow cartoonists, critics, his wife Aline Kominsky and (most importantly) his brothers Max and Charles. It is here in his family's recollections that the roots of Crumb's genius are ferreted out: from the torment of growing up mostly unloved, misunderstood and unable to connect with any of his peers. But where this early angst prodded Crumb into creating commercially viable art, it only sent his equally creative brothers into the deep wells of mental illness.
Charles, who inspired his younger brothers to draw, is interviewed in the dark confines of their mother's house, where he has lived all his life. Heavily medicated since his suicide attempts of 20 years before, his haggard face and slow speech fail to mask a keen intelligence and an ability to self-analyze. Chortling, he recalls how he used to barely restrain himself from taking an ax and driving it through young Robert's heart as he slept. Robert laughs in amazement. Max, on the other hand, is a sex offender who lives monastically, meditating on a bed of nails in a furnitureless apartment, still painting amazingly off-kilter works featuring Japanese women.
Through their tales of a tyrannical father who wanted one of his hopelessly nerdy sons to "be a Marine" and of a mother addicted to amphetamines, the Crumbs go beyond being a cast of eccentrics to embodying the tragedy of dysfunctional families. Certainly, this is not the main point of Crumb, but it composes its most mesmerizing scenes and provides a window into the soul of an artist who tries not to think of why he draws what he does.
As Crumb relates in the movie, "I do this stuff, and then I'm horrified and embarrassed when I see it. I look at the paper, and I say 'Oh, my God,' but somehow I can't stop doing it." And there could be no better explanation of the creative process than that.