American cartoonist Robert Crumb shows one of his paintings at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany in this file photo. AFP/Torsten Silz
I met one of my heroes last week. The prospect of meeting Robert Crumb, comic book artist extraordinaire, was exciting enough. But as I waited with a group of journalists at the Indian International Centre — a venue so distinctly distant from the sex-crazed, drug-induced, physically and mentally unhinged world of Crumb’s comic universe that it was kind of scary — all the smart questions that I had planned to ask evaporated.
The 68-year-old artist is in Delhi attending Comic Con India — the country’s biggest comic book convention — along with his fellow comic book artist-wife Aline. Crumb, looking his gangly best in a suit at least one size too big, wearing thick aquarium glasses and a Yorkshire cap (the kind that retired bureaucrats wear to the Delhi Gymkhana in winter), looked exactly how I thought he would look: a posterboy misanthrope who would like to be anywhere but ‘here’. He actually looked more like a disgruntled potato farmer (a bearded version of the farmer holding a pitchfork in Grant Wood’s iconic painting American Gothic) than the cultural iconoclast he is. “I’m here just to see the country. I don’t come to comic conferences,” Crumb paradoxically started off.
As he answered a question about his ‘inspirations’ — Mad magazine founding editor Harvey Kutzman, 50s Disney comics artist Carl Barks, 19th century caricaturist (and creator of the modern version of Santa Claus) Thomas Nast, and 18th century political cartoonist James Gillray — I recalled why I’m so enamoured of Crumb.
In Crumb’s underground comic art — that has only recently been airlifted to the status of ‘gallery art’ — what I value most is his searing, lyrical, anti-avant garde force of subversion. His clear-inked depictions of bare-breasted women with gigantic buttocks and redwood thighs in strange, unnatural unions with satirical, anatomically impossible smaller men are not from the same world as the one inhabited by the high art of ‘shock’ artists like Yoko Ono or Damien Hirst. To seek ‘high art’ comparisons with Crumb’s works is to totally miss the point. Apart from his sheer boy-like zeal to depict entangled bodies in different acts of copulative violence, creations like Mr Natural, a shaggy-bearded man who looks like a cross between God and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and Felix the Cat, a hormonally-overdriven pussy-loving feline, are the stuff of unreconstructed innocence. Crumb’s visions of highly crafted schoolboy-ish smut are easily transferable to less ‘low brow’ subjects — as it has been in works including his comic book biography of Franz Kafka and his latest illustrated book, The Book of Genesis.
“I thought [illustrating the Book of Genesis from the Bible] would be interesting. Genesis has been interpreted and reinterpreted down the ages. Some stories don’t even make sense. Why would Abraham push his own wife to the Pharaoh?” Crumb said. As is evident to anyone who’s seen Crumb’s Genesis, he didn’t need to do anything but draw out the stories. The Old Testament, with its dollops of luridness was Robert Crumbed already. Regarding the blizzard of sexual imagery in his works, Crumb had a non-answer: “I had a compulsion to reveal that part of myself. Why? I have no idea. Perhaps after 20 years of psychoanalysis I’ll figure that out. Now I’m old and I’m over that. Sometimes when I see the stuff I did in the 1960s and 1970s, I get embarrassed.”
My bet would be that he got bored.
As an avid collector of old 78 rpm records, Crumb had once said, “The only person you can ever impress with that rare record you just got is another collector who’s looking for the same record. And the average person, I can show them the rarest record in the collection and they’ll say, ‘Yeah? So what?’” Similarly, not everyone will take to Crumb’s deliriously inked world. By not being part of the mainstream world of American culture, he has been lucky to not have to worry about ‘playing it safe’.
To know Robert Crumb’s comic art — collections of his books are readily available in India — is to enter a world where everything goes. And because of his sense of wide-eyed wonderment straddled to his chiselled artistry, I love Robert Crumb.