Robert Dennis Crumb (/krʌm/; born August 30, 1943) is an American cartoonist and musician who often signs his work R. Crumb. His work displays a nostalgia for American folk culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and satire of contemporary American culture.
Crumb is a prolific artist and contributed to many of the seminal works of the underground comix movement in the 1960s, including being a founder of the first successful underground comix publication, Zap Comix, contributing to all 16 issues. He was additionally contributing to the East Village Other and many other publications, including a variety of one-off and anthology comics. During this time, inspired by psychedelics and cartoons from the 1920s and 1930s, he introduced a wide variety of characters that became extremely popular, including countercultural icons Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, and the images from his Keep on Truckin' strip. Sexual themes abounded in all these projects, often shading into scatological and pornographic comics. In the mid-1970s, he contributed to the Arcade anthology; following the decline of the underground, he moved towards biographical and autobiographical subjects while refining his drawing style, a heavily crosshatched pen-and-ink style inspired by late 19th- and early 20th-century cartooning. Much of his work appeared in a magazine he founded, Weirdo (1981–1993), which was one of the most prominent publications of the alternative comics era. As his career progressed, his comic work became more autobiographical.
In 1991, Crumb was inducted into the comic book industry's Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame. He is married to cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, with whom he has frequently collaborated. Their daughter Sophie Crumb has also followed a cartooning career.
Early life (1943–1966)
Robert Crumb was born on August 30, 1943, in Philadelphia to a Catholic household of English and Scottish ancestry. His father, Charles V. Crumb, authored the book Training People Effectively, and was a Combat Illustrator for 20 years in the United States Marine Corps. His mother Beatrice was a housewife who reportedly abused diet pills and amphetamines. Charles and Beatrice's marriage was unhappy and the children were frequent witnesses to their parents' arguments. The couple had four other children: sons Charles Junior (1942–93) and Maxon (b. 1944), both of whom suffered from mental illness; and daughters Carol (b. 1940) and Sandra (1946-1998). The family moved to Milford, Delaware, when Crumb was twelve; there he was an average student whose teachers strongly discouraged him from cartooning.
Inspired by the works of Walt Kelly, Fleischer Brothers animation, and others, Crumb and his brothers drew their own comics. Crumb's cartooning developed as his older brother Charles pushed him and provided him with constant critical feedback on his work. In 1958 the brothers self-published three issues of Foo in imitation of Harvey Kurtzman's satirical Humbug and Mad. They sold them door-to-door with little success, souring the young Crumb on the comic-book business. At fifteen, Crumb became obsessed with collecting jazz and blues records from the 1920s to the 1940s. At age 16, he abandoned the Catholic faith.
Early work (1962–1966)
Crumb's father gave him $40 when he left home after high school. His first job, in 1962, was drawing novelty greeting cards for American Greetings in Cleveland, Ohio. He stayed with the company for four years, producing hundreds of cards for the company's Hi-Brow line; his superiors had him draw in a cuter style that was to leave a footprint on his work throughout his career. In Cleveland he met a group of young bohemians such as Buzzy Linhart, Liz Johnston, and Harvey Pekar. Dissatisfied with greeting card work, he tried to sell cartoons to comic book companies, who showed little interest in his work. In 1965, cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman printed some of Crumb's work in the humor magazine he edited, Help!. Crumb moved to New York, intending to work with Kurtzman, but Help! ceased publication shortly after. Crumb briefly illustrated bubblegum cards for Topps before returning to Cleveland and American Greetings.
Crumb married Dana Morgan in 1964. Nearly destitute, the couple traveled in Europe, during which Crumb continued to produce work for Kurtzman and American Greetings, and Dana stole food. The relationship was unstable as Crumb frequently went his own way, and he was not close to his son Jesse (b. 1965).
In 1965 and 1966 Crumb had a number of Fritz the Cat strips published in the men's magazine Cavalier. Fritz had appeared in Crumb's work as early as the late 1950s; he was to become a hipster, scam artist, and bohemian until Crumb abandoned the character in 1969.
Crumb was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with his job and marriage when in June 1965 he began taking LSD, a psychedelic drug that was then still legal. He had both good and bad trips. One bad trip left him in a muddled state for half a year, during which for a time he left Dana; the state ended when the two took a strong dose of the drug together in April 1966. Crumb created a number of his best-known characters during his years of LSD use, including Mr. Natural, Angelfood McSpade, and the Snoid.
Zap and underground comix (1967–1979)
In January 1967 Crumb came across two friends in a bar who were about to leave for San Francisco; Crumb was interested in the work of San Francisco-based psychedelic poster artists, and on a whim asked if he could join them. There, he contributed upbeat LSD-inspired countercultural work to underground newspapers. The work was popular, and Crumb was flooded with requests, including to illustrate a full issue of Philadelphia's Yarrowstalks.
Independent publisher Don Donahue invited Crumb to make a comic book; Crumb drew up two issues of Zap Comix, and Donahue published the first in February 1968 under the publisher name Apex Novelties. Crumb had difficulty at first finding retailers who would stock it, and at first his wife took to selling the first run herself out of a baby carriage.
Crumb met cartoonist S. Clay Wilson, an art school graduate who saw himself as a rebel against middle-class American values and whose comics were violent and grotesque. Wilson's attitude inspired Crumb to give up the idea of the cartoonist-as-entertainer and to focus on comics as open, uncensored self-expression; in particular, his work soon became sexually explicit, as in the pornographic Snatch he and Wilson produced late in 1968.
The second issue of Zap appeared in June with contributions from Wilson and poster artists Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin. In December, Donahue published the still-unreleased issue as #0 and a new third issue with Gilbert Shelton joining the roster of regulars. Zap was financially successful, and developed a market for underground comix.
Crumb was a prolific cartoonist in the late 1960s and early 1970s; at his peak point of output he produced 320 pages over two years. He produced much of his best-known work then, including his Keep on Truckin' strip, and strips featuring characters such as the bohemian Fritz the Cat, spiritual guru Mr. Natural, and oversexed African-American stereotype Angelfood McSpade. During this period, he launched a series of solo titles, including Despair, Uneeda (both published by Print Mint in 1969), Big Ass Comics, R. Crumb's Comics and Stories, Motor City Comics (all published by Rip Off Press in 1969), Home Grown Funnies (Kitchen Sink Press, 1971) and Hytone Comix (Apex Novelties, 1971), in addition to founding the pornographic anthologies Jiz and Snatch (both Apex Novelties, 1969).
While meditating in 1980 Crumb conceived of a magazine with a lowbrow aesthetic inspired by punk zines, Mad, and men's magazines of the 1940s and 1950s. From 1981 Crumb edited the first eight issues of the twenty-eight issue run of Weirdo, published by Last Gasp; his contributions and tastes determined the contents of the later issues as well, edited by Peter Bagge until #16, and Aline for the remainder of the run. The magazine featured cartoonists new and old, and had a mixed response; Art Spiegelman, who co-edited the slicker Raw, called it a "piece of shit", and Crumb's fumetti was so unpopular that it has never appeared in Crumb collections.
Later life (1994–present)
The Crumbs moved into a house in southeastern France in 1991, which is said to have been financed by the sale of six Crumb sketchbooks. The Terry Zwigoff-directed Crumb documentary appeared in 1994—a project on which Zwigoff had been working since 1985. The film won several major critical accolades.
From 1987 to 2005 Fantagraphics Books published the seventeen-volume Complete Crumb Comics and ten volumes of sketches. Crumb (as "R. Crumb") contributes regularly to Mineshaft magazine, which, since 2009, has been serializing "Excerpts From R. Crumb's Dream Diary".
In 2009, after four years of work, Crumb produced The Book of Genesis, an unabridged illustrated graphic novel version of the biblical Book of Genesis.
In January 2015, Crumb was asked to submit a cartoon to the left-wing magazine Libération as a tribute for the Charlie Hebdo shooting. He sent a drawing titled "A Cowardly Cartoonist," depicting an illustration of the backside of Crumb's friend Mohamid Bakshi, while referencing the prophet.
In the early 1980s, Crumb collaborated with writer Charles Bukowski on a series of comic books, featuring Crumb's art and Bukowski's writing.
In 1978, Robert Crumb allowed his artwork to be used as pictorial rubber stamp designs by Top Drawer Rubber Stamp Company, a collaboration between cartoonist Art Spiegelman, publisher Françoise Mouly. and people living at Quarry Hill Creative Center in Rochester, Vermont. R. Crumb's imagery proved to be some of the most popular designs produced by this avant-garde pictorial stamp company.
Crumb's collaboration with David Zane Mairowitz, the illustrated, part-comic biography and bibliography Introducing Kafka, a.k.a. Kafka for beginners, is one of his less sexual- and satire-oriented, comparably highbrow works since the 1990s. It is well-known and favorably received, and due to its popularity was republished as R. Crumb's Kafka.
A friend of Harvey Pekar, Crumb illustrated over 30 stories of Pekar's in the award-winning comic book series American Splendor, primarily in the first eight issues (1976-1983). Crumb collaborates with his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, on many strips and comics, including Dirty Laundry Comics, Self-Loathing Comics, and work published in The New Yorker.
Crumb's work also appeared in Nasty Tales, a 1970s British underground comic. The publishers were acquitted in a celebrated 1972 obscenity trial at the Old Bailey in London; the first such case involving a comic. Giving evidence at the trial, one of the defendants said of Crumb: "He is the most outstanding, certainly the most interesting, artist to appear from the underground, and this (Dirty Dog) is Rabelaisian satire of a very high order. He is using coarseness quite deliberately in order to get across a view of social hypocrisy."
A theatrical production based on his work was produced at Duke University in the early 1990s. Directed by Johnny Simons, and co-starring Avner Eisenberg and Nicholas de Wolff, the development of the play was supervised by Crumb, who also served as set designer, drawing larger-than-life representations of some of his most famous characters all over the floors and walls of the set.
Crumb has frequently drawn comics about his musical interests in blues, country, bluegrass, cajun, French Bal-musette, jazz, big band and swing music from the 1920s and 1930s, and they also heavily influenced the soundtrack choices for his band mate Zwigoff's 1994 Crumb documentary. In 2006, he prepared, compiled and illustrated the book R. Crumb's Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country, with accompanying CD, which derived from three series of trading cards originally published in the 1980s.
Crumb was the leader of the band R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders, for which he sang lead vocals, wrote several songs and played banjo and other instruments. Crumb often plays mandolin with Eden and John's East River String Band and has drawn three covers for them: 2009's Drunken Barrel House Blues, 2008's Some Cold Rainy Day, and 2011's Be Kind To A Man When He's Down on which he plays mandolin. With Dominique Cravic, he founded "Les Primitifs du Futur"—a French-style band based on musette / folk, jazz and blues—and played on its 2000 album World Musette. He also provided the cover art for this and other albums.
Crumb has released CDs anthologizing old original performances gleaned from collectible 78-rpm phonograph records. His That's What I Call Sweet Music was released in 1999 and Hot Women: Women Singers from the Torrid Regions in 2009. Crumb drew the cover art for these CDs as well.
In 2013, Crumb played mandolin with the Eden and John's East River String Band on their album Take A Look at That Baby and also took part in the accompanying music video.
Crumb has illustrated many album covers, including most prominently Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company and the compilation album The Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead.
Between 1974 and 1984, Crumb drew at least 17 album covers for Yazoo Records/Blue Goose Records, including those of the Cheap Suit Serenaders. He also created the revised logo and record label designs of Blue Goose Records that were used from 1974 onward.
In 1992 and 1993, Robert Crumb was involved in a project by Dutch formation The Beau Hunks and provided the cover art for both their albums The Beau Hunks play the original Laurel & Hardy music 1 and 2. He also illustrated the albums' booklets.
In 2009, Crumb drew the artwork for a 10-CD anthology of French traditional music compiled by Guillaume Veillet for Frémeaux & Associés. The following year, he created three artworks for Christopher King's Aimer Et Perdre: To Love And To Lose Songs, 1917–1934 and, in 2011, he once again played mandolin on an Eden and John's East River String Band album (Be Kind to a Man When He's Down) for which he also created the album cover artwork.
As told by Crumb in his biographical film, his artwork was very conventional and traditional in the beginning. His earlier work shows this more restrained style. In Crumb's own words, it was a lengthy drug trip on LSD that "left him fuzzy for two months" and led to him adopting the surrealistic, psychedelic style for which he has become known.
Crumb has been acclaimed for his attention to detail and satirical edge, but has also generated a significant amount of controversy for his graphic and very disturbing portrayals of sexuality and psychology. There exists a feminist backlash against his comics because they became more "violently misogynistic, as he graphically poured what were essentially his masturbatory fantasies onto the printed page. Women were raped, dismembered, mutilated, and murdered, sometimes all at once."
A peer in the underground comics field, Victor Moscoso, commented about his first impression of Crumb's work, in the mid-1960s, before meeting Crumb in person: "I couldn't tell if it was an old man drawing young, or a young man drawing old." Robert Crumb's cartooning style has drawn on the work of cartoon artists from earlier generations, including Billy DeBeck (Barney Google), C. E. Brock (an old story book illustrator), Gene Ahern's comic strips, George Baker (Sad Sack), Ub Iwerks's characters for animation, Isadore Freleng's drawings for the early Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes of the 1930s, Sidney Smith (The Gumps), Rube Goldberg, E. C. Segar (Popeye) and Bud Fisher (Mutt and Jeff). Crumb has cited Carl Barks, who illustrated Disney's "Donald Duck" comic books and John Stanley (Little Lulu) as formative influences on his narrative approach, as well as Harvey Kurtzman of Mad Magazine fame.
Crumb has also cited his extensive LSD use as a factor that led him to develop his unique style.
After issues 0 and 1 of Zap, Crumb began working with others, of whom the first was S. Clay Wilson. Crumb said, about when he first saw Wilson's work "The content was something like I'd never seen before, ... a nightmare vision of hell-on-earth ..." And "Suddenly my own work seemed insipid ..."
Crumb remains a prominent figure, as both artist and influence, within the alternative comics milieu. He is hailed as a genius by such comic book talents as Jaime Hernandez, Daniel Clowes, and Chris Ware. In the fall of 2008, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia hosted a major exhibition of his work, which was favorably reviewed in The New York Times and in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Awards and honors
Crumb has received several accolades for his work, including a nomination for the Harvey Special Award for Humor in 1990 and the Angoulême Grand Prix in 1999.
With Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Gary Panter, and Chris Ware, Crumb was among the artists honored in the exhibition "Masters of American Comics" at the Jewish Museum in New York City, from September 16, 2006 to January 28, 2007.
In 2017, Crumb's original cover art for the 1969 "Fritz the Cat" collection published by Ballantine sold at auction for $717,000, the highest sale price to that point for any piece of American cartoon art.
In the media
In addition to numerous brief television reports, there are at least three television or theatrical documentaries dedicated to Crumb.
- Prior to the 1972 release of the film version of Fritz the Cat, Austrian journalist Georg Stefan Troller (de:Georg Stefan Troller) interviewed Crumb for a thirty-minute documentary entitled Comics und Katerideen on Crumb's life and art – which he describes as "the epitome of contemporary white North America's popular art" – as an episode of his Personenbeschreibung (literally "Person's description") documentary-format broadcast on the German TV network ZDF. The documentary also includes a "making-of" look at the [then?] forthcoming Fritz movie, featuring production background interviews with Ralph Bakshi. By the mid-to-late 2000s, it could still be seen on rotation as part of the Personenbeschreibung series on the ZDF-owned digital specialty channel ZDFdokukanal (in 2009 replaced by the new channel ZDFneo).
- The Confessions of Robert Crumb (1987)
- Crumb (1994), a documentary film by Terry Zwigoff
In the 2003 movie American Splendor, Crumb was portrayed by James Urbaniak. Crumb's wife Aline was quoted as saying she hated the interpretation and never would have married Robert if he was like that.
In 2006, Crumb brought legal action against Amazon.com after their Web site used a version of his widely recognizable "Keep on Truckin'" character. The case was expected to be settled out of court.
Underground rap artist Aesop Rock mentions Crumb several times in his lyrics, including in the songs "Catacomb Kids" from the album None Shall Pass and "Nickel Plated Pockets" from his EP "Daylight".
R. Crumb's Sex Obsessions, a collection of his most personally revealing sexually-oriented drawings and comic strips, was released by TASCHEN publishing in November 2007. In August 2011, following concerns about his safety, Crumb cancelled plans to visit the Graphic 2011 festival in Sydney, Australia after a tabloid labeled him a "self-confessed sex pervert" in an article headlined "Cult genius or filthy weirdo?".
In 2012, Crumb appeared in five episodes of John's Old Time Radio Show talking about old music, sex, aliens and Bigfoot. He also played 78-rpm records from his record room in southern France. He has appeared on the show and recorded at least fourteen one-hour podcasts.
Crumb has been married twice: to Dana Morgan in 1964 who gave birth to their son Jesse in 1965. In 1978, Crumb divorced Dana and married cartoonist Aline Kominsky, with whom Crumb has frequently collaborated. In September 1981 Aline gave birth to Crumb's second child, Sophie. They moved to a small village near Sauve in southern France in 1991.
- Zap Comix issues from 1 and 0 (1968) through at least 9 (1978) and several more (Apex Novelties, Print Mint, Last Gasp and other transient brand names, generally under Crumb's control, 1968–2016) — #0 and #1 are all drawn by Crumb, the rest have stories by others also
- R. Crumb's Head Comix (Viking Press, 1968) — anthology; re-issued by Fireside Books in 1988, with a new introduction by Crumb; ISBN 0-671-66153-1
- Snatch Comics issues 1–3 (Apex Novelties/Print Mint, late 1968–Aug. 1969) — #1 by Crumb and S. Clay Wilson, the rest have stories by others also
- R. Crumb's Fritz the Cat (Ballantine Books, New York, 1969) (no ISBN listed) — all Crumb
- R. Crumb's Comix and Stories, April 1964, Number One (Rip Off Press, 1969) — single story about Fritz the Cat and incest. All Crumb
- Despair (Print Mint, 1969) — all Crumb
- Motor City Comics #1–2 (Rip Off Press, Apr. 1969–Feb. 1970) — all Crumb
- Big Ass Comics #1-2 (Rip Off Press, June 1969–Aug. 1971) — all Crumb
- Mr. Natural #1-3 (San Francisco Comic Book Company, Aug. 1970–Kitchen Sink Enterprises, 1977) — all Crumb
- Uneeda Comix, "the Artistic Comic!" (Print Mint, July 1971) — several short strips by Crumb. The longest, last and strongest continues onto the back cover in color.
- Home Grown Funnies (Kitchen Sink Enterprises, Jan. 1971) — all Crumb
- Your Hytone Comix (Apex Novelties, 1971) — all Crumb
- The People's Comics (Golden Gate Publishing Company, Sept. 1972) — all Crumb. This contains the strip in which there is Crumb Land (a black void), and also the strip in which Fritz the Cat is killed.
- Artistic Comics (Golden Gate Publishing Company, Mar. 1973) — all Crumb, with illustrations of (among others) Aline Kominsky
- Black and White Comics (Apex Novelties, 1973) — all Crumb
- Dirty Laundry Comics #1-2 (Cartoonists Co-Op Press/Last Gasp, July 1974–Dec. 1977) — R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky
- Best Buy Comics (Apex Novelties, 1979) — R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky
- Snoid Comics (Kitchen Sink Enterprises, 1980) — all Crumb
- Hup #1–4 (Kitchen Sink Press, 1987–1992) — all Crumb
- Self-Loathing Comics (Fantagraphics, Feb. 1995–May 1997) — R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb
- Mystic Funnies #1–3 (Alex Wood, Last Gasp, Fantagraphics, 1997–2002) — all Crumb
- Mineshaft #5–present (Dec. 2000–)
Collections and graphic novels
- R. Crumb's The Yum Yum Book (Scrimshaw Press, 1975) — originally created in 1963; later republished as Big Yum Yum Book: The Story of Oggie and the Beanstalk by Slave Labor Graphics, 1995
- R. Crumb Sketchbook series (Zweitausendeins, 1981–1997) — later republished in 10 volumes by Fantagraphics
- Bible of Filth (Futuropolis, 1986) — collection of Crumb's erotic comics from over the years
- The Complete Crumb Comics (Fantagraphics Books, 1987–2005) — 17 volumes
- R. Crumb's America (SCB Distributors, 1995) ISBN 0-86719-430-8
- Bob and Harv's Comics (Running Press, 1996) ISBN 978-1568581019 — collaborations with Harvey Pekar
- The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book (Little, Brown and Company, 1997) ISBN 0-316-16306-6 — edited and designed by Peter Poplaski
- Odds & Ends (Bloomsbury Publishing UK, 2001) ISBN 978-0-7475-5309-0
- R. Crumb's Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country (Harry N. Abrams, 2006) ISBN 978-0-81093-086-5
- Your Vigour for Life Appalls Me (Turnaround Publisher, 2008) ISBN 978-1-56097-310-2
- The Book of Genesis (W. W. Norton & Company, 2009) ISBN 978-0-393-06102-4 OCLC 317919486
- The Book of Mr. Natural (Fantagraphics, July 2010) ISBN 978-1-60699-352-1
- The Complete Record Cover Collection (W. W. Norton & Company, Nov. 2011) ISBN 978-0-393-08278-4
- Sweeter Side of R. Crumb (W. W. Norton, 2011) ISBN 978-0-393-33371-8
- Drawn Together: The Collected Works of R. and A. Crumb (Boni & Liveright, Oct. 2012) ISBN 978-0-871-40429-9 — R. Crumb and Aline Crumb