Did Genesis more or less make you financially independent?
No, but it paid well. I would say that the accumulation of my work has made me financially independent, and the value of the original artwork. I could stop working tomorrow and I’d probably be OK, unless the whole economy collapses. [Laughter.]
Which it might.
Otherwise, I could live off of just selling off my sketchbooks probably, at this point. Maybe you shouldn’t publish that because someone might come in and steal them. [Laughter.]
Next up, Jim Woodring.
He asks: “Who do you regard as a truly great person? I know you admire Picasso and Thomas Nast and Kurtzman and all those guys, but I’m wondering who your idea of an all-around exemplar might be.”
An all-around exemplar? The pizza lady across the road. [Groth laughs.] I don’t know how this woman does it. She’s a saint, this pizza lady. She’s always cheerful; she’s always over there in that truck slinging that pizza. Then she has a day job. Then she supports her mother, I don’t think she even has a husband or anything, she’s always cheerful; she’s good-looking. She’s exemplary. She’s an impeccable person.
You would compare her favorably to Picasso and Thomas Nast and Kurtzman?
Her pizza is great.
Picasso was a despicable guy in a lot of ways.
He did great work, did great work. Charles Bukowski, one of my favorite writers: awful guy. You wouldn’t want to live with him. So, exemplary person. How can you know about anybody who’s well known in history or in the arts or sciences or anything? All you can go by is what you actually witness yourself day after day. And among the common herd, the common anonymous people that are forgotten by time after their death, there are exemplary people walking around. Impeccable people. There’s a schoolteacher here, this woman here, she’s a totally impeccable person; you cannot find any fault with her. She’s such a fine decent person.
Right, right. It took me a long time to reconcile that a great artist, or an artist that I admired, was not necessarily a good person.
[Laughs.] Well, they might just be neurotic, self-centered, selfish: like me. [Laughter.] But whatever the formula that produces great art, good art, or interesting writing or science, or politicians or anything, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re exemplary in all ways. Not at all.
Well, it’s wonderful when you find someone that you do admire who truly is exemplary.
Yeah, I don’t know anybody like that, do you?
Well, I don’t know…
What do you think of Obama?
I think his performance has been sad and disappointing.
Yeah, very disappointing, but the liberals who voted him in had such high hopes, had some kind of vague expectation that he was going to turn around this juggernaut of money and power and he can’t do it. He just can’t do it. He’s not powerful enough.
But they said all the same shit about Lincoln. They all said Lincoln was incompetent: that look at the war, the mess he got us into, the Civil War, yadadadada. He didn’t have the power to stop the Civil War. That juggernaut was rolling when he got elected president. I remember when I saw Obama at his inauguration speech, with Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner standing right behind him, I thought, “Oh no.”
[Laughs.] Bad sign.
Bad sign. Those are the people who are really running things. Those are the people that have the power. They liked Bush better, because he wasn’t going to oppose them at all, he was happy to sell out everything. So Obama’s tried, he really has tried. There’s only so much he can do.
Well, see, I’m not convinced he’s tried with the principled tenacity that he ought to have. My major complaint against him is that he isn’t trying; he’s not out there fighting.
Oh yeah, he’s trying.
I read this one book by Wendell Potter. Do you know who he is?
Wendell Potter is a whistleblower from the health insurance industry, and he’s the one guy from the health insurance industry that had qualms of conscience, quit after being in a big executive position in one of those big companies for 20 years. He just couldn’t stand it any more. And so he came out and started fighting to support health reforms with Obama’s people, and they valued him highly because he was the only guy who understood the byzantine chicanery of the health insurance industry. And so he was very useful in explaining how all their different evil devices worked, their instruments of moneymaking and making sure that they came out on top. And he says in his book that Obama fought every day, worked on that every day for a year, really hard to try and do something. And they just — the money and power, it’s a fucking steamroller, the guy didn’t have a chance.
And, OK, he didn’t get to be president by being radical and an outsider, he’s a game player, he’s a politician, so he played the game enough to get in there, which is a compromise every day. They eat shit every day to get that position, so he’s used to eating shit. [Groth laughs.] But as with Lincoln, Lincoln too was a politician, but in that position, and circumstances being what they are now with who runs things, who could turn it around? Unless you’re talking about armed revolution here. [Laughs.] I hope that the National Security Agency heard that. Yes, I said “Armed Revolution.” [Laughs.] If they’re listening.
Unfortunately, the only armed revolution you're going to see in America will be headed by the Tea Party-types.
Right. Half-baked crazy nonsense. Yeah, that’s true, it’s gonna be a Right-wing thing in America if it happens at all. When the soldiers start disobeying their officers and start turning against them it’ll be from the Right, not from the Left. But it’ll be some new kind of Right wing, very populist and crazy and nutty, and some clever political demagogue will take it over, and we’ll get some new Hitler-type situation. [Laughs.] And I'll just say good luck. [Laughs.]
When you say that Obama is fighting, do you really think he’s providing inspiration for his constituency, for what’s left of the left in this country?
I’m amazed that the guy can think clearly at all any more. [Groth laughs.] I don’t know. That, I don’t know. He’s really up against it. But you read about Lincoln during the Civil War, and you hear the same complaints. To get anybody with any decency in that position of power in a place as rife with money and corruption as the United States, if there’s a shred of decency left, it’s a miracle.
Yeah, it’s an impossible task.
I mean I think Obama’s a decent man.
He doesn’t know everything. He’s naïve in a lot of areas. He’s been taken in. I read this incredible thing about South Africa, a really sad case. If you want to read a good book, read Naomi Klein’s book called The Shock—.
The Shock Doctrine. Yeah, I read it.
You read that.
There’s stuff about South Africa that’s really interesting in there. Once the new government took over from the apartheid government and these guys that were supposed to be running the economic policies were figuring it out, and they said that the international banking powers just moved in there and got them by the balls before they even knew what was happening. They were naïve, they didn’t understand, it was so complicated and subtle and tricky, they didn’t even realize, and now they’re in this huge debt to the international financial powers. And Obama, I’m sure, probably wasn’t that savvy on that level. Probably somewhat savvy, but they are just so fucking tricky.
Instead of losing their house, they’re gonna lose their country. [Crumb laughs.] It’s what it amounts to. When the IMF moves in, you know you’re fucked.
That’s their modus operandi.
I have two more questions. One is from Kim Deitch: “All through your career, you have adroitly sidestepped all the usual snares and lures that have brought down or dumbed down many greats of this world. What do you attribute that to? Where did you get your high ideals, and how have you managed to maintain them through the years?”
Well, I could say the same about him. [Groth laughs.] He has maintained his vision.
Yeah, but I think implicit in his question is that you’ve had lots of opportunities to sell out.
Well, I guess I just didn’t have to. Somehow I miraculously was successful enough on my own terms. And I was so used to doing my own stuff my own way that dealing with people that were going to pay you a lot of money to do something that caters to some bullshit thing is just too hateful. I just can’t do it.
Years back, about 10 years ago, a little less, my son Jesse, when I was still involved with him, was approached by this guy who owns Oakley Sunglasses, a big millionaire guy. This was about the time of the dot-com bubble, and this guy wanted to start his own dot-com server, like Gmail or Yahoo, whatever, one of those things, he was gonna start.
And Jesse was really jazzed up about this because the guy was going to pay him $20,000 to be the liaison to me. And he gave Jesse a check for $200,000 for me; all I had to do was sign on to get the check. $200,000, this was 10 years ago, maybe in the year 2000. People warned me, they said “Don’t do it,” but Jesse really wanted that $20,000. He said, “Please pop, you gotta do this, I could really use the money.” And I was tempted by the $200,000 myself…
So I signed on for it, I did it. I felt like such a sellout, but I went for it and I started working on these icons. And the guy was such a pain in the ass to deal with, he said he wanted R. Crumb, but he had no idea what my work was about. And he then had this other guy send me samples of stuff he liked, which was kind of like this really lame-ass graffiti art. Real adolescent-looking stuff, this guy from Oakley Sunglasses. But Jesse got to fly on his private jet down to L.A. and he was all dazzled by the guy. The guy was such an asshole. What was his name? I forget. Anyway, I went to work on these icons, and ugh, it was awful, and I thought, “Oh, how am I gonna get through this, how am I gonna actually do this job and earn my money?” He wanted to give me stock options and shit. And then, the dot-com bubble burst, and he pulled out. He said, “Never mind.” I was so fucking relieved. And I sent him back part of the money, part of the $200,000, sent him back $150,000.
Why’d you do that?
He didn’t think I’d done enough work to earn $50,000 on it. So then he wanted a drawing of himself and his wife.
So I did that based on a photo. Then he wanted a drawing of his dog, and I said, “I don’t do dogs, sorry.” And he still wasn’t happy so I sent him a piece of original art. I sent him the cover from Hup #2.
Then he left me alone after that. That’s what happens when you have to deal with people like that for the big money, [Groans.] awful, horrible. [Laughs.] Now, you know, I’ve had offers like from the CEO of Nike, Mark Parker. He’s offered to pay me a very large sum of money to do a very special painting for him, which he wants this and he wants that. I just won’t do it. I don’t need the money that bad. Hundreds of thousands offered me, big, big money, I won’t do it.
Well, you seem almost constitutionally incapable of doing that.
Well, part of it is that I’m just spoiled. I haven’t had to do it since I quit working for American Greetings, basically. We lived on welfare for four years, in the hippy times, but, you know, those were the hippy times, you didn’t need much money to get by.
So do you think that has to do with conscience, or is it selfishness, or where does that come from?
Where does what come from?
Your refusal or inability to do that kind of stuff.
Well, like I said, I haven’t had to, I didn’t have to, I wasn’t forced to. So why should I? My work got accepted on its own terms. Zap Comix and all that, they liked what I was doing just fine. Like I said earlier, I was willing to put out enough to make my stuff entertaining, I didn’t expect the audience to come to me; you have to go to the audience. You can be deep and profound and all that shit, but you’ve gotta still grab them, you’ve gotta entertain them somehow. Confuse them, fascinate them, shock them, something. If you get too arty-farty and expect people to figure out what it is you’re doing, forget it. They'll walk away. Go look at something else.
Yes, you said that earlier, that you’re conscious of entertaining people or grabbing the audience, but I’m wondering how that process integrates itself with your art.
Of being entertaining?
Yeah, how do you integrate your conscious need to entertain with expressing what you’re compelled to express?
Look at cartooning. Look at the whole history of cartooning. What is it? It’s a form of entertainment.
Yeah, it’s a very commercial medium.
It’s a form of storytelling with pictures, and you have to keep the pictures readable, it’s all gotta be readable, you’ve gotta be able to tell a good story, if you’re humorous, it’s gotta be funny [laughs]. Being funny seems to come naturally to me. People say my work’s funny.
It is funny.
It’s also kind of crazy. That kind of fascinates people, the craziness.
But if you do all this naturally, then you don’t have to worry about being entertaining. You’re intrinsically entertaining.
Yeah, maybe. Maybe. I mean, for me, I grew up in a time when cartoons were about light entertainment, so I learned all the techniques of that sort of entertainment, so I could use all those techniques. That’s why I do it.
Yeah, the tropes.
I did that to survive, to connect with the world, because I was such a maladjusted freak. [Laughter.] Such a weirdo, pervert. But a lot of the things that people object to in my work are the parts where it gets the most profoundly personal, the sexual stuff and all that.
And that’s the part that’s most disturbing, because it gets so heavy, it’s very heavy. When I first started doing that in 1969, I remember distinctly a lot of people who liked the earlier stuff, just not liking that. When I first did Big Ass Comics and all that.
You told me once that you did that precisely because you were becoming too popular, and you wanted to almost scuttle that popularity. Your campaign to do that started with Big Ass Comics.
Yeah, when I saw that that had that effect, I said, “OK, fuck ’em, I’ll just do more of that.” [Laughs.]
But it didn’t quite work. That work was popular too.
Not as much. People kind of accepted that, because that was part of the package, but a lot of people, a lot of people, even other cartoonists had told me that I should drop the indulgent, masturbatory, sexual weirdness. Even Justin Green told me that. He said it was just indulgent. [Laughs.] But I had to do it, had to do it. I dunno know why, don’t know why.
You were compelled.
Get Sigmund Freud up here, maybe he can figure it out.