Zap: The Interviews, Volume 9 of The Comics Journal Library, hits stores this month, collecting all the Zap-related Comics Journal interviews, plus several previously unpublished conversations with the Zap cartoonists. In celebration of this release, we're going to do something a little different. Instead of sampling the book with excerpts from the interviews, we will be supplementing the book with interviews that didn't quite fit into the 264-page anthology. Please enjoy Gary Groth's complete interview with Robert Crumb from TCJ #143, and soon: never-published Zap-related conversations with Spain Rodriguez, Victor Moscoso and Gilbert Shelton conducted by Patrick Rosenkranz. —Michael Dean
[From TCJ #143, 1991]
When little Bobby Crumb used to draw dirty pictures in his notebook, he would destroy them immediately, for fear of being discovered. But then the ’60s happened, and under the wicked influences of the sexual liberation, San Francisco and fellow cartoonists such as S. Clay Wilson, he soon began spilling his nastiest sexual fantasies upon the pages of such comics as Snatch, Jiz and Big Ass. And there are those who wish those fantasies had remained trapped in crumpled-up paper. It isn’t just the fact that Crumb depicts sexual activity in his comics that alarms his critics: it’s the depiction of what they perceive to be a violent misogyny that frequently courses through his work, which often centers on huge, threatening females who are sexually humiliated by gleeful males. Pioneer female underground cartoonist Trina Robbins has become something of a Jiminy Cricket to Crumb’s bad-boy Pinocchio (Crumb himself says, “We all have a little Trina in our brains”). In Blab #5, which otherwise functioned as a book-length paean to Crumb’s greatness, she struck a discordant note when she lamented the fact that Crumb’s undeniable skill and authority had given other underground cartoonists license to go wild with misogyny. If any of this has tainted Crumb, he hasn’t shown it: he remains compelled to committing his most intimate sexual fantasies to paper in such recent comics as Hup and Id. If anything, he enjoys tweaking his critics with such images as the id-creature on the cover of Id #1, standing atop a (presumably dead) naked woman’s buttocks, chortling, “Fuck ’em and cut their heads off!” No raving pervert, Crumb is soft-spoken, articulate, thoughtful and — above all, honest, both about his work and his own sex life. — Gary Groth
ROBERT CRUMB: One thing that’s surprising about the recent “smut glut” in comics is how little of it seems personal. I don’t know if people are just too shy about revealing their own personal sex fantasies, if they don’t have any or if they feel that they have to do something more commercially oriented. Am I the only guy that has these quirky fantasies that’s going to admit it or what?
GARY GROTH: Maybe most fantasies are just banal by your standards.
CRUMB: Maybe so. Diane Hanson, who puts out a magazine called Leg Show — naked legs, big butts and all that — sent out a questionnaire for her magazine asking men to write in what they wanted to see. She said they wanted the same abysmally mundane stuff that we’ve seen in pornography for the last 30 or 40 years, and that the magazine had long since become tired of doing: girls in garters and high heels. She wanted to make it more quirky.
GROTH: Do you think there’s something wrong with trite sex fantasies?
CRUMB: The only thing wrong is that they’re boring. I go for more interesting stuff. There are specialized journals and magazines that are published in the United States for more quirky audiences, and, even if they’re not my tastes, they’re much more interesting to look at. Stuff like dominators, diapers, or what’s called “white trash” that’s dedicated to white male transvestites who want to be cornholed by big-kneed Negroes, stuff like that. [Laughter] There’s one, their whole thing is spanking women. And Leg Show, a lot of what’s in Leg Show is for men who want to lick women’s toes and feet.
There’s an article in the paper today Aline [Kominsky-Crumb] was reading: “Toe-Licker on the Loose Again.” A guy at San Francisco State — I guess he was there last year, and he’s come back — sneaks into women’s dormitories at night, sneaks into their rooms, pulls back the covers at the bottom of their beds and licks their toes while they’re asleep.
GROTH: Now that’s a sex fantasy.
CRUMB: Most of those quirky things are more interesting, but I guess if you actually pander to the sex market out there you’ve got to appeal to the lowest common denominator, you’ve got to give them the standard sex fantasy. I’ve watched a lot of porno movies, and looked at the sex magazines, and it’s all the same thing — blondes in high heels and garters, stockings, big tits and maybe the guy comes in her face. That’s about it.
GROTH: Is there any value to quirkiness aside from the fact that it’s different from the majority? In other words, if Playboy published nothing but people sucking toes, that wouldn’t be quirky anymore either, and then the opposite would be quirky.
CRUMB: Yeah, but that’s a rhetorical question because, obviously, there’s never going to be a time when everybody wants to suck toes, or even when everybody’s going to want the standard Playboy fantasy either. It’s just like any other marketing scheme in America: to make the most money you level everything to some bland common denominator which makes it boring, porno or anything else — candy, breakfast cereals, automobiles, whatever. Sex is just another commodity here. You ought to know.
GROTH: Better than most.
CRUMB: But it’s definitely a guaranteed market, sex stuff. I don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with it, but one thing I would say in defense of quirky, individualistic expressions of sex is that it makes other people who have their own little quirks feel a little less like they’re monsters. At least they know, “Well, I guess someone else is pretty weird. I’m not the only one.” There’s that advantage.
Aside from that, for the student of human nature sex is a very, very interesting subject, and an honest revelation of what really goes on in people’s psyches about sex is always more interesting than something that just merely panders to some low common denominator.
GROTH: Do you think that — in addition to being brainwashed by these repetitious, banal images of sexuality — that fear plays a part in people’s inability to come up with more interesting fantasies?
CRUMB: Yeah, fear of being abnormal. I’m abnormal, but I’ve been copping to it for so long that it no longer has any liar quotient for me at all. What enabled me to come out was the fact that I got famous and over-accepted. I got too much love. I had to make them back off by showing them this other side of myself - a real weirdness. And they did, indeed, back off. My popularity went down quite a bit when Big Ass Comics came out.
GROTH: When would that have been, around 1971?
CRUMB: Something like that. “Oh, my God, Crumb isn’t all sweetness and light,” you know? “All love and Mr. Natural.”
GROTH: I guess you read the piece that Trina Robbins wrote about you in Blab [#3] about how she liked your sweet and gentle period.
CRUMB: She said I ruined underground comix by doing all those misogynistic fantasies. By drawing that stuff I encouraged other young male cartoonists to do the same, and therefore ruined the medium.
GROTH: Exactly. What she wrote was: “I guess the worst of it to me is that Crumb became such a culture hero that his comix told everyone else that it was OK to draw this heavily misogynistic stuff. The phenomenon of the underground comix of the ’70s, so full of hatred towards women; rape, degradation, murder and torture, I really believe can be attributed to Crumb having made this kind of work stylish.” What do you think of that?
CRUMB: [Laughter] Well, I’m flattered, but I think it’s probably somewhat of an exaggeration, that it’s entirely attributable to me. I don’t think I have that much power. Then again, I can turn around and blame it all on [S. Clay] Wilson, that I was encouraged to do it by seeing his work.
I wouldn’t judge or condemn work purely because it’s misogynistic or racist or anything else; I would judge and condemn it on whether it was interesting or boring, whether it was honest and truthful and real, or whether it was just somebody attempting to pander to some market they think is out there, or trying to imitate something they’ve seen — someone trying to be successful, or whatever — instead of saying what’s really on their minds, dredging up what’s really in there. If it’s really in there, it ought to come out on paper. Better that it comes out on paper than to repress it and let it squeeze out in some rageful, angry act in the world. I never believed, and I’ve said this thousands of times, that drawing something in a comic book is very dangerous or harmful as far as influencing people’s behavior.
My own son, Jesse … He’s 22 years old now. He was very curious when he was young about the images in those comics. I didn’t necessarily leave them laying around for him to look at, but he would sneak a look at them. Those images were very fascinating to him, and he says now that he’s sure having those images available to him as a kid actually made him much less scared and nervous about sex than most guys his age. He got an advanced education about that stuff. Didn’t hurt him at all. He knew all these guys when he was in his late teens who went through ridiculous agonies about all this stuff, where the realest forms of sexual fantasy or sex play were like scary things that they had to get past.
GROTH: Don’t you think that representations of sex in the media can affect people, just like 40 years of being indoctrinated by Playboy can affect people?
CRUMB: I think anything that is propaganda or panders to people is definitely not good for them. They’re just pandering to people’s weaknesses, and trying to undercut the next guy in the competitive marketplace. But that’s anything; you can say the same thing about breakfast cereals with a lot of sugar in them.
GROTH: Yes, but misogynistic work could be pandering to the misogynistic impulses of misogynists.
CRUMB: But pandering cannot be truthful. There’s a difference. You’re trying to appeal to a market in order to sell something.
GROTH: So in assessing a work you’re really relying heavily upon the motives of the artist.
GROTH: But most of the time you really don’t know what those motives are.
CRUMB: But honesty rings true. Of course it takes somewhat of an educated taste, or a certain cultivation, to see what’s true and what isn’t — which means you have to look at a lot of work and make comparisons over a period of time. As a kid you don’t perceive those things quite so much. Kids can’t be expected to see what’s truth and what’s pandering. Kids are much more susceptible to victimization by marketing schemes and aggressive sales.
GROTH: Seems to me that the validity of art depends on more than just the sincerity of the artist. In other words, if you have somebody who’s very sincerely and genuinely racist, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to do something worthwhile ...
CRUMB: It doesn’t necessarily mean that; there are certainly plenty of other criteria for good art, such as skill and acceptance of one’s self. But, on the other hand, there are bigots and racists who have produced great art. Not necessarily art that raves about racism, but... An old-time hillbilly record called “Run, Nigger, Run” is a great record — as racist as you could possibly imagine — but it’s not great because it’s racist.
GROTH: It’s great despite the fact that it’s racist, right?
CRUMB: I wouldn’t say that any sex fantasy that I’ve ever drawn is great because it’s a quirky sex fantasy. I think what makes it good or not good is not the intrinsic subject. Some guy who’s obsessed with old cars could do a very interesting comic, but that’s not what makes it good.
GROTH: So what does? The honesty?
CRUMB: The honesty and the depth of perception of the subject.
GROTH: Do you think, going back to what Trina wrote, that the artist has any sense of responsibility to society as a whole, to the readers of his work, to how his work is perceived by other people?
CRUMB: That’s complicated. It depends on the medium. For instance, making a movie is different from drawing comics or writing a book. With comics or a book, it’s a very solitary thing. Getting involved with actors in a collective venture like film is somewhat different. A film can very rarely ever be as personal and intimate of a statement as a piece of writing, or a comic book, or a painting that’s produced by one person.
GROTH: You’re saying that the reader or the viewer has to take that into account?
CRUMB: I don’t know how I think about this question of responsibility. I remember once Trina was giving me, Wilson, and Spain a big dressing-down about our work, and I said that you only had to be true to your subconscious, or something like that. And she said, “Well, it wouldn’t hurt if you’d show a little self-restraint.” I’ve never quite resolved that, self-restraint.
GROTH: There’s certainly a sense in which every artist makes choices.
CRUMB: In a certain sense, but the more you can let that subconscious loose in your work, the more interesting it makes the work. One of the keys to expressing yourself in your art is to try to break through self-restraint, to see if you can get past that socialized part of your mind, the superego or whatever you call it.
There’s a little Trina in all of our brains that’s always judging and saying, “No, no, that’s bad, that’s wrong,” some little nun or school teacher or authority figure that always wants us to be correct and good and polite, and do the things that are most acceptable to everyone — always, at all times. We’re constantly trying to do what’s socially right. It’s hard to break out of that in your actions in the world, let alone in your art. Art, hopefully, is one place where you can get away with that, breaking away from those things and revealing something deeper.
I know from my own work I have to let that stuff out, it can’t stay inside of me; all the creepiness, the sexual stuff, the hostility toward women, the anger toward authority. I’ve actually worked a lot of that out of my system in my work. In my early period I did a lot more violent, anti-authoritarian stuff than I do now. In this one story I had myself chopping this nun’s head off. I had to do that, it had to come out.
GROTH: Do you try to take into account how other people will interpret this?
CRUMB: If it’s acceptable or unacceptable to other people, if it’s helpful to anyone else, I don’t know. It’s kind of a shot in the dark. First and foremost, it has to come out for me. That’s what makes underground comix different from mainstream comics: It’s more of an artistic motivation than commercial motivation. You’re taking this chance by doing something more personal. It’s a very personal expression, my work and other interesting underground-comix work. It’s not that entertaining for the masses, but maybe some people can get something out of it.
GROTH: If you were in a docket and you had to make a distinction between your work and slasher films and porn videos, and it looked superficially the same to a judge, what would you say?
CRUMB: I often imagine myself in this docket being questioned by some tribunal of feminists and anti-pornography government officials. What would I say?
GROTH: I was in that docket once. It’s very difficult to tell people who are looking at your work very literally, which superficially resembles other work —
CRUMB: Slasher films and stuff.
GROTH: It’s very difficult, maybe impossible, to draw this legal distinction that they’re —
CRUMB: It’s a very esoteric distinction by the average schmuck standards of this society. And I’m not the guy to get up there and explain the difference. I can’t articulate it that well. I know that it’s a big difference. Silence of the Lambs or Texas Chain Saw Massacre — my work has very little to do with that. I think the people that make those movies are much more calculating about who their audience is and how to reach them. They’re much more cynical about what they’re doing.
Hopefully, my work says something to some people on some level. I don’t completely forget about communicating. In fact, sometimes I think I’m too involved in communicating, that I should be more spontaneous and personal. Having been brought up on comic books, that being my main interest, I’m caught up in those techniques of communication. I think it’s healthy for me, in what I want to do, to get away from that kind of mainstream approach. The further I can get away from that, the better off I am.
GROTH: Are there any erotic comics out now that you like and think express a personal vision?
CRUMB: I don’t see too much. I don’t look at them for titillation. I look to see if there’s anything interesting going on in them, which I don’t see too much. Very little appeals to my personal fantasies.
GROTH: The usual fellatio, anal ...
CRUMB: Even loving, passionate drawings of women, I like to see that in comics, and I don’t even see much of that. It’s all just the standard boobs and big, round butts. There’s not much passionate emotion in the drawings of women. Spain is one of the few who really shows that. The Hernandez brothers obviously feel pleasure in drawing females and that really shines through.
GROTH: What do you think of the idea, if there is such a thing, of politically correct depictions of sex? I’m sure you know that many feminists make these distinctions.
CRUMB: They don’t even agree, though. There’s a whole segment of the feminists who crusade for more quirky and oddball sex, like S&M. On Our Backs is a magazine put out by this contingent of lesbians who go for all this leather stuff, S&M, bondage, strapping on big dildos. Other feminists and lesbians who are down on that whole thing spend half their time raving and arguing against these women.
GROTH: I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but there’s a law in Canada to the effect that any representation of violence toward women is essentially illegal. I testified in Canada over a comics-store bust in which one of your comics was busted. [Editor’s note: On September 22, 1987, Canadian Vice Squad and Customs Officers busted Comics Legends, a small comics shop in Calgary, Alberta, seizing 92 comics. Gary Groth testified at the Oct. 5, 1988 trial wherein Comics Legends’ two proprietors were found guilty of possession of and intent to sell, obscene material.] I defended one of the Fritz the Cat stories where he was, as usual, mistreating women. The prosecutor attempted to make this very methodical case that this represented a systematic degradation of women. He would say, “Here’s this character, and he’s sitting on her rump and tying her beak together” — because it had to do with an ostrich. It was very ugly.
CRUMB: How about when she stabs him in the head with an ice pick? They didn’t have any objection to that?
GROTH: Believe me, I brought that up, that kind of parody there. But I guess the general argument — and this is what I want you to respond to because you certainly have depicted enough of this sort of thing yourself — the general argument is that images of women being violated, and having violence inflicted upon them and so forth, seep into the culture and make that kind of behavior socially acceptable. It reinforces certain stereotypes in the minds of men, makes rape more acceptable and so forth.
CRUMB: Nobody has ever proven that to my satisfaction.
GROTH: Do you think it’s implausible?
CRUMB: I don’t know. Perhaps it would cause an opposite effect. In a society deluged with images of violence against women, you might have a younger generation coming up that would be repelled by it and react exactly the opposite. Who knows? A lot of times that sort of stuff is more a reflection of deeper social problems than it is a cause of social problems. Then it’s very dangerous to suppress the reflections and leave the causes; you just aggravate the problem.
Remember the Meese Commission on pornography? It set out to prove that pornography caused violence against women, to prove that pornography was bad and therefore suppress it. They were prejudiced from the beginning. Their lip service was that they were going to be investigating pornography to see if it was bad, but the people involved in it were like Christian ministers. A lot of the people they hired for the Meese Commission would automatically go along with their program.
One woman on the Commission ran a clinic for sex offenders in New York. She said she’d dealt with 700 men over 15 years who were sex offenders, giving them therapy and stuff. Of those 700 men only a handful were even “aficionados” of pornography. Out of that handful she could not prove that a single one of them, that his actions, his offenses, were in any way attributable to the pornography. So the Commission dumped her. She wouldn’t go along with it. She said, “No, no, pornography is not the root cause of these men’s problems. And, if anything, it has very little to do with it.”
Most of the men that I know who are into pornography are actually sort of meek and shy with women and use pornography to substitute for the real thing. They’ve given up on real women and just go with the fantasy. The strip joints and pornography shops are full of meek little Oriental guys [laughter]. You just feel sorry for these suckers. All this pornography, for one thing, is very expensive. You don’t get much for your money.
GROTH: Hey, wait a minute, I resent that.
CRUMB: [Laughter.] Including your crummy comic books.
GROTH: I’m engaged in the noble cause of trying to keep these men off the streets.
CRUMB: If you ever talk to women who are in the sex industry, most of them are violently angry and disgusted with the feminist bullshit about pornography. But that’s not a very strong defense of pornography because you could just say, “Oh, they’re brainwashed, they don’t know anything about it.” It’s their meal ticket. A lot of them will say, “It’s an easy way to make a living.”
GROTH: Basically you don’t think that there’s any real way to determine what concrete effects popular culture has on the behavior of people. In other words, violent films and violent television don’t necessarily exacerbate violent feelings in people, it may have the opposite effect, and there’s no real way of determining that.
CRUMB: Not that I’ve ever seen. I don’t think that anyone’s ever proven that. You’ll see these Christian pseudo-scientific studies, but they’re just lying through their teeth. If you actually try to run down their sources, they don’t have any. A bunch of nuns, and that’s it.
GROTH: Do you think that the sheer quantity of degradation and violence in popular entertainment is any reason for concern, even intuitively?
CRUMB: I think there’s about as much reason for concern as there is for food additives, or anything else where in order to sell more of something they pander to the lowest common denominator, to people’s weaknesses, to their fears. They’re debasing and degrading the whole population. There’s probably as much of that in pornography or violent movies or television soap operas. It’s all part of the giant lie that the media perpetrates and these people buy it. The fucking daily newspapers, you know the way they write the news up: It’s full of fear and paranoia and it plays on your worst emotions.
That’s getting back to Silence of the Lambs and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The big difference between what they do and what I do is that I honestly express myself, even at the risk of people looking at me with horror and thinking I’m a monster. I’m willing to take that chance because I’ve got to get that out. But in a movie like Silence of the Lambs, the way they portrayed the serial killers and the sexual aberrations makes people afraid that there’s some guy like that lurking behind every telephone pole. This makes people more willing to bow to authority, as if the FBI really knows what it’s doing, and every weird-looking guy on the street should be locked up.
That’s what you come out of that movie with: Anybody with weird sexual quirks or who engages in unusual behavior is potentially a killer or a dangerous person. It creates a terrible atmosphere of fear; that atmosphere of fear probably causes more violence and anger and rage than anything else.
Actually, that movie was more liberal than most because the weird doctor, Hannibal Lecter, gets away in the end. He’s portrayed as a cool guy. Although, I don’t know how healthy that is either. But then they have this square-up. The FBI girl, who’s completely pristine in any sexual motivation whatsoever, kills the weird pervert guy, which reinforces the deepest, most puritanical fears and repressive attitudes.
It’s cynical and pandering. It made me feel bad. There were hundreds of young college kids getting out of the theater at the same time I was in Davis, and I just felt like one of the creepy, pervert guys in that movie, that I shouldn’t be in the same world with all these healthy, young college co-eds. I’ll do something bad to them.
GROTH: Why do you think that even intelligent people, like federal court judges, are more offended by your work than by Silence of the Lambs?
CRUMB: I don’t know if they are. Are they more offended by my work than by Silence of the Lambs?
GROTH: Well, I think it’s probably a pretty good guess that they would be, yeah.
CRUMB: Silence of the Lambs ends with a square-up. My work doesn’t.
GROTH: The judge in Canada was really offended by your work. Apparently, my testimony either did no good whatsoever, or hurt the case, because the comics store was ruled against and lost. He was very skeptical when I was trying to explain what underground comix were, and how the whole ethos of the undergrounds was to liberate the medium from the restrictions that they were suffering under.
CRUMB: And what did he say?
GROTH: He immediately looked at me and said, “You mean restrictions like not portraying sex explicitly?”
CRUMB: Did he think that any explicit portrayal of sex was bad? Even politically correct sex?
GROTH: It’d be hard for me to say because I couldn’t question him. I think he clearly had a very rigidly moralistic view of what was a correct portrayal of sex and what was beyond the pale. I understood that he was a painter himself, and that he painted flowers and trees. So he didn’t take to painting huge clitorises.
CRUMB: Maybe he’s right. Maybe we should all just paint flowers. I don’t know. I’m not dead sure of anything.
GROTH: I guess you’re dead sure that what you want to do or what someone else wants to do should not be repressed legally.
CRUMB: I don’t know, maybe we’re all just dragging society down the toilet. We should all be locked up.
GROTH: This is something I was always curious about. Did you testify during the Zap #4 trial in New York?
CRUMB: I’ve never testified, ever, about any of my comics. I’ve never been asked.
GROTH: That’s odd. Would you, if there was a trial and you were asked?
CRUMB: I might. But I might blow it. I might say that ultimately it’s not up to me to decide whether this work ought to be disseminated or not. I don’t think I’m qualified to make that decision.
[Editor’s note: In 1969 two New York bookstores were busted for selling copies of Zap #4. The Criminal Court of the City of New York found Zap #4 “legally obscene” and convicted two bookstore clerks. For a discussion of the trial, see Mark James Estren’s A History of Underground Comics.]
GROTH: Who do you think it’s up to? Who’s qualified?
CRUMB: I don’t know. Maybe they should take a consensus vote. Most people would probably vote against it.
GROTH: I was going to say, you’d be up shit creek if they did that.
CRUMB: All I know is that it has to come out. I have to see it on paper. I used to draw it and flush it down the toilet before I actually had the nerve to put it in print. All the time when I was drawing those cute commercial comics when I started, I was also drawing the other crazy stuff, but I was only drawing for myself. I didn’t want anybody else to see it. I remember the first time I let anybody see those weird sex drawings of mine they just said, “Oh, my God!” And then they tried to rationalize, saying, “Yeah, well, it’s symbolic, and you don’t really feel this way,” or, “Maybe you felt this way when you were a child.” And I said, “These are my real feelings. This is the real me.” They just said, “Oh, good lord.”
GROTH: How do you reconcile your hostility towards women? From where does that derive?
CRUMB: Have you looked at any women lately? Just kidding. Here’s the miraculous part of the whole thing: life imitates art, and since I started drawing this stuff I’ve actually lived it and found women who enjoy it. I actually do all those things with Aline and have done them with other women. Aline will even say that I don’t go far enough.
GROTH: Well, it’s just a matter of finding the right woman, I guess.
CRUMB: Different strokes for different folks. Don’t knock it.
GROTH: But you still believe that there’s genuine hostility?
CRUMB: Oh, sure. I think that there’s a lot of hostility between the sexes. Anybody that tries to deny that, who believes that everything between men and women can be all sweetness and light and incense and candles and love and oils, is full of shit.
GROTH: Why do you think that there is that hostility that’s intrinsic between the sexes, as opposed to between men?
CRUMB: Well, there’s that, too. There’s hostility between everybody.
GROTH: Yeah, but the hostility between one man and another could have to do with personalities.
CRUMB: It could have to do with bopping each other on the head, too, or smashing with fists. But when you get it between women and men it comes down to this sexual arena, it works out somewhat differently.
GROTH: There’s a whole different equation at work.
CRUMB: I think a lot of my hostility with women has to do with the fact that I’m a bit of a homunculus — sort of a weakling and everything. I could never fight back against men so I’d just take it out on women.
GROTH: But, paradoxically, you like women who are stronger than you.
CRUMB: That’s right. I get great satisfaction out of conquering this powerful female. Put me on the couch, get me a psychiatrist, maybe he could figure it out, I don’t know.
GROTH: That’s what we’re doing right here.
CRUMB: Jesus. It’s immature, I admit. It’s infantile. I’m not fully mature, and I’m not normal.
GROTH: Is there such a thing as sex that’s mature? Is there an authoritative mature sexuality that exists?
CRUMB: Freud said there was. Anything that wasn’t strictly concerned with sticking your penis in the vagina and humping up and down and thereby creating a certain friction and excitement that makes you ejaculate, anything besides that is abnormal.
GROTH: And immature.
CRUMB: And probably infantile fixations. And I have lots of those, lots of infantile fixations. You name it.
GROTH: Is Freud making a qualitative judgment there, was he saying that one was better than another?
CRUMB: I think so. But he was so damn complicated, who can say? And a lot of people believe that, people in authority. That Freud thing’s been around for a long time.
But Freud was enlightened for his time because he — and also Kraft-Ebbing and some other psychiatrists — believed that sexual deviation should not be treated necessarily as a crime, if no one is hurt. Sexual deviants shouldn’t be treated as criminals, they should be treated as mentally ill. Maybe the person should be confined or given therapy, but they shouldn’t be locked up because they have a shoe fetish or they like to put women’s underwear on their head.
What do we want, a world of clones?
GROTH: That’s pretty much what we’ve got, isn’t it?
CRUMB: Not at all. It’s a very strange, quirky world out there. Talk to Diane Hanson. She gets unbelievable letters from people, weird guys wanting to send her their skin and stuff like that.
GROTH: But all that quirkiness seems to me to be in the distinct minority. You know what’s popular and what isn’t, and what isn’t popular is the quirky stuff.
CRUMB: But there’s a lot of it out there. Really out there.
GROTH: Let me ask you one thing that I haven’t quite been able to reconcile myself and it has to do with the argument that images that are ostensibly degrading to women and so forth are harmful. Clearly, some women like to be in submissive positions.
CRUMB: I think a lot of women like to be submissive. They don’t like it to be publicly encouraged, though. I think women are very divided in a secret self and a public self. They have to for safety’s sake, especially in this society, this being a very violent society. They can’t go around saying, “Hey, I’m a masochist. Come on, do me up, work me over.” There’s a lot of young kids out there that’d go “OK” and pick up a lead pipe and bash their skulls. Women can’t just come right out and encourage that.
GROTH: So you think a lot of women see images like that as an invitation and are therefore a little afraid for that reason?
CRUMB: The real sex studies have shown that the majority of human beings in America have rape fantasies, men and women. Men want to be forced to submit to women, too. Male masochism is really quite widespread. Rape fantasy is like the second most popular fantasy in adult sex. But women can’t go out and say, “I want to be raped.” That’s a very complicated thing that a lot of people don’t understand. You can’t expect women to applaud fantasies that show that. Although they may go home and secretly masturbate thinking about it, they can’t publicly admit to that because it’s dangerous for them to do so.
GROTH: Although they can’t publicly celebrate it, couldn’t you expect them to at least not denounce it?
CRUMB: They consider it a threat to their physical safety. Whether it is or not has never been satisfactorily resolved, I don’t think.
GROTH: And probably never will be.
CRUMB: If someone were to show the rapist as a heroic, virtuous character, then we’d be in big trouble. But that’s never done. In mass media you have the square-up where the rapist or pervert is punished, killed, whatever. In the case of my work, the protagonist is always shown as a creepy homunculus. He’s never made to be anyone whose behavior you would think of emulating, or a person of heroic stature.
GROTH: What did you think of Maggie Bloodstone’s piece on you? [Printed elsewhere in this issue.]
CRUMB: Very interesting, although she was really struggling with her feelings about my work and still somewhat unresolved about it. I kept waiting to find out what the real appeal was to her. She never quite came out with it.
GROTH: Certainly part of the appeal for her was that you drew these really strong, powerful women which she wanted to be one of. You know, Lenore Goldberg...
CRUMB: Very interesting woman. That’s the first thing I’ve ever read written by a woman that’s actually been positive about the sexual aspect of my work.
GROTH: She damn near painted you as a feminist.
CRUMB: When I did that Lenore Goldberg thing, I originally did it with the term “Girl Power” in there. A lot of women really objected to that. That’s like a Negro saying “Boy Power.” Girl. That’s a dirty word in feminism. But she and Maggie Bloodstone thought that was about this basic female energy which the word girl — for me — kind of encompasses. When I say “girl” I’m not talking about little children.
GROTH: Of course, the argument there is that you don’t refer to men as boys and you shouldn’t refer to women as girls because that’s an intrinsically stereotyped and prejudicial use of language.
CRUMB: I don’t know. Men and women are different. Different sex, different species.
GROTH: I want to talk to you about feminism for a few minutes. Let’s go back to the late ’60s and early ’70s. What effect did feminism have on you then? Did it enhance your consciousness?
CRUMB: It was good for me. It was good for people — although it was very extreme in some ways, very thick-headed. There was no room in their anger and rage to be sympathetic to any of the problems of the male species at all. I always felt somewhat unfairly judged.
When I was younger I tried to be Mr. Good-Boy and Mr. Polite and everything like that with women, listen to women when they talked and not just be a big arrogant male and all that. It got me nowhere. All the big, arrogant, obnoxious males are the ones with women falling at their feet. If you tried to talk to feminists about that in the ’70s, they didn’t want to hear about it. “If you’re a male, you have male privileges.” Period. That’s it. They also didn’t want to hear about the struggles for power that ran rampant among males, and how if you came out at the bottom of that struggle, you’re just left out of the human race completely.
GROTH: Which is contrary to what feminists were actually saying.
CRUMB: Not entirely. Male power struggle and male aggression cause most of the trouble in the world. But they had no room in their cosmology, no sympathy for any male who lost out in that power struggle and had become isolated and a reject, which I always felt that I was. I had a personal axe about that. I think that a lot of my hostility toward women also has to do with that anger at seeing how women worshiped male power when I was an adolescent.
GROTH: How do you think feminists reconciled their dislike of male power and what you consider their attraction to it?
CRUMB: I don’t think they’ve reconciled it at all. That’s been one of my big disappointments with feminism. They haven’t really reconciled that or dealt with it. The sexual attraction toward powerful males is still there, as far as I can tell. Any rock-and-roll guy who’s strutting up and down on a stage like a completely arrogant peacock has a big female following. What is it about?
GROTH: Well, it’s possible that the effect of feminism, instead of making men kinder and gentler, has simply made women mare aggressive and more like men.
CRUMB: I thought that might be a good thing too, to make them more independent and less worshipful of male power. I think it has to some degree.
GROTH: So you think that might be a good thing?
CRUMB: Well, I’m attracted to powerful, independent women.
GROTH: What benefit would female General Schwarzkopfs have for the world? That just strikes me as increasing the problem rather than mitigating it.
CRUMB: I don’t know if that would equate that way or rot. Women are never going to have the testosterone level that men have. When I was in Sweden I noticed that, for some reason, in that society you don’t see as much of the traditional sex roleplaying that you do here, whereas in Latin cultures it’s shocking to see women acting in just the most kiss-ass way toward men. And the men just being arrogant, strutting around like bulls, in Italy or France or Latin cultures. In Sweden women were very independent, lived their own lives, made their own decisions. I found that very attractive. But I don’t know if that would necessarily lead to the battling for empires that men are into. There have been women at the top of empires like that, but it’s real rare.
GROTH: Well, Maggie Thatcher certainly defended the Falklands.
CRUMB: She’s as big an asshole as George [H.W.] Bush or any of them.
GROTH: What do you think of the feminist theory that if women only got in power we’d have a much kinder and gentler world? Do you buy that? It seems almost self-contradictory to me; they’re not going to get into power unless they’re very aggressive, and you can’t expect anyone who’s aggressive enough to play the political game and the corporate game and so forth to exhibit that kind of sweetness and tenderness that they …
CRUMB: That’s all in the realm of the abstract so much though. Somebody’s got to nurture the children. I thought that was an interesting aspect of Maggie Bloodstone’s article, women as the nurturers, taking pride in that. It was very refreshing that a woman thought that that was a good way to be.
GROTH: And unusual.
CRUMB: That’s what you long for. It’s part of the attraction toward women, that nurturing aspect.
GROTH: It seems that one of the unfortunate sides of feminism to me is that they’re instilling this same arrogant fort-building mentality in women that men have strutted around with for years.
CRUMB: A few sociologists believe that that’s the result of modern techno-corporate state societies where any kind of sexual differences just get in the way. They want everybody to be kind of unisexual, then everybody becomes a unit of production and consumption.
GROTH: That would be the perfect world.
CRUMB: In traditional societies, men and women took pride in their different roles and it all kind of balanced out in some way — even though maybe it wasn’t perfect and women were treated as chattel very often, but they got something back for it at least. But all that has to go by the board because of the modern techno-corporate state.
GROTH: You’re describing feminism as a tool of capitalism.
CRUMB: Not just capitalism. Women in modern society, if they try and play a traditional role, really lose out. Being a nurturer is a losing proposition in the techno-corporate state.
GROTH: But they’re only losing out on capitalist terms, right?
CRUMB: No. What do you do, stay home in the modern world? It’s a very boring thing to do. You get the soap operas and the vacuum cleaner. The other guy gets to go out and get in his car, go down to the center of the city, work in an office and bump up against other people — it’s a more stimulating environment. The tradeoff just works against staying home these days.
GROTH: I don’t know, I can imagine enjoying staying home with a good book and letting some asshole go out and bump heads with the other assholes.
CRUMB: There’s certainly a price to pay for that, too. But women don’t know that; they’ve got to find that out. They are finding it out. I remember reading books in the ’70s written by women raving against this horrible, stifling, boring suburban women’s role. They had to be nice to their husband’s bosses and make dinners for them, and learn to play golf — all very stifling. They thought they were missing out on the opportunity to live in a man’s world.
GROTH: Sounds like life in the ’50s.
CRUMB: It’s all a big horror as far as I’m concerned. But the hippie thing didn’t work either. The original impetus of the hippie female image was back to the barefoot nurturer image: stay in your teepee, decorate it nice, make a nice meal. But your loving mate, the husband or the old man or whatever, didn’t work; the hippie guys didn’t do anything. They were completely irresponsible. The women kind of got pissed off about that. Not only that, the men weren’t even loyal lovers. They would go out and fuck anybody they wanted. The women said, “To hell with it. I’m going to have my freedom, too.”
GROTH: On the cover of The Complete Crumb #6, you drew the bomb bouncing against the wall and going “Fizzle.” Is that pretty much what you meant, the failure of the ’60s?
CRUMB: It certainly didn’t bring down the citadel of capitalism or the corporate-state. Another one of many waves that splashed against that in almost total futility.
CRUMB: I have no idea. I only know about my own sex relations, I don’t know about other people’s. It’s such a big secret that nobody knows. It takes the Kinsey Institute to pry it out of people, what goes on between them. My sex relations have certainly improved. [Laughter.]
GROTH: Is that partly because of your fame?
CRUMB: Absolutely. Fame is power. And power talks when you’re involved with women. It’s made me a lot more intriguing to women than I was when I was a nobody. I didn’t have the personality or the animal magnetism or the masculine forcefulness to attract women before I was famous. After I was famous I didn’t have to do anything. I just had to sit there like the bumbling nerd that I am and there was something very intriguing about me, even so.
GROTH: How do you handle your current sexual experiences now that you’re married?
CRUMB: I’m a good boy most of the time.
GROTH: Is it awkward or difficult?
CRUMB: Is what awkward?
GROTH: Having sexual experiences outside of marriage?
CRUMB: I still lie and cheat and sneak around, but Aline is cool about it. She gives me slack on the leash; she knows that in order to keep things stable that you have to give me a certain amount of freedom; otherwise I would probably flee for good. Also, she likes to have her freedom too, and knows enough that she can’t force a double standard on me. If she wants her freedom, she has to give me mine. She’s smart enough to have that whole thing somewhat together. Sometimes there’s a little bit of jealousy or tension when she knows I’ve gone out and fooled around with some other woman, but it’s never bad enough to cause some really nightmarish situation or anything. Like I say, most of the time I stay home, I’m good.
GROTH: Is your libido still as active as it was in the ’70s?
CRUMB: Oh, yeah. Sex for me is better than ever, actually. Refining it and honing it. The one thing I’m learning, it took me 40 years, is the bolder and the more confident you are about what you like and what you want to do, the easier it is. It doesn’t matter so much what it is you want to do, it can be any crazy, weird thing, but if you’re absolutely confident about it, and not project an image that there’s something absolutely repulsive about yourself and what you want to do, women are pretty easy about that stuff a lot of times. Of course, you have to learn which women are the ones you can leap on and which ones aren’t.
GROTH: That’s probably a very important part of this.
CRUMB: I’ve just never been a very smooth, Valentino kind of guy. I can’t talk myself into a woman’s bed; I’ve never been able to do that. I’m not a fast-talking, smooth-talking guy; I’m not an operator at all. I’ve never been able to pick a woman up in a bar or anything. Some women that I meet know that I’m famous and are impressed by that. If I’m physically attracted to her, if she has a big butt and big legs and she’s cute and everything, then I think, “Well, maybe she’ll let me jump on her.” Then I just try to do it. If I get away with it, fabulous. If not, then, “Oh, well.”
GROTH: Have you ever been slugged or anything? I’ve seen you jump on women. I was astonished.
CRUMB: One woman screamed once and ran from the house.
GROTH: How did you feel about that?
CRUMB: I felt bad. I’m pretty sensitive. At first I try to talk to them a little bit first. I don’t jump on them until after I’ve talked to them for a little while.
GROTH: One of my favorite strips of yours was that Weirdo strip — it’s like a five- or six-page strip, where you trudged all the way across town and took a bus just to get together with this woman and ...
CRUMB: It’s true.
GROTH: … and what struck me about it was that every thing about her was repulsive except her physicality.
CRUMB: Yeah, she was pretty obnoxious.
GROTH: That indicates that you don’t have to have any kind of spiritual connection, to say the least.
CRUMB: I’ve had some of my most wild sexual actions to women whose personalities I really couldn’t stand. The one I did that strip about, once you broke past that obnoxious, defensive, lame personality, you found a completely spontaneous, animalistic, raging, passionate sexuality. That woman was extremely divided between her sexual self and her other self. She would loosen up when she’d been drinking.
GROTH: Does it bother you that women that you’re intensely attracted to, and can even have a great time with, are repulsive in other ways, aesthetically or intellectually?
CRUMB: Ultimately, I can’t get too involved, because I just can’t take being with them for any length of time. As soon as you come, before you’ve finished squirting, you’re already thinking about how you’re going to get away from them. But part of the sexual pleasure, I suppose, is kind of like a hate-fuck, where you’re really going to ram it to this person who’s been really giving you a hard time for the past two hours. You’ve been through hell for two hours, you’re really going to put it to ’em. It’s exciting — and sick. I try to avoid that now; I don’t really have time for that kind of nonsense any more. It involves women and personalities I can’t stand. They’re so obnoxious you just want to knock them over the head with a board.
It’s much better if you actually like them and your sensibilities are similar. It’s much more enjoyable. In the last ten years, I’d say, I’ve been involved with women who have been pretty good, pretty positive that way. I’ve been very lucky.
Another thing I’ve learned is that you cannot tell a book by its cover. You can’t tell from looking at a woman what her sexual passions will be. Jesus, it’s amazing. It surprises me. You learn not to stereotype people and not to think of people by how they look or what kind of lifestyle they have.
GROTH: You said something interesting in an interview with Al Goldstein -
CRUMB: [Laughter] That was quite an interview. The first question he asked me: [New York Jew voice] “So, Robert, tell me, do you masturbate a lot? What do you think about when you masturbate?”
GROTH: Yeah, it was an amazing interview. Goldstein said the funniest thing I’ve ever read him say, which was that you never met a recreation vehicle that you didn’t like, referring to the size of the women you like.
CRUMB: Maybe I do think of them as RVs, actually.
GROTH: A lot of meat. A lot of flesh.
CRUMB: Big butts.
GROTH: One thing in the interview which surprised me a little bit was that you didn’t seem to like your own body and when women touched or caressed you, you got real nervous.
CRUMB: I don’t like it when a woman focuses on my body too much.
GROTH: Why do you think that is?
CRUMB: I don’t know, put me on the couch. Aline says I’m a brain in a jar. I have no narcissism about my own body at all. I don’t like to think about it very much. I maintain it just so it doesn’t cause me discomfort, that’s about it. I don’t think of myself as physically attractive.
I went on this book signing tour in England with this Scotsman who was like this strutting Alpha male, completely confident in himself. We stayed in hotels together for a month. After a while he started lecturing me all the time. He’d strut around the hotel room in his underwear, slapping himself on the stomach and stuff, while I was sitting huddled on a chair in my pajamas. He’d lecture about how I should stand in front of the mirror every day until I really saw the physically appealing things about myself that I could then cultivate and have a more attractive image of myself.
Everyplace we went he’d hit up on girls. He’d walk into a place and he’d immediately have a girlfriend. Women were always heavily attracted to him every place we went. Devastating. It was very disturbing for me because I realized that I’m really a twisted and gnarled and fucked-up person in a way. He’s so well-adjusted and confident.
By the time we got to Paris, after about the first three weeks, he was really feeling sorry for me. I wasn’t getting laid at all and he had a girl in every port. So he says, “Crumb, I’ve got the girl for you here in Paris. I’ll call her up.’ So he got me this girl named Christine, this beautiful six-foot-tall, giant girl, very beautiful. I don’t know how he got this idea, but he told her that I was a submissive, meek-type male who’d probably like a really dominant woman. She took off her clothes and she was wearing this kind of dominatrix outfit, with these real high heels and everything like that, and she started getting this crawl-you-worm kind of attitude towards me. I wasn’t going for it at all.
He just gave up: “Ah, Crumb, you’re just hopeless. I don’t know what you want.” The evening ended up with me drinking really heavily till I was completely soused and couldn’t move and him singing old Scottish sea shanties to this woman and completely courting her until she was totally in love with him.
CRUMB: Yeah. I hate my body.
GROTH: Have you ever thought of lifting weights or something?
CRUMB: It doesn’t appeal to me to be that kind of male at all. I’m stuck with my brain-in-a-jar, homunculus self-image. I’m twisted, I’m not normal. I’m maladjusted, I admit it.
But I’ve been very lucky. Some women find that attractive, they get off on that kind of male. They like being attacked and ravaged by a twisted homunculus. There are such women.
GROTH: You’re lucky because you sort of advertise through your work.
CRUMB: And it’s only my fame that’s allowed me to get through to those kinds of women that like that. Other males that are like that are just nobodies, they haven’t got a chance.
GROTH: Do you ever wish sometimes that you weren’t such a prisoner of your libido?
CRUMB: A lot. I’ve often wished that it would go away. Sometimes I go through a phase where my libido goes down a little bit and I think, “Oh, maybe now it’s going away, finally it’s subsiding as I get older,” but it always comes raging back. Often I go through obsessive periods of sexual fantasy and obsession that go on and on for days and days. I can’t stop it. I’ll be completely preoccupied with sexual fantasies. I guess you could say I’m a very masturbatory person.
GROTH: I think in your Goldstein interview you said you masturbate an average of twice a day
CRUMB: If left to my own devices I do. If I’m kept busy or there are other people around, I don’t.
GROTH: Because you can get your mind off of it?
CRUMB: Yeah. And I can’t do it publicly, in front of other people. I have to be kept busy or in a situation where there’s other people around, otherwise I do it. I can’t help it. That happened in my teens. I was a social outcast. I had no way of acting out my sexual energy as a teenager, so I just developed this habitual fantasizing and masturbatory behavior pattern. I’m sure it’s very common. Millions of men in America are like that. A lot of them read comic books. [Laughter] I’m sure you know that comics-reading males are for the most part these loser males, masturbatory-type people.
GROTH: Well, I certainly hope so. [Laughter] Another interesting thing you said in that interview was that at one point you were just happy to get old, and then when you were at a certain age — I think you said 35 — for the first time you couldn’t get it up.
CRUMB: I couldn’t get it up for just generic sex any more. Up to that point I could service any female. Service these really dreadful women, too. I’m amazed now that I could actually get a hard. Skinny ones with no butts and stuff. Some men like that, I guess. If you don’t have a big, round butt now it’s difficult.
GROTH: Was that sort of a crisis point for you or was it something you simply accepted as an inevitability?
CRUMB: It was very shocking and distressing at first. “I can’t get it up, what’s wrong?” But you have to live with it.
GROTH: And you haven’t found your more specialized tastes to be an impediment?
CRUMB: It’s not an impediment. I can get it up if the women have got the qualifications, if the chemistry is right. It’s not a problem at all.
GROTH: Yeah, right, but those requirements have to be there.
CRUMB: And if they’re really there, I have to keep myself from coming too fast. If it’s really working out, if the chemistry’s really hot, then I often lose control. Control is a problem. With Aline these things aren’t a problem at all because we’ve known each other for so long that sex really goes smoothly. I’d say we’re probably having better sex than ever, actually. We’ve worked it out. We don’t have sex every day or nothing. Quality is better than quantity, certainly. Routine sex isn’t something I’m capable of — “O.K., time to stick it in.” I could never be like that.
GROTH: How do you avoid routine sex with someone you’ve been living with for 15 years or so?
CRUMB: You don’t have sex that often.
GROTH: But even if you have it every other day, it can be routinized.
CRUMB: We probably have average sex once every couple of weeks. And it’s great, it’s hot, it’s fabulous. You just can’t reach those heights of intensity every other day, it’s not possible.
GROTH: How do you work it so that both of you want to have sex the same time every couple of weeks? Isn’t that kind of miraculous?
CRUMB: Sometimes it doesn’t work out. It seems to be like a cycle. We’ll build up this sexual energy and at some point our energies just crash into each other in this big, magnificent explosion. It’s incredible. It reaches heights that you don’t even dream possible. “Here I am having sex … oh, boy! Isn’t this exciting!” It’s like when you’re young, that “Oh, boy, I’m sleeping with a woman!”
GROTH: I think when you’re younger you’re just obsessed with quantity.
CRUMB: Right, notches on the bedpost and all that, the conquest of any female. I was probably more desperate than other guys when I was young.
GROTH: I was talking to a comics retailer who’s very conservative. He won’t sell any sex comics. He’ll sell comics with sex, but they can’t be sex for sex’s sake.
CRUMB: What about violent comics?
GROTH: He’ll sell every violent comic he can get his hands on. He claims that the reason he won’t sell sex comics is because he’s a family store.
CRUMB: Did you ask him if he feels that by selling sex comics in a family store he’s putting himself at risk and that’s why he won’t do it? Church groups and others —
GROTH: No, my impression is that it was his own private personality that dictated that.
CRUMB: It’s hard to say with someone like that. The whole idea of selling sexually explicit material to them is associated with some sleazy, criminal Mafia gangster world where you have sleazy, dangerous people coming into your store, and it only belongs in a low-life neighborhood — all those kinds of associations. They just haven’t got it thought out much beyond that.
GROTH: Do you think that pornography and prostitution and the whole sex industry ought to be legalized?
GROTH: I don’t see why it should be illegal. I think it would be far better and far healthier for those concerned if it weren’t.
CRUMB: You remember Hamburg, you were there, you saw it.
GROTH: And loved it.
CRUMB: It was incredible, unbelievable. All open, above-board, legal, no sleaze, no criminals, beautiful women on the streets looking for customers. There’s not even enough customers to cover all the women that are out there looking for customers.
GROTH: It just takes the whole onus off it.
CRUMB: We’re just so stupid about all that stuff here, like with drugs.
GROTH: Well, you won’t have to put up with that much longer.
CRUMB: Damn right. I’m outta here. Fuck this country.
GROTH: Maybe you can come by occasionally to testify at a trial.
CRUMB: Let them stew in their own juices, the bastards. If not for those friends of mine that I’m leaving behind. Ironically, I’m physically attracted to more American women than I am to women in other countries. There are more women with big asses here than any place else. I don’t know if it’s the food or the genetic cross-breeding that goes on in America or what, but …
GROTH: Is French culture something you’re looking forward to being immersed in?
CRUMB: No, I don’t like French culture that much.
GROTH: Well, you must like it more than American culture.
CRUMB: Not necessarily. In certain ways it’s easier to live there; it’s not as crazy of a place. But you can certainly miss the craziness of America. People are wild and behavior is unpredictable. That makes it dangerous but also interesting. They’re much more domesticated over there.
GROTH: Maybe you’ll get more work done, then.
CRUMB: That’s what I’m hoping. It’s part of the reason for going there. I’ll also be more alienated and isolated in certain ways.
GROTH: Right. You can’t speak the language, can you?
CRUMB: Not at all. Aline can speak some of it, but I can’t speak it at all. That should help as far as getting work done.
GROTH: Well, we certainly hope so.
CRUMB: So do I. ·