Robert Crumb—Live Online: The Interview That Didn’t Happen

Black Sparrow Press moving card Illustration (1986)

Robert Crumb was scheduled to appear at a comics/film festival called “Graphic” on August 20 and 21 at Australia’s Sydney Opera House. I was to appear on stage and interview him on the 21st.

On July 31, the Sydney Telegraph ran a short article titled “Smutty Show a Comic Outrage”, in which the author, Jesse Phillips, quotes anonymous “sexual assault crisis groups” as describing Crumb as “sick and deranged,” and attacking the Sydney Opera House for sponsoring the event. The well-known art critic Hetty Johnson is quoted as condemning the Opera House for “endorsing” the “depraved thought processes of this very warped human being.” She went on to be quoted as saying, “These cartoons are not funny or artistic — they are just crude and perverted images emanating from what is clearly a sick mind. Of all the brilliant artists, cartoonists and writers the Opera House and council could have supported, you have to wonder why they chose Robert Crumb.”

Indeed, you have to wonder. After all, what has Crumb contributed to comics? The Telegraph’s journalist, who should know, referred to him as a “‘seminal’ cult comic cartoonist from the 1960s” — note that “seminal” is in quotes, meaning not seminal. Why host him rather than an artist who would pass the Telegraph’s high standards of decency?

I am joking. In fact, there is no indication that Hetty Johnson knows anything about art. She is an anti-child abuse campaigner who founded an organization called BraveHearts, and the author of a book called In the Best Interests of the Child. I don’t know enough about her to comment on her legitimacy as an advocate for abused children —she may be a good and valuable one, or she may be, in the words of altnews.com, an “anti-child abuse hysteric”— but she was certainly dragged in by the Murdoch-owned Telegraph to support their editorial position. When I read this, I didn’t think much of it; it was just another example of clueless, right-wing cultural warfare, and instantly dismissed it as such. The only proper response, from my point of view, was: Fuck you. I was still planning on seeing Crumb a few weeks later, and looking forward to interviewing him.

I was, therefore, as surprised as anyone when I learned Crumb cancelled his scheduled appearance because of it and I couldn’t help but wonder why. Crumb is, in his own way, one of the most courageous cartoonists who ever lived and I couldn’t imagine that this caused him much pause. Naturally, his decision was more complex than I imagined. His cancellation caused a stir in the media —and it should be said that most of the Australian media was very much on his side and foursquare opposed to the sleazy tactics of the telegraph; a typical headline, this one from Artlyst, was “News Corp Assassinates Comic Book Legend Robert Crumb”— and he felt obliged to respond for the record. Here is the full text of his “Statement to the Media.”

Graphics Festival and the Country of Australia Go On Without R. Crumb

Why’d I suddenly cancel my appearance in Sydney only days before I was supposed to get on that airplane?  I’ll try to explain as best I can.

Weeks ago, I was interviewed by a journalist named Charles Purcell for the Sydney Morning News concerning my upcoming appearance at the Graphics Festival.  I was pretty open with Purcell over the telephone from my home in France, as I usually am with journalists.  I’m not very clever at contriving a media image.  I just bare my soul in my compulsive, confessional way.  So, we talked a lot about sex, about my sexual proclivities, and Purcell played up this angle in his article of July 30th.  There are some very frank quotes in the published interview.  “I’m a very eccentric oddball character, weird pervert,” and so forth.  I’m also quoted putting down Karl Rove, and by extension, all right-wing politicians.  Okay, fine, I have no problem with such a forthright presentation of who I am and what I think.

LITTLE DID WE KNOW… Little did Purcell or I know who was lurking in the bushes, just waiting to pounce?!  The very next day, July 31, the right-wing media sharks at the Telegraph verily jumped on this juicy morsel.  Me, I know nothing of Australian politics.  I had no clue that there were such nasty right-wing media manipulators there.  The Purcell article alerted them.  Crumb was somebody they could use against the liberals in the Sydney city government.  They obviously did a little research, made some calls to the right people, like “anti-child abuse campaigner” Hetty Johnston, and got them to rant about what a bad person I am, that “the Sydney Opera House was endorsing the ‘depraved thought processes of this very warped human being,’” ‘These cartoons are not funny or artistic they are just crude and perverted images emanating from what is clearly a sick mind.”  Beautiful.  Perfect.  Thank you, Ms. Johnston, for your input.

After I told a journalist who sent me the article that I might not go to Australia because of it, he took it on himself to call and talk to Hetty Johnston, who told him that she was contacted by “the Media,” sent links to some of my more “offensive” images, and asked to comment on the fact that the Sydney Opera House was exhibiting my work.  From this it is evident that the Telegraph was looking for ways to discredit me and the Sydney city government by using people like Hetty Johnston.  Who’s going to put down an anti-child abuse campaigner?  If this person hates my work, I must be a child abuser myself.  And the Sydney Opera House is condoning child abusers.  And the Telegraph, after contacting these groups and showing them apparently offensive images extracted from my work, can then say, as they did in their article, “Cartoonist Robert Crumb’s visit, funded by the Opera house and endorsed by the City of Sydney, has sparked outrage with sexual assault groups describing the France-based American artist as ‘sick and deranged.’”  One can see in this example how skilled media professionals with low standards of integrity are able to mold and manipulate public opinion, popular beliefs, and, ultimately, the direction of politics.  The majority of the population in most places are not alert to this kind of deceptive manipulation.  They are more or less defenseless against such clever “perception management.”

I was quite alarmed when I read this article in the Sunday Telegraph, which came out the day after the Morning News piece by Purcell. I showed it to my wife Aline, who said, “That’s it, you’re not going.”  She got a very bad feeling from the Telegraph article.  She feared that I might be attacked physically by some angry, outraged person who simply saw red at the mention of child-molesters.  She remarked that she’d never seen any article about me as nasty as this one.

I emailed the organizers of the Graphics Festival and told them that I might not come on account of this article.  They attempted to reassure me that the Telegraph was not to be taken seriously, that it’s just a stupid, cheap tabloid of no consequence, that no one was going to show up and harass me, that most of the media in Sydney was completely positive about my coming there, etc.  Aline and I went round and round about this thing; should I go or not?  Ultimately, she could not shake her feeling of ominous dread.  I knew that if I went, that she would be in a state of anxiety the whole time I was gone.  She’d be praying for me, I know her.  I couldn’t do it to her.  Finally I told her I wasn’t going.  She broke down and wept as I held her.  I told the organizers the bad news and apologized profusely.  They were quite gracious about it, I must say.  I know that my decision not to come has caused them great inconvenience as well as disappointment.  I’d been rehearsing intensively in preparation for playing music with the local Sydney “novelty” band of Mic Conway.  I was kind of looking forward to that.  Oh well, it’s always good to rehearse, come what may.

While I was agonizing over whether to go to Australia or not, I tried to imagine how I would react if confronted with a group of angry anti-Crumb protestors, or an angry individual.  I have no defense.  I can’t explain why I drew all those crazy pictures.  I had to do it.  Maybe I should have my pencils and pens taken away from me.  I don’t know.  I really have no answer to their argument that I’m a sick, deranged person.  What should I say, no, I’m not?  No idea.  But I decided that I was willing to face the possibility of an unpleasant confrontation, possible insults, even physical assault.  I’m rather fatalistic that way.  But I couldn’t do that to Aline.  I had to put her feelings in front of those of the organizers of the Festival and Australian fans of my work.  Sorry folks.  I DO feel bad, as I hate letting people down.  But I decided I’d rather bear the pain of letting people down than subjecting my long-suffering wife to a ten-day period of dread and anxiety for my well being.  She’s been awfully nice to me since I told her I wasn’t going!  She baked a chocolate cake even!

I know, I know, it’s galling to give the Telegraph sleazeballs the satisfaction.  “Ha ha, we scared him off.”  But they already got what they wanted out of me anyway, which was to use me to make the city government of Sydney look bad.  The worst part of it is the irresponsibility of these cynical media hacks.  What if I’d gone there, and what if some Mark Chapman type person who’d read that article decided that the world needed to be cleansed of scum like R. Crumb (Mark Chapman shot John Lennon)?  This was one possibility that worried Aline deeply.  Did it occur to the people at the Telegraph that they might be stirring up such dangerous passions?  Do they care?  Their article showed a profound lack of integrity and social responsibility.  And unfortunately, I was made the object of their hateful Machiavellian tactics.  One wonders if they would have published more such anti-Crumb articles if I’d showed up in Sydney, or possibly even orchestrated some sort of public demonstration against me! Yipe!

R. Crumb

August 9, 2011

In preparation for interviewing Crumb, I put together a PowerPoint presentation so that questions would be synched to images and the audience could see what we were talking about. I’ve interviewed Crumb several times in the past and I wanted to ask questions that I wouldn’t necessarily think to ask, so, realizing that my own perspective is limited and not wanting to repeat myself, I invited a dozen cartoonists to submit a question I could ask Crumb. I planned on asking him these questions at the end of our interview.

Since I couldn’t ask him these questions on a stage in Sydney, I asked Robert if he’d answer these questions in a post-Sydney interview, to which he graciously consented. I recently witnessed an exchange on an academic forum discussing Crumb’s alleged racism or misogyny (I can’t recall which) where someone, referring to crumb’s own responses to the allegations, said that Crumb wasn’t a very thoughtful cartoonist. I couldn’t disagree more. Not only is he thoughtful about his own craft and art, but has a wide-ranging curiosity, verging on the inquisitorial, about the wider world and the Important Questions. Not that he always has the answers, mind you; but few cartoonists of my acquaintance think more and more deeply about he questions than Crumb does. This interview skims the surface.

This interview as conducted, ironically or appropriately, on August 21, 2011. It was transcribed by Conrad Groth, edited by Gary Groth, and fact-checked by R. Crumb.

GARY GROTH: Do you have any regrets about not going to Australia?

“Sally Blubberbutt” from Big Ass #2 (August 1971)

R. CRUMB: Well, I didn’t until you told me that the streets were full of Crumb girls. [Laughter.]

Which they are.

That's when I started regretting it. [Groth laughs.] That’s about it. Otherwise, I didn’t want to go that badly. I wouldn’t have even thought of going at all if Jordan Verzar had just asked me outright, but when he sent me those photos — that was it.

Yeah, that sold you.

He did his job well. [Laughs.] Otherwise, really, what’s in Australia for me? It’s a 22-hour plane ride… Did I read you Terry Zwigoff’s note to me? After he’d read the whole thing on the Internet about what happened, he said, “What are you really going to miss? A backbreaking plane ride of some 20 hours, another dog-and-pony slideshow and discussion in front of some aging hippies, sitting in with one of the worst bands I’ve ever heard — someone showed them to me on YouTube. From people I’ve talked to, Australia’s filled with even more boisterous, drunken hoopleheads than America, so you won’t be missing much.” [Laughter.]


Hoopleheads, yes.

Huh. [Crumb laughs.] That’s pretty great. Now, what did you think of the band?

I never actually heard them.

You didn’t jump on YouTube and watch them?

I don’t do computers. But I can have somebody else download it and show it to me. I guess I should look at it. I was rehearsing diligently and earnestly to play with them. They sent me a tune list, and we worked out an hour set of tunes I was rehearsing. But I’d never actually heard them, no. Terry said he didn’t like them much.

In your statement explaining why you didn’t go, you used the word “galling,” which seemed appropriate to me in that it’s galling to give in to that kind of pressure.

“Ha ha, we ran him off.”

GROTH: Yeah, right, right. The Telegraph, which ran the original piece, ran a follow-up, and I was curious about something they wrote.

Yeah, I haven’t seen that.

They wrote: “Crumb seems to be living in fear of the reaction he once sought to provoke. It seems a sad place for any artist to be.” And they continued, “Crumb now has some regret about his earlier acid-era works about rape, bestiality, and incest, which began when, as a virgin teenager, he began drawing masturbation fantasies.” [Laughter]. And then they quote you, as writing in a comic from 1994, which I don’t remember having seen, “These are my own original unique creations, but of this I was not and never have been proud. Later, I even had the nerve to foist these absurd fantasies on the public in my comics. Why I thought anyone else would want to see this stuff I’ve forgotten.”

[Laughs.] I probably said that. [Laughs.] In my own open, agonizing confessional way I’ve gone through every aspect of the spectrum of feelings and emotions about the work I’ve done.

It’s funny, because if you’re too honest about things like that it’ll be ideologically used against you.

Yeah, sure, you can pull something like that out. That might even be in one of those Complete Crumb introductions that I wrote, I don’t know, I’m sure it’s someplace, some interview I did. It’s true; another thing Terry says in that e-mail to me that I just quoted to you from, he said, [laughter] “I would take this as an opportunity to reevaluate your openness with the media as well. I suffer from the same compulsive impulses. It all stems from wanting to be liked. But not all people are good at heart, and it’s not wise to be so open. The Weinsteins” — he means the Weinstein brothers — “took me aside and taught me this valuable lesson years ago at the start of promoting Bad Santa. They’d say, ‘Terry, why are you saying that? Don’t get into that.’ And I’d always say, ‘But it’s the truth.’ They said, ‘You’ve got to learn to manipulate the media, or the media will manipulate you. Put your own spin on things and make your own truth. Do what helps your career, not theirs. Wise up.’ They weren’t wrong.” [Laughs.]