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

Let me start asking you some questions that were passed on to me. You can pretend there’s a 30-foot by 30-foot screen behind you that has these questions being displayed. [Crumb laughs.] That was my strategy. And tell me if you don’t know any of the cartoonists.

Yeah, OK.

So, Tony Millionaire.

I know his work vaguely.

His question:

“I love the comic where Mr. Natural smashes the rake out of Flakey Foont’s hand and gives him a pitchfork, saying, ‘Use the right tool for the job.’ The pause while Flakey stood there waiting for Mr. Natural to make his move was the kind of timing I’d only seen before in Peanuts, like Linus waiting while the quiet steam built up in Lucy. Did you have some hippy farm experience or something like this happen to you? Did you ever live in a hippy farm?”

Yeah. This came directly from an experience that I had the day before I drew that. [Laughter.]

Really?

Yeah. I was out there raking up this dry grass that had been mowed. This was when I first moved to Potter Valley, and we were trying to do this little organic farming thing there, so first thing was we had to cut all this tall, wild grass on a couple acres of land. And so I was out there raking it up with a stupid rake [Groth laughs], and then somebody came over and said “try this” and handed me this pitchfork and it worked so much better. [Laughs.]

I didn’t know that.

Well of course, how would you?

[Laughs.] I haven’t lived on a hippy farm.

It suddenly occurred to me that, yeah, the right tool. There were things handed down through generations about tools and here we were a bunch of hippies with no experience with that at all. So I stupidly went out there with this rake, I didn’t know anything.

From “It’s a Workaday World” in The Book of Mr. Natural (1970)

Yeah, that’s what I would’ve done. [Crumb laughs.] Now, give me a little context. You lived on a collective farm?

Well, when Ballantine Books wanted to do the Fritz the Cat book they gave me $10,000 up front. That was big money for us then. That was in ’69. And then Dana, my first wife, immediately wanted to go out and find a place to buy. And she heard about this place three hours from San Francisco in Potter Valley and went up there and looked at it, it was $18,000 for a five-acre place with a house on it, so she said, “That’s the one. I’m going to buy that.” We bought it, and then she had this idea, she had all these people, hangers-on and all that. She wanted to do this big garden thing and that was like early 1970, late ’69. Might’ve been in 1970 that I got roped into pitching in and helping out with this gardening thing.

It ended up a big disaster, ended up being all we could really manage was a small patch, a garden patch about maybe 30 by 20 feet. We couldn’t farm acres; we just didn’t have the knowledge. Nobody really wanted to work that hard in the hot sun. You know these hippies, they all assumed that somebody else would do that, that somebody else would slave in the hot sun, not them. They had more important things to do. [Laughs.] It’s a lot of work, a lot of work, and you had to do it all by hand, without machinery and stuff. Oy!

Who were these hangers on and where did they live?

Well, we had a big place there. I don't know where they all came from. Some of them lived in shacks nearby. That was a really crazy time. It was all very unstable. People came and went; it was anarchy. I couldn’t handle it. I was no master at dealing with that stuff. And my comics were supporting the whole thing. When everybody was hanging around and taking up my time during the day I had to work at night. It was the only time that people weren’t hanging around. [Laughs.] I have the memory of this in my mind, sitting in my little cabin in Potter Valley with all these people just sitting around, wanting to be entertained, wanting to smoke dope. Just taking up your time. Trying to get some work done was impossible.

You described that situation to me once, working through the night after these hangers-on went to sleep, and I wondered when you got any sleep.

Well, I would work all night ’til like 5 in the morning, then sleep ’til like 1 in the afternoon. [Laughs.] That’s what I did.

You were unbelievably productive during that period.

Yeah, I’m not sure about the quality of all that stuff I did though. I kind of think the quality was declining in the early ’70s. My life was just too crazy and people wanting my attention all the time because I was Mr. Hippy cartoonist, and people wanting things constantly, I was involved in so much nonsense. [Laughter.] Plus, I was running around chasing girls, and wanting to fuck this one and that one. [Laughs.]

Given all that, it’s still utterly amazing how productive you were.

Yeah, but the work suffered. I think it suffered mostly from pot, smoking too much pot wasn’t good for me. LSD was very inspirational, but pot just kind of de-motivated me. The drawing got sloppy and careless.

You once told me that you lost a lot of technical skill due to the LSD, not the pot.

It was from the drugs in general. My work became simpler and more iconographic. Harvey Kurtzman pointed this out to me. He said, “Look Crumb, your drawing is being hurt by all these drugs you take.” And I couldn’t see it, because I was still taking a lot of drugs. [Laughter.]

Well, of course! [Laughs.]

Only later when I looked back at the work I could see that. Like when I did those sketchbook series with you, in that period from about 1970 to ’73, my work, the drawing, the sketchbooks were so sloppy that I spent weeks and weeks improving and correcting that drawing before I sent the work to you.

R. Crumb Sketchbook Vol. 8: Fall 1970 to Fall 1972

I wouldn’t contest that, but there’s an imaginative quality to your work that was pretty amazing.

Yeah, the imagination was still rolling, but I thought the drawing was better earlier, like ’67, ’68, ’69. And also I was under a lot of pressure, there were all these little comic publishers that wanted me to do stuff for them, because my stuff sold better than the other ones. So they were all after me, five publishers, all saying, “Crumb, give us more work, give us more work,” so I was just trying to crank. I was staying up nights working on comics and doing like two pages in a night.

And you felt obligated?

Well, yeah, they’re all dependent on me for survival, all these little publishers. I tried to keep everybody happy, I wanted to be loved. [Laughter.]

Well, those days are long over.

OK, next question.

All right. Megan Kelso gave me three questions. The first is: “Are there any projects that you’ve wanted to do over the years but have somehow eluded you? And why?”

Yeah.

What would those be?

Well, first one is I wanted to do a long book, like a hundred-page book of excerpts from the diaries of My Secret Life by Walter. You familiar with that?

No.

This Victorian gentleman who kept these secret diaries of his sex life, they’re great: some of the best 19th century English literature, in my opinion. [Laughs.] And they’re very frank, he uses lots of foul language and things like that, but he’s a gentleman. And he was very successful with women and very determined to get laid [Groth laughs] and very good at it.

“Excerpts from Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763” Weirdo #3 (Fall 1981)

Sounds like that Boswell piece you did in Weirdo.

Yeah, kind of like that. In the mid-’90s, ’96, I started making drawings in my sketchbook and I was just not happy with them, I’ve got to educate myself better so I could do this, and I just never got to it. And after doing Genesis I now think I actually have the technical skill to do it. I didn’t before. I was never happy with the drawings I did in the sketchbook.

When you say you wanted to educate yourself in order to do it, you mean educate yourself in terms of Victorian iconography, or what?

Well, the Victorian accoutrements is one thing, but just how to draw realistic people, how to draw them correctly. And I realized that this is going to take a lot of focus and concentration and I just never got to it. My life’s been a constant battle to try to do what I want to do. [Laughs.] So that’s one thing. I still might try and do it, I dunno. What’s her next question?

Her second question is: “Do you continue to have ideas or begin projects with the same process you’ve always had, or has your process changed as you’ve gotten older?”

Oh yeah, the process has changed a lot. It’s not nearly as spontaneous as it was when I was young. I used to just work spontaneously off the top of my head. That immediately started to drag as I got famous, and I got more self-conscious, and all that stuff.

Do you miss that ability to spontaneously whip out a piece?

Yeah, in a way. It happened so gradually, I’m not sure if I miss it, but self-consciousness, that’s a killer. Once you become famous and people start praising you, the price of that is self-consciousness. Before that you’re just trying to prove yourself, but once they start heaping praise on you, then you’ve got to live up to your own reputation, and that can really fuck you up bad. You get all fucked up from that.

It seems like it could almost paralyze you creatively.

Yeah, it’s very paralyzing; it causes writer’s block.

Yeah, there’s a big distinction between your Weirdo work and your work before 1980. I’m not sure if that’s exactly the demarcation point, but I noticed how much more carefully drawn and composed the work in Weirdo was.

Yeah, Cat Yronwode, when I first started doing Weirdo, was very critical of my Weirdo stuff and said it was heavy and lacked the freewheeling spontaneity of my earlier stuff and blah blah blah. She was probably right. She didn’t like me much though.

[Laughs.] I imagine not.

Megan’s next question is: “What is it like to watch your child become an artist?”

What’s it like? Like watching Sophie become an artist?

Yup. I think she just wants your gut feeling about what that feels like to watch over the years.

Very interesting of course, very interesting — that’s why we put that book out [Sophie Crumb: Evolution of a Crazy Artist]. The evolution was really incredible to watch, but also made me worry a little bit about her. She was such a talented artist and I knew all the dangers and pitfalls of that type of imagination, that type of person. And sure enough [laughs]…

From Sophie Crumb: Evolution of an Artist ©2011 Sophie Crumb

Yeah?

Sophie developed those kinds of problems of that kind of person.

What problems were those?

Just out there on the fringe, experimenting in some very dangerous areas, drugs and whatnot.

And you were aware of that?

Yeah, and she’s also very headstrong, nothing that Aline or I could do [could] stop her. She’s kind of come back around, I don’t know, now she’s kind of resigned to being this wife and mother, she’s not really doing much art work. And also she got lambasted for being my daughter, so any time she got anything published she just got a lot of cruel reactions on the Internet and stuff.

Of course there’s gonna be that. Well, being your offspring has to be a hard row to hoe. [Laughs.]

Yeah, sometimes both Aline and I regret that we were foolhardy enough to have children. We felt that we were incompetent and that artist dreamers should not have kids. [Laughs.] But, oh well.

Your son Jesse is also an artist, isn’t he?

Yeah, he was a very good artist, but he got the same problem. In my shadow he just couldn’t overcome the self-consciousness, and I think he’s given it up pretty much. I’m not sure, I dunno. I’m not sure. I don’t talk to him.

You don’t talk to Jesse?

Yeah, we’re on the outs.

Jesus, that’s unfortunate.

Yeah, he’s angry at me: very angry at me and impossible to deal with.

That must be pretty miserable.

Yeah, it’s a heartbreak.

How do you deal with that?

How do you deal with it? Well, you try not to let it drag you down and make you like sit and stare. Fortunately for me substances don’t work, alcohol and drugs don’t work for me, so I have to deal with the depression. [Laughs.]

Do you agonize?

Well, yeah, but at a certain point you become numb. You agonize and agonize and after a while you kind of give up. You just live with this heartbreak. It’s just one thing that happens when you get older, you accumulate heartbreak, which I’m sure you know. [Laughs.]

Yeah, and the only thing you can do is live with it. [Laughs.] And try to let it engulf you as little as possible.

For your own survival you do sort of cauterize your emotions. It’s the only way to go on — most people just drink or take drugs. Maybe not most people, but a lot of people. And if you don’t do that, if you remain sober and want to be clearheaded, you have to live with that sorrow.

Yeah, and the thing is you have absolutely no control over it.

Well, you try to control things, not let things lead to disaster if you can help it. [Laughs.]

Let me ask you a question from Gilbert Hernandez: “Have you ever thought of using your lovely bountiful girls to tell a relatively serious story? I can't think of one of your stories that does that, but let me tell you, it makes making comics a much better, more inspired experience. I draw all the sexy women (to me) that I want to in a story, serious story or not. I think you could be very happy creating a comic with a hottie or hotties dominating the visuals in a serious story.”

A serious story.

I think he’s referring to a story that isn’t leavened by humor, or satirical in nature.

Yeah, or my own crazy sex fantasies. [Laughs.] Well, that’s what I did with Genesis, but it’s not full of hotties, necessarily, but that was a serious work. And if I did that My Secret Life thing, that would be a thing like that.

Exactly, exactly.

Yeah, I thought of it: just haven’t done it. I guess part of it is presuming to know what goes on in the heads and hearts of women. I wouldn't dare. That's what the Hernandez Brothers do. It works for them. I don't know how they do it. I can't do it.

(continued)

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