Crumb in the Beginning

Comics can be like your family. Both have the power to start shaping you long before you even have any consciousness of yourself as a separate being. If you don’t break free of them, they are a presence for your whole life, providing both the context, inspiration, and foil for your actions. The power of comics, like the power of family, is that whenever we return to them we are reverting to an earlier self, the pre-literate and pre-educated child at the core of our being who responds to the world in basic bodily and sensual ways.

Robert Crumb’s personal history shows how family and comics can be intertwined even more tightly. Long before he hit adolescence, Crumb’s path to becoming a cartoonist was already prepared for him by his old brother Charles. Born in 1942, the second of five kids, Charles was a comic book fiend during the era when four-color floppies flooded the newsstands. Cherishing funny animal comics in general and the Walt Disney brand with a special passion, Charles shanghaied his siblings intro producing their own “home-made comics” as part of the “Animal Town Comics Club.”

There were five Crumb kids in all: in descending order, Carol, Charles, Robert, Maxon, and Sandra. For a spell they all joined in Charles’s comics cult, crafting stories about characters like Campfire Clown and Jerry the Octopus. The enthusiasm for comics-making soon tapered off for most of the Crumbs or took a different direction, with Maxon giving up comics for grotesque drawings. But Charles and Robert remained true to comics, producing stories month after month. Perhaps because he was only a year younger than Charles, Robert was especially susceptible to his older brother’s suasion.

By the time Robert was 15, the Crumb brothers self-published some of their comics under the umbrella title Foo and tried, with a dismal lack of success, to sell it to their fellow high school students and neighbors in Milford, Delaware. The only thing resembling an appreciative audience the Crumb brothers had were the fellow comic book aficionados they corresponded with on the fanzine exchange network, like-minded geeks who shared their passion for Carl Barks, Harvey Kurtzman, and other cartooning gods. Despite this miniscule audience, Robert continued with his “home-made comics” in titles like R. Crumb Almanac and Arcade (with Charles and Maxon as occasional contributors to these rudimentary publications).

As should be clear, Robert Crumb has been cartooning for a very long time. He is a grandfather now but when he puts pen to paper he is keeping faith with the small fry who was browbeaten into drawing by his big brother. The continuity between the mature Crumb and his prepubescent predecessor is perhaps the chief reason his very early cartoons have a permanent interest.

The Complete Crumb Comics Volume One: The Early Years of Bitter Struggle, a 1987 book now republished in an expanded edition, gathers together the earliest surviving examples of the great cartoonist’s juvenilia taking him from age 14 or 15 to 18 years old. The high school scribbler that we meet in these pages is a very callow Crumb indeed: Crumb before he had sex, Crumb before he dropped acid, Crumb before he was adopted as a hero of the counterculture, Crumb before he honed his satirical stance on modern life, Crumb before he became the most radical, polarizing and influential cartoonist of the late 20th century. Yet in the lanky and awkward body of the teenage Crumb we can see the outlines of the substantial artist he would become.

Before looking at the comics, it is worth making some general comments about the Complete Crumb series, which now runs to seventeen volumes of stories, supplemented by an additional ten volumes of sketchbook material. In 2012, with every well-stocked comic book store offering abundant access of archival editions devoted to cartoonists like Charles Schulz and Frank King, the idea of a Complete Crumb series might seem natural and obvious. But in 1987, the proposal to bring all of Crumb back into print in a uniform set of books was a radical publishing act which re-contextualized and re-vitalized an already momentous body of work. There had been a few other similar publishing ventures in Europe, notably the Archives Herge which started in the 1970s and the Archives Franquin (which started, like the Complete Crumb, in 1987). But very few other cartoonists had received the benediction of an opera omnia.

From the original "Treasure Island Days"

Prior to the Complete Crumb series, if you thought about Crumb at all you would have pictured one of the classic floppies he created in the late 1960s or early 1970s: Zap #0 and #1, Motor City, Big Ass, Despair, Mr. Natural. These were published in the shape and size of regular commercial comic books, different mainly in being black and white on the inside and filthy as hell in their contents. These floppies were heavily redolent of the pungent odors of the counterculture, the aromatic incense whiffing through the head shop or the sticky smell of the dorm room. Because they were so heavily vested as nostalgic items, so richly evocative of a particular time and place, they made it easier to dismiss Crumb as a back number, a sixties relic who did important work which was now dated. There were Crumb books as well, but they were simply convenient containers of the stories first encountered in pamphlet form.

The Complete Crumb Comics series was something different than earlier Crumb volumes: archival and chronological, the series made a substantial argument about Crumb’s stature and also about the nature of the work. The first three volumes also contained in-depth biographical essays by Marty Pahls, a close Crumb friend who provided an intimate portrait of the artist as a young man. (Pahls alas died in 1989, and the introductions have been taken over by numerous other hands including Crumb himself.)

The lavish re-contextualization of Crumb’s work made sense not only because of his often acknowledged (although at times disputed) merit but also because of the unique properties of Crumb’s work. Crumb has been among the most autobiographical of cartoonists, with his immense oeuvre forming a kind of drawn diary. It’s no accident that he’s attracted to such compulsive diarist as James Boswell and the Philip K. Dick of the Exegesis. As hallucinatory and imaginative as some of Crumb’s work has been, all of it is a record of his mental life, his desires and his fears, his moments of ecstatic joy and his descent into suicidal despair. Reviewed through the prism of the Complete Crumb series, the cartoonist could be seen not as a sixties throwback but as a living artist with a large, very complex, ongoing body of work that varied in content but was held together by an remarkably cohesive and organic sensibility.

Presenting Crumb’s work in a chronological made it possible to see him as a lifelong recorder of his own experiences and to draw fruitful links between the different phases of his career. In the first volume of the Complete Crumb Comics, there is a long story called “Treasure Island Days” done in 1959 by Charles and Robert. The comic was an outgrowth of Charles’s infatuation with the Disney movie Treasure Island (1950) staring Bobby Driscoll and Robert Newton, and is a prime example of Charles’s ability to impose his fixations on his younger brother. Like the other early Crumb brother stories, the 1959 comic has vividly delineated characters but meanders aimlessly as a narrative. Still, the comic gains an extra layer of meaning when in 1978 Robert did an autobiographical story also called “Treasure Island Days” which offers an understated but poignant account of how Charles was momentarily able to spread his obsession to his siblings but kept taking it more seriously than the others. This later story, found in volume 13 of the Complete Crumb Comics, stands as a brief but illuminating account of the arrested development that would later turn Charles into a permanent shut-in and eventual suicide. (Terry Zwigoff's revelatory documentary Crumb rightly focused on the earlier "Treasure Island Days" as a key early work). The two “Treasure Island Days” tales form a long arc with youthful play foreshadowing unsolvable adult tendencies towards self-destruction.

Another page from the original "Treasure Island Days"

Aside from enriching our sense of Crumb’s life, the first volume of the Complete Crumb Comics also amply documents his debt to the comics he read as a child. Even by age 14, Crumb displayed an impressive mastery of the storytelling lessons offered by Carl Barks, John Stanley, Walt Kelly, and Harvey Kurtzman (with a slight dash of Jules Feiffer showing up just a few years later). It is telling that a minor alligator character in the 1960 "Animal Town" story looks like a cousin to Walt Kelly's Albert the alligator. The adolescent Crumb also shows a propensity for using "clod" as a term of insult, a habit likely picked up from the Al Feldstein edited Mad magazine.

The weakness of these early comics is their often lackadaisical plotting, with stories wandering aimlessly and ending abruptly, as well as illogically (a Robin Hood spoof concludes with the appearance of a giant robot army). Yet panel by panel these stories read very well because Crumb already knew how to design distinctively memorable characters and to stage readable scenes.

The standard page layout that Crumb uses is a slightly simplified version of the default layouts used by Barks and Stanley. Most of Crumb’s pages have six panels (three rows with two panels each row) as against the Barks/Stanley norm of eight panels (four rows with two panels each row). Occasionally Crumb will add an extra panel in the bottom tier or work some other slight variation, but even these small break in the compositional uniformity are rare. Typically there are two characters in each of these panels and the visual drama comes from the interplay between them – the reaction shots or emotions they display as they converse. John Stanley occasionally did stories that consisted of little more than Little Lulu and Tubby walking along, with all the drama coming from the dialogue and facial expressions. These Lulu tales left their mark on Crumb, although his panels sometimes had a Kurtzman/Elder inspired tendency to overflow in background details.

But there were parallels between Stanley and Kurtzman as well. The Kurtzman-era Mad comics demonstrated that you can make a panel as crowded as you want and it will still be clear if you have a central character or two who is in almost every panel. In its classic simplicity, this way of framing a comics story harkens back to vaudeville, and behind it the long theatrical tradition of having two characters on stage playing off each other.

This type of sedate or static layout might seem boring to those who prefer the showboating page structures found in Eisner or Krigstein but it has the virtue of focusing readerly attention on characters, making us pay attention to faces and body language as against bravura storytelling. To borrow a concept from Ivan Brunetti, the young Crumb understood the importance of the "democratic grid" which allows the cartoonist to subdivide experience into equal units of attention. The "democratic grid" creates an inviting series of windows we peek into, with eyes focused on what the characters are saying and doing.  Crumb’s main concern even as a fledgling cartoonist is character-based observational humor.

Crumb’s early stories fall into three basic categories: media spoofs in the Kurtzman vein, observational comedy that mimics Feiffer, and funny animal strips that borrow stylistically from Barks and Kelly. The spoofs are the weakest material, since the teenage Crumb lacked Kurtzman’s killer instinct for debunking the lies that pervade popular culture. These stories really are spoofs rather than satires, mild bits of mockery with no teeth to them.

The observational comics feature human characters who are introspectively immobilized. In one strip a character spends three panels lying on the floor staring into space as he ponders the pointlessness of his own life. These strips point the way forward to Crumb’s later essays in searing self-analysis (notably the classic “Uncle Bob’s Mid-Life Crisis”). They suffer mainly from the fact that as a teenager Crumb simply hadn’t had enough life experiences to supple him with the material he needed.

Jim and Mabel

Prefiguring his later famous “troubles with women,” many of these meditative strips are wistful ponderings about the mystery of romantic love. The most interesting of the human interest strips are the sequence of stories featuring Jim and Mabel. Jim is an orphan who is adopted by a goody two-shoes reformer (who remains offstage). Mabel, a husky pleasure loving older woman, is a member into the same household, although she resents the religious attempt to morally uplift her. Jim has an odd relationship with Mabel, a mixture of puppy-love and hunger for maternal affection. With her big build, Mabel is the prototype of all the Crumbian women to come, so it is interesting to see that the desire for such a woman includes a hunger for maternal nurturing as well as sexual pleasure.

If Crumb’s human strips veer towards slow-motion entropy, his narratives become much more action-driven whenever animals take the stage. As a rule, Crumb’s humans are introverts, his animals extroverts. What Crumb’s humans only yearn for, his animals go out and grab. For some reason, Crumb needed animal masks to express the more aggressive and pleasure-loving side of himself.

The earliest animal story, “Cat Life”, is a naturalistic account of the Crumb’s family cat Fred, who hungers for birds and resents being a plaything to humans. One of the minor characters in Fred’s story is a cat named Fritz, who comes to the fore in subsequent stories which are much more anthropomorphic, giving us cats who wear suits and try to swindle each other out of money.

From "Cat Life"

Fritz would one day be famous, but right from the get-go he is a great character: a glib, smooth-talking feline, an entrepreneurial dynamo always trying to figure out some way of making a quick (if not always honest) buck. He owes much to the long American tradition of the confidence man (or confidence cat), with W.C. Fields and Walt Kelly’s P.T. Bridgeport being obvious precursors. Like such earlier characters, there is something winning about Fritz despite his morally dubious nature. Often down on his luck, Fritz never gives in to despair and has a quick eye for finding his next meal and whatever spare change he needs.

Knowing Crumb’s biography as well as we do, it is tempting to find clues about his life in these early comics. With his four siblings Crumb grew up in a very crowded household, which explains the pervasive the fear of being hemmed-in displayed in these comics. Characters are constantly being swarmed and mobbed. Throughout the years he was working on these strips, Crumb was a silent witness the hellish marriage of his parents who constantly fought with each other. So it is noteworthy that several of the female characters are shrews. Arguably Mabel is a vision of a protective mother-figure that Crumb felt was lacking in his life. There is perhaps some critique of Crumb’s gung-ho military dad in “Cat Life” where the main character Fred tries to avoid his belligerent “Pappy” who is spoiling for a fight.

If they simply stood by themselves these comics might seem thin and jejune, but because they contain the seeds of an astonishing career we can find in them all sorts of hidden depths. Crumb was an extraordinarily ambitious teenager. In a 1961 letter to Marty Pahls he wrote, “I’m trying to put into my work the everyday human realities that I’ve never found in a comic strip yet, though Feiffer has come the closest.” If his early work doesn’t quite hit that mark, it shows the budding talent that would eventually allow Crumb to achieve his goal. There are very few cartoonists whose entire body of work demands to be read and Crumb belongs near the very top of that short list.