Terry Zwigoff’s 1995 film Crumb gives you everything you could hope for in a documentary: produced by David Lynch, fascinating characters, intimate access, several conflicting perspectives, great music and a host of ‘wtf?’ moments that leave you thinking about the film for days, weeks or even years after watching. Indeed the film is 25 years old now, and while perhaps not quite as shocking to watch now as it was back then, its subjects are still very taboo to talk openly about.
Crumb presents a bleak portrait of a family struggling to maintain even a thin veneer of sanity while trying to batter their invisible demons in the form of art, spirituality and isolated reflection.
Robert Crumb, the protagonist of this documentary, leads us through the byzantine and weird world of his art, his sexual desires and his family. Robert’s celebrity is kind of the backbone of the film, the instantly recognisable “Keep on Truckin’” comic, or the x-rated and animated Fritz the Cat giving viewers familiarity to the subject. However, we soon realise as Robert Crumb speaks to a crowd of college students, that he has absolutely no interest in being a celebrity and that his most well-known works are also those which he most despises.
Yet there’s no acting up to the camera trying to promote what he really loves—the inner thoughts of Robert Crumb that spill out onto the page are…concerning—is that the right word? Yet, we engage the essence of his art, both from his own, shockingly self-aware perspective, as well as those of critics, feminists, former and current lovers, family, friends and foes.
But this isn’t really what the film is about. It is the relationship between Robert and his two brothers, Charles and Maxon, and how they became so seriously messed up. Each of them, in their own way, lives a tortured life. The brothers sought ways to cope with the intense trauma of their upbringing, as well as the social marginalisation they had experienced since their school days.
The core of this trauma is the fierce repression of their sexuality, caused by the tyrannical abuse of their father. Only by rebelling against this repression could they begin to function in society. In the case of Charles Crumb, the oldest brother who seemingly bore the brunt of their fathers’ abuse, the inability to break free from his father’s dictatorship even after his death, determined the tragic course of his entire life. Each brother took to drawing as a form of therapy of sorts, with wildly differing results.
Robert Crumb—What happens on the page, stays on the page
The goggled eyes of Robert Crumb peer intently over his protruding nose, as his thin hand assiduously inks a picture of the camera filming him. This loop of reference (a camera filming him drawing a picture of a camera filming him) begins our journey into his world. It sets the stage for the psychological connection between his art and the way he experiences life.
Robert’s drawings have been described as shocking, as pushing the limits of expression (and good taste), daring to explore those forbidden places that most people fear. They hold a mirror up to the ugly face of society and some folk do not want to see it. But for Robert, deflecting his life experiences, feelings and fantasies by putting them on paper, he can distance himself from these things and observe them from the outside in.
Robert Crumb never stops drawing. It seems to have become an obsession, a nearly unconscious activity that gives him comfort where none is to be found. He spends a lot of his time nervously laughing at those things which genuinely horrify him; whether it’s his brothers talking about their mental health, their past and present misdemeanours, or watching the everyday world go by. His eye picks up every subtle detail, and his exaggerated drawings evoke the spirit of their subjects.
Later in the documentary, as he shares a moment with his son Jesse—a fantastic artist in his own right—Robert explains that to capture the essence of a subject, you need to exaggerate those things that make up its abstract quality, not produce a perfect copy of the original. Robert does exactly that, using the over-the-top cuteness he learned working for a greeting card company to emphasise the underlying dark subject matter that he tends to focus on. I am not a fan of Robert Crumb’s artistic style by any means, but there is absolutely no doubt that his art speaks a thousand, disturbing words.
His unique style put him at the forefront of underground comics in the late 1960s and 1970s. But Robert never associated himself with the hippie counter-culture movement, in fact, he detested most of it and the little involvement he did have in it was done in the pursuit of “free love.” However, he did take LSD at the time, and it was from those psychedelic experiences that some of his more bizarre and outlandish drawings stemmed. Whatever the LSD tapped into inside Robert Crumb’s head, it stayed with him long after the comedown.
In reality, Robert seems to be plucked from another time and space. In the way he dresses, in the music he loves, in his attitudes toward society, Robert maintains an old-timey quaintness that speaks toward his complete alienation from contemporary culture and those who enjoy it. Observing everyone around him wearing advertisements (baseball team shirts, Batman caps, branded sportswear), he ponders when all this began, when people began to lose their own way of thinking and becoming exactly the same as everyone else.
Robert’s knack for social criticism in his drawing and the self-awareness with which he does it deserve high praise. His most endearing quality may be that the layers of irony and self-deprecation as well as being very weird, help you understand what intimidates him. He paints a horrible truth on the page.
Like in the comic Angelfood McSpade—which both hits you over the head with a baseball bat and operates on a subtle level—the overt racism, stereotyping and cruelty of the comic show us a (slightly) exaggerated portrait of the undercurrent of race relations in America. It forces you to reflect on your own attitudes towards these issues and seek out your own repressed prejudices. The truth is that things really are this way. When Robert doodles a fake ad for “Canned N****r Hearts,” he efficiently packages the abstract and complex commoditisation of humanity, of slavery, of how ‘The Product’ trumps taste, decency and morality every single time.
Is Robert Crumb a racist? While on paper his drawings of black people are absolutely so, I think the outrage towards him should be deflected elsewhere. We know that he exaggerates everything for effect. Whether it be the shape of a woman’s body, the patheticness of a man terrified of a woman’s strength and the power of her sexuality, or the fear that white people have of black people being considered equals. It is a grotesquely absurd satire.
An outspoken anti-Crumb commenter in the film believes that he is racist (and a misogynist, a sexual deviant, etc.) because most people wouldn’t draw people like that. But if you follow the trend of Crumb’s comics and their psychological impetus, you can see clearly that he is expressing an internal feeling, a repressed desire, a taboo opinion. He is making a mockery of the way white people treat African Americans. It is not a revelation that human beings harbour prejudices, but Robert both deals with these internal struggles by externalising them and allows himself to reflect on what they mean, to analyse them, and to allow other people to do so when they read his comics.
The Crumb brothers grew up in the 1950s and would have been inundated with commercials and advertisements caricaturing black people, such as the Mammy figure and picaninny children. Those racist propaganda materials may not be allowed anymore, but it certainly doesn’t mean that people don’t think of them anymore. Advertising, by its very design, is supposed to stick in your head. These were government-sponsored ads, and our outrage should live there, not with Robert Crumb.
In some of his most disturbing cartoons, he draws a little girl being forced to give her father oral sex, and her brother catches them in the act. The boy goes to tell his mother, but rather than her being horrified, she strips off and has sex with her son. It is never explicitly stated, but Robert Crumb tends to put the raw truth on the page and so it is possible (or even probable) that he and his siblings grew up with things like that happening to them. If they weren’t (which I hope and pray is the case), he was still painting a portrait of an American family; an uncomfortable truth of what was going behind the closed doors across the nation (and the world).
These pictures and those of overtly sexual, crudely curvaceous and often headless women are what Robert Crumb’s detractors protest about. Yet, this is his truth.
Robert admits to having sexual feelings towards his Aunt when he was just five years old. Of course that is not normal, but I don’t suppose what was happening in his family home was normal. Did alarm bells start ringing when I saw the pictures of headless women? Yes, of course, but I didn’t feel that he hated women or wished harm to women, he just wanted some peace and quiet. Charles commented that their mother never stopped talking. Many of Robert’s images of women include self-deprecating self-portraits of him as a skinny, pathetic-looking little man with thick-rimmed glasses and a big nose, usually with him riding on the back of these strong, powerful and confident women. While grotesque in their exaggeration, it is clear that Robert finds women terrifying, and that is a huge turn-on for him.
He finds beauty in women of all shapes and sizes. One woman tells of how Robert made her feel much more confident about her body after he drew her, big thighs, wild curls and all. He saw the real her, her beauty that she didn’t even realise she had before Crumb.
Another ex of Roberts, a woman who ran a pornographic imagery publication, remarked that he didn’t have sexual desires of the garden variety; to get a piggyback ride from a strong woman or have her sit on his shoe would be much more likely to get him off.
Robert’s fame allowed him to explore his sexual kinks with women consensually, and this probably saved him from himself. His brothers did not fare so well.
Maxon Crumb—Crime and Punishment
Robert’s younger brother Maxon is perhaps the most messed up of the brothers, and that’s really saying something as Robert and Charles are far from stable. Being the youngest, Maxon was named the “Supply Boy” while Charles was President and Robert, Vice President. This weakening of his identity—both socially and sexually—of which the silly supply boy title is only a symptom, has plagued Maxon his entire life.
Given no outlet, Maxon’s sexual urges eventually manifested as seizures, often triggered by some kind of sexual compulsion. He talks about how alienated he was from intimacy, how sex was just completely removed from his reality. The heavy repression in his younger years led first to the epileptic fits and later to extreme acts against women; molesting them, publicly exposing them and would have, in Maxon’s own words, eventually led him to rape. The pressure of his libido simply exploded, and, lacking the necessary social skills to approach a “healthy” consensual sexual relationship, he violently sought to take what he wanted. It is without a doubt horrifying to hear him talk so matter of factly about his treatment of women. Still, there can be some solace found in the fact that he recognised his behaviour was dangerous and did what he felt was the only way to prevent himself from hurting anyone.
Maxon fought his demons by carrying out personal rituals with that pent-up energy and avoided the consequences of his violent potential. Maxon’s small, dirty hotel room in San Francisco, nearly empty aside from a bed of nails, a cleansing bowl, a piece of ribbon and his numerous artworks reveal the isolation and deprivation in which he lives. Terry Zwigoff’s intimate access into Maxon’s dwelling grants us insight into Maxon’s humanity which shines through in his impeccable articulation. As he quotes from Leaves of Grass and references Van Gogh, we see clearly that Maxon is not a freak, but an intelligent, self-aware human being, trying to cope with his deeply disturbed mind, producing unbelievably beautiful paintings and drawings in the most squalid living conditions.
You can’t say after watching Crumb that Maxon had solved or cured his problems, but he had seemed to reach equilibrium. There is the famous ribbon-eating ritual, where he dips a long piece of cloth in water and swallows it, inch by inch, to clean his intestines. It is perhaps the clearest metaphor of a man trying to cleanse his soul. For Maxon, only through extreme deprivation, self-imposed humility and ritualistic discipline, can he feel like he has reached a stasis with the filthiness of his human desire.
Charles Crumb—A Treasure and an Island
Charles’ story is perhaps the most woeful of all—which, considering what I’ve just written about above, is pretty bleak. Charles lives with his mother in their “piss-stinking” house, with blankets over the windows blocking out the light and stacks of old books many times read.
By the time the documentary was made, Charles had already lived a reclusive lifestyle for many years. We find him zonked out on tranquilisers, greasy and tired, dishevelled, broken. Yet as soon as you hear him speak, you realise his wit and intelligence are unmatched, even by the other brothers. If you were to look up “Tortured Genius” in an encyclopedia the Crumb brother’s could easily be the pictorial reference. Zwigoff notes that Charles would pick people apart in arguments, tell the funniest jokes and have the most profound insights into his family and his own psyche. Like Robert and Maxon, Charles has an excess of self-awareness and an excess of self-doubt, but for Charles, this led him down a Hamlet-like path of inertia.
As “President” Charles commanded the other Crumb siblings to participate in their homebrew comic club, directing Robert to draw comics all the time. Charles brought the ideas and energy into the group and led them. With an outstanding artistic talent of his own, even his last works have undeniable magic to them, both frightening and fascinating. Robert and Charles would communicate through their co-authored comic strips, with Robert replying in pictures to Charles, trying to outdo each other.
But when Robert began to achieve success as an artist, Charles felt like he no longer needed to draw. He begrudgingly accepted his younger brother’s superiority and lost his passion for drawing. As the years went by the art Charles created speaks volumes about his psychological downward spiral. We see many examples of what Robert calls Charles’ “wrinkle technique,” an artistic style in which all surfaces are covered by a linear banding, or wrinkling, to the point where you can barely see where one object begins, and another one ends. Robert says, “the wrinkle stuff is just out of control here. At this point he was pretty far gone from reality.”
It is as if the repeated lines were Charles’ subconscious trying its best to keep some uniformity, but in doing that he created a surreal world of non-distinction, like everything was being swallowed.
When Charles stopped drawing, he began writing. The comic strip boxes would fill with text, no space left for imagery. Charles found another way to express himself through writing, but, like his drawing, this was not to last. A very memorable scene in the film shows Robert thumbing through one of Charles’ later notebooks in which the writing is so tiny and uniform that it is illegible, even to Charles himself. It’s as horrifying a moment as when it is revealed that Jack Torrance has been typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” in The Shining. Having worked with many mentally unwell people, seeing things like this remind me of how the homes of the recently sectioned looked; often with religious imagery and erratic writing all over the walls. Charles had been writing with the symbolic space of letters, but they were not words, just shapes. He retained the mechanical motion of writing words but without language, much like his art presented pictures without texture.
Charles likely bore the brunt of their father’s abuse. He faced total exclusion in high school, and bullies beat him up regularly. He couldn’t establish or maintain any kind of relationship or even friendship. Charles lived at home his entire life with his mother, suffering from depression and rage, and secretly harbouring a sexual attraction to young boys, related to his obsession with Disney’s Treasure Island. So great was his self-hatred, his fear of himself as something dangerous, that it drove him to spend his life locked inside his room—where he could harm no one but himself—and where he would eventually commit suicide. In hindsight, the spiral of his psychotic descent through his art and writing is clear, but even Charles’ stunted output and brief life has affected many people since Crumb was released.
It may be easy to classify the Crumbs as freaks or weirdos, their behaviour as bizarre and their family as dysfunctional or crazy, but it misses a critical point. Like Robert’s cartoons, the Crumbs are only slight exaggerations of us all. The openness with which they took part in Zwigoff’s film, the depth of intimacy they share, open a space in which we can empathise and feel compassion for them. Their fight against their demons and the sacrifices they made to prevent them from acting on their sexually deviant urges, their protection of the public through self-punishment should perhaps be lauded.
Keep on Truckin’
Most of Robert Crumb’s family is gone now. His father, Charles Sr., a former Marine who beat and emotionally terrorised his sons, died in 1982 way before the film was made. His amphetamine addicted mother, Beatrice, who in Crumb is seen living like a hermit with Charles, died in 1997. Younger sister Sandra, who declined to be interviewed for Crumb, died of liver cancer in 1998. Charles Jr. killed himself in 1992 before the film was released. On New Year Eve 2017, Jesse Crumb, Robert’s son, was involved in a serious automobile accident and died on January 3 2018.
Robert, Maxon and their older sister, Carol (who also declined to take part in the film), survive. Robert and his second wife, the cartoonist and his frequent collaborator, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, are still happily married and living in Sauve, in the South of France. Their daughter Sophie lives in the region as well with her husband and son, and she too is an artist in her own right. Maxon is somehow still going, still living in the same room with barely any possessions other than that trusty bed of nails, but now he makes enough money from selling his paintings that he no longer gets welfare cheques.
Crumb may not be a shocking documentary to watch in 2020 as well, everybody and everything is messed up now, but back in 1995 we didn’t have Netflix peddling the likes of Cuties or The Tiger King on a regular basis, so this documentary was really something else. Seven months after Crumb premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and three months after it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, the New Yorker ran a two-page comic strip in its April 24, 1995, issue heralding its commercial release. It made Robert Crumb a reluctant star and Terry Zwigoff a celebrated director.
Now that Robert Crumb doesn’t have so much soul searching to do with his dysfunctional family or has to suffer the effects of living in an Un-united States of America, his art has moved on from self-portraits and the desire for buxom women. Now he spends his days writing the Book of Genesis and drawing Donald Trump’s hair.
I am glad Robert Crumb has not lost his satirical humour.