Wednesday, November 2, 2011

R. Crumb: From Underground Pervert Cartoonist to Cultural Icon

(R. Crumb in 2005)

An interview with Peter Poplaski on Collaborating with R. Crumb on His Memoir

(This interview originally appeared in the Denver Post in June 2005)

By Dylan Foley

Robert Crumb is America's most famous underground cartoonist, with his twisted comics, from the graphic sex of “Fritz the Cat” to his explorations of hippie culture in the 1960s and 1970s. Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary “Crumb” shot the cartoonist into the mainstream limelight, giving his body of work a broader appeal. Now a small British publishing house has put out “The R. Crumb Handbook” (MQ Publications, $25), an autobiography by Crumb and a warts-and-all retrospective of Crumb’s work. Written with longtime friend and collaborator Peter Poplaski, the book does not shy away from Crumb’s exotic sexual tastes and his subversive and occasionally disturbing work.

Finding Poplaski to discuss Crumb’s 40-year career as a cartoonist is not an easy matter. Though Poplaski lives in the same medieval village in the south of France where Crumb has lived with his family since 1990, Poplaski doesn’t have a phone. When he is eventually found at his Dutch girlfriend’s house, Poplaski is forthcoming about all things Crumb and the new book.

“About seven years ago, we did ‘The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book,’” says Poplaski, an easy-going 54-year-old Midwestern artist and cartoonist. “I thought I’d already done the ‘life of the artist.’ We had to use different kinds of work to talk about Robert’s development as an artist.”

The new book starts with the 61-year-old Crumb’s miserable and repressed childhood in Oceanside, California. It includes Crumb’s adolescent cartoons, his greeting cards he drew when he was a frustrated commercial artist, then his breakout underground work in San Francisco in the 1960s. The handbook is full of brutally honest interviews with Crumb, some detailing his lustful obsessions involving dominant women with large butts and strong legs. At times, his sexual ideal is represented as as a buxom female Bigfoot.

“Robert views the Earth as the Hell Planet,” says Poplaski. “You have to take this with a little bit tongue-in-cheek. He considers himself a nerdy, creepy kind of guy. You also have to think of him as a comedian. Sometimes he’s part wise guy and other times he’s this scared, wimpy guy. Part of this was the underground days, where you could do anything you want and he did.”

Crumb’s growing popularity in the late 1960s San Francisco eventually grossed him out. “The more ‘Keep on Trucking’ got popular, the more obnoxious he felt it was,” says Poplaski. “He didn’t feel he was being an honest cartoonist for his times.” In the new book, Crumb also rips into the 1972 film version of “Fritz the Cat,” which he despised.

Somehow, Crumb picked up the moniker as “America’s Best-Loved Underground Cartoonist.” Crumb took it on as a sarcastic title, then started writing more sexually explicit cartoons to destroy this image. In 1969, he wrote the Joe Blow comic strip on family-wide incest. Poplaski goes as far to add in intellectual disclaimer in front of Crumb’s provocative and disturbing Angelfood McSpade cartoons from 1968.

“Part of things for Crumb with Joe Blow and Angelfood McSpade was that he enjoyed being a wise guy,” says Poplaski. “He liked the popularity of girls with big butts going after him, but he detested the relentlessness of people trying to cash in on him. One of the ways to short-circuit his popularity was to go over the top.”

Unlike “The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book,” which gives a more sanitized view of Crumb’s work, the owners of MQ Publications, who published “The R. Crumb Handbook,” wanted Crumb’s controversial work. After Poplaski gained assurances that he would be protected from lawsuits, he squeezed in the Angelfood McSpade strips, which Crumb drew as a buxom charicature of an African woman.

“I did the disclaimer about Angelfood McSpade because it was important to give the reader the sense that they’ll be shocked, but if you analyze the whole thing, you’ll get a different take on it,” says Poplaski.

Poplaski sees the strip as social satire. “She’s basically like a fertility goddess,” he says. “She’s primitive. Angelfood is being worked over by the twisted guys of the modern day. Robert even draws himself as some of the venal guys after the innocent female. He deliberately drew her as a black character to put a racist overtone to the strip. Part of the impact with his comics is they are full of spikes and speed bumps. You are entertained and shocked, and made to think about a few things. This backfires on Crumb with quite a lot of people who don’t read deep into his work.”

For Crumb, his work is often drawing well is the best revenge. In one comic, he decapitates a nun who tries to castrate him. “That strip is iconographic. It is so short and simple,’ says Poplaski. “He meets various representatives of American culture. They beat him and he fights them off. It is horrific that the nun comes out with an ax to castrate him. It is his revenge on the nuns he had as a kid. He gets his revenge drawing this stuff. Robert said that if he didn’t draw this stuff, he’d be in prison.”

In “The R. Crumb Handbook,” Poplaski’s interviews help develop an ironic image of Crumb. Here is this uncompromising underground cartoonist living in isolation in beautiful French village, railing against commercialism while being deluged with so many offers for lucrative licensing of his work that it hurts his drawing time.

Crumb’s relationship with financial success has always been ambivalent. “Harvey Kurtzman of ‘Mad Magazine’ told Crumb years ago that he was suicidal about his own career,” says Poplaski. “Crumb would says no to Playboy and other magazines when they’d offer him work. Then he would do underground porno stuff that would get people arrested and bookstores shutdown.

“He’s not opposed to merchandising,” says Poplaski of the relentless flood of offers to use Crumb’s images, “if it is done in a high quality way. Most of it comes off as pretty schlocky.”

Poplaski seems amazed at his friend’s evolution from self-proclaimed “Loser Schmuck” to cultural icon. “Robert hates being called a cultural icon,” says Poplaski, who is working on an exhaustive history of Zorro as a superhero. “I once asked him if he like being called a genius. He paused and said, ‘Well, sometimes.’ By some kind of alchemy, he is now really a cultural icon. He is the only living cartoonist who international art museums promote him as a great artist.”

Along with the beautifully produced book is a free CD of music that Crumb has played with other musicians for the past 30 years. Much of it is frantic 1920s blues, with Crumb playing the banjo. There are such classics as “Baby Face,” but also more modern tunes extolling the virtues of TV dinners.

“Crumb’s music is many things,” says Poplaski. “’Keep on Trucking’ comes from an old blues 78. He gets many of his ideas from song titles and lyrics. It is all part of the way that Crumb puts his world together for himself. He’s more comfortable with the past, maybe in the 1920s, than the present where he has to deal with all these people who want to do Crumb merchandising. The music is connected to his life in the most important way.”

At the end of the handbook, Crumb draws himself as a fading cartoonist, who is finally taken up to heaven by a big bottomed, thick-legged angel. Poplaski has doubts about that ending for Crumb.

“I think a more appropriate end for Crumb would be instead of a big-butted angel girl taking him away, a flying saucer would come down and pick him up,” he says. “I think he’ll one day just disappear mysteriously.”

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