Sunday, June 03, 2007

R. Crumb and Peter Poplaski – ‘The R. Crumb Handbook’

Boy is this rude. And thoughtful, in an anxious way. In one of many mini-essays, this one called ‘The Litany of Hate’ (pp. 386-7), Crumb lays waste to the human character and the modern world (‘I hate cars. I hate modern architecture. Every building built after 1955 should be torn down!’) He even despises his own sexual impulses:

I was always repelled by my own sex drive, which in my youth, never left me alone. I was constantly driven by frustrated desires to do bizarre and unacceptable things with and to women. My soul was in constant conflict about it. I was never able to resolve it. Old age is the only relief.

He coins it even more neatly in conclusion: ‘”Hell is other people” – John Paul Sartre. “Hell is also yourself” – R. Crumb.’ It’s hardly a surprise that he feels this way, having just waded through 385 pages of secretions, but it’s also obvious by this point that it’s this sexual energy and his own ambivalent attitude towards it which is Crumb’s greatest asset in his cartooning. There was a decent selection of his stuff in the Ivan Brunetti anthology I read a while ago. One cartoon had him mooching existentially, and the drawing was a bit lifeless until he got himself down to the university and found an amply proportioned student to chat up. Immediately he had some tits to draw, the art picked up. Nobody draws nipples like Crumb.

John Boorman tried to escape from modernity (and to take it on) by retreating to the Amazon, and to his own boyhood. Crumb goes further back: he knows his own childhood came too late, was swamped by the mass media just as happens today. So he collects ’78s, and escapes to a time before rock ’n’ roll or (heaven forbid!) pop. He knows this is just a gesture though: his work is (as he says) a response to being brought up on TV and comics. The mass appeal slop that has stretched from his youth until now. He struggles against it, but from within it. It is a part of him, as much as his sex drive. He has no calm memory of semi mystical affinities with rivers, as Boorman does. He’s ten years younger, which will be a part of it, but also American, where this mass media slop was developed. There is no escape.

Quentin Crisp’s definition of a stylish person is someone who ‘swims with the tide, but faster’. This is what Crumb does with American culture. He sees the emptiness of promising people what they want (as long as it is TV or convenience food), and asks: what if you give them what they really want? Which is, to do bizarre and unacceptable things with and to women (and / or men). Hence ‘The Family that LAYS together STAYS together’ and ‘Joe Blow’, deliberately anaemic stories about (guess what?) incest. As far as I recall, there wasn’t anything actually pornographic in the Brunetti selection. This is rectified here. There’s a definite thrill in the absolute abandonment of propriety in Crumb, but crucially it is never about the abandonment of morals, only of proscribed behaviours. In a strip called ‘On The Bum Again’, the elderly and white-bearded Mr Natural finds himself on a train with an abandoned baby. At least, she’s referred to as a baby and has a baby’s hat on and a dummy in her mouth, but is otherwise she appears to be fully grown. They leave the train by a window and end up in the middle of the desert. Baby gets hungry. What’s the only fleshy nozzle capable of producing a milky white substance available? Yup, you got it. Why is this not morally suspect? Because… well it is, I suppose, a bit. But it’s a flight of fantasy, it’s not a real baby (she’s ‘a caricature of one of Crumb’s girl friends from his hippy days’ (p. 260), according to Poplaski), Mr Natural appears to genuinely believe he’s helping out, and the clear intention here is to wind people up. That sound pretty flimsy? The joke wouldn’t work if it weren’t.

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