The great American artist, illustrator and writer Robert Crumb has been described as the father of underground comics. His wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb is also a successful cartoonist, known for her autobiographical stories. I met the Crumbs at the start of this year’s Prague Writers’ Festival, where they are among the special guests. Assuming that when they started out cartooning would not have been regarded as literature, when did their art form begin to win respect?
RC: “I always thought from the time I was about 18 or 19 years old that comics had potential to be a more personal medium and somewhat more artistic than just something for children, or something for lightweight entertainment. I was always very serious about comics in a funny way…but it took then years and years of struggle and figuring out how to actually do that, before it actually worked.”
AKC: “What really changed comics was Art Spiegelman and RAW magazine, because he took it to another level of…high art, you might say, and took it out of the comics ghetto.”
Robert, you were extremely successful in the mid to late ‘60s with Keep on Truckin’, Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural. You weren’t a hippy. You took a lot of LSD, I believe, but you yourself weren’t a hippy. I guess many of your fans were...did you feel out of step with the times, so to speak, in the late ‘60s?
RC: “Yes I did feel out of step with the times. I tried to be a hippy but I really couldn’t pull it off…”
AKC: “Too square.”
RC: “I was just too…weird, and I don’t know…because hippy was a style – long hair and attitude. And I didn’t like any of the music. I tried, I really tried, to get in there and loosen up and be groovy, but it was hopeless, I couldn’t do it [laughs].”
And Aline were you a hippy chick, or was this before your time?
AKC: “No, I was at the love-ins and be-ins, I had tonnes of boyfriends, I wore no underwear and had short skirts and had hairy legs and lived on communes. I had a ball. Robert was like an old man in a young man’s body, and now he’s like a young old man, he kind of grew into it. He was just completely square and strange and eccentric, always, and he hasn’t really changed at all…But I had a great time.”
RC: “When I first met Aline in 1971 she was a classic New York Jewish girl hippy of that time, straight out of Central Casting, completely [laughs].”
Among your works Robert is Kafka for Beginners. What’s your relationship to the work of Kafka?
RC: “Before I did that book I had never read Kafka, I didn’t know anything about him. And then the guy who wrote it, David Mairowitz, proposed that project to me so I started reading Kafka and then I developed a deep kinship, a brotherhood with Kafka. I felt so close to him by the end of the project, it was spooky. I felt his ghost was looking over my shoulder. It was quite a deep experience, actually.”
You’ve described cartooning as a lonely job. But is it a lonely job in a bad way, or do you like the fact it’s a lonely job?
RC: “I like that it’s a lonely job, that I can sit in my room by myself and do it. Because I mostly like to just be in my room…dealing with other human beings is stressful for me, I’m somewhat autistic or something, I don’t know.”
But you two also work together – how does that work in practical terms?
AKC: “Well, when we get into writing together we kind of become a comedy team like George Burns and Gracie Allen, they were like an old vaudeville team and TV team, and we kind of get into the George and Gracie mentality, where Robert puts out a line and I take off with it. He takes notes really fast. We get into a reporter mentality if we’re covering an event, we just have a way of being in that comic strip. And then when we’re actually working on it, we do everything in pencil first, first all the writing, and then we each pencil our characters in, and then we each take a page and do the inking, and then we switch pages.”
Was it a big change for you, working with another person?
RC: “Sure, it’s a completely different thing…”
AKC: “You did it with your brother.”
RC: “Yeah, I used to do it with my older brother Charles when we were kids. That’s when we learned to draw comics, it was his idea really of doing it together and going back and forth, I’d take on one character and he’d take on the other. That’s how Aline and I work. We first started doing that in 1972, not that long after we met. But it’s easy to do that with Aline, because I just feed her a lead line and she just goes into her Jewish comedy routine with it. It’s easy, that practically writes itself, those things we do together. But she’s also in her own right a story-telling cartoonist that does her own autobiographical comics which are great in their own right. She was the first woman cartoonist to draw personal, autobiographical comics.”
Some of your own work is very personal, often it documents your own sexual tastes and that kind of thing. The fact you’re so open could be one reason you’re so popular, but do you ever feel discomfited that so many people know really personal things about you?
“Constantly, I feel constantly uncomfortable with that. I can’t be in the same room with someone who’s reading one of my personal sexual fantasy comics. It’s too uncomfortable, I have to run out of the room, or tell them to put it away. Yeah, it’s an odd thing, when I’m sitting and drawing that stuff I am not aware or not thinking about the consequences of it and the…feedback, what’s going to happen after it’s out there. I don’t think of that, it’s funny.”
In the mid 1990s I guess there was a film made about you and your family [the documentary Crumb]. It was very candid and also very successful. What was your feeling when that film took off and was so successful? Again it was very, very personal and candid.
“I was completely surprised that it was successful, that it got all that attention. Aline was also. Aline talks about her mother in that film and makes fun of her mother on film, not anticipating that her mother would see it. But then it got big distribution, her mother went to see it at the local multiplex, how about it, and was of course very hurt…So we were completely shocked. Our friend Terry Zwigoff who made that movie had been this small time documentary filmmaker, he had made this one film before that got seen at a few arthouses. But Crumb got such wide distribution, we were all shocked. I don’t know if we would have been so open and intimate, if we’d known that it would get such wide…”
AKC: “No, we never would have done that. But Terry filmed a few hours here and a few hours there, and he’s a really close friend. We never thought about it, we never thought he’d get enough money to ever finish it, so we didn’t worry about it and so we just talked normally.”
In the documentary you’re packing up to move to France. What led you to move to the south of France?
AKC: “It was me and Lora’s fault. Lora [Fountain, the Crumbs’ literary agent and wife of Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers cartoonist Gilbert Shelton] already lived in France and I used to come and house-sit for her. The third time I house-sat I decided, that’s it, I want to move over here…And our daughter was nine and I really wanted to get her out of America at that age, before she became a mall brat and a spoiled American monster. So instead she became a spoiled French monster!”
RC: “Living in France is…I don’t want to even reveal it, it’s
great living in France, it’s a great country to live in. Also in the
25, 30 years America became so hateful. I like my friends there, but the
culture and the attitude – it just became such a land of hustling
scoundrels and swindlers and thieves and greed. It became so disgusting.
And the development in California where we lived was just this merciless,
ongoing juggernaut. It was horrible. But in France it’s not happening
like that, it’s a different situation.”