Crumb (1994)

I. 3/12/23

Black ink drawing of a handheld cassette tape recorder
Crumb (1994)
8 x 10 black ink on paper

II. 3/15/23

Even though I sometimes think of my Objects from Films series as kind of like a moviewatching journal, I’ve never really figured my reflections or critical opinion about the movies to be relevant to the drawings. But I wanted to actually write out some of what I was thinking about this movie this time, and I decided I might as well post it here along with the drawing.

I decided to rewatch Crumb because I am thinking through a blog post about the power lines scene (iykyk). I wanted to make sure I got what Crumb says right (and maybe to see for myself how I reacted to it watching it now), but I couldn’t find any clips online of just that scene, so I decided to watch the whole movie. I first watched Crumb a long time ago, rented as a VHS from the movie rental place on 6th & Medary in Brookings, South Dakota. I would describe myself at that age as a teenage boy struggling to grow out of a childhood warped by evangelicalism, and Crumb’s transgressive flaunting of a repressed sexuality combined with his sensitive guilt and petulant scoffing at the rottenness of the world struck some very important chords for me. And, obviously, something he said about the power lines [blog post forthcoming]. But I can’t say really how important this movie was to me when I watched it as a teenager. I do remember the movie left me inclined strongly towards idolizing Crumb, though not enough for me to ever really track down any of his work or to find out more about him than I saw in the movie.

I knew I’d find the movie a lot more problematic than when I was a 16-year-old kid, and I had a pretty good sense of how and why I’d have my problems with it. However, after watching it, I found myself mostly thinking not so much about what the film presents as appealing in Crumb’s work, but how the film frames Crumb’s work as not properly subject to the sort of discourse engaged in by feminist critics (for example) because his work is fundamentally about Crumb exorcising his own demons.

There’s one main art critic guy—he speaks with a blustery British accent and I think is identified as the Time Magazine critic or something, I don’t care to look it up—who critically exalts Crumb’s work for us as satire that shows the true depravity of our falsely respectable world. If the value of Crumb’s works is supposed to be its effectiveness as a critique of US society & history, then Crumb’s work (as presented) ought to be subject to criticism on the grounds of its effectiveness as critique. As it’s presented in the movie, Crumb’s critical move is, basically, to show us the ugliness of reality for what it is. So, for example, if he presents us with a racist charicature, it’s because he’s holding it up to us to say, “This is what we are! We’re racists who invented these grotesque racist figures! LOL.” We’re supposed to leer at it—be shocked but also titillated. Crumb is saying, “Oh, look, you like this, don’t you, you sicko, you know we’re all sickos and it’s disgusting that we like this.” The standpoint of this critique is one of white masculinist supremacy that feels horribly guilty about it, and it’s directing its critique at the dominant version of white masculinist supremacy that is in denial of how horrible it is. And really the only critique it offers is that they should feel guilty about it. Everything about the kinds of social relations white masculinist supremacy dictates is naturalized and assumed to be central—as if to say, it’s regrettable that white people are racist and treat black people monstrously, it makes me sick, but it’s just the way things are. The world sucks. The person making this critique gets to feel sensitive about their awareness of the rottenness of reality without being laden down by any responsibility for (or being given any pathway toward) imagining something outside that social framework. All it does is show us the rotten core of reality, but it forecloses any possibility things could be otherwise. If the justification for celebrating Crumb’s work (as presented) is its success as critique, I think it fails as critique for those reasons.

The thing is, the film only kind of justifies Crumb’s work as a critique that way. We get this general defense of Crumb’s work voiced more or less directly from the art critic guy, and then it’s the obvious background for what we get from the couple of women who are there ostensibly to present a feminist critique of Crumb’s work. Rather than grapple with the critique, though, the film deflects it by presenting the feminist critique as absurd and out of touch. Every time the film presents one of the feminist critiques, it’s framed in such a way for us to understand the critics to be obviously missing the point.

The deflection is accomplished by reference to the other main way Crumb’s work is presented throughout the film—a much more successful way. Through the interviews with Crumb’s brothers and mom, and from Crumb’s own telling of his childhood, we get a picture of how these terrorized, possibly neurodivergent kids, in desperate need of some release from their psychotic 1950s white US suburban father, threw their energy into creative activity. The tyrannical oppression of their home life intensified their creative obsessions—and while it was partially an escape for them, the intensity of their home life ate up their relationships with each other in their creative work as well. Crumb’s brothers and mother, as depicted, are clearly still struggling with all of it very intensely, in ways that severely affect their wellbeing.

And we see that a turn in Crumb’s work and life came when he had some sort of insight (on a drug he says was “not LSD but something like it”) and started to see the facade of happy respectability everywhere around him as a cover for the gross violence of society. He realized everyone around him wore the same false smile he’d watched his horrible father bring out for public presentation. And then he started channeling his own “darkest impulses,” cartooning through the frame of that basic critique and mining the hypocrisies of society for some shit to revel in, and suddenly what he was doing became much more productive. A thread running through the background of the movie is how Crumb has managed to use this artistic outlet for broadcasting what he characterizes as his deepest perversions as a way not to be personally consumed by them, classic catharsis. The actual home life he’s creating in the present of the film for his daughter (and even for his somewhat estranged older son) seems genuinely good. Crumb (the movie suggests) clearly has no problem with friendships with women—and he even navigates those friendships by being open about his perversions rather than trying force himself to live in denial of them. Through this frame, we can understand the value in Crumb’s work to be its display of an individual psyche working through his own hangups and, by means of that exploratory and experimental investigation into his own soul, finding his way toward a standpoint toward the others around him that doesn’t reproduce the terror his own father directed at him.

From this standpoint, Crumb’s work’s critique is successful in showing what an engine of cruelty mid-twentieth century American society was. White masculinist supremacy distorts relations between people into various oppressive and violent hierarchies. The facade of happiness that white masculinist society forces everyone to perform functions as the mandatory denial of this violent and oppressive reality. And in showing it in all its grotesque splendor, Crumb gives the lie to this society’s claims to freedom and equality and happiness. From an artistic standpoint, I’d say, that’s great. And then the next step is to start to denaturalize those relations. Crumb’s work (as presented) leaves work left to do—the power struggle social relations are forced into by white supremacist patriarchy is naturalized, treated as something like an unchangeable kernel of reality. Denaturalize those relations in some way, I’d say. That’s the challenge. Don’t just call out the ugliness of reality, but work your way to a point of showing it to be contingent, not inevitable, something specific to be targeted and struggled against (and something that other people are struggling against and have been struggling against).

But, rather than allow that critique (or anything like it) to be considered and absorbed as part of the film’s thought about Crumb, the film relies on the strength of the personal reading of Crumb to dismiss any other critical discourse. The film presents the possibility of any productive feminist discussion of Crumb’s work as something that could only happen in alien world, according to some other hysterical system of authority. It’s frustrating that the film does this, and, ultimately, for me, undermines a lot of the presentation of Crumb’s actual work throughout the film.

I should say, all of this about Crumb’s work is just my understanding of it based on the film’s presentation of it. I’m really not familiar with Crumb’s work on it’s own very much. I probably know his drawing most for his collaborations with Harvey Pekar. My suspicion is there’s a lot more (and a lot more varied) that he’s done than the movie’s presentation of it (which, of course there would be, that’s not in itself a criticism). But I’m just not really aware of enough of Crumb’s work itself to feel secure in any general opinion or criticism.

That said, the R. Crumb piece that gets the most complete presentation in the film is the brief comic, A Short History of America. Over the course of a few panels, the comic shows a natural landscape that, panel by panel, grows more and more cluttered by the dumpy trash of suburban sprawl in twentieth century US. In the first panel, we see a meadow, a line of trees at the edge of a forest, some deer and birds in the background. Then, a train plows through. By the end of the comic, everything is paved, the roads are packed with big heavy cars, the streets densely lined with dingy buildings and so so many utility poles weighed down by power lines. Signs and advertisements and the detritus of infrastructure everywhere. This is an obvious—and effective—ecological critique, again aimed at making us feel guilty for our part in this regrettable (but apparently inevitable) reality. Something very productive can be built from this.

It is also, however, very much a presentation of white supremacist myths of settler colonial history. The world it imagines before the History of the United States arrived and got rolling is an Eden, undisturbed in any way by modern people. The destruction and decline represented is entirely of this undisturbed natural landscape, and is due solely to the inevitable march of technological progress. What’s (obviously) excised from actual history is the murder and displacement of indigenous people that cleared the way out for the open spaces to build the railroad on, and how the push for development of the cleared out land (under the call to Manifest Destiny) was very much about taking up more and more land to choke out as much as possible indigenous life anywhere on the continent. And it’s not simply that the open land in the first panel should also have some human dwellings in it—it’s also that the idea that the land shown was just primordial and untouched is a wholesale distortion of history, part of how the material and contingent causes of the genocide are masked. The land was populated and managed by people who had, over the course of their own histories, developed various systems for living on it and working it and adapting to its changes. The encroachment of empire is a catastrophic stage in that ongoing history. It makes no sense to think of the people prior to the arrival of the colonists as belonging to an undisturbed and unchanging Eden, and it’s genocidal to imagine they no longer exist once US History takes over. They are part of the same level of history as white settler colonialism is. This Edenic myth serves to make the technological progress that metastasizes across the landscape in the comic seem to be a whole order of reality removed from what it overtakes, and it suggests the overtaking is total and impossible to undo. History is presented as the inevitable replacement of the primordial world that came before by modern humanity in all its dumpy grotesquery. Regrettable, but ultimately kind of unmotivated. Certainly not the contingent result of a particular settler colonial empire engaging in a concerted political and military effort, at a specific stage in its history, to commit genocide, in order to expand its territory.

Of course, Crumb didn’t invent those myths. But the comic (as presented) does reproduce them. And the uncritical reproduction of ideology like that is also a part of how the colonial distortion of history perpetuates itself. I think any responsible critical presentation of this work would have to include this critique—generously, the comic could be historicized as representative of the shortcomings of certain kinds of western ecological awareness. I’d say you can’t see reality properly if you separate the narrative of technological progress from the history of settler colonialism, and an artist trying to make a work that expresses an ecological critique should learn to understand its history. That’s not a critique to say that Robert Crumb should have changed a specific thing about the comic to fix it; it’s to say that a critical project depends on its critique being sharp. In this case, an artist making work engaged in presenting an ecological critique of history would be well served to know how this history of technological development in the US (and land use, and infrastructure, etc) is part of the history of the expansion of settler colonial empire, so the work would include that critique in its conception, rather than unthinkingly reproducing a settler colonial myth that occludes that history. I suspect the Crumb presented by the film, though, would think of this critique as kind of beside the point—true, of course, that the comic doesn’t present any of that settler violence, which was a very real part of our history, but really it’s just too much to suggest that it’s something an artist like Crumb would have any reason to take into account when making a comic like this. He’s just pissed off at all the power lines! All of that other stuff is really more the domain of some other special interest.

I guess, critically, I’d historicize the movie that way: very much reflective of a certain 1990s liberal masculinity that was anxious about feminism’s displacement of the centrality of masculine subjectivity—and what the movie understands as “feminism” would encompass a lot of other critical discourse, from feminism to queer theory to postcolonial and Black studies. Nothing surprising there, really, and there’s certainly a lot that’s incredible about the movie if you watch it keeping that in mind. But when I was 16, I didn’t need to be given the permission the film revels in to let the critique stop there. The film wants to inspire a kind of idolization of Crumb, and then, if you buy that, it uses this idolization to make you feel threatened by feminism coming in and playing the spoilsport. It’s an easy step from there to starting to feel like all these anti-patriarchal critical discourses represent the same blank degradation of modern life as all the telephone poles. And from there, the critique can easily develop into either defanged nostalgia or a proto-fascist longing for an imagined stronger past. I didn’t need that invitation when I was 16. And I guess what bothered me watching this movie this time is knowing how appealing that permission was to me at the time. So I had to argue with the movie a little bit the way I wasn’t prepared to back when I first watched it.

This doesn’t really have anything to do with the drawing of a handheld tape recorder, though. That’s why it’s part II.

By Marcus

Visual artist and poet living in Hamtramck, Michigan