So I’m going to talk about the time (yesterday, to be precise) I realized a good portion of “underground” cartoonist Robert Crumb’s classic comix were **horrible**.
I have always considered myself a fan of Crumb’s work. Though I would say, it was largely as a “second-hand” fan, having been mostly familiar with him through his story on Philip K. Dick in Weirdo, his appearances in Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, and the 1994 Terry Zwigoff documentary Crumb.
Well, that and the fact that Fantagraphics Press–a publishing imprint I highly respected–seemed to make a cottage industry in reprinting and deifying the man.
Finally, after all these years, I decided to just sit down and read a massive chunk of Crumb’s work–specifically, from 1967 to 1979. “Prime Crumb,” if you will.
And so after recently reading over 500 pages of his comics, I suddenly had a “revelation” moment (possibly similar to Mr. Natural’s out in the desert): a lot of these comics were extremely racist and violently misogynist.
Oh dear reader, I valiantly fought this creeping conclusion through issue after issue of Crumb’s work. I really really really wanted him to be one of my comic book “heroes”…and certainly didn’t want to seem like one of the humorless bitches he has depicted shutting up by shoving a big thick veiny cock into their pie-hole.
But let’s just dive into it!
Fer starters, nearly EVERY depiction of an African-American–or a theoretical African–in his comics from this period contains a “Sambo” look. Googly eyes and gigantic lips.
Now I’m familiar with the argument that Crumb used those caricatures to expose and mock the inherent racism in pop-culture. But it’s the fact that he almost always uses this artistic “short-hand” to depict people of color–even in mundane crowd scenes in which the “exposing racism” context is completely absent. If everyone else is being drawn “ordinary” in those scenes, why not Blacks as well?
And then you have a character like Angelfood McSpade…who specifically embodies the myth of the “over-sexed” woman of color. She is depicted as a brainless woman-child without personal agency, gang-raped by space-aliens, made to clean out a toilet with her tongue because she is too stupid to know better, and basically only existing as a sexual outlet for men.
In particular, Angelfood seems to embody the “Hottentot Venus” stereotype. Writes Anita Little in Ms.:
Displayed as a European freak show attraction in early 1800s, the Hottentot Venus, whose real name was Saartje Baartman, helped to feed the white fascination with black female bodies and now remains an everlasting symbol of the dehumanization of African features. The image of Saartje continues to haunt modern Western society whenever someone decides to sexualize a black woman’s physique.
Again there is the counter-argument: Crumb only wanted to expose the banal racism of Society here! He didn’t actually think such gross stereotypes were funny!
To which I would reply:
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that no, actually I do think Crumb and some of his fans think such stereotypes are hilarious–not because they “expose” racism, but because of the racism itself.
And what I personally think is even more hilarious is that the milieu of the typical “indie hip” Crumb fan is one of a sort of “ironic intellectualism”–the type that often looks down upon the more “Neanderthal” mainstream comics fan with their boner for Rob Liefeld and ample-bosomed superheroines.
These super-refined Indie Comic fans like to hail Crumb as a groundbreaking genius–blazing a trail for the future of comics as genuine Art.
However, it would seem to me that only the most dunderheaded troglodyte wouldn’t be able to comprehend that instead of being “forward-thinking,” a lot of Crumb’s work was reactionary to a point that the John Birch Society would have been proud of.
Think of it, True Believers: Crumb made these comics at the height of the U.S. Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye would be published in 1970–the same year Crumb’s Despair, featuring Angelfood McSpade cleaning out toilets with her tongue and literally being shit on by white men, was printed. “But he was only trying to highlight the exploitation of the Black woman!,” you might counter. “Crumb didn’t think this was funny for its own sake!”
To which I reply,
While Gene Roddenberry was insisting Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura be an integral part of Star Trek, Crumb was making Angelfood McSpade comix. That’s the direction he decided to go into. Continually drawing Blacks as extremely stereotyped caricatures. Drawing them as such even when there was no “humor context” to do so. Why?
Because Crumb was a White guy watching the world change dramatically from the nostalgic “golden years” of his youth, and feeling very threatened. These are reactionary comix.
And you can witness this sense of feeling one’s “supremacy” being threatened in his portrayal of women, particularly any “strong” female.
“Bullshit!,” you may counter–“Crumb loved strong women! His comix are love-letters to strong women!”
To which I might say,
Because while on the surface it seems as if Crumb–at least for the decade or so of his work that I read–definitely “worshipped” and fetishized “strong women,” there was also often the caveat that they “be brought down a peg.”
For example, the story “The Simp And The Gimp” from Motor City Comics #2 (1970). Possibly a riff on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, two diminutive mental patients gang-rape a nurse after “destroying” her face and literally turning it into a gaping ruined orifice that they continually sexually assault.
While the nurse is drawn in a “classic” gargantuan & muscular Crumb “style,” she is hardly a mean Nurse Ratchett type figure. On the contrary, she possesses the sort of woman-child empty-headed innocence that is also a staple of the artist.
Why is she mutilated and continually raped? Is this Crumb’s sly way of criticizing the inherent misogyny of our culture?
I think, instead, it’s because it was a way for the slight-figured Crumb to gain a sense of control and superiority over these zoftig women he both idolized and resented. And as a look into the cavernous inner workings of such a closet misogynist, I can actually appreciate the comic. But I also know that some people–including, likely, Crumb himself–simply enjoy it for the thrilling frisson of the misogyny itself.
I don’t think such material should be necessarily censored. Perhaps, as some argue, it’s an outlet for the darkest id-filled fantasies of people who would never dream of living such atrocities out. Isn’t it better that such a “harmless” outlet exists for such individuals?
Moreover: these underground comix are historical documents. They are of a particular time and place, and love them or hate them they embody the spirit of the era. To not reprint them or otherwise relegate them to the Memory Hole serves no particular useful purpose, at least from an academic standpoint.
It’s just “funny” to me how after decades of watching the Comic Book Cognoscenti fellate Crumb as this visionary genius–indeed, perhaps one of the most lauded indie comic creators of all time–I actually sit down and read the goddamn things and they’re basically 8chan-level racist torture porn on steroids. Nobody “told” me this.
I assume nobody mentioned it when Crumb was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall Of Fame In 1991, or won the Harvey Special Award For Humor the previous year, or the Angoulême Grand Prix in 1999.
Here is a good example of not listening to the “experts” and the “hot takes” and actually sitting down and reading a good representative of the content in question…and making up your mind for yourself!
Again: I do not argue for censorship, here. And, if you’ll notice, I didn’t mention the depictions of pedophilia and incest in Crumb’s work once! (Oops, did I just do it?)
I just think that…I mean, I really respect the hard work organizations like the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund do to protect the freedom of speech to print such material! And that’s why I think (if I may suggest) that they should make it their mission in the upcoming season to make sure the rights of the Alt-Right cartoonists and meme-makers are protected. Because if you take out the artsy-fartsy “indie” bohemian cachet, I see no difference between Angelfood McSpade comics and the Merry 8chan Meme Squad. And what about Ethan Van Sciver’s rights?
But lest you think I’m another humorless bitch (that might benefit from being raped–literally the storyline from a number of Crumb stories…though he often takes pains to show that the bitches really enjoyed it), I want you to know that I see the “humor” in all of this. And I appreciate all the irony. In fact, I’m laughing really hard right now. And that should put you at ease.
Because I “get it.” It’s all just in fun. It’s all just a Joke.
I understand that to many in the comics community, R. Crumb is just a “lovable old pervert.” I’ve been molested and harassed and sexually propositioned by a number of “lovable perverts” when I was an adolescent. I’ve also encountered and known of dozens of racists and harassers and sexual assaulters in said comics community.
So trust me…***I GET IT***.
I really do. It’s COMEDY.