One of the greatest artists of the 20th Century, Crumb played a leading role in the cultural revolution that changed the world. In this interview, the first he ever concedes to a Mexican journalist, he talks about this, and also politics, and norteño music.
Born in 1943, Robert Crumb is the creator of Zap!, the archetypical magazine of American underground comics —aka “comix”— from the 60’s. With an obscene, misogynistic, and sexist fame that precedes him, as well as a praising of him as a modern–day Hieronymus Bosch, he undoubtedly is one of the greatest American graphic artists of the 20th Century. His clashing, obsessive line has documented the drug–ridden trip of the hippie era, the beauty of women and the tales from the Book of Genesis, without forgetting the heroes of blues, jazz, and ragtime, to whom he has profusely portrayed.
Living in France since 1992, he agreed to an exclusive interview, the first he concedes to a Mexican journalist, in which he discusses France’s and the United States’ political panorama, and his work as godfather of underground comics.
It’s been only four days since France voted Emmanuel Macron when I pick up the phone receiver in order to call Crumb. The election result gave the Western world a chance to breathe. Our talk begins, inevitably, with that subject, since the Crumbs —Robert and his wife, the also cartoonist Aline Kominsky–Crumb— have lived there since the beginning of the 90’s in a small French villa —“Crumbland”, as Aline calls it— where they both practice meditation and continue drawing.
That’s how this interview begins, where Crumb, from his unorthodox point of view addresses the political stage, including the Mexican one, counterculture, music, and, of course, comics.
Last weekend France voted Macron. What’s your position?
I’m relieved that Macron won over Marine Le Pen. She’s no good — a fascist. It’s hard to know exactly what Macron stands for — probably business as usual. They called him the Hillary Clinton of France. He’ll probably pretty much do the bidding of big business and the banks. I don’t know. Who knows? But he’s certainly better than Marine Le Pen who would push a basically racist, anti-Muslim agenda if she got elected. My favorite candidate was Mélenchon, the Communist candidate. But the people voted in Macron ‘cause most of them still don’t want Marine Le Pen in charge.
That could still change by the next election if “business as usual” means a continuing decline in the well–being of the working classes, and an increasing trend toward the U.S.A. way of doing things. France could still end up with Le Pen or somebody like her. God help us.
People around the world were wondering if it was going to be a similar situation as Donald Trump in the United States. I didn’t want to go directly to that subject but what I want to know from you has to do with cartooning. With someone like Trump, what’s the challenge, compared to the fifties and the sixties, when people were more conformist and there were not as many liberties as now?
What will happen now, with Trump as president? I don’t have the answer for that. It doesn’t seem that mass protests and demonstrations have much effect anymore. The power elite has learned just to ignore such demonstrations, no matter how many hundreds of thousands of people show up for them.
Well, there was really a cultural revolution in the U.S.A. in the Sixties. It was a non–violent revolution for the most part. Radical changes took place without much bloodshed. What will happen now, with Trump as president? I don’t have the answer for that. It doesn’t seem that mass protests and demonstrations have much effect anymore. The power elite has learned just to ignore such demonstrations, no matter how many hundreds of thousands of people show up for them. They just do what they want anyway, so I don’t know what the solution is. Lately the mass media has gotten harder on Trump. As every day goes by they seem to become more strongly critical of him, CNN even! I hate all those mainstream media news shows probably almost as much as Trump does! He’s not entirely wrong about those people. Still, there seems to be more pointed criticism of Trump on those news shows lately. They’ve probably become more defiant because of the way Trump is constantly insulting and berating reporters and media people, even in press conferences. It’s become a “fuck you” contest. “Fuck you!” “No, fuck you!” They’re all assholes.
Did you know that I made a comic about Trump in 1989? He published a book in the late ‘80s, “The Art of the Deal,” which I read at the time. I found him so irritating and obnoxious that I was compelled to do a story about him. But he was already a presence in the mass media even then, the late ’80s. He loves media attention of any kind and always has. He’s kind of a product of mass media.
But it’s a combination of social forces that brings a demagogue like Trump to power, just as the social forces at work in Germany in the 1920s brought Hitler to power. A big part of the American population was so lost, alienated, confused and paranoid. They knew that somebody had swindled them. They knew that somebody had picked their pocket, but they didn’t know whom exactly to blame. Many of them were already long–time listeners to right–wing radio and TV talk shows. So here comes Trump with his line of bullshit aimed directly at these lost, forgotten white middle and lower class people. They all hated Hillary. Some of them would have voted for Bernie Sanders but the Democratic National Committee made damn sure that Bernie wouldn’t get the nomination, so they voted for Trump instead. He told them things they wanted to hear, and they believed it. It’s sad.
Because it makes sense to them.
Yeah, it made some kind of crazy sense. The Trump supporters, they didn’t care, and still don’t, about a lot of the stuff that the liberals in the mass media have criticized Trump for saying or doing. It didn’t bother most of them that Trump was caught talking about grabbing pussy and things like that. They see that as an indication that Trump is just a regular ol’ red–blooded American male, like them and their buddies.
You know what? This is something underground cartoonists or alternative artists do: they talk about these subjects in a very different, personal way, and when someone like Trump comes and says something like that, it sounds terrible, but it is a personal thing.
It is! Yeah!
Probably some people would say you’re defending Trump but I understand it is not about him, but about the media and how they work.
That’s right, yeah, exactly. Most people don’t seem to be very aware of the enormous power of the people to control and manipulate the collective mind.
That leads me to political correctness. People seem to be restricting themselves more than ever. Do you think that people are becoming more conscious or more conservative?
Are people becoming more conscious or more conservative? Well, it appears that both these trends are happening simultaneously and that the U.S.A. seems to be very divided in that regard. Dunno where this is all leading. Not a good prognosis.
But yeah, political correctness has become such a minefield. If you don’t know the current correct word or phrase to describe somebody who has an unusual sexual inclination or somebody who is mentally retarded — oops, that’s the wrong phrase! Now you’re supposed to say, “differently abled” or something like that. It’s hard to keep track, but you better be careful or you could easily offend someone who does keep up on the latest proper terminology. So a lot of people are just sick and tired of all this and just want to blurt out, “Fuck that shit! Nigger bitch moron cunt–sucking mother-fucker!” They like the fact that Trump is crude and coarse and unpredictable and outrages the prissy intellectual liberal “elite.” And I can understand that. I can sympathize with that. But what’s behind that popular appeal that Trump has? What substance is there to him? If you scrutinize his history, he turns out to be a crooked businessman. Everyone you talk to from New York knows someone who’s been screwed by Trump or stiffed by him in a business transaction, a building contractor, or a tenant in a building he owned. Trump was bad news in the business world. You had to sue him to get paid what he owed you. A cheap, chiseling crook.
And he has the money to crush people, to destroy them, because, at the same time that’s how he builds his fortune.
It’s hard to keep track, but you better be careful or you could easily offend someone who does keep up on the latest proper terminology. So a lot of people are just sick and tired of all this and just want to blurt out, “Fuck that shit! Nigger bitch moron cunt–sucking mother-fucker!” They like the fact that Trump is crude and coarse and unpredictable and outrages the prissy intellectual liberal “elite.”
Yes, absolutely, but he’s also lost a couple of fortunes in colossal mishandling of his business enterprises. He was born into and inherited the real estate business from his father, who was the one who ruthlessly built up the business from nothing. People in New York used to talk about “old man Trump.” He was widely despised also by the tenants of his buildings. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son–in–law, comes from the same sort of family, these local New York, New Jersey real estate sharks, who are largely hated by people who have had to deal with them, tenants in their properties or construction contractors. Kushner’s father, Charles Kushner, operated the same way as the Trump family.
Did you see it coming? I mean, that somebody like him becoming the president of the United States?
No, I have to admit I was totally convinced that the powerful financial elite — the banks, Wall Street, corporate executives — would not let Trump win the election. I was convinced that Hillary was their candidate, that she would definitely win, one way or another. I was as shocked as anybody on November 9th when my wife woke me up at 7:30 in the morning, iPhone in her hand, lying next to me in the bed, to tell me, “Trump won the election.” I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t take it in. It took me a long time to fully accept the reality of it. A major shift had taken place. Known reality just exploded in our faces.
Imagine here in Mexico with everything he’s saying about building this wall. It was a shock the peso went down terribly. It looked like a joke.
It feels like a joke. Is it true that when Trump said “the Mexicans are gonna pay for the wall” the president of Mexico said “No, we are not! Fuck you, we’re not paying for the wall!”? Is it true that he said that?
No, no no, it’s not true! Obviously, in his speeches inside the country he goes and says that we’re not going to pay for it, but when the people from the Mexican government are with Trump they don’t say that, they don’t say it like that, they say: “Let’s negotiate”. It’s a very tense situation because of NAFTA. As a matter of fact, here in Mexico we started to know more about you and buying more books that we couldn’t before because of the trade agreement, before that it was impossible.
Don’t you think it is true that NAFTA is basically mostly good for United States business? I don’t know how much good it does for Mexico businesses.
What Trump says is that it is not working for the United States and that Mexico and Canada have been taking advantage and that’s why he wants out. But I don’t know what is going to happen.
No one knows what is going to happen, he’s unpredictable.
Talking about your art, your comics depicted this raw, straightforward scenes you would break boundaries with. I specially remember that “The family that lays together stays together” cartoon which is very strong…
It’s from 1969…
I think that if you used to be branded as a sexist artist, in the current times it would go further. How would people of today react to your art if they were looking at it for the first time?
I don’t know, I’m not sure about that, I have no idea, it’s hard to say. But it’s true that now you can look at the internet and there’s everything, any crazy sex thing you wanna see you can find it there. When we were doing that stuff in the late sixties, early seventies, it was really rebelling against what you were talking about: the repressive, conformism of the previous period, you know. Otherwise it was just to be outrageous. It was fun, it was a really good time. That was a very crazy, loose period, sexually.
What was the intention, was it just for fun?
There was the “fun element, but also the artistic element — you know, “express yourself.” None of these “underground” cartoonists were in it for the money, obviously. In the early days, there was no money in it, or very little. You couldn’t live on it. It was very experimental, a new way of using the comics medium. Try anything, see what happens. We were determined to cut loose from all the old commercial restrictions imposed on mainstream comic books and newspaper comic strips. We pushed against all these stifling restrictions: sex, violence, radical political criticism or whatever. We pushed it to the limit. It was the times, part of the general cultural rebellion. There was a lot of bad comics put out in the so–called underground. If you go back and try to read a lot of those comics from the early 1970s you will find that 80 percent of them are unreadable! Incoherent! The artists were on drugs. Only a small handful of them hold up or stand the test of time, or tell a coherent story, or are really funny or contain sharp satire. You can count the really good artists on one hand.
When we were doing that stuff in the late sixties, early seventies, it was really rebelling against what you were talking about: the repressive, conformism of the previous period, you know. Otherwise it was just to be outrageous. It was fun, it was a really good time. That was a very crazy, loose period, sexually.
And also doing something different from the mainstream.
Well, yeah. The mainstream still had most of the comics reading public with its superhero comics and Archie comics, and with their huge distribution network in place. The “underground” comics had a tiny fraction of the buying public that the mainstream had. No competition, certainly. They weren’t worried about us. We were no threat.
What is your definition of “underground”?
Even when we were doing the so–called underground comics they weren’t really underground. They were sold in stores openly. They were just not mainstream media. They were alternative. They started calling these hippie newspapers “underground” newspapers but they were not really underground either. It wasn’t like
World War II or the Soviet Union where putting out something criticizing the government really was underground and you could be arrested if they caught you. Or, executed. It wasn’t really underground in that sense, it never was.
That’s interesting, because we understand all that as an underground culture, but you mention that they were revolutionary times, that there was this intention to change, rather than being underground, rather than being in the outskirts of culture.
Well, it was the “outskirts of culture,” but, like I said, it wasn’t “underground” in the true sense of the word. It’s true that the cultural revolution attracted so many young people that by the end of the Sixties there was a lot of optimism that we could actually change the entire society of the Western World for the better. It was just a matter of our generation getting into positions of power which we believed — truly believed — would happen, probably sooner than later. Then the mood shifted a bit around 1970 and there began to be serious talk of armed revolution, inspired by the behavior of the Black Panthers, a black radical group that, for a brief time at least, successfully defended themselves from the police with guns. This led to the “White Panthers” and the “Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers” and other serious revolutionary groups. The “underground” papers were full of discussion and debate about revolutionary tactics and leftist political theory.
Meanwhile the mainstream culture was trying to figure out how to cash in on the hippie lifestyle of the youth. They wanted to turn it into a money–making thing, somehow or other. These “straight” businessmen were trying to create commercial commodities that they could market to the hippies. They succeeded to some degree, especially with the music.
You never really connected with the music of the time.
No. I didn’t like it.
Have your children showed modern music to you? Have you liked it?
When my daughter was little I used to play old–time records for her. She seemed to really like some of it. But then as she moved into her teen years she got into popular music and punk music and stuff.
Punk is good.
Punk is good? You like punk music? Ugh, I can’t stand that stuff. Ugly bunch of noise. Sophie also got into rap and a few times she tried to convert me to rap music.
Yeah, she showed me examples of the best of rap, made me listen to them. I could see her point but to me rap isn’t even really music at all. Now my daughter is 35 and has more or less gone back to old–time music again.
We all go back. How did you get into old jazz and blues? When did you start listening to it?
I was quite young, I was in my mid–teens. The initial fad of rock n’ roll in 1955–56, I liked that, ’57, but I started losing interest in it. That’s when I got back to all that old music and started searching for old 78 rpm records of old music, jazz and blues of the 1920’s. Which I’m still completely hooked on that older music, and now I like older music like that from all over the world, including Mexico. There’s great music produced by Mexico in that time in the south of the United States, mostly in Texas. There’s great Mexican music recorded from that time.
Yeah, that’s right, norteño. I love that stuff. I heard a lot of it and found many old 78s when we lived in the Central Valley in California in the 1970s and ’80s.
Norteño music used to be low culture in Mexico. Now it is very, extremely popular, but before it was music for drunk people who attended cantinas and that didn’t change for many decades.
It’s great music, those old corridos, cancions, waltzes and polkas. I don’t understand the words, as I never learned Spanish, but I love the sounds of the old-time accordions and fiddles. In the ‘80s we used to eat out sometimes at a Mexican bar/restaurant near us there in the Central Valley, Arreola’s Café. The farm workers used to come there to eat and drink and sometimes a couple of them would bring an accordion and a guitar and they would sing and play tunes. I thought they were great. They sounded just like those old 78s of the 1930s. Funny, the nice couple that ran the place, typically had some upward–striving aspirations. One night I told the wife how much I liked to hear those two guys sing those old norteño songs. She said, “Oh, I don’t like that kind of music, I much prefer the mariachi bands.” Sometimes mariachi bands would come and play at Arreola’s too, but I preferred the farm workers norteño music.
As a matter of fact, many people in Mexico don’t like mariachi music.
I can understand that. It’s very formulized. They all sound the same.
And also it’s the image of Mexico, like that’s the sound of Mexico and no, it is not. Do you dance to norteño music when you listen to it? Because it’s very catchy.
Dance, you say? Me, I don’t dance! [Laughs] I can’t dance. When I was in San Francisco there was a Mexican restaurant in the 90’s and these three old Mexican guys came in there and it was like two fiddles and a guitar. They’d just migrated from Mexico and they played this music —so beautiful! Some kind of rural, country Mexican fiddle music, great! Two guys playing in harmony and my friends ignored it and I’d say “Listen to that! It’s a privilege to hear that! These old Mexican guys playing fiddle, you might never hear that again in your life!”
What are you doing now? After The book of Genesis, what have you been working on these years?
Mostly small jobs. I’ve done a few comics with my wife Aline, I’ve done these collaborations with her. Otherwise I do record covers for music that I like, or portraits of people… not as prolific as I used to be, I don’t do as much work as I used to. My wife and I are planning to do a big project but we haven’t just begun on it yet, we’re gonna do a big collaborative project. We’re researching it.
What’s it about?
I can’t tell. I don’t like to talk about art projects before I’ve even started on them. Talking about it drains off the energy and motivation to do it.
The Book of Genesis took you what, four years?
Four years of work. The biggest project I ever did. I was really tired of the Bible by the time I finished it.
Did you get any conclusion regarding religion and Catholicism after you went through all of it? I know your family was Catholic.
Yeah, I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school, which was taught by the sisters. I’m still in recovery from it. You never completely get over such early brainwashing. And yes, sure, I discovered a lot of things while working on Genesis. I discovered a lot about the Bible. The main thing, perhaps, that I discovered is that it’s completely crazy that people in this day and age can still use that book as a source of moral guidance. That seems completely crazy to me — utter madness. Okay, there are a few words of wisdom here and there, it’s a real hodge–podge, but the Old Testament — ho boy, that’s tough. It’s rough. [Laughs]
I know that your idea was not to ridicule it, but for people who have read your work, the first idea is that it had to be subversive. But your approach was different.
Well, it’s subversive only in as far as I realized that just by illustrating literally everything is in there, it’s very revealing. That reveals something. A lot of people that read that told me they had no idea that stuff was in there. Because you are just reading the text, and you’re not as a scholar, really looking close at every word. You skim over the stuff that doesn’t make sense. But when you illustrate it you break it down into panels, like in a comic, you’re breaking down the text and illustrate profusely what’s actually written there, then you really see how really crazy all of it is.
I don’t think many people think about what they are reading actually, but you had to go through that process because you were drawing it.
That’s right. Often I had to try and understand, “What are they talking about here?!” just for the purpose of illustrating it, “Wow, what is going on here?!” [Laughs] Very crazy. A lot of the original meaning of the stories are lost because they were told and retold so often before they were written down, so they lost their original meaning. It’s really impossible to know what they were really talking about.
Do you think that if you had done it in the sixties or the seventies your approach would have been different, as a way of confronting religious people, for example?
My original idea before I did the Book of Genesis was just to do a story that was a send–up, a take off on the Adam and Eve story. But then I read the original story as it is written in the Bible, gave it a close, careful reading and realized there’s no need to satirize this, it’s so strange and compelling in itself. All that needed to be done was to illustrate it as it was written, and that in itself is wacky enough. And this had never been done in comic strip form before. All previous comic book versions that I could find took great liberties with the original text. They would have Adam say, “Gee, Eve, I hope this is okay with God if we eat this fruit!” Stuff like that.
But in the Sixties, Seventies, I don’t know, I probably would have done the irreverent take off with all kinds of outrageous sex scenes – Eve sucking off the serpent or some such pornographic craziness. Dunno — I was so under the spell of psychedelic drugs at that time, I might’ve read some profound cosmic meaning into the story that would no longer occur to me now in my post–psychedelic old age.
Do you get involved in that comics versus graphic novel discussion?
The problem is that it’s all economics, industrial realities, because we know that these publishers that were publishing alternative comics for years in the United States — like Fantagraphics, Last Gasp and some other ones — they all now claim that they can’t sell those little old fashioned comic books anymore, so they demand that you do a bigger book, so that became the graphic novel. That’s what they say — I don’t know, I don’t know what to think about it. I mean, I still love the cheap comic book format that I grew up with, the format from when I was a kid, it’s so appealing. I love cheap formats. And now what’s happened is that it’s a different world for comics, for graphic novels; now there’s a younger audience that takes it all very seriously. A lot of it is kind of pretentious. I’m not interested very much in most of it. As usual, it’s about the eighty/twenty percent ratio: eighty percent mediocre, twenty percent good. This ratio seems to apply more or less in most areas of human culture: art, music, movies, TV, even in science.
What part of your work describes or defines you better? Is it Mr. Natural, the Keep on Truckin’ drawing, the sketchbooks?
I don’t know. It depends on the future and what people recognize as the most interesting part of my work, ‘cause yeah, I’ve got this huge amount of sketchbooks, but what most people really like is the comics, you know, because people like stories. They don’t care so much about drawing as they do about stories. Most people anyway. Visually astute people are in the twenty percent category, in my experience.
But I remember that part of Terry Zwigoff’s documentary on you where you are explaining your son something about drawing and he says to you: “It’s easy for you because you’re rich and famous” and you tell him: “It’s not about being rich and famous, it’s about drawing well”.
Did that exchange really take place? I don’t remember us saying those things, but I’ll take your word for it. But yeah, drawing well has nothing to do with making money, and has little or nothing to do with whether your work gets the attention of the general population. It’s stories that they want, good, well–told stories. All those sketchbooks of mine that have been published sell in quite small numbers compared to the comics. The sketchbooks appeal to a small, special audience. God love ’em, these are my people. In general it’s the comics that people want to see — that is, to read. It’s reading matter for most of them. The Book of Genesis Illustrated sold far better that anything else I’ve ever published — way better, ten times better, fifty times better! Because, guess why? It’s the Bible! “Greatest Story Ever Told,” now in lurid, readable comic book form! That’s the way it works. Who knew? I had no idea.
When was the moment when you found that comics and drawing were important for you?
When I was growing up — I was born in 1943 — comic books in the United States were a very big thing for children, for the entertainment for kids. So, when I was a very small child, when I was 6, 7 years old we were reading those Donald Duck comics and the funny animal comics. My mother would bring them home for us when she went on shopping, she’d bring comic books. The TV was beginning to be introduced and became important, but comic books were still important ’til the end of the fifties, then started to decline as a major form of media. But I grew up with comics, and my older brother Charles was so obsessed with comics and cartooning and he kinda pushed that on me. He was a huge influence on me. When I was 7, 8 years old I started drawing comics. We made our own characters and imitations of the funny animal comics.
That’s how one starts, by imitating other people’s work.
Oh yeah, sure, of course. I first went crazy for Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD, when I was about 14, I just went crazy for that and became obsessed with it. MAD, and Humbug, and stuff. Very beautiful artwork and the satire was great. I then began doing imitations of Kurtzman’s satire comics. It was a phase I went through. Just before that I went through a period of obsession with the comics of Walt Kelly and tried to imitate his approach. That’s when I was 12 and 13 years old.
Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson recently passed away. What do you remember of them?
Jay Lynch was a very interesting character. To be honest, I found him more interesting than his work. He was a very original thinker in his own crazy way, very stimulating to be around. Skip Williamson not so much. And also there’s my old pal Spain Rodriguez who died in 2012, another very original mind, very stimulating to talk to. I have a lot of admiration for his work — one of the top artists in the early days of the so–called “underground” comics.
Who are the top guys for you?
Well, there’s my wife Aline. I think her comics are great, and we did make all those collaborations so obviously I have a lot of respect for her work. She’s a great cartoonist. Justin Green, greatly underappreciated. He is the best! Carol Tyler, Justin’s wife, Joe Sacco, Dan Clowes, Bill Griffith… Now there’s Noah Van Sciver, Gabrielle Bell. My favorite French comic artist is a crazy guy named David Sourdrille. Love his work. There’s Phoebe Gloeckner — You know her stuff?
Yes, it’s great, I interviewed her, she was living in Ciudad Juárez, where a lot of women were murdered and she was doing this great project on it.
Yeah, it was amazing. She’s a great cartoonist. There’s a lot of people, I could go on and on. ®