In the 1960s and 70s, independent artists and small publishing companies began producing satirical, adult-oriented, sometimes obscene comics. These became known as “underground comix,” and were often sold in head shops, along with other pieces of 60s and 70s counterculture. Though underground comix are an area of comics history that our class won’t be touching on, they’re very important to some of the pieces we’ll be reading in class this semester. The latest comic we’re reading for class is What it Is by Lynda Barry, who has been described as an underground comix artist. In the autobiographical sections of the book, she mentions reading and being inspired by underground comix, and depicts herself reading an issue of the underground anthology Zap. George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, which we read previously and that I wrote my last blog post about, was a major influence on the underground comix movement as well. Later this semester, when we read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, we’ll be reading another underground-comix-influenced work: autobiographical comics were pioneered by the movement as well. Though I can’t provide a complete primer on underground comix since I got into them fairly recently myself, I can introduce everyone to one of my favorite comics: Robert Crumb’s self-deprecating, warts-and-all memoir comic, My Troubles with Women. Another blogger touched on his work a little earlier in the semester, so I’m hoping I can provide a little more information on the artist. Robert Crumb (sometimes R. Crumb) was one of the most central and influential underground comix artists. In many of his comics, he depicts sexual content and tall, curvy, muscular women. In My Troubles with Women, part one of which was published in Zap in 1980 and part two of which was published in Hup in 1986, he explores his childhood sexual awakening, love life, and lifelong fetish for the curvy women he draws.
Crumb doesn’t try to elevate his subject material, or redeem himself as the main character. From his childhood and awkward adolescence, through his rocky first marriage, his unexpected rise in popularity with women and the emotionally barren relationships that resulted from it, and his current happy marriage to fellow cartoonist Aline Kominsky, he narrates his social faux pas and interpersonal clumsiness in a colloquial, conversational tone, full of self-deprecating humor. His digs at himself and others even leave the narration boxes. Many characters are labeled with arrows pointing at them.
By the 1980s, he was already firmly enthroned as a counterculture icon, so this kind of voice was in keeping with the tone of the satirical comics he had already gotten famous for. It’s also a good choice for taking the bite out of the sensitive and possibly offensive subject material he’s discussing. Crumb doesn’t shy away from drawing the ugliness and awkwardness of sex, and draws it in a way that’s too unappealing to be pornographic but too titillating to be realism. His art is black-and-white, and full of cross-hatching and other busy-looking pen textures that make his work look chaotic and grimy. His people have features that seem too big for their face, with big noses and teeth jutting out of mouths, and his women have curves that are barely contained by the tight clothes they’re wearing. He depicts himself as a weedy, wimpy little man who’s always out of the loop on flirting. Even though the comic is about his own sex life, he doesn’t try to spin himself as a sex god or a ladies’ man, but as an unappealing, perverted, and weaselly man that women often sleep with just to say they did. He retells his crushes, bad decisions, and sometimes abusive relationships in a confessional and apologetic style. Sometimes he attempts to psychoanalyze himself, but pulls back before he gets too far in, preferring to just retell the facts instead.
Crumb doesn’t sugarcoat his perception of man-woman interactions, and this is one of the things that has led to accusations of misogyny in his comics. Crumb depicts both men and women as slaves to their specific types of sexual desire. In My Troubles with Women, Part Two, he claims women are instinctively attracted to powerful, confident men and only want tender affection when they’re sure the men are strong. In the same way, he’s unapologetic about his previous romantic endeavors, and even his cartooning career, being mostly fueled by lust.
Like Crumb’s self-deprecating image, this may be part of a deliberately constructed persona, but at any rate, he is aware of the criticism leveled at him, and discusses it in the comic itself. He even accepts that he objectifies women and this affects the way he thinks of the women he meets.
It’s hard to read an R. Crumb comic without feeling something—usually, as I did when I first saw him in middle school, some combination of offended and perversely fascinated. And that feeling is what I love about underground comix: they evoke a reaction in us. I highly recommend reading Robert Crumb if you’re interested in comics history or just would love reading memoir pieces that hold nothing back. You may not agree with him or like him once you’re done reading his work, but you will know about him—probably way more than you wanted to.