Thanks to Mike, who had held onto a transcript of some of that Crumb interview I was telling you about, and who saved me having to find the tape and type it all out. It’s more interesting than the finished article, I reckon, and gives you more of an idea of what kind of guy Crumb is/was (it also gives you more of an idea of how green I was to all this).
So, here goes. It was done onstage at the ICA, straight after a performance by Crumb’s band. It wasn’t complete, anyway, and I’ve cut a slither from the beginning, as that was very much about the band and not as interesting, I don’t think (general gist: French music is good). Anyway, this blog’s supposed to be about cartooning.
Robert Crumb, 3rd April 1999.
Elliot: How does your love of music manifest itself in your work?
Crumb: It’s an indirect thing. I don’t know, I try not to analyse it. But I love my music and I listen to it every day, y’know. Get out one of my old 78’s and go through the old ritual. I love laying on the needle, turning it on, sit down, listen, get up, put it away, get out another; I love it. It’s very important to me.
E: The way you come across in the stuff written about you, and also your work…
C: A real crank, I know.
E: That’s not what I’m getting at…
C: I am. I hate most stuff. Rock and roll, computers. I’m a real nightmare.
E: Is there anything modern that interests you?
C: Girls. All these modern girls have great assets, the whole, y’know, women being strong, independent, all that. I love it.
E: How does that sit with your reputation as this ‘celebrity misogynist’?
C: Celebrity misogynist? (Laughs just like Disney’s Goofy for a while)… I don’t know…
E: Do you find that people expect you to be like that? To be the ‘R. Crumb’ that we see in your work?
C: Gosh, I dunno. I have no idea how people expect me to be. Some pervert with a pen? I just don’t know.
E: Your musical and cultural tastes seem firmly rooted in the past. Is this now a conscious decision, and you consciously stop yourself ‘moving forward’?
C: Ha ha ha – how do you mean, ‘move forward’?
E: I guess I’m trying to ask if you could see yourself becoming a more ‘modern’ person?
C: I don’t, like, go with the trends in the modern world, that’s for sure. But I do try and move forward in my own way. You know; more of my own thing, with my own work.
M: A lot of your work is fiercely autobiographical, and in it you come across as…
C: A completely ego-centric person, I know. I admit it, I am. Everything is preferential to me in my work. I can’t get with or assume… y’know, pretend in the way that some cartoonists do, with characters that are in some way an accurate version of themselves. I don’t know, I couldn’t draw myself that way, I can’t do it.
E: You’ve said that when you were younger, you were driven by the desire to become a great artist.
C: I don’t know about that stuff, it’s embarrassing.
E: Which is exactly why I wanted to ask you about it.
C: What a fool I was, what a fool.
E: Well, all these critics rave about your work, you’ve had great critical acclaim.
C: Oh sure, sure. Jeez, look at me, my huge ego, it’s embarrassing. I, well – I guess that I’ve left my mark on this earth, but the fact that I’ve succeeded in doing that, well it doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot really. Who’s going to care four billion years from now? Not me, that’s for sure. I guess I’d better get used to that, in four billion years no-one will care. But then I guess that four billion years is a long time, so.
E: But how do you feel about all this acclaim, the comparisons? Robert Hughes calling you ‘the Breughel of the 20th Century’ for example?
C: Oh sure, the Breughel of last week, maybe.
E: Surely you’re glad of this success; that you’ve made your mark?
C: Well yeah, but when you have that you have to look at it for what it actually is. You have to realise that it’s just another piece of, I don’t know, another piece of vanity.
E: Vanity in a way, sure, but how does it make you feel? Surely it’s not wholly an embarrassment to you, you must be in someway happy about it.
C: Yeah I am, I still have a big enough ego, but it’s a two edged thing. When I read about this guy saying (mockingly overly enthusiastic tones) ‘Hey, he’s a Breughel’ it’s cool and all, but on the other hand it’s just embarrassing, y’know?
E: Because your work reveals so much about you (as did the documentary made about you) is it possible to remain a private person?
C: It’s very hard to do, to continue to be a private person. It’s killing me. Like, several million people know the intimate details of, like, my sexual perversions. Like, I have to go hide in the woods. Just hide out there for a while.
E: Do you manage to keep anything private? There’s so much of your work published the world over, everything from comics you did as a child to your sketchbooks, to stuff by your family… is there anything you don’t let your publishers have?
C: You mean, like, the stuff that I tear up and flush down the toilet? Yeah, sure, there’s still the secret, crazy, pervert fantasies of mine. Oh, boy, now I’ve said it.
E: Do you feel as though your work has suffered due to the level of fame you have now? Do you wish you could get away from it, at least for some of the time?
C: Oh yeah, sure. I keep being self conscious. If I sit down in front of a blank piece of paper, it’s like ‘here’s the great and famous R. Crumb, this had better be a great masterpiece’ and that’s… a little …intimidating. It’s difficult to be spontaneous. And the other thing is the fucking phone’s always ringing.
E: People not only know so much about you from your work, but to a lesser extent, your family. How does that feel?
E: But it can’t be that scary; you could actually pull the plug on it all, your work doesn’t have to be published.
C: Yeah… yeah. I… I feel that I have to do it, and just… accept the consequences. I just feel that I have to do it, I dunno.
E: How much trouble have you had to accept as a consequence?
C: That documentary was big trouble. Big trouble. When my friend Zwigoff made that film, we had no idea it would go over as big as it did or shown as widely as it was. None of us knew, and if we had known then maybe we’d have been a little more reserved about the whole thing.
E: You do come across as though you’re speaking freely to your friends, almost unaware that it’s being filmed.
C: Yeah, he was my pal. We had no idea what would happen. I mean he’s real happy about it, it gave him a career. Before he spent years working as a watch repairer. He didn’t make any money either, he was always broke. His house was falling apart.
E: The other film that you were involved with, and I say ‘involved with’ loosely, was Ralph Bakshi’s interpretation of your comic strip ‘Fritz the Cat’.
C: Oh yeah. Embarrassing. Awful.
E: I’ve seen it describ
ed as ‘a vibrant personal statement on life in the 60’s’ ( in Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice and Magic – A history of American animated cartoons ). But surely that’s Bakshi’s ‘personal statement’. Does it bother you that your character has become so closely identified with Bakshi?
C: If he’d made it into a good thing it would have been alright but he made it into a dumb thing. It was embarrassing, just chaos. Bakshi wasn’t capable of creating anything good, he didn’t have any good ideas. he just botched it up. All of his films are botched up.
E: How could he have made it better?
C: It just couldn’t have happened. The guy didn’t have it, that’s all. he didn’t have the creative capacity to turn that into a good animated cartoon.
E: You’re thought of as a great American satirist, why do you think your work is so popular outside the States?
C: I don’t really know, like in France I don’t go over that big. A lot of Europeans don’t get my stuff at all. They’re like, ‘what’s all this, this sex fantasy stuff? What’s his problem?’ It’s in the more repressed cultures like England and Germany; I’m real big in Germany right now.
E: Another thing I wanted to ask you, and I’m beginning to feel in danger of coming across as a real comic shop fanboy here so…
C: No, you don’t come across as some… comic shop…nerd. Ha ha. These are my people. I’d be dead without these guys. I’d be floating dead in the water.
E: Well, you’ve said that you were a big fan of the Harvey Kurtzman-era Mad magazine, which was more inspirational, that or your discovery of LSD?
C: I’m not sure. First, when I was a kid, there was all that Harvey Kurtzman, Mad magazine comic stuff and then in the sixties there was LSD which was a real ‘Road to Damascus’ experience for me. It knocked me for a loop, totally. I was a complete comic nerd throughout my whole adolescence but it was LSD and that whole experience that made me well known. My comic thing began to cross over into that whole psychedelic thing and it hit with the hippies and I became this ‘underground hero’.
E: In Britain cartoons and comics aren’t viewed in the same way as they are in other countries. In America, certainly, but also in France and Brazil for example. Of course, due to its history, political cartooning is afforded a certain amount of respect, but comics are still viewed here as a very juvenile medium. Do you think that the reason you come across as dangerous to the censors, has a lot to do with the fact that you are ‘subverting’ a medium aimed, primarily, at children?
C: Yeah, probably. In England, sure… the problem I have here is with the customs officials, Her Majesty’s customs officials. They have a lot of arbitrary power. When my books come in from America, they have a look at ‘em, and if the guy on duty doesn’t like ‘em then they impound ‘em and then thousands of pounds and years get spent fighting the case in the courts. The weird thing is that, if
they print my stuff here in this country then there’s no problem. It’s only the imported stuff that ends up impounded by Her Majesty customs officials.
E: One of the accusations leveled at you is that your imagination goes ‘way over the top’… I can’t see how imagination can go over the top.
C: You can’t?
E: No, as it’s imagination, it’s in its nature; you can’t not imagine things.
C: Right, but imagination can be a dangerous thing, you have to be able to cultivate it, too.
E: If you were working in a more literary, or (more precisely) what would be considered a more literary medium, do you think the censors reaction wouldn’t be as great?
C: Sure, literature passed through this thing 50 years ago. It went through all that Lady Chatterley’s Lover and everything; getting censored, forbidden and all that. The fact that it’s picture books is I think, the big part of the problem.
E: So how far do you feel censorship should be allowed to go?
C: I don’t know, it’s a complicated question, y’know? They shouldn’t hand out child pornography in schoolyards, I guess. Who knows? Maybe they should lock me up and take away my pencils.