Crumb is best known for three pieces of work. The first is his drawing, "Keep on Truckin'" which has adorned everything from mud flaps to coffee mugs. The second is his cover art for the Big Brother and the Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin) lp, "Cheap Thrills" and the third is the adaptation of his randy character "Fritz The Cat" into the first x-rated feature animated film by Ralph Bakshi. (As Crumb explains in the film, all of these projects have extremely sour connotations for him.) When Crumb created Zap Comix (and characters like Fritz the Cat, Flakey Foont, Mr. Natural, and Angelfood McSpade), he started the wave of underground "comix" that thrives today. But since those early days (the first Zap comic appeared in 1968), Crumb has produced an enormous body of work; his comic work is more widely read today than ever. Critics have come to recognize him as an extraordinary and iconoclastic talent, and his work is now finding its way into museums (Crumb was featured prominently in the 1990 High & Low exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.)
Director Zwigoff, who has known Crumb for twenty-five years -- they played together in the Dixieland band The Cheap Suit Serenaders and Zwigoff published some of Crumb's comics during the 1970's -- persuaded the notoriously shy artist to cooperate fully with the production. Zwigoff's initial interest in making the film stemmed from his friendship with Crumb, and his long-held belief that Crumb is one of the great artists of our time. Zwigoff comments, "I didn't want someone else to do it wrong. I wanted to make a film as dark and funny and detailed and honest as Crumb's own work." But it was when the director met Robert's older brother Charles that he became absolutely committed to making the film. "I found Charles endlessly fascinating. He was witty, smart, and talented--an artist every bit as good as his famous brother. And Charles was a key to understanding Robert's talent and his vision." With Crumb's cooperation, Zwigoff received access to shoot in Crumb family situations that are every bit as funny, frank and revelatory as Crumb's artwork.
Robert Crumb is a cult hero, an artist whose work is collected as fine art, and an iconoclast, a spokesperson for those who began questioning authority in the 1960's. Well known in Europe as well as Japan, Crumb's work is reprinted in costly fine art editions that have given him an artistic credibility abroad that has yet to be matched in America.
Anyone familiar with that work knows that Crumb is as searing a social critic as anyone working today. Crumb's acute eye and ear render the familiar, painfully funny circumstances of life's rich pageant with scintillating precision. As Robert Hughes comments, "...you come away from Crumb's work with the feeling that you've seen some part of human desires, fantasies, actions, aggressions, etc. which are all actually very truthful about the way we fantasize, dream and act toward one another."
Crumb's finely-honed skills as a social critic were born out of a youth spent in a twisted rendition of the American dream. The film is in many ways the story of the Crumb family; a family that created three artists -- brothers Charles, Robert and Max -- one of whom survived the experience and went on to become famous. Crumb's family life set the tone for the art that followed. Crumb has said: "As a teenager, there was no place where I fit in at all. I saw no hope of ever connecting with anything. The instant I realized I was an outcast, I became a critic, and I've been disgusted with American culture from the time I was a kid. I started out by rejecting all the things that the people who rejected me liked, then over the years I developed a deeper analysis of these things."
What saves Crumb from being a complete curmudgeon or terminal misanthrope is his humor. As he states in typical Crumb fashion, "At least I hate myself as much as I hate anybody else." Crumb frequently includes unflattering self-portraits in his work; harried, wearing coke bottle glasses, he comes across as a trembling sunken-chested loser. His panels for "My Troubles With Women," are a poignant recollection of the awkwardness he experienced as an adolescent making his first forays into the uncharted waters of sexuality. As is typical of Crumb, this work is unflinchingly honest, regardless of how unsympathetic he or anyone else appears. Crumb explains, "My work is full of sweating, nervous uneasiness, which is a big part of me and everybody else. Most people don't want to see that though because it reminds them of inadequate parts of themselves."
The painful honesty of Crumb's work is also manifest in the artist's extreme interest in the subject of sex. As Crumb states in the film: "When I was five or six I was sexually attracted to Bugs Bunny. I cut out this Bugs Bunny from the cover of a comic book and carried it around with me. I'd take it out and look at it periodically and it got all wrinkled up from handling it so much that I asked my mother to iron it." As Crumb matured, he found that women viewed him as the quintessential nerd and wouldn't talk to him. But when he became a celebrity artist, women suddenly started pursuing him. As Crumb observes: "I thought that if I was sensitive, girls would like me more and be impressed by the fact that I could draw. But they liked these cruel, aggressive guys and not me. Later I learned they do want you to be sensitive and tender toward them, but a real bastard out there in the world...Women are susceptible to power, any display of power and 'Oh, who's that man over there who's being so obnoxious and arrogant? He's so interesting'...So art became my method, you know, 'I'll show them, I'll become famous.'"
Crumb's work on women and sex reflects a completely frank and unfiltered take on the subject- in effect, a voyage through the male psyche with an id tour guide. But the more deep seated questions raised by his probing of male-female relations are often very disturbing, considered objectionable by some and obscene by others. Crumb states, "I do this stuff, and then I'm horrified and embarrassed when I see it. I look at it on the paper, and I say, 'Oh, my God,' but somehow I can't stop doing it."
Responding to Crumb's unbridled imagination, some feminists have targeted his work, feeling that his art is often sexist and exploitative of women. Zwigoff doesn't let Crumb off the hook on this issue. Journalist Peggy Orenstein confronts Crumb directly, asking him about his artistic and social responsibility in creating such grotesque images of women: headless female sex objects or a woman whose head is stuffed into a toilet. Crumb tells Orenstein, "I have this hostility toward women, I admit it. It's out in the open. I have to put it out there. Sometimes I think it's a mistake... but somehow revealing that truth about myself is somehow helpful. I hope it is. Maybe I shouldn't be allowed to do it, maybe I should be locked up and my pencils taken away from me."
In this respect, Crumb's work insistently raises a question that is as timely today as it was in the 60's: should artists render according to the dictates of what is socially acceptable in contemporary society or should they be allowed to create material which may be judged by some to be obscene, sexist or racist? Crumb seems to have resolved this question for himself long ago : "All I can say in my own defense is that it's honest."
CRUMB is a glimpse into the psyche of one of America's foremost artists. It taps into the twisted psychosexual nightmare that lies beneath the surface of a complacent culture. Its style, like that of its subject, is frank, intimate and darkly humorous, full of disturbing revelations about the less-than-sane world we all live in.