A Short Visual History of America, According to the Irreverent Comic Satirist R. Crumb
Today, countercultural cartoonist Robert Dennis Crumb, better known as R. Crumb, turns 70. As a founder of the “underground comix” movement in the 1960s, Crumb is either revered as a pioneering satirist of American culture and its excesses or reviled as a juvenile purveyor of painfully outmoded sexist and racist stereotypes. Crumb doesn’t apologize. He keeps working, and his fans are grateful. He has parlayed his sexual obsessions and outsider relationship to black culture into an intriguing vision of the country that reflects its own fixations as much as those of the artist/author of comics like Zap and Weirdo.
But Crumb’s work—permeated by drug use, pop-culture references, skirt-chasing oversexed men, very specifically-shaped (and always sexually-available) women, and all sorts of creepy underground characters—has another side: an almost sentimental attachment to purist Americana from the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century. Most notably Crumb is an antiquarian collector of old-time music—country, jazz, ragtime, the blues—as well as a musical interpreter of the same. One of my favorites of his books collects a series of trading cards he made into R Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country, a reverential set of illustrations of folk musicians, accompanied by a CD of Crumb-curated music.
Crumb’s love for simpler times is more than the passion of an aficionado. It is the flip side of his satire, a genre that cannot flourish as a critique of the present without a corresponding vision of a golden age. For Crumb, that age is pre-WWII, pre-industrial, rural—a time, as he has put it in a recent interview, when “people could still express themselves.” His experience with the slop of American popular culture was decidedly less idyllic. Ian Buruma writes in The New York Review of Books:
Crumb, like his brothers, soaked up the TV and comics culture of the 1950s: Howdy Doody, Donald Duck, Roy Rogers, Little Lulu, and the like. While on LSD, in the 1960s, Crumb thought of his mind as “a garbage receptacle of mass media images and input. I spent my whole childhood absorbing so much crap that my personality and mind are saturated with it. God only knows if that affects you physically!”
Crumb’s comic art—which he has described in almost therapeutic terms as an emptying of his “garbage receptacle” unconscious—is balanced by his more sober and nostalgic illustrations, the counterweight to the “crap” of his childhood media exposure. One might even think of Crumb’s consumption of old-time music and imagery as a kind of cultural health food diet. One of the most popular of his nostalgic works is “A Short History of America” (1979) a series of panels showing the shift from open countryside, to the town settlements brought by the railroads, to the gross overdevelopment of the late-twentieth century. The only text besides the title (and the burgeoning billboards and street signs) is a coda at the bottom-right-hand of the last panel asking, “What next?!!!” You can see the comic animated above (top), set to an old-time piano piece. Another fitting version of his vision of the country’s growth (or ruination) is above, in color, scored by Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” See the full series of images here and here, and be sure to check out Crumb’s three epilogue speculations on what’s next.