April 24, 1994 [Crumb]

I like reading and listening to Robert Hughes as much as the next amateur art-lover, but I had to grin--not too mockingly, not without some sympathy--at his confrontation with the piece of information that Robert Crumb masturbates to his own cartoons.  Hughes had been doing a good job of placing Crumb in some context, as it were, with much praise--which I understand, given my own (and the general) strong responses to Crumb: a kind of in-joke nostalgia for a gone West Coast inhabited by hipsters but memorialized by nerds.  But Hughes seemed suddenly at a loss for words--definitely not his usual state--until he recovered by blurting out something about Picasso doing likewise (a claim that seems as likely for that shrewd Blue Cubist as it does the obsessively cross-hatching Crumb).

I can't blame Hughes: the movie Crumb can be as skin-crawly as some of Crumb's drawings.  And it's funny, because Crumb is nearly cute, a winking almost-rascal we forgive as easily as we've turned double-ironic Mr. Natural into pickup mudflaps and snickered at the Cat who likes gettin' it on with the chicks.  At this point, Crumb is as old-timey-kooky as Janis Joplin, a brandname we can trust.

--Sort of: Crumb stares pretty long and hard at the weirdness, Crumb's Leon Redbone vibe resembling nothing like a routine, his outsider family barely hanging on to solid ground.  But is this such a surprise? Aren't those dense drawings--thick and meaty with thighs and bellies, little nubs and protuberances poking along the surface of too-tight sweaters and baggy trousers--solid reminders that Crumb doesn't want to have anything to do with us?  He just wants to keep drawing, whether we dig it or not--even though we do, with some regret (as it should be when one "appreciates" art: It asks for much, and takes without asking the things we try to hold on to).

I have found myself thinking strange thoughts while looking at a Crumb drawing.  He finds me where I hide, and crawls in there with me and shows me something he's stolen from his father's dresser drawer.  I get it, but for a minute I'm not sure I want it.  But he smiles and smiles, not like Fritz but the Chesire Cat, his big square teeth lined up beneath a lounge-lizard mustache that might crawl away any moment.  So I look down at what he's brought me, and then promise myself, liar that I am, to look only once more.


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