Context: at the Ignatz Awards ceremony at this year’s Small Press Expo, the name of pioneering underground cartoonist Robert Crumb was met with boos from the audience not once but twice, and Comics Culture is having a tough time dealing with it.
I was originally going to write this on Twitter but soon realized that would be a bad idea, as it’s an issue with a bunch of nuance and even more words. Let’s go:
There’s a strong tendency among humans to center their present in the context of human history — to think that the things that are Important To Them Now are going to be Important Forever. But a cursory read through the last few centuries reveals that to be abjectly false. Plenty of cultural creators are consigned to the dustbin, with only a few standing the test of centuries.
It’s been a Known in the world of comics-as-art that Robert Crumb is one of those immortal creators: an inarguable master draughtsman who has produced work for half a century over a swath of genres, from viciously confessional autobiography to an adaptation of the Book of Genesis.
I’m not going to waste any space debating the technical skill apparent in Crumb’s work. He’s a master at observing and presenting the human form at the very least.
And there’s no denying that Crumb’s work is historically important— standing on the corner of Haight with a baby carriage full of ZAPs is absolutely a catalyzing moment in the West Coast independent publishing movement.
But the argument here is if Crumb’s work is culturally important — to the culture of comics as we know it today. And there I think the objections become more clear.
Something I’ve been thinking a lot about in the last few years is the value of transgression in art. We’ve come to cherish the idea of an artist as someone who knows no boundaries, who acts and works in a way that is not restricted by the mores and rules of society.
But who benefits when “transgressive” art ultimately bolsters the power structures that it claims to transgress against?
The Crumb work at the center of these objections — stories like “Angelfood McSpade” and “When The Niggers Take Over America,” stories like “Memories Are Made Of This” — unpack a mindset where the American male is sexually and racially obsessed and prepared to dehumanize the “other” as a figure of lust, fear or both.
To quote another cultural institution beloved by the same age group and under criticism from the new generation, he “said the quiet part loud.”
But what does that do for the subjects of his work? Nothing good. When white supremacist groups can use your satire unironically to express their beliefs, satire might not be your strong point.
It’s very telling that Crumb ends “Memories” — a story where he mounts and has sex with a woman in a “drunken stupor” — with a panel of himself talking to the reader with that underground comics mainstay of “explainin’ hands,” saying “I’ve learned my lesson! I’m good now! I’ve changed!”
Crumb came to the fore by presenting the id of America and embracing it. He inspired a whole generation of underground artists to do the same. But in 2018, do white American males really need to embrace their id any fucking more than they already have?
A sizable and powerful group of cartoonists and publishers have invested a tremendous amount of time and effort into maintaining Crumb at the top of a heirarchy of underground artists, the lodestone around which the medium assembled itself. But, frankly, aside from the purely visual his work is some of the weakest of his contemporaries. Nothing Crumb has ever written can hold a candle to, for example, Justin Green’s truly transgressive and self-excoriating Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary. Imagine an alternative comics aesthetic that built itself around Victor Moscoso or Rory Hayes instead?
Crumb’s position atop the totem pole seems to be more a function of his extended body of work and ability to promote himself. It’s unsurprising that a new generation of artists and publishers who don’t share those values aren’t committed to that project.
Would I have booed the name of Robert Crumb were I in that audience? Probably not; as I’ve made clear, I’m pretty torn on his value and his legacy. But when an audience that used to look like the dehumanizers in his work is looking more and more like the dehumanized, you can’t fault them for standing up for themselves.