OUT IN THIS MODERN WILDERNESS
– Interview with Robert Crumb, by Saša Rakezić –
It’s hard to say anything about Robert Crumb, that hasn’t been said before. I don’t think it’s a bit of an exaggeration to call him the greatest and most prolific cartoonist alive. He was recognized as a leading personality behind the underground comics explosion in the 1960s. That was enough to make him immortal, but he has continued producing a myriad of pages of his intense, expressive comics and illustration until the present day. Crumb is true to his own personal visions and life philosophy, which very often is in opposition to American mainstream culture. Yet, and even though he has lived in France since the early 90s, he probably is the quintessential voice of American creativity – the one that spreads from the lowbrow culture and folk art, but sure is quite elaborate and sophisticated. I was lucky enough to host a talk with him in Belgrade’s Student Cultural Center back in September 2012, when he visited Serbia together with his wife Aline Kominsky Crumb, and long time colleagues and friends Gilbert Shelton and Lora Fountain. It turned out to be probably the bigest comics event in Serbia ever – there was a huge media coverage, and the venue was tightly packed. After the talk, there was a flood of people with books in their hands, approaching Robert for signing. He seemed surprised, and in the very next moment I saw him falling from his chair, turning upside down and getting on his feet again! I jumped to help him stand up again, just to learn a little bit later that it was his trick to fool the audience! You don’t expect behavior like that from 70 year old man, but that’s Crumb! He seemed to be having a good time in Serbia, a country that is probably the biggest European outsider, still trying to recover from one crisis or another (or is it still a crisis, or did we flip out a long time ago and can’t get back to our senses?) Yet Crumb was not complaining, he met a devoted audience that had waited for years to meet him in person. I guess he also enjoyed the vintage 78 rpm records of traditional music, collected and presented by cartoonist Saša Mihajlović (AKA Toma Pan). And – yes, Crumb enjoyed turning his head towards Serbian women walking down the street... That’s what you would expect him to do anyway, ha ha. To my surprise, upon their return home to France, Robert and Aline mailed me their collaborative comic titled "Serbia- Land of Opportunity“. It made me start laughing after just reading the title. The strip was actually saying that visit to Serbia was "creatively inspiring in some unexplainable way“. It was first published in Belgrade’s independent political weekly Vreme, and then was even included in the catalogue of the Serbian pavilion at the 2013 Art Biennale in Venice. The worldwide audience will read it in the new (#16) edition of the legendary Zap Comix anthology. What follows is a telephone interview with Crumb, made shortly prior to his visit to Serbia.
SR: I remember that some years ago you were still resisting computers and cell phones, but are they slowly crawling into your world?
RC: Yes, it’s like the telephone, you know – in the 1910’s you could choose not to have a telephone, because the older methods of communication were still in use, like to send messngers - if you were in business in a big city like New York, you would give the message on paper to a messenger boy, who would run and deliver it. But then the telephones became so common that the world became dependent on them and it would be very hard not to have one… That’s the same now with computers. Computers have become so pervasive, and if you don’t have an email it’s difficult to do a lot of transactions – the world becomes dependent on that stuff! So I use emails and I order books through the internet, you can find now almost any book that you need on a computer. Incredible! So, if I’m interested in some book I say to the secretary – please find this for me, she usually finds it and it’s cheap. It all made old books less expensive because they're so easy to find now. In the old days, you would hunt around for years to find the book you were looking for. Now you can find even the most obscure old book, and it’s not expensive, amazing! Information is so much available, you can become your own private investigator, you can become a detective, if you are interested in some aspect of society that you have suspicion that there’s underlying conspiracy – I am completelly obsessed with all kind of conspiracies, and you can look this all up, you can do your investigation, and find up amazing stuff, gather evidences…I have files and archives against corporations, and medical science and politics…
SR: Information is becoming more accessible to the people.
RC: Yes, but you have to become discriminating, because there’s so much of it…
SR: When I started to read your comics, I was already in my 20s, and I was actually very much into art and design produced in the 20s and the 30s, but it happened that I never met anyone with the same interest – there was probably someone that would agree with me, but I just never met any such personalities… So when I read your comics, I was like – oh, there’s another guy in this world who is into that!
RC: Well, when I was young I also had a problem finding other people of my age interested in that period. Art teachers used to tell me: Crumb, why are you doing all the lettering in that passe style? It’s passe! I had a strong fixation on music and commercial art of that period, I have no idea why… But ever since I found few others with the same interest, so I was not alone!
SR: What do you think is the reason that art of that time was so intense? Because, historically, the 20s and especially 30s were a really backward period, with all the fascist regimes in Europe, it was terrible, and there was a huge economic crisis, Big Depression in US… So what on earth made people produce such beautiful art in many fields, under such circumstances?
RC: I've spent my life trying to figure that out! (laughs). What is it about it? And I think that answer is probably very complex. But in the 20s and the 30s you still had a level of technology which was leaving a lot of room for making things by hand. All the artists whose work marked that period were very hard working industriously, gently learning their craft in the old way. But, at the same time, they were resolving a new style that was a result of modern industrial technology. Photo-offset print came into use in the 1880s, so that all of a sudden drawings could be reproduced, paintings could be reproduced cheaply… So then we noticed a flowering of magazines and book illustration and newspaper illustration, so that all the earlier craft skills of drawing and painting were applied in this industrial printing medium. It was a golden age of print medium. I have piled stacks of old magazines with wonderful graphics and lettering, and photo layouts and drawings… Commercial artists were slave labour in those days, they worked very cheap, most of them – unless they got the big name like Norman Rockwell, they worked cheap, they worked like dogs! I had a collection of pulp magazines, like SF and Western magazines which were very popular in all the Western countries, US, France, Germany, England… Thousands and thousands of beautiful cover paintings that were made for these crime, detective magazines, and all those magnificent covers would come out every week! So, there is a sociologial explanation to this stuff, but it’s complicated… And then after the war, in the 40s and the 50s, I was a child and I was watching this terrible decline, this degradation of graphic art… I watched comic books and magazine art and commercial art and architecture – everything becoming increasingly mechanical. What they were doing was eliminating the handiwork , even the lettering became mechanically produced, and you saw less and less handiwork.
SR: Don’t you think that on the other hand it was liberating that people used less and less time on producing art, and more on doing something else?
RC: I don’t know, maybe it was a liberation because these old artists worked for low wages, but at least they had a chance to produce some work that they could be proud of, and that earned them a living…
SR: Can you comment on the fact that cartoonists from the early 20th Century were producing much more work then the cartoonists of today, on an everyday level?
RC: It were probably economical arrangements of the time.. When I first got my job, at the Greetings Card Company, when I was 19, it was a commercial art job. It paid enough just to barely get by. It was just enough to pay the rent and buy some food, and maybe just a little bit left over to put in a bank or spend on partying. And it was a low-key job and really hard work… That was killing me, the worst job that I ever had! But in the old days commercial workers had to really work their ass off, and were considered lucky to be able to make a living in the commercial arts field. Otherwise they would have to go to work in a factory or a coal mine or whatever… Most of these commercial artists were coming from the lower middle class, or even the lower classes! The artists who were producing comic books in the 1940s were – most of them – coming from the working class.
SR: The real start of your career was very much connected with underground comics, which happened in the American scene of the late 60s… How much was this rebellious cultural outburst connected with the crisis made by the Vietnam War?
RC: It basically came out of hippy culture, which was half-political and half-cultural. And there was a spiritual element of the hippy thing too, with interest in Eastern mysticism and all that… But the point was that my generation was so alienated from our parents, because we grew up in the middle-class American ambience, when the middle class was doing quite well… But it was becoming increasingly empty or devoid of any particular substance, and we watched this happen, and I told you about the decline that I saw in the commercial art, and music also – the music got more and more empty until rock’n’roll came on and kinda changed that… Also there was a fear of nuclear holocaust which was hanging above our heads all the time, so my generation came to the conclusion that the older generation were crazy, out of their fucking minds that they accepted that state of things and they let manufacturing of these missiles, atomic weapons and nuclear submarines to fight the Soviet Union, it just seemed like the whole thing was totally insane, so then we started to seek something quite opposite, we took LSD and all that, we wanted to go back to nature, a simple way of life…The ideal was something that was spiritual rather then materialistic, rather then to have a car, house in the suburbs, get a job in some corporation, go to college and make money…so we just dropped out all that. At the same time, we started producing a culture on our own, not just the music but also underground publications, which weren’t really underground, because there was very little suppression by the government or police on these publications, which were small scale things anyway, but they were free. These hippy newspapers would crawl all over America, they were everywhere where there were big universities, and of course in New York and San Francisco and LA were the main centers of that blossoming hippy culture, and my first underground comics were published in some of those papers, such as Yarrowstalks. Yarrowstalks is a term from the I Ching, a Chinese system of foretelling your future, and it was also the name of one of the first underground papers. Then there was East Village Other, Open City in LA, Berkeley Barb in San Francisco – they were all political and spiritual and cultural newspapers, and nobody would get paid, there was no money… They worked on a small scale, to make a few cents they would sell papers on the street, and then eventually came the comics – I remember the first real business that approached me was Print Mint from San Francisco, which was producing those psychedelic dance posters. It was after first, self-published Zap comic came out, which was the first underground comic book, back in 1968… Then soon, Print Mint said that they would print it, they would take care of all the business aspect and I said OK , great! So once that they started producing Zap comics, all these other guys and women wanted to publish their comics too, and in ’69, and ’70 – ’71 there was this explosion of underground comics, while in 1973 there was a supressive change that happened. Through the shift of laws all these head-shops that were selling comics were closed, and that really cut into the underground comics thing, which was in decline after that, but independent comics were keep going.
SR: I remember that in some of your comics you were also very critical of the hippy culture of the time? Do you think it failed in some way?
RC: It failed and it succeded! These hippies had their heads in the clouds, they kinda dreamed of a change that they thought they were producing…Once that we would get rid of the mean fucks that were running the government and the corporations there was going to be a new wonderful world, but it actually didn’t work out that way (laughs)…
SR: Do you think that big business eventually took over this culture, this way or another?
RC: To a great degree, yes… In recent America everything is about making money, and the hippies resisted that, but there were a lot of people who cashed in on hippy culture, took advantage on that, and music and the whole hippy culture became commercialized…All these businessmen figured how to repackage it and sell it and that was one of the things that ruined it. On the other hand, there was too much drug taking around. People on drugs just could not see things clearly…Then people became paranoid of each other, it was awful! And also the politics, people that I knew in 1970/1971 were talking about the revolution as if it was around the corner! As if it’s going to happen any day! These people didn’t have the idea of this solid power we were up against. And of course it is good that it didn’t happen, because people that were the most well known, the main spokesmen of pushing this leftist “revolution” in America, if they had gained power they would have been very dangerous, Abbie Hoffman and these people - I’m sure that they would have start putting their enemies in prison camps…It was just too immature. My generation would not pull off any kind of social change, but at the same time they had huge influence on America.
SR: Now that you live in a small town in France, do you miss the chaos and the vibration of the big American towns?
RC: No! Most of my life I lived in a small town in the country, outside of big cities. I left San Francisco in late 1969,and I've never lived in the big city since. Big cities make me feel I'm being run over, I don’t think that I even miss the American culture, I carried my culture with me. The things that I like about American culture I have all here in my room… Old music, old comics, the books, I have it all here… When I go to America, it just breaks my heart to see how they've ruined the country. In the last two decades that I lived there, in the 70s and 80s, I watched this process of destroying everything I liked about it. Everything I loved about America was being destroyed in front of my eyes! Especially in California, where real estate development was the name of the game…
SR: I was recently talking to Vladimir Pištalo, a friend who teaches in the States, about several incidents which happened this summer, in which people would take guns and shoot randomly at the people. When my friend asked his friends and colleagues about why incidents like that are happening in the States, they usually say that it’s because weapons are cheap and easy to get in the US… Can you comment?
RC: Yes, it’s easy to get a weapon there. That’s one of the reasons, actually, because it’s complex, and it’s true that this kind of incident would happen less often in Europe. Still, there was this incident in Norway, with that guy Breivik shooting randomly at people, and there were a few mass murder incidents in France quite recently, but it happens in US more often, partly because you can buy high-powered repeating weapon pretty easily, and also there is a kind of cultural alienation when people can became very isolated. That happens less here. I know that in France families are much more tight and close then in the US, where people just walk around and no one knows who they are, what they are thinking or what’s going on in their house… And there’s a LOTS of isolated people like that, because the family structure and everything is so fucking broken down… It’s because in America you are just constantly bombarded with this corporate-run culture, and there is less and less of anything else, while here in Europe there is a strong cultural tradition, for better or worse, because you have a negative aspect to it also. But the positive aspect is that this tradition is mainly resisting this corporate takeover of nearly everything - food supplies, culture, wntertainment…America is so pervasive and very allienating. The human soul is just a pawn of these corporations, you can’t hope to do anything creative or real outside of this corporate structure…It’s very hard for people who try to resist it, and try to organize organic gardening for example. But there is still hope, people can’t completely give up to that kind of system.
SR: How about Hollywood, it seems to be pretty repetetive in the past decades, even though it has so much influence on our world, and is backed with so much funds?
RC: Yes, they got all the best technicians, they got all the best everything, and they often spend as much money for one film as the entire gross of national product of many countries…In this elaborate, well organized distribution system, there is so much money involved so that producers, the money people, do not want to take any chances. They want everything to be predictable, so that in process they step over the creative aspect and ruin it… But then, some of them are huge success, too, shockingly successful. How much money they make, how quickly they make it, billions of dollars… Most of them I don’t find interesting, but once in a while, miraculously, there’s a good movie, coming out of that machine…
SR: Yes, it was Hollywood that produced a great number of short animated cartoons, in the period between 1930s to 1950s…which I think could be considered a peak of American culture in general!
RC: I agree, yes, it was a golden age of the animated cartoons, and entertainment culture. My favourites are the 1930s Max Fleischer fims – Betty Boop and Popeye were fabulous, and there was a good music in them!
SR: Do you think that people still can find their way towards creativity somehow, somewhere in this modern wilderness (laughs)?
RC: Yes, sure, that creative energy is still somewhere around, it’s just a matter of finding some outlet for it.
SR: I remember that, when we started our correspondence in the early 90s, you actually were familiar with the old music from Serbia and the Balkans, long before it became sort of fashionable in the Western countries…
RC: Yes, I have some recordings, mostly made by the immigrants in America. Nice string bands…Also I have a bunch of records bought in France, on this Jugoton label, I think recorded in the 40s and the 50s, with traditional old-time string bands…
SR: So what is your gut impression about the Balkans? You were in Bulgaria at least, way back in 1964, and you did a sketchbook report which became one of your earliest works in print, published in 1965 in Harvey Kurtzman’s Help! Magazine… You passed through Belgrade in a train, back then.
RC: It seems that there are a couple of contardictory elements about the Balkans, it’s strange… On the one hand, there’s culture and refinement, and on the other hand there is this savage violence aspect too, it’s kind of like America (laughs). When I read all the comics that you did in the 90s, it was,like – gee, they turn on each other… You were kind of observing the whole thing while it was happening. It was depressing, and who wouldn’t be?
SR: I think that the characteristic of Serbian people is that they go from one extreme to another. They could be very ecstatic and go from the state of deep happiness to a deepest level of depression and sadness, without enough ability to tune in for the middle…It’s obviously something that makes them less efficient compared to the people from the rest of Europe. In some way, I find this approach somehow similar to what you do, your art is either reflecting an emotional explosion or deep contemplation…
RC: (laugh) I am very much interested in going to Serbia because I am very curious about the people there, it’s mysterious and I don’t have enough information, so it would be interesting to see that place more closely… On the one hand, they seem very Western, and on the other hand they are Eastern enough to be close to countries like Turkey…
SR: In 2009 you published a comics rendition of the book of Genesis. Does it come with age that you become more introspective, since your take on Bible was not humorous or satirical,as many people expected?
RC: Yes, sure… And after Genesis, I got into even more serious stuff, which is very hard to present in a comics media. I haven’t done any major product after Genesis, I’ve done a lot of small stuff, a lot of collaborative work with Aline, and CD covers and things. I’m getting older and even become less motivated to draw than I used to be…I used to draw all the time, carrying my sketchbook, I don’t do it any more…
SR: What are the questions that you ask yourself at this point in your life?
RC: That’s a hard thing to talk about. At this point I seem to be more interested in getting beneath the layers of falsehood that we are taught all our lives to believe about this world and about human society. In that way, computers were very helpful, as an access to information. I’ve been reading and studying so much in the last few years, I try to penetrate this layers of huge religious faith that we still have in science and technology and industrial civilization. I’m not sure that this faith is really warranted, though. As I said, I’m gathering evidence, collecting an archive of information , I don’t know to what end, or what I’m going to do with it... Telling it all in comics is very hard, but I’m still working on that… Outside this spiritual quest I’m meditating and thinking a lot about death, and major existential questions such as - what happens when you die, how much can you actually cultivate your soul so that it becomes stronger and stronger until it moves on after the body… The questions I know are interesting for you also! So, death is obviously a major event, and it’s wise for us to think about it and prepare for it in some way.