Robert Crumb cannot seem to dip his pen without courting controversy. Bookstore employees have been prosecuted under obscenity laws for selling his work. Feminists and their fellow travelers have long decried the attitudes that inform his depiction of women. Crumb can’t even catch a break with a biblical adaptation. With The Book of Genesis Illustrated, several writers (including myself) heavily criticized him for a shallow, conceptually timid approach to the material. Most recently, my Hooded Utilitarian colleague Domingos Isabelinho wrote a review of Alan Dunn’s 1948 book East of Fifth (click here), in which he made a derogatory reference to Crumb’s racial imagery. This in turn set off a comments-section firestorm led by comics historian Jeet Heer, who assumed the role of Crumb’s critical defender.
Isabelinho attacked Crumb for reviving and celebrating racist pop-culture imagery from the 1940s and before. His target was the 1968 strip “Angelfood McSpade” Crumb’s overtly sexualized take on the prelapsarian African native trope. Heer defended Crumb on the grounds that the strip was satirical, hyperbolically wondering if Isabelinho’s next targets would be Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, and George Orwell. Noah Berlatsky immediately joined in. The racial imagery from Crumb’s 1968 Cheap Thrills album cover for Janis Joplin was brought into the discussion, as was Crumb’s infamous 1993 strip “When the Niggers Take Over America!” The basic argument is whether the ironic and/or parodic edge of this material absolves it of the charge that it promotes and revels in racist attitudes.
My first inclination is to side with Heer, particularly with regard to the Cheap Thrills cover.
Crumb’s work from the counterculture era reflects a larger revival of interest in popular culture and other entertainment from the 1920s and ‘30s. It was when performers like the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and Fred Astaire found many of their contemporary fans. The first major retrospectives of comic strips like E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre were published at this time. Musicians like Eric Clapton, John Mayall, and Jimmy Page were finding inspiration in the work of Robert Johnson and other blues performers of the era. Renewed interest in the older music wasn’t restricted to the musicians, either; a major connective between Crumb and associates like Harvey Pekar, Denis Kitchen, and Terry Zwigoff was their affinity for 78-rpm recordings from the period. The interest in ‘20s and ‘30s culture certainly found expression in Crumb’s art, which recalled the Depression-era work of Segar and others. Crumb’s single most famous piece, 1967’s “Keep On Truckin’,” is probably the one most representative of his fetishization of ‘20s styles. People like my mother, who is a few years older than Crumb, may describe it as a “hippie thing,” but when one looks at it cold, one sees ‘20s-style cartoon characters in ‘20s-era dress dancing to lyrics from a ‘20s song.
Now with the Cheap Thrills cover, just imagine the reaction of a ‘20s-culture aficionado like Crumb to Janis Joplin’s music, which had strong roots in the old-style blues he was so enamored with. A conversation between Crumb and a Janis Joplin admirer might have gone something like this:
JANIS FAN: Janis and Big Brother and the Holding Company—wow! They are just so cool, so great!
CRUMB: Um, yeah, but you know, I like to listen to this old blues music from the ‘20s and ‘30s. She and her band take a lot from that, uh, from the black musicians back then.
JANIS FAN: Well, uh, O.K., but…but they’re celebrating that music, man! They’re celebrating it! Bringing it to a new generation!
CRUMB: Well, there were popular white entertainers back then who took from black performers. They said they were celebrating that work, too.
JANIS FAN: Really? Janis is part of a tradition? That’s so cool! Who was doing what she does back then?
CRUMB: Uh… Al Jolson.
Now, of course, I don’t know that a conversation like this ever happened, but the tension it illustrates between Crumb’s perspective and Joplin’s music was all but certainly present when he sat down to create the Cheap Thrills art. The “Summertime” panel, which depicts the song being sung by an Aunt Jemima/“Mammy” character, lampoons Joplin as just another blackface performer in the Al Jolson tradition. The “Live Material” panel, which features a male blackface figure at the center of a crowd of concertgoers, extends that lampoon to Joplin and Big Brother’s all-but-exclusively white audience. Contrary to Noah Berlatsky’s reading of the second panel in his “Crumbface” essay (click here), I don’t feel any of it is gratuitous. It’s a pointed rebuke that did not flatter its ostensible targets. Telling Joplin that’s she’s engaging in a “Mammy” routine, as well as identifying her audience in part with an Al Jolson figure, is not something that would be calculated to endear Crumb to either. And given the avowedly anti-racist liberal politics of the San Francisco counterculture scene that Joplin and her early audiences belonged to, Crumb also pointed the way for their political enemies to cluck at them for hypocrisy. It didn’t cause offense because Joplin and her audience were sophisticated enough to both recognize and at least tacitly acknowledge the failing Crumb was highlighting. The Cheap Thrills cover is generally considered the most prominent piece Crumb has done besides “Keep On Truckin’,” and he’s earned its applause.
With “Angelfood McSpade,” (click here to read) what one sees is Crumb further extending the lampoon in Cheap Thrills to his own work. He’s “celebrating” the work of that era at least as much as Joplin, so why should he be free of the taint of its more objectionable aspects? On one level, he’s saying that if you’re going to embrace the likes of the Marx Brothers, Tin Pan Alley, and E.C. Segar, you have to acknowledge Al Jolson, too. It’s an incisive and worthwhile point to make.
But. And this is where Jeet Heer and I part ways.
The apparent intent of “Angelfood McSpade” is more than to just satirize interest in the popular culture of a bygone era. In Crumb, Terry Zwigoff’s celebrated 1994 documentary about the cartoonist, former Mother Jones editor Deirdre English notes that in many of Crumb’s pieces, there are two discourses or impulses competing for dominance. One is that of the satirist; the other is that of the pornographer. English makes the point relative to Crumb’s 1973 family-incest strip “Joe Blow,” but it is also relevant to “Angelfood McSpade.” One can recognize the social critic’s mind at work in the piece, but, as English said of “Joe Blow,” “you sense that Crumb is getting off on it himself in some other way.” Satire that conspicuously doubles as a masturbation fantasy of its author is satire that fails. One cannot assail an audience over its tolerance and/or indifference to racism if one is obviously reveling in the racism one depicts. And when one looks across Crumb’s œuvre, this reveling is typical. It’s not always a sexual interest that he shows in his racial imagery; he sometimes just delights in the frisson to be found in it, as with the illustration that appears at the top of this essay. Consider this relative to the approaches of Swift, Twain, or Orwell. One doesn’t find them treating their satirical targets with anything but contempt. Or to pick some examples more contemporaneous with the Crumb work in question, consider Dr. Strangelove and All in the Family. Stanley Kubrick and his collaborators do not once betray a moment of accord with the Cold-War militarism they pillory. And Norman Lear always leaves one seeing Archie Bunker’s racism as pathetic at best and despicable at worst. It’s an achievement that’s all the more remarkable when one considers the success of Lear and actor Carroll O’Connor in making Archie an otherwise sympathetic character. Nothing Crumb has done can compare to it.
Heer praises Crumb for being “willing to implicate himself in his satires on racism.” I like the idea here—that Crumb acknowledges that he’s just as guilty of racism in his way as those he’s ostensibly attacking. It’s an argument that one should grapple with when considering “Angelfood McSpade” and Crumb’s other racial material, and Heer is right to bring it up. However, even so, it’s an argument I reject. I do so because I can’t help but think of the work of another Crumb contemporary of whom this also can be said: the painter Philip Guston. When Crumb was putting together the early issues of Zap Comix and other titles in the late 1960s, Guston was at work producing paintings that also treated similar decades-old pop imagery as a personal iconography. The first movement in this period of his work has racism right at its center: the pictures are all cartoonish treatments of members of the Ku Klux Klan. And Guston identifies himself with these figures. In what is probably the most famous of the paintings, 1969’s The Studio, the Klansman is obviously a self-portrait of sorts: the figure stands at an easel, brush in hand, painting a picture of himself. As I wrote in another essay, Guston was using this imagery to caricature “his sense of the evil within himself.” A difference between what Crumb and Guston are doing—and why Guston succeeds in his self-critique while Crumb fails—is that Guston includes a palpable sense of anxiety with these portrayals. There’s no sense of joy in his explorations of these images. He depicts himself wearing a mask in his own studio, hiding his face from himself in what should be the freest and most intimate of settings. He not only implicates himself in this imagery, he wants his audience to share his horror. That is emphatically not what Crumb does.
Philip Guston’s work is also helpful with articulating the complaint that Crumb gives aid and comfort to racists with his racial imagery. Noah Berlatsky noted that a Google search of “Angelfood McSpade” will quickly point one to a vicious, avowedly racist website that treats the imagery as good humor. Crumb’s 1993 “Take Over America” strip was notoriously appropriated by a racist, neo-Nazi newspaper that took it at face value. As Art Spiegelman said about the “Take Over” piece, this goes to show what failures these strips are as satires of racism. Spiegelman makes the excellent point that if the pieces were satirically effective, actual racists could not see the work as affirmations of their views. The argument one usually hears in response to this charge is that racists are too stupid to know when they’re being satirized. Guston’s work highlights why this argument is a red herring. One doesn’t see his pictures being appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan, and for good reason: the paintings don’t flatter them. Actual Klansmen see themselves as knights in God’s army. Their purpose is to enforce and defend what they regard as the divinely established hierarchy of the races. They don their robes and hoods for the same reason Batman puts on his cowl and cape: to strike terror in the hearts of “evildoers.” There’s no heroism or glamour in Guston’s depictions of Klansmen: beyond being tropes of self-loathing, the figures are buffoons. If Guston had to worry about anything from the Klan, it wouldn’t have been them pirating his work; he’d have been more likely to receive threats for demeaning them and their divine mission. If Crumb is going to satirize racism and racists, isn’t the best approach to figure out ways to antagonize them?
What it all adds up to is that Crumb, for all his brilliance as a graphic artist, isn’t much of a satirist, at least not with racial issues. He has a talent for humor, but he lacks the thoughtfulness to develop it into something more profound. He also lacks the discipline necessary to keep his satirical efforts from going off the rails. I don’t think anything can undermine a satirist’s efforts more than letting a piece degenerate into a personal sexual fantasy. Satire needs to be a rigorously intellectual effort, and there’s nothing more opposed to that aesthetically than an expression of appetite. Crumb’s shallowness makes him essentially an amusing smart-ass who occasionally connects. Is he more brazen than others who work in a satirical mode? Certainly, but a lack of propriety doesn’t make one a great satirist. It’s more than possible for a satirist to be offensive in the wrong ways, and with Crumb that’s often the case.
Update by Noah: A response to this essay is here.
Update by Noah: You can read the entire roundtable on R. Crumb and race here.