… and welcome to it

Crumb’s World, a record of the unforgettable 2019 R. Crumb exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York, is a portrait of the artist at work, considering Crumb’s long career and embracing all of the forms in which he’s worked: the autobiographical comic, obviously, but also illustration and social satire. It’s impossible for any single volume to encompass all seven decades of Crumb’s art, of course, and the focus here (as well as the gallery show) is the evolution of his style and his draughtsmanship over those decades. Arranged in chronological order, we have early comics and sketchbook pages, along with reproductions of book layouts and cover art, tracing his progression from funny animal comics to the contemplative and semi-parodic but exquisitely rendered Art & Beauty series. There are a few more recent treats to be found, too — “Art and Money,” a two-page conversation between Crumb and exhibition curator Robert Storr, and “Bad Diet & Bad Hair Destroy Human Civilization,” a Trump-era meditation by Crumb and his wife and long-time collaborator Aline Kominsky-Crumb. Storr’s introduction is a blessedly non-academic consideration of his career. The book is published by David Zwirner Books. No Crumb collection is complete without it.

Storr may have avoided academese, but the academy too is sitting up and taking notice of Crumb these days. Just a few weeks ago, the University Press of Mississippi released The Comics of R. Crumb: Underground in the Art Museum, a collection of essays that seeks to situate him the context of his culture and aesthetic influences, and the same press issued David Stephen Calonne’s R. Crumb: Literature, Autobiography, and the Quest for Self back in February. Usually professorial interest in a popular culture figure like Crumb is a kiss of death (though it’s true that his work erases the distinction between popular and so-called “high” art), especially for a figure as irreverent and controversial as Crumb, but at least the first book had his co-operation, and both books seem worthy purchases.

The range, variety, and sheer volume of Crumb’s work bears comparison with Mark Twain’s; like Twain, he worked in popular culture forms and extended their expressivity into self-deprecatory autobiography, social satire, and dour meditation on art, the spirit, and the world. In this range alone, He stands apart from his peers; but the extraordinary level of his achievement in his best work transcends genre, and it must be said that he is as good a writer as he is a visual artist, a master of American vernacular. As these books all demonstrate, R. Crumb’s comic, bitter, and misanthropic grumblings, as well as his more esoteric meditations (especially his concerns with the environment and creeping conformity and authoritarianism), speak to the 21st century as much as the 20th — if not moreso.

A toast to … cynical pessimistic dads

I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that several of the writers and artists I admire, angry and cynical misanthropes nearly all of them (and there’s plenty to be angry and cynical about, especially these days), are nonetheless parents — an odd choice, adding more people to the world they hate. Joe Heller, R. Crumb, William Gaddis, you name ’em; they’ve got spawn running around even as we speak. Even W.C. Fields had children. I’m here to tell you, it ain’t easy, bearing these two contradictory experiences in mind. And kids themselves, being human, ain’t necessarily so innocent and pure either.

I’m not sure you can say that parenting inspires hope, or vice versa. It could be just a way for us to say, “Hey, at least we’re trying.” Some days it’s easier than others — and all too often we get caught up in the contradictions inherent in the situation. I think Crumb put it best, catching a bit of the self-pity involved when laughter fails us, below: and its ambivalent final panel is possibly all that can be said.

See you at Cafe Katja later today.

 

Last days of summer

The final days of summer — a long summer — are upon us, and glancing over the past few months, I find they’ve been not been spent poorly. My own corona malaise therapy has consisted of Mark Twain (I just finished The Prince and the Pauper, a fine tale for children of all ages), Scott Joplin (my wife has taken up my encouragement to study a few of his compositions to offer on a possible program or recording), and my children (guiding them through what has been a difficult season for all of us; so far, so good). In New York, we look forward with some trepidation to the fall: a few days of school a week at most, and I continue to work from home. I admit this has not been a productive time, an admission to which the lack of new posts on this blog should be adequate testimony. But onward, ever onward, if not often upward.

In the meantime, a little news from the usual suspects that I’d like to share. Tomorrow night Christoph Mueller, who’s been a frequent subject of these posts, will celebrate the opening of Matters of Mind, a retrospective of his work at the Ludwig Forum in his home town of Aachen, Germany. Alas, I will be unable to attend this feast of original artwork and painstakingly constructed miniatures of Sassafras County’s Green Valley in the early 20th century (a town reminiscent, perhaps, of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio), but anyone on the continent who finds themselves on the westernmost edge of Germany through January 10 of next year, when the exhibition closes, may wish to drop in. More information on the exhibition can be found here; he is also contributing the cover art to the next issue of the fine Mineshaft magazine, due in the next month or two.

Another Mineshaft contributor, R. Crumb, may be looking forward to the publication of Crumb’s World in January 2021, a catalogue that documents the fine exhibition of the artist’s work at the David Zwirner Gallery last year. (I originally wrote about it for this blog, but alas the short essay has gone rambling off.) Curator Robert Storr provides essays about Crumb’s career, setting much of this sometimes difficult work in the context of the culture in which Crumb found himself. Speaking of which, Crumb’s opinion of the current GOP candidate can be found here.

Mr. Crumb plays a mean ukelele, which itself can be heard on Live at the Brooklyn Folk Festival, Vol. 1 from Eden and John’s East River String Band. Just out on both CD and vinyl, this brand new release features the best of their live performances at the Jalopy Theater over the past decade; Crumb, Eden, and John are joined by a variety of other excellent musicians, such as Ernesto Gomez, Pat Conte, Dom Flemons, Eli Smith, Walker Shepard, Geoff Wiley, and Jackson Lynch. The vinyl goes for about 24 smackeroos, the CD for about half that. I’ll be ordering this when the next paycheck comes in, but in the meantime I can keep up with John Heneghan through his highly recommendable John’s Old Time Radio Show. I first wrote about the ERSB here.

A toast to … trash

Cafe Katja.

At the blog this week, I recommended an upcoming concert of American spectral music, relaxed with a bit of ragtime, and welcomed the new issue of Mineshaft magazine.

Poking around on the internet yesterday, I came across this interview with comics artist Chris Ware, who mused upon the reputation of the form to which he has devoted his career:

As an art of reproduction, comics always returns to its status as trash, which I think is key to its being seen clearly and read critically; it has none of the innate prestige of writing or painting and so has to earn its stature on its own terms, every time.

An interesting consideration, and one which intersects with two of my other preoccupations, ragtime music and Mark Twain. One of the reasons for comics’ status as “trash” is the original audience to which it was addressed: the broadest general audience, the audience for what we generally call popular culture. Comics, certainly, as entertainments for children published in disposable newspapers and comic books, were never considered lasting contributions to the expression of the human spirit by critics, teachers, or the elite. In 1901, the American Federation of Musicians dismissed ragtime as “‘unmusical rot.’ Members were encouraged to ‘make every effort to suppress and [to] discourage the playing and the publishing of such musical trash.'” The musical journal The Etude went further a year earlier, thundering that “the counters of the music stores are loaded with this virulent poison which in the form of a malarious epidemic, is finding its way into the homes and brains of the youth to such an extent as to arouse one’s suspicions of their sanity.” And in 1885, the year Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published, the New York Herald reported the deliberations of the Library Committee of the Concord, MA, Public Library:

Another committeeman perused the volume with great care and discovered that it was “couched in the language of a rough, ignorant dialect” and that “all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expressions.” The third member voted the book “flippant” and “trash of the veriest sort.” They all united in the verdict that “it deals with a series of experiences that are certainly not elevating,” and voted that it could not be tolerated in the public library.

What made this American trash particularly trashy, in part, was its use of vernacular forms. All three — comics, Huckleberry Finn, and ragtime — were distinctly American creations, repudiating European expression and embracing American voices. But as Ware suggests, it also has to do with the mass reproduction of the work itself, lending it to easy disposal and dismissal; it is, by definition, ephemeral. The greatest artists in each of these forms — Joplin in music, from Mark Twain to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor in language, and from George Herriman to Robert Crumb in visual art — shanghaied popular American slang culture to serve as a new vehicle for deeply personal individual expression, thereby becoming profoundly subversive of what for a better phrase we call “high art.” And its reputation as popular culture serves, as Ware also suggests, to keep these creators modest, if not necessarily honest.

So at Cafe Katja this afternoon, Gabe and I will raise our glasses to American trash. Long may it live.

Humor that severed the jugular vein

In the spring of 1981, the first issue of Weirdo rolled off the Last Gasp presses. The brainchild of R. Crumb, its editor for the first nine of its 27 quarterly issues, Weirdo was an attempt to revive the graphic/comic humor style of Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD magazine and similar publications of the 1950s and 1960s. Until 1990 (and a special, final issue in 1993), Weirdo published and distributed the later work of the groundbreaking underground cartoonists of the previous few decades and the early work of the newly burgeoning alternative comics movement. It was a long and successful run for a humor magazine in that period; National Lampoon‘s heyday ended about the time its founding editors departed in 1975, after only five years; Spy magazine similarly foundered after the first five years of its debut. Weirdo managed to struggle on through almost a decade, and it was fondly remembered after it closed up shop. Now Jon B. Cooke has collected those fond memories and others in The Book of Weirdo, a history of the magazine, published by Last Gasp. It’s not a cautionary tale, exactly, but it does define the history of a certain kind of American comics, humor, and satire of the late 20th century, and it’s one of the very few books that does so. Maybe there’s a lesson in it, but I doubt that.

By the time the early 1980s rolled around, the first wave of underground comics had crashed into the beach and its influence was slowly receding from view. Crumb’s decision to launch Weirdo was practical: He wanted a regular outlet for his work, but the work of his colleagues and friends needed a regular outlet too. It may also have been political, a response to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the increasing moral and ethical miasma into which America was sinking with the increasing influence of advertising, mass media, and corporate money in the American experience. (Harvey Kurtzman had launched MAD in 1952, when the American experience was facing a similar onslaught of garbage.) It was also personal, Crumb’s nostalgic look back at the magazines and comics that had inspired him in his youth, leading him to his first successes in the 1960s and 1970s with the animal-comic parody Fritz the Cat and his satire of Culture-of-Narcissism faux-mysticism in Mr. Natural. So Crumb published, alongside comics by himself and others, exhibitions of peculiar Americana and photo-funnies or “fumetti” that were popular in adult magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. (National Lampoon, too, occasionally ran a similar feature.) As Cooke reports, these photo-funnies were a target of considerable hostility, and they were found more and more rarely in Weirdo‘s pages as new cartoonists sought Crumb out and Crumb accepted their work for publication.

As the years went by, however, the magazine evolved, perhaps one of the secrets of whatever success it achieved, and its subsequent editors put their own stamp on the magazine. Crumb’s successor, Peter Bagge, assimilated a crew of younger, punk-influenced cartoonists into the Weirdo stable; in 1986, Aline Kominsky-Crumb took the reins, and her seemingly-crude-and-artless-but-not-really style, as well as her own generosity, encouraged and attracted a generation of brilliant female artists like Dori Seda and Mary Fleener, and the percentage of work by female artists in the magazine increased exponentially. While Crumb was contractually obligated to produce covers and stories for Weirdo, both Bagge and Kominsky-Crumb were responsible for taking the magazine to places Crumb hadn’t imagined when he established it.

Weirdo‘s wasn’t the only game in town; at about the same time Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly were publishing the large format RAW, an attempt to claim comics as a high art. They undoubtedly succeeded, and Spiegelman’s Maus, originally published in RAW as a serial, deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize. Cooke describes the occasional tensions between the magazines, not least because a number of artists (including Crumb and Spiegelman) appeared in both. Weirdo and RAW weren’t serious competitors. Instead, they complemented each other. RAW aimed high, for the citadels of modernism; Crumb and Weirdo aimed much lower — in a variety of senses — and Crumb never lost sight of the comic in “comics.”

I collected Weirdo magazines as they were published in the 1980s and was always astonished by the extraordinary variety of individual art and styles of the comics, the exquisite craftsmanship and daring graphic innovation that expanded the idea of what constituted true comic art. But what is easily lost in contemplating the art of Weirdo is the brilliance of the verbal humor and the writing that appeared in Weirdo. The magazine’s artists seemed to me most indebted to the great black humor writers of the 1960s and 1970s. Influenced primarily by the likes of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Nathanael West, these writers parsed the difficulty of maintaining one’s sanity, individual integrity, and even security as one was buffeted by what seemed to be arbitrary, absurd, and malignant cultural and political powers, as well as their own very personal weaknesses, prejudices, and idiocy. The greatest of the black humorists of the 1960s, such as Terry Southern, Joseph Heller, Bruce Jay Friedman, and Paul Krassner, located their satiric vision in a revealing, subversive dissection of the individual under the pressure of the modern world; dismissing standard-issue American realism as inadequate to capture the anxiety of postwar America, these writers corralled both stylistic innovation and a brooding sense of the grotesque and the ridiculous in the service of their frequently nihilistic visions. Whether or not the Weirdo artists were knowingly influenced by these writers, they carried the black humorists’ spirit from the 1960s, when they flourished, to the 1990s, when they were all but forgotten. (It is no coincidence, perhaps, that Drew Friedman, a regular contributor to Weirdo, is the son of Bruce Jay Friedman; Drew also wrote the introduction and drew the cover for The Book of Weirdo.)

Jon Cooke’s history is excellent and often entertainingly informative when digging deep into the history of the magazine and the biographies of its editors and contributors (his interviews, as well as his extensive bibliographical work, will serve as indispensable sources for any future researchers), and it leaves one hungry for an anthology of Weirdo itself. My only quibble with the book is that too little of it is represented here. Crumb’s work for Weirdo — the best of his mid-career, as he became more autobiographical and, at the same time, extended his talent to new projects, including contemplations of Philip K. Dick, Sir James Boswell, and Psychopathia Sexualis — has already been collected in another volume. (Crumb has continued to develop and mature as an artist, his art becoming increasingly textured, subversively ironic, and interestingly hermetic in publications like Art & Beauty Magazine as well as the excellent and highly recommended Mineshaft.) Until that anthology appears, however, Jon Cooke’s The Book of Weirdo is a reminder that American humor and satire was a far more innovative and exciting art form than the endless news program and newspaper parodies that seem to make up that form today; as delightful as they occasionally are, they lack the sheer imagination and daring of the artists of Weirdo.