Archive for the ‘comics’ Category

Robert Crumb at the NFT

Posted: October 16, 2012 in comics
Aline Crumb at the NFT - Robert doesn't sign books

Aline Crumb at the NFT – Robert doesn’t sign books

Robert Crumb took the stage with Steve Bell, looking stooped and frail, an appearance not helped by the old cap he wore on his head. Nothing new there then. Bell, on the other hand had a certain healthy bearded, broad, bluff bonhomie although this did not prevent him from being a dull interviewer.

Once he had asked Crumb about the pens he used he seemed uncertain as to what to ask next. For the record Crumb uses a non disposable rapidograph zero point and finishes his work with a crow quill. Bell and he then mused on the beauty of working on paper rather than the computer favoured by some artists today.

Once that was out of the way, apart from asking Crumb if he liked Popeye (he does) Bell resorted to reading out loud the speech balloons from the slides projected on the wall. He would then ask Crumb to comment on them. Crumb appeared unwilling, complaining that the work was old, maintaining he was stoned most of the time whenever Bell asked him about a strip. His replies throughout the evening were typically dry, even humorous. The trick as every performer knows is in the delivery and Crumb has been honing his for quite a few years now. Occasionally he would burst into song or affect a Dick Van Dyke style cockney accent – “Must gow ‘ome and ‘ave noice cap a’ tea”. He was, however, polite enough to fail to notice when Bell asked him twice about the political nature of his work. He said he loathed politicians so much that he couldn’t stand drawing them. When Bell mentioned drawing Margaret Thatcher at Conservative party conferences Crumb made it obvious that he thought Bell was a poor sap but that it was “a dirty job but someone has to do it”.

Unsurprisingly, for one so private, Crumb was guarded in his answers and Bell was not skilled enough to get more out of him. Occasionally the mask slipped when an old wound was rubbed. When Bell noted that he no longer drew Angelfood McSpade Crumb agreed that the character caused offence but still insisted that the fault lay with those who did not have the humour to see the satire of the portrayal. He used the same argument when referring to his use of the word “nigger” in one of his last Weirdo strips – “you can say fuck but you can’t say the N word”. Crumb was probably closer to the truth when later he talked of his acid trips and the way it allowed him to release a lot of repressed feelings and attitudes into his work. He confessed himself amazed at what he had drawn in the past and the truth was that, on occasion, so were we. There is satire in Crumb’s work but frequently it is crude and half-arsed. Often it takes the easy way out with a throw away punchline, a sort of comic version of the deus ex machina. Angelfood McSpade is a good example. She may highlight white attitudes to blacks and black women but she also appears as ridiculous a figure as any of the blacks in old Hollywood movies. What really lingers in the mind with Crumb is the transgressive nature of his work, his willingness to set down in words and pictures things most of us would rather keep to ourselves.

But Bell seemed uneasy with this line of questioning and so returned to the slides once more. These were all black and white because, for some reason, the projector could not show colour. This seemed odd for something so prestigious as a Guardian lecture. Supposing it had been a film director on stage. Would they have limited themselves to only showing black and white movies? At a certain point Bell decided to come clean and say that he thought it was impossible to prepare questions for this interview. “That’s the spirit, be spontaneous” was Crumb’s reply but the interview was becalmed enlivened only periodically by comments from a voice on the floor, which belonged to Aline, Crumb’s wife. The two of them began a dialogue about Crumb’s unease when attending public events as opposed to his wife’s relish for the same. Sensing salvation a grateful Bell invited her on stage, together with Peter Poplaski, the co-author of Crumb’s new book. She didn’t need telling twice as she bounded up in her short skirt and pink stiletto boots, as sprightly as Crumb was stooped.

Thereafter the proceedings improved, although Crumb was uneasy about four bodies sitting so close together on stage and asked them all to move apart at one point. Aline referred to their joint work on some comics saying their approach was similar to that of George Burns and Gracie Allen. This was obvious to the audience as the two of them fed off each other like a seasoned double act. Here we had “the Crumbs”, a pair of flaky bohemian underground cartoonists who had set sail for France in order to prevent their daughter becoming a mall rat. When Crumb insisted this had been Aline’s idea, she denied it. When he said that leaving the states denied him his main subject matter – america – she said that he often goes back for six weeks at a time. When he persisted and that Aline’s main intention had been to keep him away from the big bottomed women that America produces she countered by saying that there were plenty of big bottomed Swedish tourists for him to ogle. She even encouraged this.

Bo Bo Bolinsky - click to animate

Bo Bo Bolinsky – click to animate

Aline – “I’ll say to him qet up get out of bed. There’s a couple of Swedes in the bakery. Go on get down there. Get dressed. Or don’t get dressed then, just go down in your pyjamas.”

Crumb – “I frequently go down to the bakery in pyjamas.”

Aline – “At least I throw my mother’s fur coat over my pyjamas before I go down. Actually it’s not a problem in our vilage because there’s a mental hospital near where we live and they frequently release the inmates into the village so there are a lot of people dressed in pyjamas walking about. It’s very free.”

Bell then asked about the demise of “Weirdo” and what it was like editing it. Crumb said it was a “fucking nightmare” because it was impossible to satisfy everyone. Readers hated some artists and loved others or else loved some artists and hated others. The artists themselves complained about payment and the fact that sometimes their work was not used. This was compounded by the fact that the publisher would try and stiff the artist on their fees unless Aline stood over him whilst he wrote the cheques. Crumb said that he did 8 issues before handing over the editorship to Peter Bagge who did it for 8 issues before getting fed up. Then Aline took over for a further 8 or so before “Weirdo” was cancelled, it never having made them a penny.

Crumb said that he found some of the art work that Aline had failed to reurn together with vitriolic letters from the artists. Aline said that one artist got so paranoid he began to sense a Jewish conspiracy.

Crumb – “He denied the holocaust on account of Aline.”

Aline

Aline

More trivia followed. Aline’s name is Kominsky but she is not the model for Honeybunch. Crumb says she was much in demand and that you usually had to sit in a room with five other guys hoping the others would lose patience and go home. “Well you obviously stayed the longest,” said Aline.

Then there were the questions from the floor. How did they feel about the movie “Crumb”?

“The film was made by Zwigoff, an old friend. He made it over a period of six or seven years because he never had any money so every so often he would come back again with his fucking film crew.”

Aline – “We didn’t think it would ever get finished and if it did we didn’t think it would be any good and we thought it would only be shown in art house cinemas. But my mother saw it in a muliplex and she rang me about the things I had said about her. “I’m not happy,” she said. So I told her it was just like a performance, a stand up comedy routine and she said “we won’t discuss it again”.

Stoned  - click to animate

Stoned – click to animate

About Crumb’s love of old music and the cd with the book, Crumb said that it was done with reverence. He loved the old music of the twenties and thirties because it seemed more genuine, made by people who were primarily performers as recording itself was still in its infancy. He had always collected since he was a child. Initially it was comics but later on it was old records. He also used to listen to old gospel shows on the radio just before such shows disappeared forever. Later he played music with bands in both America and France but no longer does this now. Bell referred to his famous strip, “a short history of America” although once more he was forced to apologise for not being able to show the colour version on slide.

Crumb maintains that cartooning is a young man’s game. He says that it’s an industry with little chance of financial reward and that as you get older the need to make a living and provide for a family make it harder. That being said he is quite happy to stand aside and let younger artists take the limelight. Someone asked him which artists he admired. He never really answered this apart from praising his own daughter, (though not his son Jesse). Aline mentioned Chris Ware.

Mr Natural

Mr Natural

Perhaps the most irritating question came from Crumb’s art dealer. It was in fact less a question than a naked attempt to plug Crumb’s work. He mentioned the exhibitions that Crumb had had and the growing serious interest in his work. Crumb went along with this in part, suggesting the only difference between him and Lichtenstein or Warhol was that he was more interested in print than original artwork. To him the finished process was the comic. Bell, to his credit suggested that the attention of the art world was a form of death. Crumb didn’t disagree. Where he did take issue was when the dealer praised the draughtmanship of Crumb and Aline.

“Aline’s a lousy draughtsman,” said Crumb. Aline agreed, though both emphasised how they fed off each other creatively on their collaborations. Crumb even said that Aline was doing “confessional” comics before he was (he credits Justin Greene’s “Binky Brown” with being the original).

Devil Girl  - click to animate

Devil Girl – click to animate

I suspect that Crumb is well aware of his own place in the art world. He does not fall for the claims that he is the new Hogarth or the new Breugel. Apparently someone had suggested that his work be hung next to works by Breugel but he was having none of it, knowing how inferior his own would look.

“Those guys had a whole different expectation. They kept their heads over their etching and knew that there wasn’t much else in life. He noted the body of work Breugel produced even though he was only 49 when he died (Crumb had earlier mentioned seeing the Hogarth paintings at Sir John Soanes’ Museum).

Then it was over. Time for the book signing, one of the main reasons for the whole circus that has rolled into town, with its Crumb related book signings, films, interviews and exhibitions. Peter Poplaski had already disappeared to inexplicably don a Zorro suit for the signing. Aline went off to join him. And Crumb? Crumb doesn’t sign books. Even the “signed” bookplate in the new book is a rubber stamp. No, Crumb doesn’t sign books. When it’s all over he fixes his cap on his head and slopes off into the sunset leaving Aline to cope with the dubious trappings of minor celebrity whilst no doubt he went ‘ome to ‘ave a noice cap a’ tea.

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