Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Thank You, Mr. Crumb, Part 2

2008: I’m standing before ten framed pages of a story entitled Patton, a trenchant, visceral, graphically brave and liberating cavalcade of cartooning by underground icon Robert Crumb. Originally published in 1985, in the eleventh issue of the seminal comic book Zap, this sensitive telling of the turbulent and violent life of legendary bluesman Charlie Patton, is hanging on a white wall in one of the large back room galleries of Seattle’s Frye Art Museum. It is merely one small part of R. Crumb’s Underground, the impressively complete retrospective of the cartoonist’s career, which came to a close this past Sunday, April 27th, after a successful ninety-three days, up to a thousand people having passed through the noted institution’s doors most Saturdays and Sundays.
     As I marvel at the art displayed before me, my head begins to spin, making me feel as if I’m back in the summer heat of Western Pennsylvania, reliving my self-education in the art of cartooning. The 17” x 22” sheets of Bristol board Crumb used to create Patton are marked with what I feel are some of the most effective drawings of his career. This is the real “good stuff” I decide, smiling to myself, recalling my Crumb-entwined origin, feeling the rush of the intervening years, how appearing in two issues of Kitchen Sink's Buzz led to a bound collection of my A Sleepyhead Tale strip from Fantagraphics Books (Crumb’s own publisher) and a subsequent quarterly series, Whotnot!, followed by nearly a dozen other books and comics from a variety of publishers. And how, in 1994, at the behest of my editor, Fantagraphics co-owner Gary Groth, I took a train across the country to Seattle, the city in which I have lived and worked for the past fourteen years. Though my cartooning output has steadily depreciated over that time, due to both financial and personal considerations, I have always kept my brush in the inkpot, the driving ambitions of my younger days never having completely left me, something I am now reminded of, standing amidst such a wealth of significant cartoon art. 

I’ve spent some two hours, this Saturday afternoon in mid-April, absorbed in the collection, my final return to a show I first viewed on January 26th, its preview night. 
     I am enthralled with the Patton art. This is what I had been hoping to find in such an exhaustive exhibit of arguably the world’s best living cartoonist; comic book pages that rise above their traditional, restrictive, print-ready trappings, graphic art that survives the formality of its museum crucifixion. What is perhaps most striking about this mid-career tour de force is that Crumb has eschewed his usual employment of dense cross-hatching, the turn-of-the-century style most readily recognizable with his art, instead throwing himself into a field of solid black shading and silhouette, evoking a look that in some ways reminds me of the late 1930s and 40s work of Milton Caniff, creator of Terry and The Pirates. Crumb seems to have lost himself in the story, no small feat for a man who has built his career, and its subsequent celebrity, on parading every wrinkle and fold of a prickly id, making himself a literal Woody Allen of the inkpot set. But with Patton, he has become a character actor, suppressing his own identity for the sake of a vivid narrative, the areas of solid ink adding an unprecedented weight to the figures and settings. 
     I find it leagues ahead of earlier work like Fritz The Cat, a comically violent parody of the Disney milieu that, though clearly designed along different ambition, pales when I compare it to Patton’s stoic tale of real murder and mayhem. 
     It brings to light the disappointing fact that I find much of Crumb’s other work to be somewhat static in this environment. Like much of the original comic book art I have experienced in similar settings, it may be expertly functional, but fails to reach beyond the perimeters of its form. Beads of perspiration and bulging eyes are indeed highly effective tools of visual communication, and offer a playful counterpoint to much of Crumb’s heavier, darker bouts of self-degradation, but they are merely narrative glyphs when compared to the gravitas of images like the last panel on PG. 2 of Patton, where the artist portrays the fatigued, forlorn musician, his guitar heavy upon his shoulder, walking like a dead man through the world he once knew, a world all but gone, destroyed by the great Mississippi flood of 1927. 
     It is an amazing, sad, and quietly devastating image, one that pulls upon all of Crumb’s storytelling mettle, but avoids the adopted, old school, slapstick cliché that permeates much of his work.
     This consideration of the impact cartoon pages can have, when framed and hung on a wall, was one of my major points of contemplation upon first viewing the show. I must admit, though I kept it to myself, I came away from the preview with a taste of disappointment, something I am sure will put me in a very small minority among those who have visited the collection. This sense of disillusion did not stem from the exhibit itself, which I feel is a well-designed and successful overview of Crumb’s career, views I’ve previously evoked in an article written for the Beacon Hill News on Feb. 1st. Rather, my disenchantment arose from seeing, for the very first time, the original art to images I was intimately familiar with on the printed page. 
     As a practicing cartoonist, I was thrilled to see how dense the ink appeared, how sparingly Crumb employed correction fluid, how delicate the cross-hatching was, how close to print-size he’d drawn much of his earlier work. Playing the pulp detective, I noted he often pasted-on his showcase and title lettering (indicating a lack of confidence in this discipline, or just another facet of the man’s well-documented, general neurosis?). I also observed how he seemed to be drawing on whatever paper was available during the various stages of his long career, from an abundant rash of graph paper pages throughout 1968, to a literal tear through a spiral sketch pad during the late 70s, a time when he was, perhaps, most out-of-favor and forgotten, certainly in the United States. 
     This was all fascinating to speculate upon, but I was looking, even expecting, to find something else, a force, a sense of the sheer verisimilitude his best narratives effect in their printed form, comics that have thrilled and inspired me for so many years. I literally wanted to be knocked out of my socks, great, greasy beads of sweat ejaculating from my brow, my pupils touching my brain. Ironically, I only derived this result from viewing the inversely naturalistic Patton.
     I left the show, mulling this over, finding it hard not to feel a little bit “had”, if only in the sense that Crumb’s own, oft-quoted, self-dismissive comment “It’s just lines on paper, folks” was now ringing wickedly and ironically true. 
     Carrying this thought with me for the next few days, I couldn’t help but turn my ear when I came across the following quote from cartoonist Jim Woodring: “Seeing that exhibit silenced a gong that's been ringing in my head for 45 years.” I wondered if Mr. Woodring, in his deceptively obtuse manner, hadn’t meant this as a critical observation. Perhaps he had, in fact, been inferring the very personal disappointment I was feeling, a thing we all, of course, experience, to varying degree, when encountering that which has heretofore only been legend. I pointedly haven’t asked him, wishing not “to apply form and time” to his intriguing, elusive remark (to paraphrase a wise observer from a previous posting).

Many of these concerns still fresh in my mind, I recently arranged a chat with the Frye’s head curator,
Robin Held. I asked her thoughts on the relationship cartoon art might have with the traditional viewer of museum art, imagining, even as I spoke, that stereotypical urban sophisticate, readily kneading his whiskered chin in rumination as he stands before a heavily-framed canvas from one the “masters”. 
     Surprising me, by echoing my own, unspoken feelings, Held opined that comics are, in essence, “made for private viewing, on a bus, a couch, it being a personal experience” and how “potentially distancing hanging it on a wall might seem.” It was this very insight that led her to creating the effective, and amusingly ironic, reading area, an alcove adjoining the exhibit, one that features a wonderfully Archie Bunkeresque mustard and brown, plaid couch, accompanied by a standing lamp, both preceded by a coffee table casually strewn with Crumb’s comics and book collections. No mere prop, it is purposed to be a place to excuse oneself from the museum setting, to sit down and experience Crumb’s work in its intended form. Held explained how she “wanted to create an environment where that relationship with the form was in evidence”, which she feels the couch accomplished, along with the books availability in the gift shop “adding to that natural connection with the printed form of the work”. I couldn’t help but notice how utilized the comics on the coffee table appear, their covers bent back, their pages ruffled, just as the couch cushions sit rumpled, forced into the springs, making it all look like more than one shared living room from my past, where no one housemate feels compelled to straighten up. Which brings me to my observations on the crowd, at this, my last afternoon with R. Crumb’s Underground.

I was eager to witness how the greater public, those not familiar with Crumb, or underground comics, would behave when confronted by such potentially offensive works as How To Have Fun with A Strong Girl, Crumb’s notorious illustrated essay, featuring some of his most graphic portrayals of sex, starring himself, and a seemingly somnambulistic girl. 
     First, I watched a couple, both in their twenties, showing no hesitation as they approached the twelve large, individually-framed pages, the woman apparently the most comfortable, stooping low and close to the art, reading every word. Next I witnessed an older couple, both perhaps in their late fifties. The woman stood back, never getting closer than five feet from the art, her arms crossed stiffly. She soon became impatient with her husband, who had been standing about two feet from the art, craning his neck to investigate, a look of the hunted about him, as if he expected to be caught any moment, doing something that was clearly wrong. His wife sighed deeply, before setting off to meet the next offensive barrage, clearly a visitor to the rose garden who hadn’t considered the predominance of thorns. The moment her husband realized he was alone, he inched forward, having one last, better look, before backing off, quickly following his “better” half. I wondered if they’d ever discuss what they’d seen; Crumb’s nerdy, haggard self-depiction, climbing atop the sleepy, giant girl, in order to force his engorged penis into her mouth. 
     According to Held, even some at the Frye were uncomfortable with Strong Girl, a situation necessitating a inter-staff meeting to discuss reactions to the piece. Knowing this, I had to grin a short while later, when I found the following remark in the public comment book, functionally placed on a pedestal among the art. Addressed to Crumb himself, it read: I don’t think you’ll ever read any of this. However, if you someday do, know that you pissed off a fair number of very reserved Seattleites.
     Having less than fifteen minutes to go before closing time, I stood by the comment book, surveying the crowd still milling about, hearing nervous laughter and titters, seeing a few men of Crumb’s generation, sporting grey ponytails, smiling knowingly as they wander from piece to piece, clearly lost in personal recollection. I spot one female attendee who seems to have literally walked right out of one of Crumb’s panels, walking her
Rubenesque form like a badge of pride. 
     Held commented that many girls, women, who had come through the exhibit, were clearly being empowered by Crumb’s representation of strongly-built females, as noted by comments in the book like You can draw me anytime, though I thought This show makes me wish I had more powerful thighs was perhaps more telling. I find the whole positive spin on this a bit willfully idealistic, in that the women in Crumb’s cartoons are the manifestations of an obsessive and patently unhealthy fixation, one readily acknowledged by Crumb himself. Nevertheless, as Held stated, it was encouraging to see such a broad cross-section of the public taking in the art. 
     She also explained how pleasantly surprised she was at the “multi-variance the images offered”, how many different interpretations the public was able to glean from them. Which brings me back to my own feelings about the effectiveness of cartoon art in such a setting, making me realize that my view is perhaps something of a special case, one that could only possibly be held by the very few of us who can honestly list cartoonist for an occupation on our tax forms.
     It’s sometimes easy to forget that most people do not regularly deal with a working vocabulary that makes commonplace phrases like “word balloons” and “spotting your blacks”. The cartooning profession is a peculiar lot to find oneself in, one which more often than not requires an equally peculiar individual, be it during the form’s early twentieth century infancy, the heady rush of the 1960s, 1989, or today. It can be a very lonely discipline, requiring an inordinate amount of the practitioner’s time. For most, the demands are many, the rewards few. Those who do it claim they have no say in the matter, that it is a calling, a compulsion. It was clearly an obsession I too felt, back in those humid days of the late 80s, imagining myself on that sunset drive in the cartoon jalopy, sitting between Robert Crumb and
Bud Fisher, watching Crumb reach behind the rumble seat to produce a bulging, untidy envelope…

“What you got there, Crummy?” asks Fisher, his cigar dancing at the corner of his mouth.
     “Ahhh – just a bunch of lines on paper!” Crumb replies dismissively, holding the envelope over the passing road.
     “Lines on paper?” inquires Elzie Segar, his eyes on the way ahead.
     Roy Crane, sitting beside Segar, turns to regard me with a steely look. “Bob's got the baton,” he says. “It’s his turn – that’s the next generation in his hands.”
     “Whose got bad glands?”asks Jack Kirby, absent-mindedly toying with the door ashtray. Everyone just ignores him.
     “What you gonna do with it, Crummy?” Fisher presses, reaching across me, stretching for Crumb’s arm.
     “Ahh, what does it matter what I do with it? I told you – it’s just lines.”
     “There’s something written on that brick,” offers George Herriman, popping up behind me, having been asleep in the rumble seat. “Sez “THE GOOD STUFF” – I think.”
     “The good stuff?” Fisher queries, swiping for the envelope, which is now dangling precariously between Crumb’s thumb and forefinger.
     “Go on, Bob, we’re almost there, get your pitching arm in order,” declares Crane, pointing to a small, red building, suddenly appearing on the horizon. I see a sign outside. It reads: Cotati Volunteer Fire Department. “Hit the doormat, Dimaggio, the kid’s counting on you!” he urges, giving me another look, his eye softening.
     “On account of WHOSE glue?” 
     “NOW, Bob, NOW!” cries Crane, as we rumble by the firehouse. 
     Crumb sighs, lets the package fly and turns to me, not checking to see if he hit his target. Crane lets out a victorious hoot. Herriman pats Crumb on the back. Segar turns about in his seat for the first time, catching my eye, nodding in Crumb’s direction.
     “Well, what do you say to Mr. Crumb, kid?”
     I stare at my hands, suddenly feeling quite shy. “Thank you, Mr. Crumb,” I manage, keeping my eyes on my lap. “Thank you very much.”
     Crane coughs loudly. “You’re damn right you thank him, kid!” he exclaims, waving goodbye to the little firehouse, with a theatrical flair. “He’s just done you the favor of your life!”
     I grin sheepishly, looking up to catch Crumb’s eye, his usual jaundiced glare evaporating for the briefest of moments. “Just lines on paper – just lines on paper,” he yawns.
     I lean back, closing my eyes, noticing a buzzing sound, growing in my ear. 
     “Cicada time,” chuckles Herriman, pulling a pine needle from my hair. “My very favorite time of the year.”