A Short Visual History of America, According to the Irreverent Comic Satirist R. Crumb

Today, coun­ter­cul­tur­al car­toon­ist Robert Den­nis Crumb, bet­ter known as R. Crumb, turns 70. As a founder of the “under­ground comix” move­ment in the 1960s, Crumb is either revered as a pio­neer­ing satirist of Amer­i­can cul­ture and its excess­es or reviled as a juve­nile pur­vey­or of painful­ly out­mod­ed sex­ist and racist stereo­types. Crumb doesn’t apol­o­gize. He keeps work­ing, and his fans are grate­ful. He has par­layed his sex­u­al obses­sions and out­sider rela­tion­ship to black cul­ture into an intrigu­ing vision of the coun­try that reflects its own fix­a­tions as much as those of the artist/author of comics like Zap and Weirdo.

But Crumb’s work—permeated by drug use, pop-cul­ture ref­er­ences, skirt-chas­ing over­sexed men, very specif­i­cal­ly-shaped (and always sex­u­al­ly-avail­able) women, and all sorts of creepy under­ground characters—has anoth­er side: an almost sen­ti­men­tal attach­ment to purist Amer­i­cana from the late-nine­teen­th/ear­ly-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Most notably Crumb is an anti­quar­i­an col­lec­tor of old-time music—country, jazz, rag­time, the blues—as well as a musi­cal inter­preter of the same. One of my favorites of his books col­lects a series of trad­ing cards he made into R Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Coun­try, a rev­er­en­tial set of illus­tra­tions of folk musi­cians, accom­pa­nied by a CD of Crumb-curat­ed music.

Crumb’s love for sim­pler times is more than the pas­sion of an afi­ciona­do. It is the flip side of his satire, a genre that can­not flour­ish as a cri­tique of the present with­out a cor­re­spond­ing vision of a gold­en age. For Crumb, that age is pre-WWII, pre-indus­tri­al, rural—a time, as he has put it in a recent inter­view, when “peo­ple could still express them­selves.” His expe­ri­ence with the slop of Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture was decid­ed­ly less idyl­lic. Ian Buru­ma writes in The New York Review of Books:

Crumb, like his broth­ers, soaked up the TV and comics cul­ture of the 1950s: Howdy Doo­dyDon­ald DuckRoy RogersLit­tle Lulu, and the like. While on LSD, in the 1960s, Crumb thought of his mind as “a garbage recep­ta­cle of mass media images and input. I spent my whole child­hood absorb­ing so much crap that my per­son­al­i­ty and mind are sat­u­rat­ed with it. God only knows if that affects you phys­i­cal­ly!”

Crumb’s com­ic art—which he has described in almost ther­a­peu­tic terms as an emp­ty­ing of his “garbage recep­ta­cle” unconscious—is bal­anced by his more sober and nos­tal­gic illus­tra­tions, the coun­ter­weight to the “crap” of his child­hood media expo­sure. One might even think of Crumb’s con­sump­tion of old-time music and imagery as a kind of cul­tur­al health food diet. One of the most pop­u­lar of his nos­tal­gic works is “A Short His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca” (1979) a series of pan­els show­ing the shift from open coun­try­side, to the town set­tle­ments brought by the rail­roads, to the gross overde­vel­op­ment of the late-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. The only text besides the title (and the bur­geon­ing bill­boards and street signs) is a coda at the bot­tom-right-hand of the last pan­el ask­ing, “What next?!!!” You can see the com­ic ani­mat­ed above (top), set to an old-time piano piece. Anoth­er fit­ting ver­sion of his vision of the country’s growth (or ruina­tion) is above, in col­or, scored by Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yel­low Taxi.” See the full series of images here and here, and be sure to check out Crum­b’s three epi­logue spec­u­la­tions on what’s next.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

R. Crumb Shows Us How He Illus­trat­ed Gen­e­sis: A Faith­ful, Idio­syn­crat­ic Illus­tra­tion of All 50 Chap­ters

Robert Crumb Illus­trates Philip K. Dick’s Infa­mous, Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Meet­ing with God (1974)

The Con­fes­sions of Robert Crumb: A Por­trait Script­ed by the Under­ground Comics Leg­end Him­self (1987)

Record Cov­er Art by Under­ground Car­toon­ist Robert Crumb

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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