Underground Cartoonist Robert Crumb Creates an Illustrated Introduction to Franz Kafka’s Life and Work

The use of an author’s name as an adjec­tive to describe some kind of gen­er­al style can seem, well, lazy, in a wink-wink, “you know what I mean,” kind of way. One must leave it to read­ers to decide whether deploy­ing a “Bald­win­ian” or a “Woolfi­an,” or an “Orwellian” or “Dick­en­sian,” is jus­ti­fied. When it comes to “Kafkaesque,” we may find rea­son to con­sid­er aban­don­ing the word alto­geth­er. Not because we don’t know what it means, but because we think it means what Kaf­ka meant, rather than what he wrote. Maybe turn­ing him into short­hand, “a clever ref­er­ence,” writes Chris Barsan­ti, pre­pares us to seri­ous­ly mis­un­der­stand his work.

The prob­lem moti­vat­ed author David Zane Mairowitz and under­ground comics leg­end Robert Crumb to cre­ate a graph­ic biog­ra­phy, first pub­lished in 1990 as Kaf­ka for Begin­ners. “The book,” writes Barsan­ti of a 2007 Fan­to­graph­ics edi­tion called Kaf­ka, “states its case rather plain: ‘No writer of our time, and prob­a­bly none since Shake­speare, has been so wide­ly over-inter­pret­ed and pigeon holed… [Kafkaesque] is an adjec­tive that takes on almost myth­ic pro­por­tions in our time, irrev­o­ca­bly tied to fan­tasies of doom and gloom, ignor­ing the intri­cate Jew­ish Joke that weaves itself through the bulk of Kafka’s work.’” Or, as Maria Popo­va puts it, “Kafka’s sto­ries, how­ev­er grim, are near­ly always also… fun­ny.”

Much of that humor derives from “the author’s cop­ing mech­a­nisms amid Prague’s anti-Semit­ic cul­tur­al cli­mate.” Mairowitz describes Kafka’s Jew­ish humor as “healthy anti-Semi­tism.… but soon­er or lat­er, even the most hate­ful of Jew­ish self-hatreds has to turn around and laugh at itself.” Crumb pro­vides graph­ic illus­tra­tions of Kafka’s espe­cial­ly mor­dant, absur­dist humor in adap­ta­tions of The Meta­mor­pho­sis, A Hunger Artist, In the Penal Colony, and The Judge­ment and brief sketch­es from The Tri­al, The Cas­tle, and Ameri­ka. These illus­tra­tions draw out the grotesque nature of Kafka’s humor from the start, Barstan­ti notes, “with a grue­some graph­ic ren­der­ing of Kafka’s night­mares of his own death.”

Kafka’s self-vio­lence leaps out at us in its incred­i­ble speci­fici­ty, which can pro­duce hor­rors, like the ghoul­ish exe­cu­tion of “In the Penal Colony,” and dark­ly fun­ny fan­tasies like a “pork butcher’s knife” send­ing thin slices of Kaf­ka fly­ing around the room, “due to the speed of the work.” Turned into cold cuts, as it were. Crumb’s illus­tra­tion (top), imag­ines this gris­ly joke with exquis­ite glee—halo of blood spurts like squig­gly excla­ma­tion marks and bowler hat tak­ing flight. Along with Mairowitz’s lit­er­ary analy­sis and bio­graph­i­cal detail, Crumb’s fine­ly ren­dered illus­tra­tions make Kaf­ka an “invalu­able book,” Barsan­ti writes, one that gives Kaf­ka “back his soul.”

One only wish­es they had paid more atten­tion to Kafka’s weird ani­mal sto­ries, some of the fun­ni­est he ever wrote. Sto­ries like “Inves­ti­ga­tions of a Dog” and “In Our Syn­a­gogue” express with more vivid imag­i­na­tion and wicked humor Kafka’s pro­found­ly ambiva­lent rela­tion­ship to Judaism and to him­self as a “tor­tured, gen­tle, cru­el, and bril­liant,” and yet very fun­ny, out­sider.

via Brain Pick­ings

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Does “Kafkaesque” Real­ly Mean? A Short Ani­mat­ed Video Explains

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)

Three Charles Bukows­ki Books Illus­trat­ed by Robert Crumb: Under­ground Com­ic Art Meets Out­sider Lit­er­a­ture

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

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  • Susan Prendergast says:

    If Kafkaesque means more than I think it does, with R. Crumb kind­ly explain­ing it, what about “Crum­by”? I met Robert and Har­vey Pekar when I was a young girl, wear­ing my Regi­na uni­form, to see their record col­lec­tions before Robert left Cleve­land. I will nev­er be able to for­get their behav­ior. They thought they were hilar­i­ous, hav­ing a real good time man­han­dling me and demean­ing me in front of oth­er peo­ple. I was sev­en­teen. I don’t know how Robert behaved lat­er in life, but Har­vey Pekar was a snig­ger­ing jerk until the day he died. Mean­while, how has the piglike depicter of pedophil­i­ac rape of Zap Comix one and two become the beloved illus­trater of the cul­tur­al world? He’ll nev­er be for­got­ten as the explain­er and illus­tra­tor of par­ents rap­ing their own chil­dren, by women, at least. So, “Crumby“is my own word, and it means the behav­ior of our pres­i­dent and oth­er men just like him.

  • Jaime Roldan Arias says:

    Robert crumb is the artist for the strange and hilar­i­ous world of the Pra­ga author indeed!!

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