Summer 2003

In my honey’s loving arms

R. Crumb’s portraits reveal a tender side to the self-confessed misogynist

Robert Crumb calls his new book, Gotta Have ’Em, (Greybull Press), ‘an autobiography of sorts’. But rather than delivering a comic book tale of his life, this tome is a collection of four decades’ worth of tender, articulate portraits of the women closest to him. It begins in 1964, with a portrait of Crumb’s first wife, Dana, when the artist was just twenty years old and continues until last year, ending with a portrait of his twenty-year-old daughter, Sophie. Crumb may be known for many things, but affectionate drawings of women is not one of them.

Crumb is regarded as the most brilliant cartoonist of our times. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he jump-started underground comics and transformed the medium into a venue for free-form self-expression. He opened up its pictorial vocabulary, introducing iconic adult character types. In the late 1970s and 1980s he turned towards politics and history. Rendered in a virtuoso pen and ink style, his underground comics satirised both hippy and square, and were rooted in a deep ambivalence about the all-American dream. Living in San Francisco at the heart of the counterculture, Crumb also witnessed and participated in the heated sexual politics of the day. He was and is obsessed with women and, the Sixties being the Sixties (and fame being fame) had a chance to indulge every sexual desire that his ‘loser’ adolescence denied him. In the process of both enacting and drawing his sexual fantasies – many of which revolve around dominating full figured women and generally treating them simultaneously as objects of his devotion and sexual gratification – he earned a reputation as a misogynist. This is an accusation that he freely owns up to, but it obscures a more complex truth. Crumb has hated and loved women for a variety of reasons, and over many years, and this is borne out in his work. He drew his most explicit fantasies in comics with titles like Snatch and Cunt, while Gotta Have ’Em, on the other hand, reflects the loving side of Crumb’s relationship with the opposite sex. As he said in a recent New York Times Magazine interview, these more mellow drawings are ‘just an aspect of my work. The comics are where all the crazy subconscious stuff comes out.’

His comics are therefore not well rounded portraits of women and sexuality, but rather archetypal characters, such as the frequently naked ‘revolutionary’ Lenore Goldberg and Dale Steinberger, Jewish Cowgirl. Crumb’s portrayal of sex, no matter how ‘deviant’, feels like real, fleshy, sweaty sex, not a sugar-coated abstraction. His honesty and fearlessness, as well as the absence of embarrassment at his sexuality, inspired a generation of comic artists, male and female. As the cartoonist Dan Clowes (Ghost World) puts it, ‘He had the courage to draw his exact feminine ideal, to the precise detail. He opened it up for me (and my contemporaries) to try to draw these girls that I found attractive with very specific features.’

Fortunately, he and his fellow sex-crazed hippy companions (the type of dopey sexist hippy dudes satirised by Crumb, and whom the oncoming generation of punk rock-influenced cartoonists would smash to bits, bringing a more egalitarian sensibility to comics) were not the only voices heard about sex. In the early 1970s – partly through provocation and women’s liberation, partly by way of a natural artistic evolution – female cartoonists came to the fore to respond with their own visions of sexuality and relationships. One of them was Crumb’s future wife, Aline Kominsky, whose comics are revelatory and wonderful stories about growing up Jewish and freaked out on Long Island. In the 1980s, Crumb founded the anthology magazine Weirdo, and first under Crumb’s and later Kominsky’s editorship, it published some of the most important and visceral female voices in comics, including Phoebe Gloeckner and Julie Doucet.

Crumb’s 30-year relationship with Kominsky has been documented in both their continuing autobiographical collaborative comics, called Dirty Laundry, and famously in the 1995 documentary Crumb by director Terry Zwigoff. Kominsky is also the primary focus of the 200-plus pages of ink drawings on paper in Gotta Have ’Em. Additionally the book encompasses various girlfriends, friends and, as he explains in the introduction, his current mistress as well.

The drawings of Aline Kominsky nine months pregnant, reading, drawing, posing, talking, are very much drawings by a husband of his wife. The other women are shown in restaurants, reclining on sofas, or in classical portrait positions. There are detailed drawings of faces, and more intimate depictions of the full female figure, usually clothed and almost classically posed. Crumb is portraying the women he is close to as individuals – his fantasy life is left aside. As Clowes puts it: ‘To some degree he’s objectifying these women, but he always gives them their dignity; their own personality comes through. He’s not dominating them, he’s letting them be themselves. Of course it’s filtered through what he likes about them, but it’s very faithful as well.’

These women have been the centre of Crumb’s life, and thus tell his story, albeit in an oblique, private language. The unusual choice of material dovetails with an unexpected choice of publisher. Crumb’s work is usually published by alternative comics presses, but Gotta Have ’Em was released by Greybull Press, a publisher of art and photography books, after one of its directors Lisa Eisner (a longtime fan) courted Crumb for a year. The content, design and introduction all came from Crumb.

Just months after its release earlier this year the book has nearly sold out of its 5000 print run. The chronological order of the book is a perfect way to view the progression of Crumb’s artistic skills, and because it contains only drawings, and no comics, it offers a unique chance to examine the superb craftsmanship of his work. As single images, instead of comics, the viewer can look at it as a more traditional form of art. It appears that the main buyers of the book have not been comic book fans, or Crumb followers, but an art book audience.

Gotta Have ’Em embodies many of Crumb’s contradictions: he is a cartoonist who calls his first art book an autobiography, yet he himself never appears – only his female companions. He is known as a misogynist, but this book consists of page after page of lovingly drawn portraits of women. And he is an underground legend who, 40 years on, can produce, from idea to execution, one of the most compelling books of his career.

Gotta Have ’Em: Portraits of Women by R. Crumb, Greybull Press, $55

Daniel Nadel, writer, Ganzfeld editor, New York

First published in Eye no. 10 vol. 3 1993

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.