An Interview with Robert Crumb

He might not wish to admit it, but when Robert Crumb released Zap Comix number 1 in 1968, he created a distinct form of art in the same vein as Marcel Duchamp did in 1913 when he constructed the initial “ready-made” sculpture. 

Duchamp employed a common item–a bicycle wheel–and gave it a new significance by altering its context and exhibiting it as a piece of art. 

On the other hand, Crumb took the familiar comic book of the mid-20th century and manipulated it, stripping it of its heroic superheroes and cuddly, funny animals and replacing them with surreal and psychologically intense visuals.

Comic books had been produced in the underground prior to 1968, but none achieved the same level of public acclaim as Zap Comix. The series’ success was largely due to the skillful illustration and whimsical humour of Robert Crumb, in addition to his savvy business acumen. 

His psychedelic-pop approach was incredibly attractive to the youth of the late ’60s, which was reflected in the stores that carried his work, such as hippie boutiques and head shops. Crumb’s success with these locations allowed for the emergence of numerous artists in this field.

Robert Crumb was the first to view a comic book not as a kind of literature, but as a way to express any idea. There was an enthusiastic crowd looking for comics that could speak to their own life experiences. 

The underground comix movement helped to fill this need, and the effect of his work completely revolutionised the medium. Without Crumb, we may have never seen artwork by Art Spiegelman, Maus, Lynda Barry’s The Good Times Are Killing Me, or Gilbert Hernandez’s Love and Rockets.

Crumb’s Zap comics featured a variety of artists from the underground scene, including cartoonists, illustrators, and poster artists.

These included the psychedelic designers Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso; S. Clay Wilson, whose art focused on the grotesque; Robert Williams, a hot-rodder and founder of Juxtapoz magazine; Spain Rodriguez, a revolutionary cartoonist; Gilbert Shelton, an underrated satirist; and Paul Mavrides, who embraced an anarchic style.

By coming together for Zap, these artists showcased the expansive possibilities of comics and, now, Fantagraphics is collecting all fifteen issues and additional material into a single release. This collection spans nearly forty years of work.

On the occasion of this publication, I had the pleasure of speaking with the seventy-one year old Crumb, who has created a wide selection of art over the years.

From his single-handed comic books – Despair, Uneeda and Hup – to his critical Weirdo magazine in the eighties, and his latest work, The Book of Genesis, there is no shortage of his accomplishments. Crumb and his wife and collaborator, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, live in France in the vicinity of their daughter and grandkids.

During our conversation, Crumb was witty and hospitable, providing thorough and patient responses. At the end of our talk, I could hear the young voices of the children in the street, reminding Crumb that it was time to stop being an icon on the phone and become a grandfather to their enthusiastic shouts.

— Dan Nadel stated

To begin with, I’d like to discuss the history…

I have a question regarding The Believer: Are you familiar with the editor, Dave Eggers?

Have you ever been acquainted with him? I, on the other hand, am not familiar with him.

RC inquired if the addressee had picked up the magazine in some bookstores, noting that he himself had done so but had not been able to comprehend what the publication’s point was.

He explained he was unable to become engaged in any of the articles, nor did he understand the magazine’s attitude. He concluded by inquiring if the addressee found it to be as confusing as he did.

BLVR mentioned that they have a certain regard for the literary magazine that has been around for approximately 10 years or less. They appreciate the fact that it always offers something of interest to them, such as a writer they appreciate or a captivating element.

ANSWER: Sure, I’ll give it a try. The visuals can be attractive but it feels strange. I’m curious to know how well it performs in terms of sales.

BLVR’s opinion is that it is satisfactory.

In 1967, BLVR learned that they had arrived in San Francisco.

ANSWER: I had come to that place back in January ’67…

At the age of 24, the individual got married.

At the perfect moment for the human gathering in Golden Gate Park, Ken Kesey descended in a parachute and Allen Ginsberg was also present.

QUESTION: After you arrived in San Francisco, it seemed like you had been married for a few years at that point. Moreover, two editions of Zap had already been released.

A photograph of Robert Crumb is presented, depicting him in a candid interview.

I had done some strips for other publications such as East Village Other and Cavalier Magazine, when I was approached by Brian Zahn who had seen them, and asked me to do a comic book.

Being excited and eager, I quickly got to work on Zap Comix number 1, and then went straight onto number 2. However, I never heard from Brian again and he had taken the original artwork with him.

Fortunately, I had taken Xerox copies of the work prior to sending it to him, and those were used to print the comic book. I attempted several times to get the people that had the original art to make good copies, but they just never got around to it.

QUESTION: Is that still true even now?

ANSWER: Until this present day, I had set to work and completed the second issue of Zap, which ended up being the first one due to the fact that the initial issue had been lost and I did not even have the photocopies in my possession, having given them to another individual who I had to retrieve them from.

Later on, I got the papers back and Zap number 0 was released after number 2. In the end, I joined forces with Don Donahue and Charles Plymell and they printed what would eventually be Zap number 1.

BLVR asked how the speaker encountered Donahue upon arriving in San Francisco in January of ’67.

RC got connected to Charles Plymell, an individual in San Francisco who had recently arrived there, through a friend of his. The friend was taken aback at the comics RC had produced, so he decided to try and get them printed.

Plymell was in the business of making large photo-collages and montages on a small multilith press and was thus the perfect candidate to help RC out.

At the time you met Donahue, he had already made a name for himself with his published poetry zines. How was the initial experience?

RC recounted his experience with a “mellow guy” who consumed too much alcohol and had grown up in San Francisco. This man had originated the idea for Apex Novelties and had acquired a printing press from Plymell in exchange for a tape recorder.

Although he was not adept at printing, he had set up his press in the old Lowry opera house, which later burned down. RC had gone to visit him and had found him standing over the press while it was running and the pages were being ejected and falling onto the floor in a haphazard pile.

RC had asked why the papers were being left in such a manner, and the man had said that the ink dried better that way than if they were to fall onto a stack, as that might cause the pages to stain one another.

QUESTION: Could you tell me about the journey that brought you to San Francisco? You relocated from Cleveland, correct?

I decided to flee, in essence.

At 19, BLVR began their career creating greeting cards.

ANSWER: I had a job in the greeting card industry and was living with my initial spouse, Dana. After a period of time there, Dana and I relocated to Europe for a bit before returning and resuming my work at the company.

QUESTION: Was Europe the location for the sketches in Help that you got published?

After spending 5 or 6 months in Europe, RC returned to Cleveland and resumed work at the greeting card company. But then, in the spring of ’65, he was offered a job by Harvey Kurtzman to work for Help magazine.

Thrilled at the opportunity, RC moved to New York and on Monday, arrived at the office only to find Kurtzman looking despondent. The publisher, James Warren, had decided to shut down the magazine.

BLVR erupted in laughter, noting that the timing had been perfect.

RC recollected that he and Dana had recently shifted their belongings to a rented apartment, for which Kurtzman felt apologetic and got him a job with Topps. He was employed under Woody Gelman and additionally undertook a few other incidental gigs.

Nonetheless, he disliked New York as it was too strenuous and competitive for him to cope with. Gelman was a notable executive at the business. When one made their way to the Topps factory in the Brooklyn area, the entire vicinity smelled of Bazooka bubble gum. It was situated on 36th street.

QUESTION: That’s right, they were producing the gum at that location, correct?

ANSWER: Production was being done in the factory. This facility had a creative staff of about a dozen people that worked on coming up with cards and other marketing strategies. It was a depressing atmosphere for New Yorkers of Jewish faith, which made it an impressive sight.

BLVR asked if the people they were talking about were primarily retired cartoonists.

RC remarked that there were a few people in the office, including a young Jewish woman whose production work was proficient, but who was “so depressed”. This place, according to RC, reminded him of a story by Isaac Singer about a magazine in New York run by depressed Jews.

Amongst them was an Irish man named Kerry, who had a cubby hole in Gelman’s office. His whole job was to come up with small gimmicks to package with bubble gum, such as foldable cards that could be turned into little aeroplanes. RC described him as a funny little guy.

QUESTION: Wow! You had a stint at Topps back when you were in the Big Apple?

RC recounted his experience of taking the Lexington Avenue subway to work every day and feeling increasingly disconnected from the corporate culture he was forced to exist in to survive.

This sense of alienation pushed him to leave for San Francisco, which he was drawn to after a friend of his from Cleveland returned with psychedelic posters that made him realise something was happening in the city.

BLVR inquired if the psychedelic posters were to the person’s liking.

ANSWER: Yeah, when I saw the art I knew it had to be inspired by LSD. It was like what Stanley Mouse and Moscoso and Griffin were doing – I just had to go. So, one night at a bar I met two pals who were about to depart for San Francisco.

I decided to join them without telling my friend, Dana, which was a horrible thing to do. I couldn’t even face her.

QUESTION: You had left the premises.

RC recalled how difficult it was to leave and how surprised he was to arrive in San Francisco and find the hippie community so peaceful and relaxed. It seemed like a paradise to him, with people living in the Santa Cruz mountains and Marin County.

He continued to take LSD and persuaded Dana to join him. Subsequently, Dana got a job at an unwed mothers’ home, but she became pregnant and had to quit, so the couple relied on welfare.

QUESTION: Was it really true that when the first edition of Zap was published in 1968, you were on the corner of Haight and Ashbury, selling it from a baby carriage?

RC remembered Dana’s pregnancy, so they decided to take the baby carriage to different stores in the hope that someone would be willing to buy some of the copies.

They completed all the necessary steps, from printing to folding and stapling, but unfortunately, as they did not have a trimmer, the first batch was not trimmed.

BLVR asked how many were printed.

We attempted to distribute 5,000 copies of Plymell’s first printing. Initially, store owners didn’t understand what a comic book was, with one shop on Haight Street even denying that they sold them.

Nonetheless, by autumn of ’68, I had become somewhat of a figure in the hippie movement. The atmosphere back then was very fluid and relaxed.

QUESTION: Could you explain what you just said?

RC noted that the cultural revolution of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s had opened up a lot of opportunities for those in the hippie movement.

He indicated that mainstream media often misunderstood the movement, but if one had any kind of talent such as music or art, there were many new chances for success. He also commented that those already involved in the culture weren’t too focused on the money.

QUESTION: You must have had a degree of confidence in yourself, and a desire to show your work to the world.

ANSWER: Absolutely. My motivation to demonstrate my capability, be acknowledged, and be loved was strong. I had a hard, isolated adolescent experience.

I’ve often been curious about Zap’s influence in the creation of a new form of media. It was intended as a comic book, but ended up being much more.

RC shared that the form he used for his project was not original, but rather an archaic one. This is likely why the merchants on Haight Street did not initially understand it–they weren’t used to selling comic books. His goal was to make a ten cent comic book.

QUESTION: Mentioning names like John Stanley and Carl Barks, those are the ones you mean, right?

RC reminisced about the comic books that he loved, noting that Donahue was the one who first made him aware of the business and industrial realities that he had previously been unaware of.

He pointed out that it would be impossible to sell the comic books for only ten cents, since the production costs would mean that he would be losing money. He had to raise the price to twenty five cents in order to make it viable.

QUESTION: What I’m trying to say with “inventing something new” is that individuals have previously tried to create comic books with whatever concept they had in mind…

RC inquired if there were hippie and underground comics, to which he answered affirmatively. He mentioned Jack Jackson’s God Nose and other similar comics.

QUESTION: Nevertheless, yours somehow managed to ignite before any other.

RC commented that there was something especially captivating about the topic that made it popular.

BLVR inquired whether the individual in question possessed an instinctive ability to make sound business decisions.

RC stated that he comprehended the business implications of creating content for a large, public audience. He claimed to have a better understanding of this than others.

QUESTION: It’s intriguing that you allowed yourself to create a comic book with the content you chose, considering your primary inspirations were… Mad Magazine wasn’t exactly conservative, but Stanley…

At the start, RC hadn’t had any intention of featuring explicit sexual content in Zap – the first two issues were quite restrained in comparison.

BLVR has a tendency to present a psychedelic aspect.

A photographic image of Robert Crumb can be seen, which was taken during an interview. The photograph has a resolution of 1920×917.

When RC first met Wilson, they noticed that his behaviour was more outrageous than what they’d seen before. Wilson was a unique individual, no one had ever done what he did before in history.

This inspired RC to be more daring themselves, and to challenge the norms of the bourgeoisie. They viewed it as a form of punk rock; going against the expectations of their teachers and parents and all other authorities.

It was a way of expressing their discontent with the restrictive and hypocritical values they had been brought up with. RC found it enjoyable to thumb their nose at these values.

QUESTION: [Laughs] What was the reason for granting access to Wilson, Moscoso, Shelton, and Griffin for the third edition of Zap?

RC recollected that the concept of working with the group had seemed like an excellent notion when it was initially suggested. He had admired their work and was especially fond of their psychedelic poster; it resembled a Sunday comic page.

BLVR inquired if the poster was the one featuring the Family Dog.

RC recalled the process of developing ‘Sunday Funnies’ – though he could not remember if he or they had approached the other first. Wilson’s interest in the project prompted him to bring on Spain, Robert Williams, and Gilbert Shelton.

However, the idea of blocking out other artists was something he was not particularly fond of, though he eventually caved due to his weak will.

QUESTION: You made it, despite your struggles.

RC recounted his experience of not being able to stand up to the macho tough guys he encountered. He admitted to his mistake in not defending himself against them.

QUESTION: What led you to believe that was an error?

RC noted that being an exclusive club of seven privileged artists made them ‘the establishment’ and that the frequency of issues becoming longer and longer between issues was ridiculous.

He then suggested that Zap Comix should have been a platform for all the alternative cartoonists who were around, including Justin Green, Kim Deitch, and even some female artists. Although RC liked Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s work, Wilson thought it was bad.

QUESTION: It’s quite remarkable that Aline’s work appears to be ahead of its time. I have a great admiration for Aline’s work.

ANSWER: I’ll tell her that I have always admired her. She has a great knack for telling stories and is quite humorous. A lot of comic book enthusiasts tend to like nice drawings, even though the drawings in her work are rather basic.

People disliked Rory Hayes because they desired something slick instead of his gritty style.

RC affirmed that what was stated was accurate.

QUESTION: Even in the depths of the unseen [chuckles].

ANSWER: Yes, even in the depths.

It’s amusingly contradictory.

RC recalled Janis Joplin’s words when they included Rory Hayes in Snatch Comics. She was adamant that this was a misstep, pointing out Hayes’ lack of artistic ability and his mental health issues. According to her, it wasn’t amusing, it was just disturbing.

BLVR’s opinion of the person in question was very positive.

RC recalled his fondness for the individual in question and bemoaned their exclusion from Zap Comix. He was perplexed by Wilson’s opinion that the group was similar to the Rolling Stones, a sentiment RC could not accept.

Do you have a special liking for Zap compared to other projects that you have done?

RC announced that after he grew disinterested in Zap because of the prolonged amount of time it took for Moscoso and Griffin to complete their work, he started Weirdo in 1981.

He was much more strict with the editorial control of this magazine, something he wished he had done with Zap. RC stayed with Weirdo until it became too tiresome and he gave it to Peter Bagge, who stuck to the same editorial guidelines.

Aline then took over the magazine and they collaborated together on it until its end.

BLVR remarked, “That’s impressive.”

RC commented that the Weirdos had people of all levels of strength, with some being weak and some being strong.

I was wondering if the tales that ended up in Zap had been created specifically for it or not?

RC affirmed that the drawings used in Zap were specifically created for the purpose.

BLVR asked what the standards were for deciding which stories should be included in Zap. What were the factors that made one story better suited than another?

I didn’t have any specific guidelines for Zap Comix; it was whatever ideas I had in my head that I would act on. Likewise, if another comic book needed my help or I was creating something of my own, I would do the same. No particular criteria was necessary.

QUESTION: Peter Saul, the artist, informed me that he had been asked to be a part of Zap at one point.

I certainly did, although it was quite a while ago.

BLVR stated that…

RC recalled when he met the Stedelijk museum decades later. During the encounter, Peter Saul pointed out the financial benefits of painting versus comics.

He stated that a painting could be sold for up to half a million dollars whereas comics would only garner a few thousand. Despite this, RC still appreciated Saul’s work.

QUESTION: During that period, was your fascination with contemporary art the only kind of art you were exploring? Did you take a look at other kinds of art too?

RC reported that he wasn’t really that involved with the art world, unlike Wilson. But, he did approach another artist who worked for the Black Panthers newspaper to see if they’d be interested in Zap Comix.

Do you know of Emory Douglas?

RC exclaimed in agreement with the name Emory.

BLVR had a high opinion of him.

I didn’t approach him directly, but instead asked someone who had a connection to him if he would like to contribute to Zap Comix. Unfortunately, the answer was still a no.

BLVR expressed sympathy, noting that it was unfortunate.

RC comprehended the reason why he chose to stay away from any “white stuff.” During that era, African Americans were very focused on having a distinct, unadulterated identity.

The whole “all white” concept appeared to them as an ensnarement, so it’s reasonable… Trina Robbins, however, was vexed; she felt disregarded.

QUESTION: Since Zap is finished, what is your next project? Are you currently writing a book?

ANSWER: I’m a doer, not a talker, so I prefer to just take action instead of discussing it.

QUESTION: How would you describe your daily work routine?

RC does not have a regular work routine; rather, he works in fits and starts. His life is currently very hectic, and he is often busy with phone calls and interviews, which makes it difficult to get anything accomplished.

QUESTION: As such.

Yes, replied the speaker.

QUESTION: Removing from the task at hand.

ANSWER: Spending plenty of quality time with the grandkids and similar activities.

BLVR asked how many [objects] were present.

ANSWER: Two. I can hear them shouting loudly as we are conversing. They are making a lot of noise in the street.

QUESTION: What is it like to be a grandfather? Are you fond of that role?

Yes, I am in agreement.

QUESTION: Could you tell me why you established Weirdo? I remember you mentioning that you felt a duty to comics to try and broaden their scope. Is that still true for you?

ANSWER: Not anymore. I’m eager to step away from the stage and pass the torch to the younger generations. [Laughs] I’m getting on in years. This arena of comics is better left to younger people.

BLVR asked, “Is that so?”

RC commented that creating comics requires a great deal of dedication and effort. Unfortunately, the amount of work put in does not yield a great reward.

BLVR affirmed, “It’s accurate.”

I completely agree. This helps maintain the vitality and genuineness of comics as a whole.

QUESTION: In hindsight, do you feel like you would do anything differently? Are there any regrets with your work or books that you would have preferred to have published or unpublished?

RC was posed with a difficult question: does he regret anything he has published? After taking a moment to think, he replied that he does not.

However, he admitted to having mixed feelings about some of the more risqué content he has produced. He further stated that his opinion of his work changes often – sometimes he admires it, while other times it appears to be unimpressive.

QUESTION: However, you made it through, while a number of your contemporaries did not.

ANSWER:It’s a difficult task to remain consistent over a lengthy period.

QUESTION: You managed to remain relatively composed during the whole ordeal.

ANSWER: I had a few things going for me; one of them being that I didn’t engage in substance abuse. I ceased doing drugs back in 1974 and kept my alcohol consumption to a minimum. Even so, I was still channelling a lot of energy into my work for a long time.

Nowadays, I’m not as devoted to it as I used to be.

QUESTION: Was having your family (Aline and Sophie) of assistance to you in keeping your feet firmly on the ground?

ANSWER: Aline was the one to keep me centred, that’s for sure. She was a problem-solver, so she assisted me in dealing with things. Practically speaking, all of the females I was involved with before my first wife and after her were totally nuts. Dana just passed away seven days ago.

QUESTION: Yeah, I got the news. My apologies.

It had been quite a while since I had encountered her, and I was glad about it in a sense.

What is the reason for this?

RC noted that the person in question had been dealing with a lot of difficulties, especially with their health in a very poor state. Now, however, those issues are behind them.

QUESTION: Is meditation something you practise?

I can confirm that my answer is yes.

QUESTION: What is the duration of your meditation practice?

It was in June of 1996 when I began.

QUESTION: What type of meditation practice do you engage in?

I make time for about 35 minutes of sitting every morning, when my schedule allows for it. It’s quite straightforward.

QUESTION: Did it have an effect?

RC commented that maintaining one’s sanity can be helped greatly by detaching oneself from it all.

BLVR expressed their approval, saying “That’s good.”

ANSWER: That’s great! Do you practise meditation?

QUESTION: I’m up for the challenge and ready to begin.

I’m encouraging everyone to get busy! It’s an inexpensive activity that can be done without leaving your house; all you need is some peace and quiet.

QUESTION: Were you self-taught?

RC recommends that you don’t need to do anything except sit in a chair, close your eyes, and breathe in order to relax. Additionally, you can read books in order to gain tips and hints about approaching the process.

All that is necessary is a will to do it and a quiet place in order to do it. Everyone needs someplace tranquil to achieve this.

An alternate way of expressing the same thought is to say that it is essential to alter the structure of a text in order to eliminate any plagiarism while still maintaining the context and the semantic meaning.

To accomplish this, the words and phrases should be rearranged while preserving the formatting.

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