Crumb: Terry Zwigoff’s Docu of Acidic Cartoonist

Along with Hoop Dreams, the decade’s other critically acclaimed documentary, Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, a biographical account of acidic cartoonist R. Crumb, of the Zap comics and “Keep on Truckin” fame, is also a highlight.

Zwigoff’s film isn’t just a portrait of the artist; it’s also an inquiry into the mysteries of art, creativity, mental illness and family bind.

In his unflinching look at a compulsive artist, Zwigoff unravels psychosexual secrets, interviews fans and critics, and spins a story that’s both sobering and darkly amusing.

A key figure in the underground comic movement, Crumb is responsible for such outrageous creations as Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, and the catch phrase “Keep on Truckin.” Comics were not taken seriously until Crumb, whose famous exhortation to “Keep on Truckin” launched the era of Comic Book Chic.

Over the past quarter century, the 51-year-old Crumb has seen his work move from head shops to museums. Time magazine’s art critic Rober Hughes holds that his scabrous monsters of the id make Crumb “the Breughel of the last half of the Twentieth Century.”

There is little separation between life and art: Crumb turned the semi-psychotic material of bent adolescence into art, while his brothers were consumed and destroyed by their psychosis. The film chronicles Crumb’s twisted comic-book art, his gushing misanthropy and self-deprecation, along with startling revelations of explicit misogyny and sexual pathology. In showing the link of genius to madness, the film keeps coming back to Crumb’s family.

Zwigoff’s docu begins as an examination of the art and career of the celebrated cartoonist, but gradually becomes a probing examination of a dysfunctional family. Providing an intimate view of Crumb’s singular background, it deals with larger, more complex issues, from the impact of family in shaping personality to the responsibility of the artist to his society.

Shy but utterly eccentric, he’s a devotee of bow ties and old ’78 records–Crumb reluctantly shares what he calls “the little guy that lives inside my brain.” Zwigoff has known Crumb for 25 years, and even played alongside the artist in his old string band. Only an intimate of such standing could have gotten this privileged view of a subject’s life.

Crumb’s unconscious artwork began to blossom after a particularly weird LSD experience.

His work is perceived as so misogynistic that it upsets feminist critics. Uneasy with people, Crumb is described by his wife Aline as someone who’d “rather be a brain in a jar than have a body.” Crumb is initially presented in a typically ironic mode. “If I don’t get to draw, I feel suicidal; if I do, I feel suicidal, too,” he says. A vastly entertaining monologist, Crumb is willing to reveal his tangled sex life, which is contrasted with info from interviews with his ex-wife and girlfriends.

Crumb is one of five children of a violent ex-Marine who wrote and taught on “Training People Effectively,” while physically terrorizing his sons and their amphetamine-abusing mother. Crumb’s two sisters refused to cooperate with Zwigoff and are not interviewed. Crumb remembers his father as a “grim guy with a hard-ass attitude about life who thought my mother was mollycoddling all of us–who she was.” The mollycoddling ended in the 1950s when their mother became addicted to amphetamines (in an attempt to control her weight) and developed a wrath to match her husband’s. Mother and father fought constantly, and his mother, who often threatened to punish her children with the administration of enemas, would scratch his father’s face “until it looked like ground hamburger.”

Robert’s oldest brother, Charles, got most of the physical punishment; his onscreen presence is unusually disturbing. Intellectually witty and painfully sad, Charles has lived with his mother in their shabby home since high school and is only tenuously linked with reality. Artistically, Charles was the acknowledged trailblazer. He was the first sibling to become interested in comics, and the one who insisted that Robert draw. The film shows his dependence on tranquilizers and anti-depressants and his detachment from life, fearing to set foot outside his home.

Equally arresting is Crumb’s other brother, Max, who sleeps on a bed of nails in a San Francisco flophouse and performs off-putting yoga rituals for the camera.

The tale of these three brothers functions as a test of the way horrific family conditions can nurture an artistic sensibility. Resistant to fame, congenitally unable to sell out, Crumb draws because he has to–it’s the only way to manage the strain and madness of his upbringing.

Zwigoff charts the delirious trajectory of Crumb’s life from his early sexual attraction to Bugs Bunny through the decades of fame brought on by his 1968 creation of Zap Comix. Along the way, we follow Crumb’s daily life-drawing street people, discussing his affection for old 78-rpm records, and meeting with his wives and lovers, who talk about every aspect of his life, from his emotional problems to the size of his penis.

Crumb managed to transform severe emotional problems that had destroyed his two gifted brothers into a brilliant art. He terms drawing his “revenge,” and the movie implies that he’s the ultimate survivor, the man who escaped and made something of his life. As he observes: “I was able to channel my interest in comics in a way that he couldn’t, though, because I was always more sensible than him. He was completely wacko, and when we were kids he was always doing incredibly daring, harebrained things.” Shrewdly, the docu offers no explanation for the acute sexual dysfunction that afflicted all three brothers, but subtle clues to surface.

Maxon Crumb, who is also a visual artist (his first painting was a portrait of Van Gogh shooting himself), recalls being “morbidly self-conscious of my body as a child.” Maxon repressed his sexuality to such a degree that he believes it led to the epileptic seizures he began having in the sixth grade and continues to suffer. At age 18, he started molesting Chinese women on the subways, and he admits to periodically continuing to molest women. He also spends much of his time sitting on a bed of nails.

“My younger brother Maxon and I slept in the same bed together until we were 16. It was a very intimate, close situation,” Crumb recalls in the film. His art has always been permeated with an obsessive ambivalence toward women. Depicting sex as riddled with terror, he comments: “The Catholic Church is probably responsible for a lot of the anger toward women that comes out in my strips-I once did a strip where I actually had myself beheading a nun!”

He confesses to Zwigoff that he developed a shoe fetish at the age of 4, began being sexually attracted to cartoon characters when he was 6, and was obsessed with Sheena of the Jungle when he was 12. Nonetheless, sexually, Robert fared better then his brothers in the sex department. Charles had never had sex by the time of his death, and his romantic life began and ended with a crush on male child actor Boddy Driscoll, who starred in Disney’s Treasure Island.

Lacking the usual barriers between his conscious thoughts and his most terrified impulses, he dredges up material startling in its psychic rawness: jocular tales of incest, twisted little men cowering in fear, jive-talking African Americans with lips like inner tubes. “I hate women a little less now” he says, but you wouldn’t know it from his art, which is filled with demonic females, enormous women with great beaked faces, headless female bodies being used for sex.

Crumb ends in 1993, with the artist and his wife Aline preparing to move from his home near Davis, California, to Southern France, which he considers to be “slightly less evil” than the U.S.