Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Ragged Glory

The Complete Crumb Volume 15 by Robert Crumb (1983-1985; 2001): By the early 1980's, cartoonist and writer Robert Crumb was considered a has-been by a lot of people in the comics business, a relic of the Underground Comix of the 1960's and early 1970's whose time had come and gone. Crumb was well aware of this judgment.

And boy, were those people wrong.

What would instead soon happen would be Crumb's gradual and astounding Renaissance, one that has continued to this day. He'd work out new and commanding art styles, writing subjects, and obsessions. He'd co-edit the uneven but always fascinating and boundary-pushing Weirdo with young Turk Peter Bagge. He'd even release an album with his band of old-time blues aficiandos. And be the subject of a successful documentary. There's never been a second act in an American artist or writer's life to match it.

This volume, comprising material mostly from the years 1983-85, captures the beginnings of Crumb's recrudescence. Along with posters and book illustrations and covers for Weirdo, Volume 15 of the Complete Crumb also reprints the adventures of Mode O'Day, Crumb's take on early 1980's social climbing. Other media satires and commentaries appear, including Crumb's jeremiad against all post-1930 popular music and an unhinged Reagan-era take on Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

We also get his foray into the history of psychoanalysis, in which Crumb begins to work out the style he would refine and use over the next decades in his historical pieces, fine-lined and rigorously realistic without being photo-realistic, a style that would help make his recent adaptation of the Book of Genesis so compelling.

There's never really been anyone quite like Crumb in American art, comics, or letters. I suppose Mark Twain is the obvious comparison, but by the time he was in his 60's, Twain's best work was behind him. Crumb sometimes seems to be only getting started. He's a global treasure, and if any cartoonist should be the first to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, it's him in all his sweaty, fetishistic, frustrating, curmudeonly, humane, satiric glory. Actually, now I know who he reminds me of -- Neil Young, who also keeps trying to expand and improve while his contemporaries coast on past glories or slowly fade away. Highly recommended.

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