- Posted by Ed Sizemore on November 2, 2009 at 6:23 pm
- Category: Graphic Novel News
by Ed Sizemore
On Tuesday night, I was giving the rare pleasure of seeing two underground comix luminaries sit down and talk for an hour. The University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts hosted Genesis: A Conversation with R. Crumb and Franciose Mouly at the Richmond CenterStage Carpenter Theater.
The evening opened with a brief introduction to the two guests. Mouly founded Raw Books & Graphics in 1977. She is currently the art director for The New Yorker magazine and the editorial director of Toon Books. Crumb‘s first job as an illustrator was for American Greeting cards in 1962. In 1967, Crumb moved to San Francisco and founded the underground comix movement. In 1991, he moved to France, where he still lives today. The Virginia Commonwealth University library has an excellent resource page on Crumb.
The setup and format for the evening was very basic. Two chairs were placed at the center of the stage. Behind them was a large projection screen. The two guests talked for an hour with Mouly acting as interviewer/moderator. At the end of their conversation, they opened it up to audience questions for a half-hour. There was no photography allowed of Mouly or Crumb. Crumb didn’t hold an autograph session, although Velocity Comics and Chop Suey Books had presigned copies of Crumb’s Genesis book for sale in the lobby.
After a brief introduction, both Mouly & Crumb walked on stage. Crumb began the evening with a pratfall. It was clear from the start that Mouly was hoping for an hour of serious discussion exploring some of the themes in Crumb’s work. Crumb, however, was in a more playful mood and wanted to crack jokes and keep it lighthearted. The most animated moments of the evening were when Crumb wasn’t talking about himself but instead talking about his wife, reactions to his work, or criticizing corporate America.
The conversation started with Crumb talking about the 1994 documentary of his life, titled Crumb. It was clear that he was unhappy with the film, but unclear as to why. I wasn’t sure if it was because he thought the film was biased in its presentation or because the film was too revealing. He said that he was glad that his family was living in France when the film was released in the US. He didn’t think that his daughter, Sophie, would have been able to attend public school after the film’s release. The film made him want to change his appearance and who he was.
Crumb’s biggest concern in moving to France was losing touch with American culture, since his work is based on cultural observations. He would never presume to make comments on French culture since he didn’t grow up in it and was still trying to understand it. He expanded on American culture during the audience Q&A section. The one thing that he despises is how corporations are really the driving force and shapers of US culture. There are layers and layers of chicanery and deception. We are so bombarded by PR that Americans don’t even realize how ubiquitous it is.
Mouly mentioned that Crumb’s wife, Aline, is an excellent artist in her own right. Crumb agreed and felt it was unfair that she had to compete against his fame/notoriety. Crumb met Aline in 1971 when she moved out to San Francisco to be part of the underground comix scene. She was the first women to do autobiographical underground comix. Currently, she is working on creating shrines. They showed pictures of her Barbie shrine and Virgin Mother shrine. A couple of times in the conversation Crumb mentioned how much they are still in love.
Next they focused on specific Crumb comix. Mouly commented on them and asked for his thoughts. One was “A Gurl” about a woman masturbating. She thought it showed a sensitivity toward women. Crumb was surprised since he said it all came out of his imagination. Next was a comix titled “Don’t Touch Me”. This was a multipage work that depicted a woman being raped. The first page is from the perspective of the woman. Mouly says that it’s not what it appears at first. Crumb was happy she got it. He’s frustrated that people just have a knee-jerk reaction without trying to understand the joke. Then he said that all women have rape fantasies. This was the only remark Crumb made that drew a negative reaction from Mouly and the audience. They quickly moved on.
Crumb’s love of music and the portraits he’s done of early blues and jazz musicians were briefly discussed. He said that music has a powerful effect on him and the portraits were a way of expressing appreciation to the musicians. Interestingly, he doesn’t listen to music while he draws; he prefers it to be silent. Crumb said he can either draw comix or listen to music but can’t do both. Also, he only listens to CDs if he can’t get the 78. Crumb and his daughter, Sophie, have been members of various bands. Aline can play an instrument but doesn’t share their passion.
The conversation then focused on Crumb’s illustrated version of the book of Genesis. Originally, he had intended to do a satire of Adam and Eve. After studying the text, he decided to do a straightforward visual interpretation. Once he finished with the Adam and Eve story, he realized he felt compelled to do the entire book of Genesis. For visual reference, he visited the British Museum’s collection of Sumer and Assyrian art but found there wasn’t very much there. So he looked for other sources to help fill out the visual details. D.W. Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance turned out to be the most useful. All the sets and costumes were based on Assyrian bas-reliefs. Crumb used stills from the movie as visual reference. In order to complete the book, Aline rented a secluded cabin in the mountains for him to use as a studio. He was left alone during the week; she visited him, and brought provisions, on the weekends.
Mouly confessed Crumb’s book was the first time she had actually read the book of Genesis. Crumb said he had heard that from many other people. He did a lot of research into the text while working on the illustrations. He was amazed to discover the amount of debate about the Biblical texts. Some word meanings have been lost to the ages, and scholars argue over how to translate them. Some words are ambiguous, and more than one meaning could be appropriate to the text. Sometimes the debate is how to best translate the text to communicate the original meaning to modern readers. He didn’t realize how difficult it would be to illustrate Genesis when he started. Now that he is finished, he won’t do any other Biblical books.
During the Q&A section, Crumb was asked about his first experience with LSD. He tried LSD back in June 1965, when it was still legal. It shattered reality for him. It shattered everything. He was so detached from reality that he threw up and didn’t realize it at the time. The next day when he went to work, the world seemed hollow and like cardboard to him. Later in San Francisco, he smoked pot and did so for eight years. But his advice is to stay sober. Today’s youth doesn’t value their own native intelligence. They don’t value their own natural ability for perception and awareness.
The evening ended with Mouy making the observation that Crumb’s Genesis is a modern Rorschach test. Most discussion is really about the reader’s reaction to his book and less about the book itself. Some find it too salacious, and others say it’s not salacious enough. Then they got up and exited the stage. Crumb ended the evening the way he began it, with a pratfall.
I enjoyed the conversation. I do wish that Crumb had been a bit more serious and willing to engage Mouly in discussions about themes in his works and how he intended readers to react to certain comix. That being said it was a captivating and entertaining hour and a half. Like all truly good programs, it felt like the time flew by. Hopefully, they will tape one of the other evenings to allow more fans to experience this event. I’m sure no one left disappointed. (A free ticket to the event was provided by the Modlin Center.)