R. Crumb w/ Francoise Mouly in Richmond, VA, October 27, 2009 Part 1: France, Women

Dog dressed as R. Crumb

by Ben Towle

Comics Worth Reading is happy to feature a two-part guest column by the talented Ben Towle, author of Midnight Sun and Farewell, Georgia.

If you’re a cartoonist and you hear that Robert Crumb will be making a rare stateside appearance a few short hours drive from your hometown, you don’t ask “How much?” you just get thee to Ticketmaster.com as quickly as possible and buy tickets. And that’s exactly what I did a few weeks back when (after a Bob Clampett-style double take) I saw this very announcement posted online. R. Crumb, godfather of underground comics (and more circuitously, pretty much everything else you’ve read since the late sixties that doesn’t involve guys in tights fighting crime) would be appearing along with Françoise Mouly at Richmond’s Carpenter Center to discuss his most recent book, a fully illustrated version of Genesis, based largely on Robert Alter’s 2004 translation.

Ticket to see R. Crumb

If you’re interested in comics, you already know who Robert Crumb is. Françoise Mouly, who would be interviewing him at this event, might not have the same name recognition as her more controversial subject, but her contribution to the world of comics is substantial. Jeet Heer does a far better job singing her praises that I could in this essay, in which he asks (rhetorically), “Is there anyone in the cartooning world who is more underrated than Françoise Mouly?” Mouly’s career, just to touch on a few points, involves publishing the highly influential RAW anthology series; founding the RAW Junior, Little Lit, and TOON Books imprints; and serving as the art editor for The New Yorker for over fifteen years. Together, after a brief introduction, these two giants of comics took the stage at the Carpenter Center on a rainy Tuesday night to discuss Genesis and all things Crumb.

The Venue

The Carpenter Center is a peculiar venue. It’s apparently been recently restored at some expense to the city, and as such is a matter of contention among Richmond folk, according to fellow cartoonist and Richmond local Rob Ullman, with whom I attended the event. Unlike the staid “plaster and gold leaf” of most restored downtown theaters I’ve been in, the Carpenter Center’s interior was a mix of ornate medieval flourishes and an odd super-saturated color scheme. I half-expected to be served a turkey leg whilst observing a reenacted joust. The stage setup itself, once the lights went down, revealed itself to be quite tasteful, though: two wing-back chairs at center stage, with a large screen directly behind for projecting images of Crumb’s work. Photography was strictly forbidden in the theater, so unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of the event to share. Here, though, is a picture of my dog dressed as Robert Crumb. Just pretend she’s on a stage next to the art director of The New Yorker:

Dog dressed as R. Crumb

When I say Crumb “took the stage” I could more accurately say “hit the stage,” as he made his entrance with a perfectly-executed pratfall — a trick he’s apparently been working on of late. Crumb is not someone who’s known to be particularly interested in interviews, book tours, etc. so there was certainly some discussion before-hand as to how engaged he might be in the discussion to come. He addressed this head-on, semi-sarcastically remarking, “It’s an ordeal, but I’m a nice guy! It’ll help sell books….” Françoise began by suggesting that she’d be attempting, through the interview, to disabuse the audience of what she feels are some inaccurate perceptions that people generally have about R. Crumb: “People think they know you.” Largely responsible for most comics-folk’s perception of Crumb is of course, Terry Zwigoff‘s 1994 documentary, Crumb.

Life in France

Mouly showed a New Yorker two-pager that Robert and his wife Aline had produced together, commenting on their reactions to the film. In the strip, Robert is seen throwing his signature straw boater away. After the film, he said, “I wanted to change into somebody else.” Boater or no boater, though, “I can’t change who I really am,” he decided. Fortunately, the Crumbs had already moved to the French countryside by the time the film was released, he said, as things would have no doubt been really difficult for daughter Sophie at school if they’d been in the U.S. at the time.

The topic of the Crumbs’ move to France now in the air, he mentioned, at Françoise’s questioning, that the move was initially entirely Aline’s idea and that he’d been afraid of losing touch with his favorite subject matter: skewering modern life in the U.S. “I wouldn’t presume to comment on the French,” he said, “So I do stuff like the Bible. I feel protected (in France). It’s like a fortress. They leave me alone.” His further comment that he, “hate(s) Americans much more than he hates the French” elicited a predictable round of hearty applause from the audience composed in substantial part by university students and faculty. Amidst this discussion of things French, Robert casually mentioned that he was a new grandfather (!) and that Sophie, at age 28, had just given birth to her first child. Congratulations, Sophie! Get that baby a Rapidograph ASAP.

Crumb on Women

Mouly then began showing some Crumb drawings and comics about women, nudging the conversation into a more contentious area. The first illustration was a truly beautiful pen and ink drawing of tennis player Serena Williams. If you know the kind of women Crumb likes to draw and you’re familiar with Williams’s physique, it’s no surprise that she is is one of his chosen subjects. “She’s really it,” he remarked. “She’s really got it!” The next image was an older two-pager showing a woman masturbating in her apartment. In a pattern that would emerge more than once during the evening’s discussion, Françoise attempted to take the high road and engage Crumb in a discussion of how this piece really reveals a “sensitivity” toward women. Crumb: “I had no idea. It’s a fantasy!”

Next on the screen was Crumb’s two-pager, “Don’t Touch Me” (from Snatch #3) which depicts an apparent rape, followed by the “punch line” in the last panel: “I never get to come!” In a rare bit of almost-regret (maybe? almost?), Crumb recalled showing this strip to a woman he knew and being genuinely surprised by her horrified reaction. Mouly wondered though if it wasn’t his intention to shock. “I intend to shock–but I don’t want them to run away in horror!” he replied. The discomfort in the room became almost palpable when he glibly remarked about “all women having rape fantasies, right?” and mentioned that “even Freud said all women were masochistic.” Then, after a moment, “Let’s move on…”

R. Crumb cartoon

No escape was in sight, though, as the next strip up for discussion was Crumb’s infamous, “The Family that Lays Together Stays Together.” Crumb, though, did a deft job of cutting this one off at the pass: “It’s ironic, kids! I don’t advocate dogs having sex with little girls.”

At this point, Françoise moved on to other topics and tried to draw a connection between Crumb’s “A Short History of America” strip and post-modern architectural interest in “indigenous signage.” Crumb seemed lukewarm at best to this comparison, and her following attempt to draw a direct connection between Crumb’s work and the later work of Saul Steinberg likewise elicited basically an “I don’t really see it” from Crumb.

Up next, in part two: Music and Genesis

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