Oct 11, 2014

R. Crumb: From Fritz the Cat to Gay Marriage (Sort of)

Growing up in 1950s Philadelphia, Robert Crumb was a sissy -- he hated sports; he was scrawny; he liked comic books, especially girls' comics like Little Lulu.  According to a 1998 sketch, he "almost turned into a fag."  The only thing that "saved him" was his heterosexual mania.  He liked big women -- tall, broad-shouldered, with muscular legs.  He wanted to ravish a giantess.

In an era when women were expected to be frail and petite, this interest in Big Women marked Robert as "queer," as a sexual outsider. His autobiographical comics read like a gay coming out story.

But he was heterosexual, just too shy and overcome by self-loathing to fit in.  Even when he moved to San Francisco and made a name for himself as an underground comic artist, he was an outsider, observing the sit-ins and love-ins and acid trips from a distance.

When I was in high school in the 1970s, the older kids passed around his underground comics, Zap!, Head!, Home Grown Funnies, and Snoid!  When I was in college, they were a fixture at Adam's Bookstore, but hidden under the counter, away from those who wouldn't understand.

Later I found copies of Fritz the Cat, which became an X-rated cartoon in 1972, and Mr. Natural, about a cynical guru.

R. Crumb's comics were a minefield, grotesquely drawn, full of profanity, sex, and drugs.

And extreme racism. A black female character who speaks with a racist drawl and is named Angelfood McSpade? Really?

And extreme homophobia, grotesque caricatures of Gay Liberation pioneers.

And extreme sexism -- Big Women desire nothing more than complete subjugation by scrawny men.  To be slapped, beaten up, ridden like horses.

There was a lot of male nudity -- mostly scrawny men, but with very long penises.  In the 1970s, just seeing a penis in a comic strip was a cause for celebration.

But any beefcake interest was completely overwhelmed by the female nudity -- Big Women, naked, gyrating, shoving their breasts and buttocks and other parts savagely into every spare inch of the frame.

Yet there was something fascinating about the comics, something almost endearing about R. Crumb's constant self-exploration: castration anxiety, sadomasochistic fantasies, paranoia, weird fetishes, cranky old-man rants about everyday hassles....

And gay subtexts. Pairs of men, or anthropomorphic animals, often set out together to find meaning in a bizarre, meaningless world.  They got laid, of course -- usually sharing the same Big Woman -- but in the end the heterosexual shenanigans could not assuage their elemental loneliness. They found glimmers of happiness only with each other.

Although he submitted a comic to AARGH (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia) in 1988, R. Crumb is still quite homophobic.  In 2009, The New Yorker commissioned him to draw a cover on gay marriage. Whose crazy idea was that?

He submitted this grotesque parody of a gay couple, and stated that he approves of gay marriage because "How are you supposed to tell what gender anyone is if they're bending it around?"

Um...Robert, did you know that most gay people have a conventional gender presentation?  

He was actually surprised when the cover was rejected!

See also: Gay Comix of the 1980s; Here at the New Yorker