Skip to main content
Cartoonist Robert (R.) Crumb

A 'Handbook' to Robert Crumb

Underground comic book artist Robert Crumb has drawn comics for more than 40 years. Crumb, creator of Zap Comix, is the artist behind such 1960s and '70s icons as Fritz the Cat and Keep-on-Truckin. The new The R. Crumb Handbook is a visual biography of Crumb's life.




Related Topic


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: R. Crumb discusses his comic book art and new memoir

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, R. Crumb, is the most renowned of the underground cartoonists who
emerged in the '60s. He created Zap Comix and such characters as Fritz the
Cat, Mr. Natural, the Snoid and Devil Girl. As Crumb once put it, quote, "If
you were a hip college student, you had to have a Zap Comic next to your dope
stash. I was America's best-loved underground cartoonist. I was cool. I was
ultra-hip. Yeah, sure," unquote. If Crumb wasn't exactly ultra-hip, he was
definitely extremely eccentric as a 1994 documentary made clear. Now he has a
new memoir called "The R. Crumb Handbook" that includes many of his comics, as
well as a CD featuring his music. Reviewing the book in Newsweek, Malcolm
Jones wrote, quote, "Crumb has made strange and hilarious art out of his own
neuroses. Insecure and paranoid, obsessed with sex in general and women with
big behinds, in particular, Crumb has never been afraid to draw and write
about his own foibles and fantasies. His work is like an id, unleashed with
no thought for propriety," unquote.

For the past few years, Crumb has been living in France. His recent work has
been published in the New Yorker. I spoke with him a couple of weeks ago when
he was visiting the US.

R. Crumb, welcome to FRESH AIR. Didn't your early comics, some of the ones...

Mr. ROBERT CRUMB (Underground Comic Book Artist): Yes.

GROSS: ...anthologized in your new book, do you think they look different out
of the time period than they did to you in their time?

Mr. CRUMB: Different from this perspective of nowadays?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CRUMB: Well, they're kind of timeless, you know, because they looked out
of time then, when I did them. In the beginning, in '66, '67, '68, people
looked at them and said, `Hey, these look like old comics from the '30s, you
know it?' And some people, when they met me, were surprised that I was a
young man at the time. They thought I'd be some old guy, because it--so they
already looked out of time then, and so I--they just kind of still look like
their own thing. They don't--and I think a lot of young people that pick them
up, they don't--when they first see them, don't realize how old they are.


Mr. CRUMB: They just don't seem to be part of the '60s as it's known,
stylistically, for such stuff as Peter Max or the psychedelic posters and all
that stuff. It doesn't fit in with that. It's kind of its own thing.

GROSS: In your new book, "The R. Crumb Handbook," you described how you
started some aspects of your style after a bad LSD trip. What were the...

Mr. CRUMB: Right.

GROSS: ...images that you saw when you were tripping that made their way into
your cartoons?

Mr. CRUMB: Whoa! That's a tough question. What were the images on LSD?
What did they look like? Ooh. Well, I don't know, for some reason, I don't
know why or how it happened, I just--on this one really strange LSD trip that
I took, that there was something wrong with the drug, I got trapped in some
level of the mental collective consciousness that was very tawdry and
carnival-like in a kind of a cheap, gaudy way. It's really hard to describe.
And that involved that kind of gaudy, low-grade cartooning styles of the '30s
and '40s and all that, as well as other kind of gaudy imagery and it just
stuck there. I was stuck there for months until I--actually, what cleared it
up was--taking another dose of LSD made it go away. But in that...

GROSS: How did it chase it away?

Mr. CRUMB: I don't know. It just evaporated with this--another strong drug.
Because, you know, LSD imprints very deeply in your subconscious. That's the
scary thing about it. It takes you to a deep, deep level of your mind and
then whatever you experience on that--in that time is imprinted deeply.
That's the thing about LSD that's serious to deal with, you know?

GROSS: Well, how do you think your drawing style was actually changed by this
hallucinogenic imagery?

Mr. CRUMB: Well, it changed vastly. Well, before that, I was trying to
be--you know, in order to get work as an artist and a cartoonist, I was trying
to be contemporary and with it. And I looked at the work of people like Jules
Feiffer and these English cartoonists like Gerald Scarfe. And I was trying to
be more modern. I was, you know, attempting to fit in with what was trendy at
the time. And the LSD just blew all that away completely, and I was--because
of that, being caught in that--for that two months in that period where--I was
always drawing in my sketchbooks all the time, and I was drawing these images
that were coming from my brain all the time in that two months,
uncontrollably, just floating up in my mind, and I just started drawing them.

And that completely changed my whole approach to what I was doing, to the
cartooning and took on this older '30s, '40s, kind of--and I starting looking
more closely at these kind of brand X third-rate comics from the '40s that
had--that were drawn in that style by these artists that never achieved, you
know, renown among--even among comics people. They were a third-rate artist,
but they had this working-class proletarian, funky, crude, vulgar--these
comics were very vulgar, violent, you know, real cheap, violent comics. I
don't know. It's interesting.

GROSS: So what are some of the characters that you started drawing in this
period after taking LSD?

Mr. CRUMB: That was my first--you know, that two-month period when my ego was
completely, like, fragmented by that bad LSD, I drew Mr. Natural, Flakey
Foont, Angelfood McSpade, the Snoids, the Vulture Goddesses, the Vulture
Demonesses, whatever you want to call them. I know lots of characters--The
Old Pooperoo.

GROSS: OK, Mr. Natural's this kind of, like, guru kind of figure with the

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah.

GROSS: ...really long beard. Was he based on anybody who you knew or a type
that you knew?

Mr. CRUMB: It was actually, more or less, a combination of the mysticism of
LSD experiences, combined with this old cartoon stereotype of the little old
man with the long beard.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. CRUMB: There was several of these, kind of like, standard, you know,
cartoon figure in old comic strips going back to the '20s, even earlier,
probably, that little old--funny little old man with the long beard.
(Unintelligible) invent anything out of whole cloth. It's--all has
antecedence in the popular culture, all of it.

GROSS: And Angelfood McSpade--I mean, this is an African-American woman who
is drawn like--some of the black people in your early comics look like the
African cannibals in the Betty Boop cartoon where they...

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah.

GROSS: ...have her in a big pot and...

Mr. CRUMB: Mm-hmm. That's right, exactly.

GROSS: Yeah. Why...

Mr. CRUMB: Precisely.

GROSS: Why did you draw them that way?

Mr. CRUMB: Because they were there and they were part of the whole experience
of all that tawdry, low-class imagery that was boiling in my brain. That was
part of it is that jigaboo jungle bunny image, that was there. It was part of
it. It wasn't there before, but it boiled up, and so it's obviously in the
collective subconscious and I just didn't have any control. I just had to
draw what was there. And I don't think Angelfood McSpade can really
legitimately be called an African-American woman. That's a car--it's a
cartoon stereotype crazy...


Mr. CRUMB: ...image of something that's like in the imaginations of people.
It's not, you know, actually a representation of an African-American woman.

GROSS: Did you worry that people would misconstrue it? Because certainly a
lot of people didn't see it that way. They just saw it as a crude stereotype.

Mr. CRUMB: Yes, they do. A lot of people just took it at face value. And,
you know, I can't let that stop me. Like, it has to come out. What's been in
there had to come out. Had--you know, I really couldn't stop it. And I--if I
worried about how it was going to be construed too much--I mean, I had--well,
obviously, I had some concern of that, but, I--you know, I didn't want to be
too hurtful, but at the same time, I had to put on the paper--I had this
direct line from, you know, the brain stem to the paper. There was
no--I--things in between I just--were brushed aside, everything in between,
the super ego, you know, the socialized self, you know, all that was just
swept away.

GROSS: And it was swept away in your sexual imagery, too.

Mr. CRUMB: You betcha, yeah. So, you know, I--yeah, I have no secrets. I'm
probably one of the few human beings on the planet--I have no secrets.
Everybody who looks at my comics knows exactly what I'm about. It's all

GROSS: Everybody knows what your sexual fetishes are and everything.

Mr. CRUMB: The darkest side of me, it's all on paper. I--you know, so that
makes--allows me to be a pretty nice guy in real life, you know? So it's all
out there on paper. It's foisted on the public.

GROSS: But was there ever a part of you that wanted to censor that part of
your mind or at least...

Mr. CRUMB: Of course.

GROSS: ...kind of keep it private and hidden, which is what most people do
with those?

Mr. CRUMB: Of course.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah, sure. I'm a normal person in that way. You know, before
those LSD experiences and I just decided to let that all out, I used to make
those drawings and tear them up and flush them down the toilet. `Oh, this is
terrible. What's wrong with you? Where is his wife?' You know? But--and
also as I started doing it for publication, then it all--then the floodgates
opened. You know, once you just let a crack in the dam and let a little bit
trickle out, then it all starts to--the crack just got wider and wider until I
just let it all out. Let it all out there. Oh, look, the dark side of
myself, it's all out there. I had a lesson at impulse. Now I think I got it
out of my system, a lot of it.


Mr. CRUMB: I'm old now.

GROSS: My guest is comic book artist R. Crumb. His new memoir, "The R. Crumb
Handbook," includes many of his comics, as well as a CD of his music. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is R. Crumb, and he has a new autobiography in words and
cartoons. It's part anthology...

Mr. CRUMB: Right.

GROSS: ...part extended essay. It's called "The R. Crumb Handbook."

OK, so once you started doing these like real personal--like, the dark side of
R. Crumb cartoons...

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah.

GROSS: ...that was in this hallucinogenic 1930s kind of imagery...

Mr. CRUMB: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: really caught on. I mean, you really struck a nerve. You were
like one of the originators and kings of underground comics and all the...

Mr. CRUMB: That surprised the hell out of me at the time.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. CRUMB: I was completely surprised by how--the appeal that it had. It
surprised me.

GROSS: What was it like for you to go from, like, loner, eccentric weirdo...

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah.

GROSS:, like, in-demand...

Mr. CRUMB: Right.

GROSS: ...popular person...

Mr. CRUMB: Right. Cool Mister...

GROSS: ...who everybody wants to publish and buy, and know.

Mr. CRUMB: Right. Mr. Cool Guy. It was very disorienting because I was
quite young. I was only, like, 25, 26 when all that happened, originally.
And it was both, you know, thrilling to my ego--I had a big ego--but also
very confusing and scary, even, because, suddenly, this whole element of
people that I'd never, ever had any dealings with before were suddenly there,
interested in me, wanting to hustle me, wanting this and that and everything,
you know, get--sign me to a five-year exclusive contract, da, da, da. You
know, these people are trying to cash in on the hippy culture and the youth
movement, and make money off it, you know, and they saw me as, you know,
somebody--a part of that that they could exploit, like the people that made
the Fritz the Cat movie--they were, you know, textbook case of these
media hustlers, you know. And I was so young, I didn't know how to deal with
all that.

But at the same time, it made me more attractive to women. So that part of
it was nice.

GROSS: (Laughing) So...

Mr. CRUMB: It was. Before that I was, like, this, you know, nerd that at a
party no woman even noticed. I was just part of the shrubbery or something.
But after that, `Oh, there's R. Crumb. Oh.' You know? Suddenly, they were
interested, and that was nice.

GROSS: Well, you were also, like, suddenly, you were an important part of,
like, the hippy counterculture. Did you identify with that culture? Did you
feel like a part of it?

Mr. CRUMB: Well, I guess, you know, the elements of that culture, like, the
music and the stylistic stuff--no, I didn't identify with that at all. I
identified with some of the values, like the political values, some of, like,
the Eastern religious stuff that people were into--I like--I was attracted to
that; and, you know, the drug thing, the psychedelic drugs--I was into that
part of it. And I also got caught up in the general optimism and hopefulness
and idealism of that time, the late '60s, you know? But stylistically, I was
always alienated from it. I hated the music.

GROSS: And I want to get back to some of the early imagery in your mind. In
your new book, in "The R. Crumb Handbook," you write a little bit about
the pop culture that you were surrounded with as a kid.

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah.

GROSS: And you write that puppet and marionette kid shows made a deep
impression on you.

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah.

GROSS: You say the adult assumption...

Mr. CRUMB: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...was that these puppets were cute and lovable, but they were

Mr. CRUMB: Right.

GROSS: ...grotesque. And the shows tried to tell kids that life could be fun
and exciting, but the unconscious message was that the adult world is strange,
twisted, perverse, threatening, sinister. What was it about...

Mr. CRUMB: That's right.

GROSS: "Howdy Doody" or the other--"Kukla, Fran and Ollie"--that you
found, like, grotesque and sinister?

Mr. CRUMB: Oh--well, especially "Howdy Doody." I think that it was really
grotesque. `Hi, kids!' And Clarabell the Clown and all the--oh! It was
all very, very sinister and scary. And Buffalo Bob Smith--did you ever see
that stuff when you were a kid?

GROSS: You bet. I sure did.

Mr. CRUMB: Jeez. My wife, Aline, actually--she grew up in New York. She
actually got to be in the Peanut Gallery when she was a kid on the Buffalo Bob
show and the "Howdy Doody Show." And she said it was a defining moment in her
life. She was, like, eight years old or something--seven years old. And she
saw the adult world behind the scenes of the "Howdy Doody" show and how these
people are all kind of cranky and stressed. And she said the seat of the
pants of Bob Smith's outfit was kind of frayed, and, you know. (Laughing) And
he was, like, real mean to the kids when it was off camera.

GROSS: So...

Mr. CRUMB: "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" was cuter, though. "Kukla, Fran and
Ollie"--that was better than "Howdy Doody," that way, it was more lovable.
You know, Kukla was kind of a cute little lovable guy, a little hand puppet.
And Fran, the woman, she's, like, talking to the puppets. So it was a little
more reassuring; you know, it was cuter. But...

GROSS: Did the frozen smile on Howdy Doody's face strike you as deranged?

Mr. CRUMB: It was just creepy and weird. What the heck, you know? What
does that have to do with anything? He didn't look like a kid--he was
supposed to be, like, a kid in a cowboy suit, but he didn't come off like--he
just came off as a creature, like, from Mars, you know? He wasn't--there's
some underlying thing you can't quite define that was just disturbing and
sinister and scary about it all, all that stuff.

GROSS: OK, the things that you say about these puppet shows, that they show
that the adult world is strange, twisted, perverse, threatening,

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah.

GROSS: ...a kind of description of what your cartoons became like--strange,
twisted, perverse, threatening, sinister. It's like, that's what you set out
to do.

Mr. CRUMB: Well, yeah, but I guess...

GROSS: Not for children, of course. I mean, it wasn't for children.

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah. What I was trying to do was to uncover that sinister
quality, the dark, sinister, strange, disturbing part of things and not hide
it, not keep it hidden. You know, I started doing that in '68, '69, putting
it out there, the Snoids. You know, they were these little, creepy gnome
creatures that I, you know, on LSD, I would catch out of the corner of my eye
sneaking around and giggling in the background of my life, you know?

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. CRUMB: I just had to show that, I wanted to show that, that sinister
aspect, that noire, dark side of things, and how it's--I guess it's almost
like making fun of the veneer of cuteness or whatever it is that they think
covers that. You know, it's just all veneer. It's not real cuteness, it's a
completely fake attempt to cover up what life is really about, and, you know,
the whole mass media thing. And we're all--grow up in America, you're a
child of the mass-media pop culture unless your parents, like, guard you and
protect you from that very conscientiously. My parents didn't--they shoved
us in front of the TV and, you know, bought us all the comic books and
everything. So when I was a little kid, they didn't--you know, some people I
know, their parents frowned on comics, but my mother bought us comic books
when we were little. So we're just products of pop culture. So, you know,
that's what you have to work with.

GROSS: You know, we've talked a little bit about how your visual imagery was
changed by LSD. What about your sexual fantasies? I mean, so much of the
comics that you've done...

(Soundbite of goofy laughter)

GROSS: ...have had to do with...

(Soundbite of goofy laughter)

GROSS: ...sexual fantasy. You know, what...

Mr. CRUMB: Hi, girls.

GROSS: Were those fantasies as dark before LSD as they were after?

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah. Unfortunately, the LSD didn't really change much of my
sexual fantasies, but I found a way to express them that made them
metaphorical to me. I could solve them more metaphorically, you know. On
LSD, everything in our world is a metaphor. Or, as Allen Ginsberg said,
things are symbols of themselves. And so I saw my own sexual fantasies that
way, and tried to understand what they meant metaphorically. You know,
otherwise, we just feel helpless in the face--if things don't mean anything,
we feel helpless. What does it mean? What do these fantasies mean? Where do
they come from? Why do I have them, you know?

GROSS: So...

Mr. CRUMB: Try to understand or express that somehow, in some way. But of
course it's all masturbatory on top of that, you know.

GROSS: Well...

Mr. CRUMB: I got off drawing those things. I got off drawing them. I admit
it, I confess.

GROSS: But that's--I wanted to ask you about that. Did you want your more
sexually oriented comics to function as turn-ons, to be like pornography...

Mr. CRUMB: No. No.

GROSS: the lives of its readers, or did you want...

Mr. CRUMB: No, I didn't. No. It was only for myself. I had no motive to
turn other people on to my sexual fantasies or my sexual preferences at all.
It was just expressing what was inside myself in some way that revealed,
hopefully, the metaphor that it was, you know, in the many variations of
that; you know, the Angelfood McSpade, the Vulture Demonesses or the
Bigfoot-Sasquatch character that I did, the big, hairy female, or the
Devil Girl character; these are all--and when feminists complain, say, `These
aren't real women, these are Crumb's fantasies,' they're absolutely right. I
can't--you know, I got no argument with that. Yeah, that's what it is. Yeah.
It just all comes out of my mind.

GROSS: Well, in your new book, you describe yourself as sexually in a state
of arrested development. You say...

Mr. CRUMB: Right.

GROSS: ...`All my natural compulsions are perverted and twisted.'

Mr. CRUMB: Right. Right.

GROSS: So...

Mr. CRUMB: I see myself as a very negative person, actually. I'm almost
like a negative of the normal, well-adjusted guy, you know. Everything that
he is, I'm not, and everything I am, he's not, you know. It's almost how I
see myself. Maybe not 100 percent, but, you know? I'm like the person of
the night, he's a guy of the day, you know, etc., etc., you know.

GROSS: Now, when you were young, you went for a while to Catholic school,

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah.

GROSS: For a while, you went regularly to church. You say you went

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...a period of being fervent and devout.

Mr. CRUMB: Religious, yeah.

GROSS: What happened to all those fantasies that you had during this period
when these fantasies would've just been horrifying to you?

Mr. CRUMB: Oh--horribly. Horrible guilt. Horrible guilt, of course.
Praying desperately. Please, God, what is this about?

GROSS: Did you pray to get rid of these thoughts?

Mr. CRUMB: You know, it's a funny thing. The same time the thoughts
were--those fantasies were attractive and gave me pleasure, and at the same
time I was deeply disturbed by their sinfulness. So something had to go, and
what went was the church and the whole sin thing. That had to go.

GROSS: R. Crumb will be back in the second half of the show. His new
memoir, "The R. Crumb Handbook," includes many of his comics as well as a CD
of his music.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, comics based on sexual fantasies and acid trips. We
continue our conversation with cartoonist R. Crumb. We'll also talk about
his collaboration with Harvey Pekar on the series "American Splendor."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with R. Crumb, the king of
the '60 underground cartoonists. He created Zap Comix and such characters as
Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat. His came out of his dreams, nightmares,
fantasies, LSD trips and sexual obsession. He has a new memoir that includes
many of his comics. It's called "The R. Crumb Handbook." When we left off,
we were talking about how his sexual fantasies influenced his comics and how
politically incorrect those fantasies were.

So you quote one woman in your book as accusing you of ruining underground
comics by encouraging all the younger boy artists to be bad and do comics...

Mr. CRUMB: Mm-hmm. Right.

GROSS: ...about their own horrible sex fantasies.

Mr. CRUMB: Right.

GROSS: Do you feel like your comics inspired a lot of...

Mr. CRUMB: Other artists?

GROSS: ...other comics of--yeah, of kind of, you know, bad sexual...

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah, I did.

GROSS: ...misogynists? Yeah. Uh-huh.

Mr. CRUMB: Well, you know, it opened the gates for other young boys who had
these--who probably were also comic nerds when they grew up, and that's why
they're drawing comics, and so they also had the same kind of frustrations and
resentment towards women, who were the same kind of--not precisely--I never
saw anybody else draw precisely the same kind of stuff that I drew about sex,
but, you know, similar things or just--it allowed them--it permitted them,
when they saw my work, `Crumb, he's cool and he's doing it so, you know, I
guess I can draw stuff that puts women in this position, too, but--you know,
of having violent acts committed against them.' But I don't think--I can't
think of any artist off hand who was like totally obsessed with just drawing
brutal violence against women. I think that's just--but, you know, feminists
and other people that are involved in any kind of, you know, political
obsession like that, and you can't blame them for it. There's no--they're
looking for that, so they're looking, `Oh, here's one right here. Look,
here's an example of, you know, somebody being violent to women or here's
somebody abusing a woman.' You know, they're looking for that and, yeah,
sure, you can find it. It's there. Yeah.

GROSS: Do you...

Mr. CRUMB: But I--point in my defense is I don't think I ever drew it in such
a way it could be taken as propaganda for behavior like that. I don't make
that sort of behavior towards women look heroic or commendable. I mean, the
characters that are doing those things are always, you know, creepy little
twisted guys. They're not, you know, heroic, virtuous images of--that someone
would want to emulate.

GROSS: So do you see this part of your work as almost like a grotesque satire
of your sexual fantasies?

Mr. CRUMB: Well, satire?

GROSS: No, not quite, huh?

Mr. CRUMB: Not quite satire, no. It's more...

GROSS: Wishful thinking on my part.

Mr. CRUMB: Much more--it's much more personal than that. It's more personal
than that, you know. It's a personal revolution, you know. And for what it's
worth then, you know, if it's painful for you, if you can't look at it, then
just don't look at it.

GROSS: Now we talked a little bit about how influenced you feel you were by
early comics and, you know, musically so much of the music you love is from
the '20s and '30s.

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah.

GROSS: How were you first exposed to, like, graphics of that period and music
of that period?

Mr. CRUMB: Right, right. Well, as a kid in the '50s, you didn't watch a lot
of television, and at the same time you saw the culture around you. I saw,
when I was nine, 10, 11 years old, you could see the popular culture was in
decline. It was--comics were in decline, the TV wasn't that great, you know,
and so I start looking for older stuff, and the first older stuff that I--you
know, that piqued my interest was older comic books that you could find in
Salvation Army stores, and also old stuff on the kiddie shows on television.
Again, you have to keep in mind we're just children of the popular culture.
There was no channel to higher forms of literature or art or anything. It was
all pop culture. So on TV on these kiddie shows they showed old cartoons from
the '30s, you know, old Betty Boop and Popeye and all that stuff, and the
music was great, the drawing style was great, they were very, very appealing
to me as a kid. This was '53, '54, '55, in there. And the music was--I don't
know, just grabbed me somehow and then also you could see these really old Hal
Roach comedies, "Laurel and Hardy," "Our Gang," "Little Rascals," stuff--I
loved that stuff when I was a kid.

And as I got into my later teens, I always looked for really early movies that
were on TV on the late show, movies from 1930, '31, '32. I just loved the
whole style of the period. Somehow it just attracted me deeply, the music and
everything. And then I started looking for some other way to find the music
of that period, 'cause I loved hearing it in the TV, reruns of those old
films, and I discovered on 78 records. I discovered that this old music was
actually on these records that were sitting around these same places that the
old comic books were and other old stuff, and so I started buying old 78s and
still collecting them today.

GROSS: And how did you start playing banjo?

Mr. CRUMB: I had musical inclinations from childhood and I--first I tried to
make myself a cigar box ukulele, but that didn't play so well and I couldn't
really make it play efficiently and effectively, so then my mother, for
Christmas when I was 12 years old, gave me a plastic ukulele, which was
playable and could actually tune it and play it, so I learned to play that.
And then I graduated to this banjo later. I was, like, attracted to old music
and--you know, kind of out-of-it nerd. I, you know, wasn't really much into
rock 'n' roll, things of my contemporaries. I don't know. I just--like I
said. I'm not gonna go negative. I'm kind of an oddball character.

GROSS: Well, speaking of your music, the autobiography comes with an R. Crumb
music sampler that...

Mr. CRUMB: Right.

GROSS: ...includes records from the '70s that you made with The Cheap Suit

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and stuff that you've recorded since moving to France...

Mr. CRUMB: Right.

GROSS: well as some tracks that you recorded with your family. And I
thought maybe we'd play one of the recent ones that you've made with your

Mr. CRUMB: Huh. Oh.

GROSS: With your wife and daughter playing with you, and you're singing.

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah, yeah. Sophie is...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CRUMB: Sophie's really a good musician, really good musician. Much
better than me.

GROSS: So what do you think? Would you rather play something earlier? I
mean, 'cause I love all the stuff, so I'm amenable to any of this.

Mr. CRUMB: Play "Baby Face."

GROSS: Sure. OK. So why don't we hear "Baby Face," and tell us who's
playing what on this.

Mr. CRUMB: Sophie plays piano on it and I play guitar, and I sing on it, I
guess, yeah.

GROSS: OK, and this was recorded in 2003, the Crumb family.

(Soundbite of "Baby Face")

Mr. CRUMB: (Singing) Baby face, you've got the cutest little baby face.
There's not another one can take your place, baby face. My poor heart is
jumping. You sure have started something. Baby face, I'm up in heaven when
I'm in your fond embrace. I didn't need a shove 'cause just fell in love with
that pretty baby face.

GROSS: That's the Crumb family. That's R. Crumb, his wife Aline and his
daughter, Sophie, recorded in 2003, and it's on a CD that comes with the new
R. Crumb autobiography in words and comics which is called "The R. Crumb

Mr. CRUMB: Right.

GROSS: Before you started doing underground comics...

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah.

GROSS: worked for American Greetings.

Mr. CRUMB: Right.

GROSS: Now were you doing greeting cards or...

Mr. CRUMB: Yes. Yes. I drew hundreds and hundreds of greeting cards.

GROSS: Gosh, I'd like to see those. Have they been exhibited?

Mr. CRUMB: No.

GROSS: What were they like?

Mr. CRUMB: They're pretty bland. They're bland. I didn't write them, I just
did the drawings. They had a staff of writers, and you went to work--it was a
9 to 5 job. You punched a time clock. It was in Cleveland. And I got up at
6:00 in the morning and took the rapid transit to work every day and, you
know, went to the bar after work and drank with the guys and then went home
and asked myself, `Is this my life? Is this what my life is gonna be from now

GROSS: So what are some of the things that you drew for the greeting cards?
This was--What?--birthday cards, get well soon cards, stuff like that?

Mr. CRUMB: No, I had this department that--at that--in the late '50s they
started making these kind of more hip-looking greeting cards. They were tall
and thin, you know. Remember those?

GROSS: Yes, I sure do.

Mr. CRUMB: That was--I was in that department.

GROSS: And they were funny or funny in quotes.

Mr. CRUMB: Funny. Yeah, they were funny.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CRUMB: And some of them actually were funny. They had a couple of
writers that actually were gifted comedy writers who just got stuck in
Cleveland 'cause they were alcoholics or whatever. But they wrote very funny
cards. Often their best cards were censored and never used because everything
had to pass by the approval of the wife of the guy who owns the Walgreen drug
chain, and if she didn't like the cards, then they couldn't be distributed.
So some of the best stuff never actually got distributed.

GROSS: My guest is comic book artist R. Crumb. His new memoir, "The R. Crumb
Handbook," includes many of his comics as well as a CD of his music. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is R. Crumb. His new memoir, which includes many of his
comics, is called "The R. Crumb Handbook."

We've talked about how you love old things from the 1920s and '30s. You
collect a lot of old things.

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah. I'm just an old moldy ...(unintelligible) love old stuff.

GROSS: Yeah, now how--you've also said you're repulsed by the body. You say,
`I hate my body.'

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah.

GROSS: `The thought of my internal functions, the organs, digestion'...

Mr. CRUMB: Oh.

GROSS: ...`the brain, the nervous system horrify me.'

Mr. CRUMB: Oh. It is horrifying. Yeah.

GROSS: What's it like for you to be getting older now when, you
know--you're--like your body just becomes a little less functional as you get
older, and all of those...

Mr. CRUMB: I know.

GROSS: ...freaky things about your digestive system or whatever become more

Mr. CRUMB: Well, you know, you're forced to pay more attention to the body as
you get older. You're forced to. And that has helped me in a way to be less
repelled in a certain way 'cause, you know, before I was just ignoring it as
much as possible, you know, so that kind of helped to keep that or nurture
that kind of horror of the body. Actually being forced to deal with it, you
know, actually even forced to have a certain affection for the body, otherwise
if you don't, you're in big trouble, you know. You don't develop some sort of
respect and even a kind of almost a sympathetic fondness for your body and--or
at least, you know, a mercy for the body, a sense of mercy, you know, lighten
up on the body, ease up on it, do give it a chance, you know, acknowledge that
it needs, you know, some care and feeding and, you know. And so now I have to
pay more attention.

GROSS: Do you draw--do you think of yourself as drawing yourself very
differently now than you did in the '60s or '70s?

Mr. CRUMB: Not too differently. Maybe a little academically more correct. I
look at my drawings that I did back then and I can see a lot of things that
are real crude about them and not--I would change a lot of things if I
actually could--was Superman, could go back and alter everything I ever drew.
I would change a lot of it, improve it. So I think I--my drawing's actually
improved technically in a way, although maybe the content's not quite as wacky
and wild as it used to be. I don't know, but I draw myself looking older now.
I always drew myself looking old anyway. I always felt old.

GROSS: Why? Why do you think you always felt old?

Mr. CRUMB: I don't know. My mother used to say, `Robert, you're just like a
little old man.' She used to tell me that when I was a kid. I don't know. I
always did. Actually part of my opposition to normal people is that I feel
like I was born old, in a certain way I've actually gotten younger as I've
gotten old--as life's gone on. Or most people it's the opposite. They come
out like children and then they get old. I think I came out old and I'm
becoming a child as I get--as the years progress.

GROSS: Let me quote something else you write in your book. You say that in
your youth your sex drive never left you alone. You say, `I was constantly
driven by frustrated desires to do bizarre and unacceptable things with and to

Mr. CRUMB: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: `My soul was in constant conflict. Old age is the only relief.'

Mr. CRUMB: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: Well, you're not exactly in old age, but you are older.

Mr. CRUMB: I'm 61. That's old age. It's old. I think once you pass 60 you
can't call yourself middle aged anymore.

GROSS: So is that--do you feel like that's had an impact on what you want to

Mr. CRUMB: It had an impact even on the motivation to draw at all actually.


Mr. CRUMB: I just don't have--I was so driven when I was young, I used
to--when I was young, I lived on paper basically. I lived my youth on paper
'cause I couldn't live in the real world. I guess part of that thing you just
asked me before of how do I feel like I'm younger now is that I actually
can--am more relaxed in the real world than I used to be, so I'm much less
motivated to hide behind the drawing in a certain way.

GROSS: Oh, this is really funny. The--you write in the book, `Sartre said
hell is other people.' You say, `Hell is also yourself.'

Mr. CRUMB: Right, right.

GROSS: I really like that.

Mr. CRUMB: Right.

GROSS: Now you moved to Paris decades ago. When was that?

Mr. CRUMB: Well...

GROSS: I don't mean Paris. I mean France.

Mr. CRUMB: We moved to France in '91.

GROSS: Oh, I thought it was longer ago than that.

Mr. CRUMB: Fourteen years ago.

GROSS: All right. OK.

Mr. CRUMB: Fourteen years ago this month. It was mostly--that was my wife's
motivation, moving to France. I would never have taken on something that
drastic in my own volition.

GROSS: Oh, I thought you were trying to, like, get away from your own fame or

Mr. CRUMB: That's--no escape. But, Aline, she really wanted to move to
France. She--we'd been going to France frequently and she just fell in love
with the place and wanted to move there and get out of California, so--and she
took care of everything. She took care of the whole moving and all the
bureaucratic stuff and the documents and getting the mover and all. She did
everything, so I just went along with it. I'm kind of a passive guy that way
in the real world. I'm very passive. I'm only really active and aggressive
or assertive in my work.

GROSS: Do you like living in France?

Mr. CRUMB: The real world I'm a--in the real world I'm a very timid person
actually. Do I like--yeah. Oh, yeah. It's a really nice place to live,

GROSS: You've described your mind as a garbage trail of mass media images.

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah, sure.

GROSS: So you...

Mr. CRUMB: Grow up in America, you can't help it. Grow up in America,
everybody's mind in America is a garbage pail of mass media input. Just can't
help it.

GROSS: When your daughter was growing up, did you want to, like, regulate
what was input into her brain, or did you want her...

Mr. CRUMB: Yes.

GROSS: You did. Why?

Mr. CRUMB: Yes, we did. Because there's so much garbage made to appeal to
kids, you know. It's a horrible, cynical, hideous thing the way they try to
reach kids, you know. It's bad. It's awful. And it's--they're so good at it
now, it's scary. So we try to control what--you know, to some degree.
Not--now you can't shield them too much 'cause then they'll see it at other
kids' houses and they'll rebel against you and all that stuff, you know. So
we didn't want to be too fanatic but we--you know, what I really wanted to do
with Sophie was give her a classical education in, you know, The Three
Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Betty Boop, Popeye, Little Lulu.

I used to read her Little Lulu comics, old ones from the '40s and '50s, and
she got to love those Little Lulu, you know. And Walt Disney, Donald Duck,
the old ones from the '50s which were great. They were--you know, I had
already sifted that stuff out for myself, and now she's kind of--she's got
that foundation that's really been--I can see that--I'm really glad I did it.
I'm really glad I did it. Other kids her age don't know anything about that
stuff, and all they know is the crap they grew up with in the '80s and '90s,
kids her age, you know.

GROSS: What did you most want to protect her from? What kind of pop culture?

Mr. CRUMB: You know the stuff on TV, stuff for kids on TV. She watched
"Sesame Street," that was OK, and, you know, a couple other things, but there
was so much bad crap, so we just substituted stuff that was better, the older
stuff that we had selected out--I had selected out and, you know, she
got--Sophie loves "The Three Stooges." She can--you know.

GROSS: R. Crumb is my guest and he has a new book that's an autobiography in
words and comics and it's called "The R. Crumb Handbook."

Are your dreams a lot like your comics?

Mr. CRUMB: My dreams?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CRUMB: Well, be--no, I guess--sometimes I have sexual dreams that are a
lot--you know, they're just right in line with my fantasies. I read this
thing recently written by some weird mystic writer that when you have
fantasies like that, sexual fantasies and you--they excite you, that you build
a thought form--he called it a schema or a schemata in your mind. That
thought form takes on a life of its own that once it's there, it's like
implanted in your mind, this thought form is like an entity that then
has--control you. Has a huge amount of control over you and keeps you in a
weak state, so that you're always, like, struggling with this thing to not let
it totally dominate you, 'cause as he points out, this mystic writer, that
this thing can dominate you so much that it'll--and you'll end up committing
suicide because it never actually fulfills you and leaves you--like taking
heroin or something, it leaves you bereft and feeling depressed and empty
because it doesn't re--it just takes your energy and doesn't--it can't give
back. It's just a mental thought form.

GROSS: Yikes.

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah. So that's kind of went this fantasy thing that I've dealt
all my life is--and it comes in my dreams a lot. It appears in my dreams and
it's very powerful. It's a very powerful female thing. It's a female entity.

GROSS: My guest is comic book artist R. Crumb. His new memoir, "The R. Crumb
Handbook," includes many of his comics as well as a CD of his music. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is R. Crumb. His new memoir, which includes many of his
comics, is called "The R. Crumb Handbook."

There's one more image I want to ask you about from your work, and that's the
truckin' image where...

Mr. CRUMB: Oh. Oh.

GROSS: Right. OK, so we've got, like...

Mr. CRUMB: Oh.

GROSS: ...the big foot and everything, but there's always the--one hand has
like a forefinger in the air kind of shaking it. Does that...

Mr. CRUMB: That's gonna...

GROSS: That's gonna...

Mr. CRUMB: Keep on truckin' is gonna be written on my gravestone.

GROSS: Yeah. Did that come from, like, your interest in early jazz
recordings or something?

Mr. CRUMB: That all came out of that period--that two-month period when I was
in that fuzzy state from that bad LSD...


Mr. CRUMB: ...and it was all part of that imagery that was bubbling up in my
brain was these stupid-looking cartoon characters doing those kind of
'30s--1930s dance steps, you know, in unison, and this really stupid, you
know, stiff, animated, electrical--it's really hard to describe. It was all
part of that, all floating around in the collective consciousness, you know,
that nonsense, and I was drawing, and I didn't draw it with the intention of
it being something like cute and positive. Do me it was like a dance of
death. But the people interpreted it as--when they saw it--as something like
a part of the positive up-thrust in the late '60s and then it was picked up
by, like, merchandisers and it was on patches and lunch boxes and mud flaps
and every damn thing, and radio deejays were saying every 10 minutes, `And
don't forget to keep on truckin'.' And it became...

GROSS: What about the Grateful Dead song "Keep On Truckin'?"

Mr. CRUMB: Well, that came out before I did it actually.

GROSS: Did it? Oh, OK.

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah. It was--and Donovan and Grateful Dead did "Keep On
Truckin'" song before I ever drew that thing. It was, you know, an old
popular song from the '30s, "Keep On Truckin'." And it became--for me it
became a big legal nightmare and this lawyer and--oh, it was awful.
Everybody--anybody says `keep on truckin',' just goes through my nervous
system like a jolt or `slowly I turn, step by step, inch by inch.'

GROSS: So one more question: How much time do you actually spend drawing
comics now?

Mr. CRUMB: How much time do I spend drawing comics now?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRUMB: I don't draw--I rarely ever draw comics anymore. Mostly I just do
business or things like this, you know. The media, they really want me, and
I'm too timid and insecure, so I say yes, and I end up doing this kind of

GROSS: So this interview is a sign of insecurity?

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: If you were more secure you wouldn't have come on our show?

Mr. CRUMB: I don't enjoy doing this really. I don't--this isn't my thing.
You know, I'm not a guy that likes to get up there in front of people, but
somehow I--people keep dragging me up and pushing me in front of the public.
I don't know. I just want to stay in my room and draw comics and
occasionally, you know, have friends over or, you know--it's not--I don't want
to be doing this kind of stuff that much. It's nerve-wracking. Takes it out
of me.

GROSS: Well, you're too interesting for us to let you just stay in your room
all the time.

Mr. CRUMB: Right. I'm going back to my room now. I'm never coming out
again. This is the last interview I'm ever doing.

GROSS: You don't mean that.

Mr. CRUMB: I do. I mean it. I mean it this time. This time I really mean

GROSS: Well...

Mr. CRUMB: This is it. I quit the music business. I don't play music in
public anymore. It was too nerve-wracking.

GROSS: Wait. There's that recording from 2003. That's just a couple years

Mr. CRUMB: Yeah, it's the last time I did it.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. CRUMB: Last time. Never do it again.

GROSS: Well, do you have stage fright?

Mr. CRUMB: I do. I have stage fright, I get real nervous. Oh, awful.
I--being in the music business like that and performing on stage was never a
happy, fun thing for me. Problem is I liked playing the music so I would play
music with these guys. Because I had some kind of name, some kind of fame
they'd say, `Oh, we can get gigs,' you know, and they could sell tickets and
da-da-da-da. So I got sucked into performing publicly and, you know, I liked
these guys, I wanted to help them and, you know, they're my buddies and
they--you know. So that's the way it goes. But I--finally I had to quit, and
my worst nightmare came true. Of course, they were deeply hurt when I quit.
When I quit The Cheap Suit Serenaders, they took it very personally and were
deeply hurt no matter how much I tried to explain it to them that I--not them,
I like the music, but I just can't do it anymore in public. And then I got
sucked into playing with that French band, and again I liked those guys, I
love the music, old-time French music, but--and the gigs were, oh, just
nerve-wracking and pulled me away from my work, and I just wanted to sit in my
room and draw. And I had to go out and perform and, you know, go on stage and
da-da-da and...

GROSS: Well...

Mr. CRUMB: Phew. Whoa.

GROSS: Listen...

Mr. CRUMB: And when I quit that band, it was the same thing.

GROSS: I know being interviewed isn't your favorite sport, so...

Mr. CRUMB: No. Well...

GROSS: ...thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it a lot.
Thank you.

Mr. CRUMB: OK. All right.

GROSS: R. Crumb. His new book is called "The R. Crumb Handbook." It
includes many of his comics as well as a CD of his music.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We're closing with the title track from the 1993
album "Singing in the Bathtub" by R. Crumb & The Cheap Suit Serenaders.

(Soundbite of "Singing in the Bathtub")

Mr. CRUMB & THE CHEAP SUIT SERENADERS: (Singing) Singing in the bathtub,
sitting all alone. Tearing out a tonsil just like a baritone. Never take a
shower. It's an awful pain. Singing in the shower's like singing in the
rain. Oh there is dirt to be abolished, but don't forget one thing. While
the body's washed and polished, sing, brother, sing. You can yodel opera even
when you scrub. (Foreign language sung). Everybody's happy while singing in
the tub. I'm forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air. Oh, a ring
around the bathtub isn't so nice to see. But a ring around the bathtub is a
rainbow to me. Reaching for a towel, ready for a rub. Everybody's happy
while singing in the tub.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue