City Paper is not for tourists
It’s hard to recommend The R. Crumb Handbook, an R. Crumb compendium/life history–cum–music sampler, wholeheartedly. Not because Crumb isn’t one of the most original and influential American artists of the past 50 years—he is. Nor because the book fails to adequately summarize his life and work—it does. No, the reason for my hesitancy is that my advocacy of Crumb has proved disastrous in the past. The wife of one of my friends has been chilly to me for 11 years after my overly spirited defense of Crumb, the 1994 documentary about “America’s Best Loved Underground Cartoonist.” And an incarcerated friend whom I had sent a care package of indie comics during his three-month stint at the penal farm had to think fast and hide an issue of Weirdo when another inmate asked for “next,” lest the infamous Crumb strip contained therein, with its liberal use of the N-bomb, get him in a whole new level of trouble. (He hid the objectionable item in his pillowcase for the remainder of his stay.) By firing invective at squares and hippies alike, the prolific Crumb has been making life difficult for his supporters for almost 40 years. The question about the Handbook, of course, is whether it stands out in an oeuvre that includes 17 volumes of The Complete Crumb Comics and scores of sketchbooks. Until recently, the best attempt at encapsulating Crumb’s body of work was The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book—designed to appeal to high-culture types who wouldn’t be caught dead buying Big Ass Comics—edited by Peter Poplanski, who has now provided the same service for the Handbook. Having previously had the pleasure of collaborating with Crumb (“Oh, no, not again!” he recalls thinking), Poplanski knew how difficult it would be to create a distinctive new collection—his foreword is titled “A Well Plowed Field.” For this book, however, the intrepid Poplanski actually interviewed Crumb about his life; the results are scattered throughout. Crumb’s words are flat and not nearly as revealing as his art, which is autobiographical to a fault. But there are some dark gems. “I took LSD as a sort of substitute for committing suicide,” for instance. Who but Crumb could recall the Summer of Love so glumly? Of course, not all of Poplanski’s concepts are effective: Organizing the book according to “the paradigm of the Toltec Indians’ four enemies of man—fear, clarity, power and old age” seems a little forced. (And I thought Crumb quit the drugs back in the ’80s.) But not even Crumb completists would argue with the selection of illustrations. There’s a nice representation of album covers, posters, and especially comic books, ranging from the Zap heyday through Reagan-era Weirdo. Fans who have been curious about Crumb’s string-band output will appreciate the CD that comes with the book. And people looking for examples of his acidic social commentary and his obsession with mudflap maidens won’t be disappointed. So this gallimaufry of a Handbook, thanks to its breadth (and affordability), is as good a place as any to start with Crumb. Not that that’s a strong endorsement or anything. —David Dunlap Jr.