Friday, February 10, 2017

Homage to R Crumb

Robert Crumb is a true elder statesman of cartooning and one of those who made graphic works that turned sharply away from the comic books of the early 20th century. By the 1960s, underground "comix" became what popular comic books were not--bawdy, witty, variously artful or artless, and often very short-lived. In 1960s and '70s Mr. Crumb created the characters Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, and Angelfood McSpade, among numerous others, producing images that are icons to several generations. Unfortunately for Mr. Crumb, some of his work was literally stolen and some was stolen and altered without consent over the decades, resulting in substantial financial losses.

R. Crumb, as he has always signed himself, began as an underground cartoonist and has remained generally outside the mainstream. His provocative, unrestrained, bawdy--often pornographic--work takes on everything from women and men to race. There is something deeply cynical and knowing about R. Crumb's work. His hilarious holy man/philosopher, Mr. Natural, turns out to be precisely what we might expect out of such a guy. He's a fraud and an opportunist. It's not that he isn't in on what the world is about--he clearly may be--but he's not the all-knowing wise man people in his universe seem to believe in.

Over the decades, Mr. Crumb has produced any number of comic books, including acting as illustrator for others--notably Harvey Pekar's well-known American Splendor series. Mr. Crumb has gathered and sold collections of works, including women, portraits of old-time musicians, and a cartoon version of the book of Genesis from the Bible. He relocated to France many years ago, where he still lives and works.  

G.Hoff, "Doc homage to Crumb," pen and ink, 2008
One of Mr. Crumb's creations that was stolen so much that a judge ruled it had fallen into the public domain is his cartoon from his early days called "Keep on Truckin'." The image was pirated by everyone from tee shirt manufacturers to poster makers to people making all sorts of other marketables and tchotchkes. Mr. Crumb sued but lost his infringement suit because the copyright symbol had not been included on the image itself, despite the fact that cover of the issue displayed the symbol. In any event, the image is now considered public domain.

Because I was interested in Mr. Crumb's technique, I drew a parody of that particular cartoon using ink and a dip pen, substituting myself in a lab coat for the leading figure, brandishing a stethoscope. My university is visible in the distance. The idea was to encourage our medical students in their clinical work. (My apologies to Mr. Crumb for my pretension.) Doing the parody not only allowed me to learn something of Mr. Crumb's methods and imagination; it gave me an opportunity to practice with the less-familiar medium. 

R.Crumb, "A Short History of America," 1980, Snoid Comics
Another of my favorites by Mr. Crumb are the series of images that originally appeared in the 1970s called "A Short History of America." The set begins with wilderness America, rolling hills and trees, supplanted first by railroads, then a road and a few houses and then a small town segues into a big town, trees disappear, buildings spring up and age into disrepair. Automobiles choke the now-wider streets that are festooned with electric wires. In the end, our own era with big ugly cars, ubiquitous wires and sterile buildings provides the final panel, labelled, "What Next?" 

Those original ink drawings have been colorized, reprinted, parodied and copied. They have even been turned into a short video. featuring the colorized version of the cartoons. A number of people have speculated on message of the final image, "What Next?" 

G.Hoff, "What Else? (homage to R. Crumb)" 2016
Predicting the future is always difficult, but here's my own prediction based on Mr. Crumb's final image. The multiplicity of satellite dishes is based on the idea some have predicted that we'll be get electric power via microwave from various satellite sources, wirelessly. So perhaps even street lights will be powered that way. and in the future transportation may be so inexpensive that nobody will walk at all. Instead there could be identical, tidy, self-driving little electric autos running all about, symmetric front-to-back and as purposeful as columns of ant workers. And actually of course, nobody really knows what may be in our future. There may be nothing but the desolation some others have drawn as the final image.

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