Crumb is a brilliant chronicle of the life and twisted times of a most unlikely bad boy, a skinny, four-eyed, sex-obsessed misanthrope with no weapons to fire back at the society that rejected him save one: The nerd can draw. It took director Terry Zwigoff six years to put together this absolute stunner of a documentary about R. Crumb, Robert to his cronies, the 51-year-old underground artist who has been using the comics to zap hypocrisy since his acidhead days in the San Francisco of the ’60s. Through frank interviews with Crumb, his friends, lovers, wives, children, colleagues, critics and the dysfunctional Catholic family that spawned him, Zwigoff crafts a film of raucous humor and shocking gravity. You often laugh to keep from crying.
A shared interest in old-time music brought Zwigoff unprecedented access to the reclusive Crumb. Famous for drawing Fritz the Cat, the KEEP ON TRUCKIN’ logo and the cover art for the Janis Joplin LP Cheap Thrills, Crumb is notorious for creating nerd characters, such as Flakey Foont, who have sex with big-bottomed, balloon-breasted women. In one comic strip, Foont enjoys explicit sex with his ideal Amazon — she’s headless. Time art critic Robert Hughes is heard praising Crumb as the Breughel of the 20th century. Others condemn him as a pornographer and a racist. Crumb excuses his ethnic stereotypes as satire. Cartoonist Aline Kominsky, Crumb’s second wife and the mother of their daughter, Sophie, feels no threat from his pop-art misogyny. “I’d be in jail or a mental institution by now if I didn’t draw that stuff,” says Crumb, who admits he is sometimes embarrassed by his work, though he’d never dream of censoring it.
He hardly profits from it, either. Crumb customarily turns down lucrative offers to commercialize his art. An exception was the notebooks he traded in 1993 to buy a house for his family in southern France. Another residence, however, dominates the film. It’s the house in Philadelphia where Robert grew up the third of five children born to a “sadistic bully” Marine father and a mother with an amphetamine addiction. Though Robert’s father is dead and his two sisters refused to be interviewed, those years are evoked in hilarious and harrowing detail. Younger brother Maxon speaks from a cheap hotel in San Francisco, where he meditates on a bed of nails. Older brother Charles never strays from the side of his reclusive mother. Charles, heavily medicated and unconcerned with personal hygiene, is revealed as the major influence on Robert. As a child, Robert caught Charles’ passion for comics and drawing as a means to release repressed hostilities and sex fantasies. Charles’ resentment of Robert for flying over the cuckoo’s nest is palpable, but so are his talent and strafing wit. David Lynch, who helped get the film released, is convinced that Charles had potential as an actor.
In its portrait of a family under siege, Crumb recalls another fine documentary, Hoop Dreams, snubbed by Oscar. Reportedly, Crumb unnerved voters so much they ordered the film stopped after 25 minutes. It’s the kind of cultural hypocrisy Robert has fought for years.
Crumb isn’t perfect. Scatological repetition saps the film’s energy, as do interviews that focus on Robert’s luck with women after he became a name. Though a former lover claims his penis is prodigious, it’s the size and thrust of his talent that drives the film. Zwigoff links the child to the man, the man to the artist and the artist to personal responsibility in ways that challenge glib notions of psychotherapy and political correctness. Crumb is a funny, touching and vital portrait of a bad boy who can’t put a lid on it. Warts and all, he keeps on truckin’.