Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Zap Comix no. 1 and the Problem with Robert Crumb

I have always been a comic book fan. Well almost always. At least ever since picking up a copy of X-Men #98 at a grocery store with my mom  back in 1976, when i was but a nine year old lad who's only comic book knowledge prior had been Disney & Looney Tunes funny books. Since that fateful day, i have been, what one might call, a comic book kinda guy. 

Since then, my tastes have gone hither and fro all across the sequential art spectrum. From superhero comics (a subset of being what one might call a comic book guy, i have mostly been what one might also call, a Marvel kinda guy) to the indie comics of Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware to the genre comics of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman to the highfalutin artsy graphic novels of Art Spiegelman and Will Eisner to those counter-cultural underground comix...and yes, when one is speaking of the underground variety, that is comix with an X...that all began with Zap Comix no. 1 back in 1968, at the height of the whole counter-culture shebang that was that era, and it's controversial creator, Robert Crumb.

Arguably, one can say that Zap Comix no. 1 was to underground comix what Action Comics no. 1 was to the superhero genre. Yes, there were comic books that one could lump in with the underground movement made before Zap's 1968 debut, just as there were superhero comics before Action Comics #1 came out, but these are the vanguards of their respective genre and/or movement, and therefore comparable.  And if that is so, then the first appearance of Mr. Natural in Zap #1, a character who would become an iconic symbol of the Anti-war movement of the late 1960's and early 1970's, adorning pins and patches and comix book pages, can be akin to Superman's debut in Action #1 waaay back in 1938. Granted, it is on a much smaller scale, as is probably the case with anything saddled with the moniker of underground (a big budget Hollywood Mr. Natural is probably not coming to a theatre near you anytime soon) but it is still a solid connection. 

And, going a bit further, if Zap #1 is a subculture Action #1, and Mr. Natural is a snarky nouveau Superman,  then it would only lead to the obvious conclusion that Mr. Natural's creator, Robert Crumb is the underground equivalent of Superman's creative team of Joe Shuster & Jerry Siegel. But, as Shuster & Siegel were cheated out of their creation, their royalties, and their legendary status, as has sadly been the status quo in the comics industry (just read what Jack Kirby has said of Stan Lee) and are pretty much unknown these days (it is sad and strange how so few people can name the creators of one of the most iconic characters in pop culture history) Crumb, though far from a household name himself, still has a legendary status among cartoonists all over the globe, and is considered an inspiration to almost every damn one of them. But, when considering Robert Crumb as the human being he seems to be, perhaps he too should be lost to the myriad annals of history.

Let me preface my immanent bashing of a cultural icon by saying this: Robert Crumb is a talented artist. Of this i have no doubts. His thick lined drawing style was the perfect way to display the counter-culture ideals of the time period. When Crumb first unleashed his unique style on the comic book world in the mid 1960's (the X-rated Fritz the Cat being the most prominent) and then helped to create what became the underground comix movement with Zap, it was a style that changed the world of cartooning and comic booking, and has influenced so many contemporary and future cartoonists, your not-so-humble narrator included. 

The thing was, and still is, Robert Crumb is kind of a monster. If one were to open the aforementioned Zap #1, one would quickly find, by page 3 even, thick lined drawings of African American characters as thick lipped minstrel show rejects and foul-mouthed hoodlums. Meanwhile, the N-word is used several times, including in a last page mock ad selling canned n****r hearts. Yeah, that's right. Even waaay back in the unkempt days of 1938, Superman wasn't selling canned n****r hearts to his readers.

Now one could say this was just satire...but no, it was not, or at least not good satire...or even coherent satire. This was just plain and simple ignorance. The thing is that Crumb was called out on his racist portrayals back in the day, but this was a diffrrent time, a different age, an age where such things would not necessarily ruin a person's career. So, Crumb went on to influence several generations of comic book wannabes. Granted, Crumb would do a lot of great comix throughout his career. Throughout the years, most people have known Crumb through Fritz the Cat or Mr. Natural (who wouldn't love Mr. Natural) or his famed Keep on Truckin' slogan, all of which may be offensive to the more puritanical masses out there, but none of which was inherently racist.

Then came the 1994 documentary that showed Crumb as the quirky cartoonist, and an almost cult hero. The comic book godfather to the hipsters of today. Crumb's more racy...er, racist material downplayed in favour of his more so-called friendly work. But eventually more and more stories have come out about not just his racism, but his misogyny as well. Tales of unrepentant sexual assaults would come from his lips. Even while he was badmouthing Trump during the 2016 elections (he's a racist asshole, but a left leaning one) he still managed to seemingly praise the wouldbe president's sexual proclivities. 

So now we have a cultural icon, and one of the most influential cartoonists this side of Jack Kirby and Will Eisner, who is racist and sexist and a probable sexual predator (many of his more sexualized comix portray sexual assault btw)...and let's face it, a monster. Sure, one can always seperate the art from the artist (Birth of a Nation was a cinematic masterpiece, but still blatantly racist as hell) but it is a hard thing to do when that artist puts so much of themselves into their art. 

To be fair to Zap Comix, the series, which ran sporadically for the next four decades, would have many other talented artists come aboard, like Spain Rodriguez and S. Clay Wilson, artists with less neanderthalesque ideas. It influenced many cartoonists and comic book creators, everyone from Bill Griffith's Zippy the Pinhead to the Love and Rockets comic book series from the Hernandez Brothers. It should not be held accountable for Crumb's own disgusting mindset.

As a cartoonist myself (along with my writings and canvas coverings & sculptings, i can also call my self a comic book creator these days) Crumb has influenced my own pen & ink art. So much so that i have contemplated calling my upcoming comix series "Crummy Comix"...something i might still do as my own form of ironic satire. The point is that Crumb, despite his repulsive ideas, has been a big influence on my own cartooning. Granted, my favourite comic book  creator is Daniel Clowes (he's who i really have an affinity for and with) but there is no denying the influence of Crumb...at least on the style of my drawing, if not my content. With all that in mind, i recently purchased a copy of Zap Comix no. 1 on e-bay...and at a surprisingly affordable price. I am glad i now own this rare piece of underground comix history, i just wish it hadn't been created by such a piece of garbage.

That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.