The first reaction to The R. Crumb Handbook, a rich and densely compacted anthology cum memoir cum mulch-heap scrapbook: finally, Huck Finn’s voraciously dysfunctional answer to The Boy Scout Handbook. If, that is, Huck had been a four-eyed antiquarian Catholic schoolboy geek adrift in 1950s suburbia, randomly sopping up the works of Harvey Kurtzman, Carl Barks, and Walt Kelly. Hey, kids, learn to draw dirty pictures—”It’s so simple even a child can do it”—and become an international cargo-cult treasure (“America’s Best-Loved Underground Cartoonist” since 1967). Earn merit badges by getting large, limber gals to twist themselves into human knots for you (see Flexo-girl panel, page 28: “Let’s see how far this will go!”). Perfect the studiously detailed art of self-abuse. Plumb the depths of depraved Americana with a minstrel song in your heart and a hard-on in your corduroys: thus Crumb’s cannibal dream-dish Angelfood McSpade, half purebred mammy-hokum and half blackface Little Annie Fanny and 100 percent juicy meta-stereotypical fantasy, a transgender Nigger Jim in “Sock-a-delic” head-comix drag. Oo-weeee, voodoo chile!
“You had this uneasy feeling as a kid that something was going on that they were not showing you—something that was ugly.” Crumb is directly addressing the reader here, sans mediating artwork or Mr. Natural mouthpiece, reflecting on his formative influences, traumas, foibles. The
Handbook is strewn with such personal (but not overly revealing) autobiographical-philosophical musings on R.’s difficult childhood, splenetic adulthood, and the unbearably garish nightmare of existence itself. But that uneasy feeling never leaves him: “The unconscious message was that the adult world is strange, twisted, perverse, threatening, sinister.” In short: Eureka! Crumb would thoroughly and lovingly gold-mine that vein of hypersensitive repulsion-attraction, though doomed older brother and guiding inspiration Charles was overwhelmed and apparently destroyed by his own thin-skinned impressionability. Robert’s work is their revenge on pop culture and its gullible consumers, fed not only by the usual “bitter social reject” grudges but the sense he’ll always in some way be his late brother’s amanuensis.
So where does this leave The R. Crumb Handbook‘s elastic and highly portable oeuvre in terms of big-assed lit or modern-art upstarts or just plain old classic American Humor? With its immersion in blue-plate-special slop, intricately patterned fetishes, and infantilism run amok, can it really hold its own against Burroughs or Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor, Bruce Conner or Ed Kienholz, John Kennedy Toole or Randy Newman (“Uncle Bob’s Midnight Blues” and “Underneath the Harlem Moon” could be in homage to R.)—or even Twain himself? Sure, though in a very particularized way: The astute
Snatch and Zap and Weirdo jumble has the cumulative satiric-grotesque effect of Naked Lunch reimagined in Mad magazine’s boiler room. Only in Crumbland, the currency of addiction is represented by the uncut junk of stereotypes—those pathetic, unshakable reductions of the imagination to controlled responses, push-button salivation, Doc Benway sticking a diagnostic meat thermometer up Scrooge McDuck and hitting pay dirt every time.
From “It’s Howdy Dowdy time” on, boys and girls, we’re hooked, programmed for life—or so the Handbook declares, even as Crumb casts wistful glances backward toward some carefree pre-industrial ideal of uncorrupted folk music. (Did I mention the free CD sampler of Crumb’s ol’-timey musical performances? “Well-intentioned” is about the best you can say for their lockstep naïveté.) The joke is that it’s hard to imagine any sort of idyllic community (beyond a halfway house) where someone like Crumb would be anything but ostracized and banished. Whereas the barren, soulless toxic-waste dumps of contemporary crapitalism propelled him into the grasp of fame and fortune (not to mention those free big-legged piggyback rides), spreading his anti-wholesome influence far and wide. But what lifts his work out of its morbid, often time-bound frame of reference is that mule-headed insistence on taking everything personally, locating the conditionally human in the smallest crevices and most cheerfully unspeakable details, the insurmountably minuscule distance separating “The Simp and the Gimp” from “The Holy Grail” of choice. For all the rote insistence that he hates mankind, bipolar affection pervades his drawings: Mr. Natural, Devil Girl, Vulture Goddess, Flakey Foont, old bluesmen, hideously apt self-caricatures, “Man in Toilet,” no matter, invariably the hunter is captured by his prey and turns into an ardent wildlife preserver without quite recognizing it.
Like any good environmentalist, Crumb’s recycling program is ecologically sound: Latter-day burnout can be enviably converted into spiffy mediations on itself. It’s a sweet life considering the never ending, cost-efficient fear and despair. Bring the family, and don’t forget that T-shirts and merchandise are available in the gift shop.