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Review of R. Crumb: Literature, Autobiography, and the Quest for Self

By Jesse Matlock
Indiana University

R. Crumb: Literature, Autobiography, and the Quest for Self, David Stephen Calonne, Jackson, MS, University Press of Mississippi, 2021, 288 pp., US$30.00 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4968-3185-9 

Though R. Crumb is one of the most, or perhaps the most, celebrated and critiqued artists from the underground comix movement, a new book presents a fresh look at the underexamined spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of Crumb’s work. David Stephen Calonne’s third book in a trilogy on American post-World War II counterculture, R. Crumb: Literature, Autobiography, and the Quest for Self, is a study of how cartoonist Robert Crumb “approaches the mystery of being” through cartooning and underground comix to express “complex themes of solitude, terror, anxiety, dread, despair, sexual desire, and conflict as aspects of personal spiritual development” (7). The book examines comics in which Crumb directly engages with specific authors, musicians, and works, and Calonne structures his analysis around the chronology of publication of the works he examines. Calonne closely reads how Crumb renders pivotal biographical episodes in the life of each cultural figure, or adapts those figures’ works, in comic form. Calonne convincingly illustrates Crumb’s status as much more than an “enfant terrible” of a low-culture medium, but rather as a thinker and seeker of knowledge who articulates his contemplation through the means in which he is most fluent: the visual and verbal coordination intrinsic to comics (204).

In his introduction, Calonne provides a biographical overview of Crumb as a child of World War II, raised in a Catholic household, whose creative sensibilities and philosophical curiosity place him in aesthetic—if not social—proximity to his Beat Generation contemporaries such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, in addition to his status as a member of underground comix’s initial cohort of creators. The first chapter continues this thread with a closer examination of the ways in which Crumb’s work intersects with Beat culture and related figures, especially Charles Bukowski, through Crumb’s own fascination with Eastern religions and philosophies such as Zen Buddhism and texts such as the I Ching. Chapter two similarly examines Crumb’s fascination with African American culture, concentrating on his affinity for jazz and blues music and their connections to the mystic and occult by way of voodoo and hoodoo practices. “Jelly Roll Morton’s Voodoo Curse” from Raw no. 7 (1985) and “Patton”—a biographical comic of blues musician Charley Patton featured in Zap no. 11 (1985)—serve as the chapter’s centerpieces of examination. These early chapters are valuable for contextualizing the philosophical and cultural questions that Crumb explores in his work as grounded in his own particular social and cultural experience, though Calonne explicitly skirts a complicated engagement with Crumb’s interest in and portrayal of African American culture (94).  

Beginning with the third chapter, Calonne shifts to a focus on singular works in Crumb’s oeuvre, which are themselves centered on specific authors or works, that inform the cartoonist’s philosophical journey. Chapter three’s textual centerpiece, “The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick” from Weirdo no. 17 (1986), depicts the eponymous author’s mystical experience that became the impetus for his subsequent gnostic conversion, his gargantuan Exegesis, and the concept of the Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS) that underpinned Dick’s later work. This chapter in many ways serves as R. Crumb’s focal point. It is the book’s longest chapter, concerned with the sense of wonder that mystical and religious experiences provide—as exemplified by Dick’s “2-3-74” incident—and Calonne positions Crumb’s fascination with Dick’s experience as the resonant event to which the other works discussed serve as a reaction or response. Chapter four segues from Crumb’s mystic fascination to his existential questions; here, Calonne examines “Nausea” from Hup no. 3 (1989), adapted from Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée. In chapter five, Calonne uses Crumb’s collaboration with author David Mairowitz on Introducing Kafka (1994), a biography of the Bohemian author, to discuss Crumb’s relationship to Judaism and Hebrew culture through his wife, Aline Kominsky, and Jewish cartoonists such as Harvey Pekar and Art Spiegelman. These chapters are particularly interesting as examples of remediation as creative practice purposed toward critical and cultural study.

The final chapter brings Crumb full circle with his Catholic upbringing in its examination of The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb (2009), a book 15 years in the making. Calonne examines the way Crumb’s “demythologizing” of the philosophical foundation of the biblical text, aided by Robert Alter’s 2004 translation of Genesis from the Hebrew, works to resolve his youthful Christian experience with his subsequent quest for self-actualization (181). Calonne’s epilogue concludes his scrutiny of Crumb’s “[devotion] to a continual examination of the intersection between art, literature, and the search for authentic selfhood” by providing an overview of Crumb’s current and continued activity evidenced by his published work and correspondence since moving to France in 1991 (203).

Throughout the book, Calonne places Crumb’s work at the forefront of his discussion. His chapters are structured around close readings of Crumb’s comics, aided by generous excerpts from the comics themselves. Calonne also coordinates his readings with a variety of ancillary materials, from scholarly work on the figures or texts Crumb is writing and drawing about, to thematically or chronologically related entries in Crumb’s published sketchbooks, to the cartoonist’s own thoughts about the works and topics as revealed in public appearances and correspondence. A wealth of cultural and literary criticism accompanies these readings of Crumb’s work, contextualizing it within the realm of scholarly study. The recently published Comics of R. Crumb: Underground in the Art Museum, edited by Daniel Worden, similarly positions Crumb as a figure worthy of academic consideration. Whereas that collection examines Crumb’s work from a variety of disciplinary perspectives toward a discussion of the cartoonist’s position in the world of art, Calonne concentrates on the more personal dimensions of Crumb’s work, examining it as a contemplative, reflective practice. This places R. Crumb as an appropriate text not only within the arena of comics studies, or even literary studies, but philosophic and religious studies as well.

Critics and scholars interested in Robert Crumb’s work in relation to topics of gender, sexuality, and portrayals of race and ethnicity will find little of that discussed here. Calonne mostly brackets these critical concerns in favor of examination of Crumb’s own process of individuation. On the occasion that these concerns are broached, such as the second chapter’s consideration of Crumb’s fascination with and portrayal of African American culture, Calonne acknowledges criticism of Crumb’s work as racist and misogynistic but dismisses these elements as a “send up of stereotypes that are lodged in the American subconscious” that Crumb renders circumspect (94). Similarly, Calonne easily situates the Genesis narrative’s patriarchal orientation as a product of Semitic culture and Crumb’s desire for an authentic rendering of the text; Calonne effectively crafts this analysis by placing it in relation to other examples from Crumb’s work in which he considers black and/or feminine depictions of divinity (185-186).

Though the book largely seeks to skirt issues of ethnic and cultural criticism frequently aimed at Crumb, it provides valuable insight to the cartoonist’s own motivations and personal development. Calonne’s graceful orchestration of scholarly and personal contexts around pivotal works in Crumb’s thinking and understanding of himself clearly demonstrates how “Crumb plays simultaneously … with the supposed hierarchy dividing ‘high culture’ from ‘low culture,’ the ‘artistic’ from the erotic/pornographic, the spirit from the flesh” (213). R. Crumb: Literature, Autobiography, and the Quest for Self succeeds as a compelling discussion not only of the energy and thought that Robert Crumb invests in his own life and work, but also of the comics medium itself as a legitimate avenue for the narrative and contemplative expression of philosophical, psychological, cultural, and spiritual matters.

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