San Francisco

Robert Crumb

The Berkeley Gallery

The Berkeley Gallery has done a giant retrospective of drawings by the cartoonist Robert Crumb, creator of Zap Comix and other publications that have given much tasteless amusement and, in the view of some policemen and district attorneys, probable cause to arrest booksellers. The show was just for fun; nothing was for sale. Many familiar pieces were there as original drawings: Zap covers, Lenore Goldberg and Her Girl Commandos, Mr. Natural, and more. Much more.

I suppose what put Crumb’s comic books in trouble with the law was their anatomically explicit sex, which could hardly be considered pornographic, or tending to arouse lust, but might be considered obscene, in the sense that one ought not to look at such things. Or listen, either; Crumb is a master of embarrassing bed talk, moans, and onomatopoetic sound effects: SLURCH! SLURCH!

But the poor fellow is without hope. Unlike the first spiritually underground comic book, Mad, which implied that the cartoonist and the reader were an élite superior to John Wayne movies, Crumb’s comic books do not imply the existence of any beautiful Us who will save the world from Them, or even sneer arrogantly at Them all the way to the end. Everybody, including you and me, is Them. Crumb satirizes the uptight parents and brutal cops, but also the gentle heads and the putting-on-Whitey blacks and the theater-in-the-streets demonstrators. In a couple of strips he describes himself as a sickie, obsessed with sex and cruelty. Crumb means it. He does not consider himself a revolutionary, a hippie, a member of the underground. He told me he lived in the Haight-Ashhury in 1967, and felt he did not fit into the revels on Haight Street because he was weirder than those people. He draws a heavier line, physically and spiritually, than George Grosz, and a less dandruff-infested line than the quintessential Mad cartoonist Jack Davis, but who cares about Crumb’s draftsmanship? He is a great humorous nihilist, and for those of us who can’t stand either Hermann Hesse or Allen Drury, that is a wonderful thing.

Jerome Tarshis