robert crumb may be a very odd sort of feminist

he has a very odd way of not being racist by producing absolutely hideous caricatures of ethnic africans, so maybe he’s doing the same with his depictions of the female form

crumb’s racist images (see ooga booga) are consciously designed to get his readers to notice unconscious racial stereotyping when they see it in other media. they’re supposed to be more or less shocked at his depiction of black characters, realise the artist must be aware he’s being grotesquely offensive + understand a) the difference between this + someone who is not aware if he or she is making racist artistic statements + b) what it might feel like to be on the receiving end of the stereotyping – the images make you cringe if you’re white

the provocative nature of the ooga booga strip means although it may have served a valuable purpose in 1970 alerting an audience to material which crumb thought they ought not to be laughing at it would be irresponsible to reproduce today (2018). there’s no need to provoke a response to caricatures in animation, toys, minstrels, etc which no longer feature prominently in any medium

generally speaking, whether an author (crumb included) is themselves racist is beside the point when discussing racially offensive texts, however:

this article concerns crumb making sexist statements + is about to make an inference. so: bearing in mind the fact that ouside his comic strip work he was obsessed with prehistoric jazz records + virtually only listened to black musicians, yet he published work his heroes would have punched him for, this tells us that even if on close examination he may have had some racist attitudes he cannot have been anywhere near as racist as his comics, if that were possible

+ the inference: the same author to artwork ratio may pertain to his sexist stuff, an eg of which appears below

this + ensuing crumb images (c) probably crumb maybe 1970

his key female characters usually have giant boobs + bums + surprisingly frequently non human heads if they have a head at all – see the giant daughter of the snoidvoid on the right of the picture. this theme has to be sexist per se

looking at the strip ‘a gurl’ (published in the UK in nasty tales 6) which has no real story as such but concentrates on a female character in detail

you can see that it also features apparently sexist images

why is that – these pictures are not really categorisable as porn (the most famous category of sexist pics) – hers is not an idealised image, + if this were porn surely it would be, because there is nothing to stop a comic book artist drawing his ideal from his imagination

this girl has been designed not to be very pretty in the face + remains fully clothed throughout (that can’t be anyone’s platonic ideal of a porn star) + the sex act depicted (not shown here – buy your own copy) is for her benefit not ours, ie it isn’t very sexy for us to look at + it comes across as either gross or funny (or both) from our point of view but obviously not from hers

apart from the way the character + what she’s doing is depicted visually, note the description of her thought processes (or interior monologue if that’s what it is) appears to be entirely objective (crumb is male with no subjective experience of female thinking) + imaginary (ie a male fantasy). this is also sexist

having established we’re dealing with an exaggerated sexist representation (inside + out) of a girl which isn’t porn it’s difficult to tell what the point of this strip is. as was mentioned earlier, there isn’t enough of a story for that to be what sells it to the reader, + obviously we are not looking at a documentary here – this isn’t a real person + she is doing very little which is either realistic or actually even possible (eg going as stiff as a board supported by the strength of her bite)

the strip’s (sole?) function appears to be as a vehicle for crumb’s depiction of the girl: how he depicts her is what the strip is about (how is what – see victor perkins). this perhaps ought to have been obvious from the title

he draws her as an extreme caricatured image + as with crumb’s racist stuff, the extremity of the caricature gets the reader to notice the difference between it + girls seen elsewhere. this perhaps ought to have been obvious from the way the title is spelled – gurl (crumb’s fictional gender) not girl (the type we recognise)

expecting your readers to understand you are being sexist implies the author to be some sort of a feminist (a feminist being someone who draws peoples’ attention to sexism). even if he doesn’t think he is one (in print he has repeatedly identified as a misogynist), he’s on the spectrum somewhere


as the girl (or gurl) is very clearly not idealised she is thus more representative of girls in real life than the images normally found in comics which are almost always idealised – compare her with female superheroes, or characters in contemporary US romance titles

supergirl (c) DC 1974, girl’s love (c) DC 1964, I love you (c) charlton press 1970

supergirl looks + acts more like an actual person than crumb’s gurl but because of the ubiquity of beautiful girls in the media + the lack of representation of different female forms she is perpetuating an anti feminist tradition. by choosing to populate his comics with odd looking girls with very big bottoms crumb is challenging that tradition in the same way feminists were. unless you think that’s a coincidence this strongly implies he has feminist sympathies as well, despite whatever statements to the contrary he may have made to journalists

note that having read crumb’s strip the dialogue in the extract from the romance comic reproduced above – ‘I think you’re starting to crumble, cookie. this is endsville’ – sounds as far off actual human discourse as crumb’s gurl’s thinking is

this is because the absurd + abstract personality going on inside the gi(u)rl in ‘a gurl’ is doing much the same thing as her caricature is but non-visually: crumb is fully (painfully?) aware of the canyon between his understanding of the experience of being female + the real mccoy + expects his male readers to be aware of that as well. returning to other peoples’ comics after reading crumb’s should cause them to spot peculiar representations of gender relations

this strip has an agenda + it’s a feminist one

remember feminists were difficult to spot in the early 70s – germaine greer gave interviews to playboy – crumb could have easily fitted inside the rather wide + varied definition they were giving themselves at the time

the distorted version of femaleness he shows us is a lot more interesting + entertaining than an attempt at a serious articulation of the issues pertaining to representations of the female form by a card carrying feminist comic author might have been, + in my view crumb’s strip contains some of the same statements, questions + relationships with the reader

perhaps his critics ought to reassess his early work (before he was just seeing how gross he could get) by situating it in its original context (of a casually sexist patriarchal media) + ignoring the author’s own claims about it, assuming them to be over simplified + (probably) conscious misdirection. this material may turn out to be more complex than it looks at first glance


addendum jan 2019

‘the function of art is to deform the heiroglyph’ (roman jakobson – I have no idea when or where he said this) – that’s what crumb is getting up to here: deforming the way the female form is traditionally represented

maybe this is why he keeps getting exhibited at fine art exhibitions – throughout his career he has made consistent visual + verbal statements which are complicated enough to make viewers think about them in the same way they would about fine art (which I assume is what is attracting curators to him), + he’s done that in an easily recogniseable style

I had always attributed the art world’s interest in crumb to be a direct result of an arena documentary the bbc made about him in the 80s, + believed that if they’d made it about wally wood or steve ditko instead those artists would be getting the exhibitions + the publicity not robert crumb

in fact it looks like what crumb is saying about people who are either female or african or both, the way they appear in other media, + his own (white male) relationship with (attitudes toward, observations about, experiences of) them, is what art critics have noticed. + these critics are presumably extracting crumb’s artistic statements from the ways in which he keeps deforming his subject matter

also, because racism + sexism are currently fashionable issues, artists who either are racist + sexist or act like they are if they’re not go to the front of the queue to get exhibited

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