R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman Talk Comics

By

“Spider-Man, but with tits.”
– Art Spiegelman

There is a 2:1 bald-spot-to-ponytail ratio in Bass Concert Hall at the University of Texas. The man in front of me has a biblically voluminous beard and a t-shirt printed with Leonardo’s jumping-jack man. A red plastic tag pokes out from his shoulder like a solitary blood feather. I think he must have bought this t-shirt specially for this occasion, and I feel tender toward him. He reminds me of a helpful character I might have met in the CD-ROM game Myst, had there been helpful characters in it.

A man turns to Leonardo Bloodfeather and his seatmate and asks, “Did you come to see Crumb or Spiegelman?” Without hesitation, Bloodfeather indicates himself with his thumb and says “Crumb,” then nods at his neatly coiffed, behoodied friend and says, “Spiegelman.” I have come to see both—actually, all three, the third of which is Francoise Mouly, whom the inquisitive man refers to as “Spiegelman’s wife.”

A voice booms from the loudspeakers like the voice of God in the Book of Genesis, which Crumb recently illustrated (Norton, October 2009). It turns out not to be God, but rather Maya King, a freshman nursing major. She wants us to turn our cell phones off.

Another voice follows, loud and Oz-like. It’s the head of a department, whose name I don’t catch, and he is welcoming us to the evening. People look around, assuming he’s actually standing somewhere. He is not.

The lights go out. Goodnight, notebook.

Crumb comes out first, tripping slightly, in fisherman sandals. Later, Spiegelman will mention that they are both amblyopic. I have to look this word up, because I first hear it as “apliopic,” which is so not a word that Google doesn’t even have a suggestion for it. Being amblyopic means one can’t see 3-D very well, which seems like a potentially helpful affliction for a cartoonist, except when traversing a dimly lit stage, or performing most other tasks besides cartooning.

Francoise Mouly’s hair is an energetic doodle. Her shirt is plain yet complicated, the way French clothes tend to be. She says “umm” endearingly, with at least two Ms each time. There is an illuminated MacBook in front of her.

She asks whether Crumb saw himself in Crumb, and he says enough to completely change the way he looked. He says he threw his fedora in the woods, grew a beard, and started wearing “a stupid windbreaker.” A tech guy sneaks up behind him and rigs an auxiliary mic to augment the one that’s slipped down his lapel into uselessness.

The screen behind their heads shows a picture of Crumb and his brother’s childhood bedroom, which is covered with magazine covers. Mouly has picked out the New Yorker covers from the pictures and found separate images of each of them to display next to the photograph. Crumb appears amazed and puzzled by this attention to detail. Crumb talks about the peak and decline of his brother’s obsession with comics. Mouly mentions superhero comics and Crumb’s distaste for them.

Spiegelman’s microphone clicks and sizzles as he lights a cigarette. He says that superhero comics were read by the kids who beat them up. Crumb adds, “Cute animals were good.” Spiegelman agrees. He says that after the CCA comics code, Donald Duck was more mature than superhero comics. He is wearing a vest like Perry White, Clark Kent’s boss.

He mentions MAD magazine, and Crumb says, “Wow.”

A MAD magazine cover appears on the screen. Crumb and Spiegelman reference Peter Saul, Basil Wolverton, Harvey Kurtzman, Terry Gilliam, Jay Lynch, Wally Wood, Hugh Hefner, and a slew of defunct comic magazines. Spiegelman says Witzend editor Wally Wood’s idea of underground was, “Spider-Man, but with tits.” Crumb says, “Hefner? His sense of humor?” then gives a thumbs-down and makes a fart noise.

Both cartoonists worked for Topps Bubblegum, and Spiegelman says this coincidence led him to look up Crumb when he moved to San Francisco. He says that after meeting him, he became satisfied that Crumb would do all of the revolutionary things he’d planned on doing himself, then went to drop acid in the park. Crumb says he has absolutely no memory of this meeting. Spiegelman says, “I remember meeting your first wife and thinking it was your mother.” Crumb says, “That’s how I like them.”

Mouly brings up Crumb’s current wife, Aline. She talks about how the Crumbs moved to France and begins a slideshow of their house. She shows a picture of their bathroom and Crumb says, “That’s our bathroom.” She shows a picture of their hallway and Crumb says, “That’s our hallway.” She shows a picture of them hugging, and Crumb says, “Awww, we’re in love.”

Spiegelman says that whenever he’s in France, he starts dreaming in French “with a retarded vocabulary.”

Crumb’s miniCribs is over. Now things get heavy. Images from Spiegelman’s post-9/11 book, In the Shadow of No Towers. Images from a Harper’s Magazine article by Spiegelman, in which he used tiny “fatwa bombs” as a rating system for cartoons deemed blasphemous by Muslims.

Mouly brings up a controversial discussion she did with Crumb at the University of Virginia, where he mentioned women having rape fantasies. He says, “I’m sorry. Women don’t really have rape fantasies.” The audience roars with laughter, like, “Fucking Virginians!”

Mouly flips through a variety of Crumb and Spiegelman’s rejected New Yorker covers. Spiegelman has drawn Santa pissing in the snow next to a “Remember the Homeless” sign, Bill Clinton getting a blowjob in front of a firing squad. In regard to a published New Yorker cover depicting a Hassid kissing an African-American woman, Spiegelman says a girl wrote him a letter saying how nice it was for him to have drawn Abraham Lincoln kissing a slave. Mouly shows Crumb’s version of Eustace Tilley, a pimply yokel he refers to as “Eustace Tilley’s great-great grandson, Useless Tilley.”

Talk turns to Crumb’s illustration of Genesis. Mouly and Spiegelman say it was the first time they’d read the Bible. Spiegelman stipulates that he started reading it once while in a mental hospital, but a veteran friend warned him, “It’ll drive you crazy.” In reference to the begats, all of which Crumb has drawn, Crumb says he used National Geographic and pictures of “people from the Middle East.” He says, “God, it was tedious.”

The house lights rise for the Q&A. Francoise Mouly says there is no microphone and encourages anyone with a question to shout it out. Bass Hall has a 3,000-person capacity. In other words: This is not an ideal strategy. The first man requests an autograph. One asks whether Noah’s sons were modeled after Moe, Larry, and Shemp, which Crumb doesn’t explicitly deny. One interrupts an answer to scream a terrifyingly loud question at Crumb about sex, which Crumb completely blows off. Someone asks whether there is anything they believe shouldn’t be drawn. Crumb says he’s already drawn everything, including “blowjobs for babies.” For the last question, Crumb indicates a woman in the front: “You, girl.” She asks Crumb why he came tonight.

His answer is simple enough: “I got railroaded, basically.”

***

Original illustrations by Russell Etchen.


Jess Sauer is a writer living in Austin, Texas, where she works for multimedia label Monofonus Press and coordinates the Teleportal Readings series. Her writing has appeared in The Austin Chronicle, eMusic, A.V. Club, and The Boston Review. She is working on a YA novel about Jandek and a book of poems about swamp monsters. More from this author →