Written & Drawn by Robert Crumb
It’s hard to imagine how art can affect a person. Some can look at a Picasso and are inspired while others see Dr. Who Season 5, Ep. 10 “Vincent and the Doctor” and weep uncontrollably. (I don’t remember openly crying, but dang…one of my favorite episodes, and tears may have gathered in the corners of my eyes.) For me the finished product is always amazing, no matter the artist, medium, or work. All art is amazing, even if I don’t understand it, because it is the physical representation of emotion. Even the most bland painting of a fruit bowl or single daisy in a vase, if executed properly, took time, patience, sometimes skill, but definitely focus.
To sum up, the making of art, while sometimes solitary and slow, is endlessly fascinating to watch.
This brings me to the 1994 film Crumb by Terry Zwigoff, a documentary on the fascinating Robert Crumb, infamous underground comic creator best known for his characters of Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat. (Although don’t tell him that.) The film, when I first saw it, instantly became one of my favorites, not only because of the unique character of Crumb, but because this was a film about his art, not just about him and his sometimes crazy family. There are countless shots of Crumb’s work, from the somewhat mundane to the overtly racist (purposely) and chauvinist. There are piles of images of him working, close-ups on the pen as it slowly works across the page in ways that make it seem more like a “find the figure in the blankness” kind of way than anything.
So the film really turned me onto Crumb’s work, and planted the seed of wanted some of the original stuff for my collection. I found this book last April in Chicago, a first printing, and despite finding a couple of the pages within ripped I knew I wanted to have it.
Plunge Into the Depths of Despair is typical Crumb in all the best ways. The book is a collection of dirty little comics, fraught with cursing and large-bottomed women, and all delightful. It’s everything I thought it would be, from the main story, also the cover title, which is a rambling discussion about the state of society that Crumb illustrates in such a varying number of styles that you would wonder if it’s only one artist. (The line size and ink use are the same, but the difference in character form is drastic.) Crumb, despite the claims of chauvinism that so often accompany his work (and it is there) doesn’t pull a punch when it comes to the males of the species. He never shrugs from drawing men who are stupid and impotent. The film delves deeper into his psyche, implying that his own frustrations and impotencies come out in his art, along with his sexual perversions. But there are classic Crumb panels here, such as a page dedicated to Angelfood McSpade and one Mr. Natural short.
I guess part of my love of this stuff is because of guys like Crumb (and Harvey Pekar etc.) the comic industry changed. There was very little market for these kinds of books. They were at the birth (and quite likely helped the delivery) of the indie comics scene. These were the first superstars who never went to DC or Marvel, never drew a super hero book, never wanted or needed to. This is where the indie scene really took off, and from it came the kernels that eventually grew to be Image, Dark Horse, IDW…none of these smaller markets would be here without Robert Crumb and books like Despair. So thank you Mr. Crumb, and may you always draw what you want when you want to, but always draw.
Brad Gischia is a writer and artist living in the frozen Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He is married and has three kids and a dog, who all put up with his incessant prattling about comic books.