Taken from Writer’s Almanac – 30 August 2015
It’s the birthday Robert Dennis Crumb, born 1943. His father was a combat illustrator for 20 years while serving in the Marines. Crumb’s mother was addicted to diet pills. It was an unhappy marriage. The family moved to Milford, Delaware, when Crumb was 12. He was dyslexic and had a hard time reading, so he preferred television and comic books, especially Little Lulu, Donald Duck, and Peanuts. Crumb said: “There were no books in our house. There were trashy magazines: my mother read movie and detective magazines. My father read the paper and that was it.”
His older brother, Charles, taught him to draw, and they spent hours drawing their own comic, called Foo, which they tried to sell to neighbors for 10 cents apiece. Because of his dyslexia, it took Crumb a long time to write the text, which may be why his later work tended to be more “literary” than work by other cartoonists. “I take the time to think out how to articulate things,” he said.
Crumb never went to college, or to art school. He went to Cleveland, instead, and began drawing novelty greeting cards for the American Greetings Company. He met other artists like Harvey Pekar, who would someday create the comic American Splendor, and Buzzy Linhart. His interest in jazz grew; he spent weekends haunting junk shops for old 78s. He became enamored of 19th-century engravings and graphic styles, and changed his drawing technique to one of cross-hatching. He was 19 and he walked the streets in an Abe Lincoln frock coat and stovepipe hat. Crumb said: “I was a teenage social outcast. At the time, it made me feel very depressed. Later, I realized I was actually quite lucky because it freed me. I was free to develop and explore on my own all these byways of the culture that if you’re accepted, you just don’t do.”
He began taking LSD in Cleveland, which profoundly affected his style and life view. One night he met two friends in a bar and, on a whim, with just pocket change, went with them to San Francisco, where he fell in with the artists in Haight-Ashbury. He sold his comics from a baby carriage and caught the eye of Janis Joplin, who asked him to illustrate the cover for her band’s next album. Overnight, it seemed, his characters of Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat were everywhere. His most popular imagery, though, came from a Blind Boy Fuller song: the long, legged, grinning men adorned by the phrase “Keep on Truckin’,” which became the symbol of hippie optimism. Toyota offered him $100,000 to use the imagery in an ad campaign, but Crumb said no. “Keep on Truckin’!” is the curse of my life! I didn’t want to turn into a greeting card artist for the counter-culture! That’s when I started to let out all my perverse sex fantasies. It was the only way out of being America’s Best-Loved Hippie Cartoonist.”
Crumb has lived in the South of France for the past 25 years, still using Strathmore vellum surface paper and Pelikan black drawing ink. He works at an old printer’s light table and uses a magnifying glass for the details. “I work in erratic spurts. Getting started is like getting a rocket off the ground. You need the most energy and the most push to get started; once you’re up there and you’re going, then it’s easier to keep going. Sit down and pick up where you left off, you know. Getting going is always tough.”