Comic Studies: R. Crumb & Aline Kominsky

The University of Dundee in Scotland recently launched the world's first mainstream postgraduate degree course (an MLitt) in Comic Studies. In this weekly column, I cover the course from a student's perspective, looking at and discussing what the term "Comic Studies" really entails.

If you think "Red Hood and the Outlaws" is controversial, spare a thought for those of us studying Robert Crumb! Infamous for his frequently violent and degrading portrayal of women, including scenes of rape and pedophilia, Crumb has attracted more media attention over the years than poor Starfire could dream of.

It's perhaps no surprise that I've tended to avoid Crumb's work in the past, but this week I found myself reading as much as I could get my hands on for our class' topic, "Comics and Gender." The titles for study were "The R. Crumb Handbook," Crumb's autobiography which is written around comics from his career, and "Need More Love," the autobiography of Aline Kominsky Crumb, wife of R. Crumb and a comics artist in her own right.

I actually felt quite a lot of pressure this week to get all my opinions in order. "Whatever would the feminist make of R. Crumb?" is what I suspected my fellow classmates might have been thinking, though that owes more to my paranoia than anything else!

Despite the common belief that comics is a boys' field, there are two other women on my course, and everyone is very open to listening to other opinions. The lecturer (and course organizer) Dr Chris Murray has also written much on the topic of women in comics, so this is far from an unwelcoming environment! I wasn't alone in my trepidation about having to read Crumb, at least, but I was determined to fight hard to try and see both sides of the man and bring a balanced opinion to the table.

Crumb is perhaps one of the greatest living comic book artists, effortlessly moving between realism and surrealism, the sweet and horrific; his satirical eye is sharp and his political pen has real bite. "The R. Crumb Handbook" explains how Crumb was essentially the godfather to the underground comix movement in the late 60s and 70s, as part of that whole counter-culture generation. He was by no means a hippie, though, his art far more aggressive and cynical than many of his contemporaries, and a lot of his early work focused on his obsessions: sex, rejection and inadequacy.

"The R. Crumb Handbook" is an interesting slice of autobiography; rather than being illustrated at the time of writing, the writing is done around pieces of art that were created in the time period being remembered. It's an easy read, and highly recommended for anyone interested in comics history as a whole. It also encouraged me to watch "Crumb," the 1994 documentary film by Terry Zwigoff (which I also highly recommend) in order to learn more about this quite complex creator.

But for all the clever work Crumb has done, from the satirical, to the poignant or psychedelic, that is far from what he is most famous for. Giving in to his "dark side," as he calls it, his drawings became increasingly violent, sexual and degrading to women. Crumb has provoked the ire of feminist and women through the decades, not least from Trina Robbins, the godmother of underground comix.

The skeleton of Crumb's work is satirical, biting satire fueled by his misanthropy and aimed at the heart of America. Unlike a lot of other satire, particularly political satire, Crumb often skips the punchline and lets his art do the talking. In some cases, such as the infamous "When the N*ggers Take Over America," this is often read without any satirical intent. He takes a racist belief and inflates it to such preposterous ends that the satire should be obvious, but because many people genuinely believe in those should-be preposterous ends, the satire is lost. The question, then, is whether intent really excuses the racist imagery that Crumb frequently uses. It may explain it, but do stereotyped portrayals really need to be further circulated by a white person?

Much of Crumb's work is seen as women-hating, and unpacking this particular issue is problematic at best. Crumb is satirizing the rampant misogyny in our society, but he's also a self-confessed misogynist. Part of this is perhaps due to his overall misanthropy, but it would be wrong to suggest that Crumb does not possess a hatred of the opposite sex as he has repeatedly stated bluntly that he does hate women. It is also difficult to explain away the more violent and sexually aggressive art as any type of satire of a sexist society when Crumb openly confesses to being sexually excited by his work, even masturbating over it -- don't blame me if you're now picturing that in your head!

Crumb is, however, sympathetic to the idea of feminism, and has drawn feminist comic strips in the past. Unfortunately, those strips all end with somewhat of a cop out. For example, the radical feminist deciding to settle down once she popped a baby out in "Lenore Goldberg and her Girl Commandos." This was just a couple of years after the new ass-kicking Batgirl had been introduced to the world, a female character who didn't let men boss her around!

For all the gross exaggerations and degradation Crumb inflicts upon all humanity throughout his strips, it is always the women who are shown as being sexually available, aroused and frequently abused. Crumb may be attempting to open society's eyes to the way in which it perceives women (again, while he simultaneously masturbates over his work), but at the same time, he doesn't seem to be actively stating that the popular view is wrong. Later in life, Crumb stated that he had never been proud of the darker elements of his work, and credits his wife, Aline Kominsky Crumb, with helping him overcome his hatred towards women.

The view at the time within mainstream feminism was strongly anti-pornographic, which meant Crumb was never going to be their best pal, but I don't think the excuse of satire really works for all of his strips. Crumb's own sexual enjoyment of his work speaks to less altruistic motives: it's difficult to satirize misogyny when you clearly enjoy it. His work is pornographic, and like the Tijuana bibles of years before, used racist and sexist stereotypes throughout.

R. Crumb drew out his fantasies, but satirical intent aside, can he really be held to blame for the popularity of his pornographic work? While usually far less overt, women characters in comics are still often portrayed with butts poking towards the reader and heaving bosoms spilling out of tight clothing designed to titillate rather than tell a story, though in the mainstream, the female characters are generally now expected to be repressed or risk being labelled a slut without much room for subtle nuances.

I really do enjoy Crumb's non-pornographic work and he is a brilliant artist and commentator on the mass media culture that we live in. It's a real shame that his constant sexualization of women, along with his racist stereotyping, whether satirical or not, makes me too uncomfortable to enjoy reading his work as a whole; even "The Sweeter Side of R. Crumb" has a woman directing her bottom at the reader and sending love hearts his way. But what makes me a whole lot more uncomfortable is the ongoing popularity of his work, particularly when contemporary mainstream comics seem to still enjoy that hyper-sexualized approach to women characters.

Fortunately, no one in the class seemed to be a die hard Crumb supporter. Or do I mean sadly? I was all ready for a fight!

On to Aline Kominsky Crumb and "Need More Love." Ah, but how can Crumb be a misogynist if he has a wife?! Well, easily actually -- lots of people manage it! But I think it's unfair to discuss Kominsky in the context of her being Crumb's significant other; she is, after all, rather important to comics history in her own right.

Inspired by "Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary" by Justin Green (if you haven't read this -- do it now!), the pioneer of autobiographical comics, Kominsky created a huge number of strips about her own life and experiences. Her artwork can be a little difficult to get in to at first, as it doesn't have the same polished feel as some of the other artists we've covered in the course. Rather, Kominsky's art has a sort of DIY feel to it, and people tend to either love it or hate it. I really enjoyed "Need More Love" up to a certain point, where it began to feel a little cyclical and frustrating. I also felt that for an autobiography, I didn't actually come away knowing terribly much about the creator, though she certainly features very heavily in her comics (even for autobiography!).

What I found most interesting about Kominsky is her own self-portrayal as an almost monstrously unattractive woman, when the photos in "Need More Love" clearly reveal that she is anything but. Some classmates suggested that this was somewhat of a ploy, to get people to assume she is ugly before surprising them with her stunning looks. I don't actually think that is the case at all, and many of the early strips certainly show just how and why Kominsky might have such low self esteem, seeing herself and her body differently from those around her. Harsh words from parents, even if made in jest, can give long lasting wounds, and Kominsky would be far from the only person to look in the mirror and see something completely different from loved ones and strangers.

It's difficult not to warm to Kominsky as her strips are so brutally honest, but I did find it strange that her written autobiographical pieces are quite impersonal by comparison. By contrast ,"The R. Crumb Handbook" is a veritable goldmine of information about her husband and his upbringing. And speaking of Crumb, I should mention that the strips he co-authors with Kominsky, "Dirty Laundry," are some of my favorites of either artist. Initially not intended for publication, these really do show the other side to Crumb, and it's telling that many readers assumed he drew the whole thing -- despite the very different art styles!

Kominsky is Jewish, which is a huge part of her identity, and of course a huge part of comics history! Without Jewish writers and artists, there would be no Superman, no Batman, no Spider-Man -- the list is long indeed. Kominsky portrays herself in a stereotypically Jewish way, and she has in fact been labelled "sexist and anti-Semitic" in the past. The difference between her work and Crumb's is great however: Kominsky is portraying herself, as a Jewish woman, rather than portraying others.

Kominsky constantly questions her identity, comparing herself with other non-Jewish women and, most prominently in "Need More Love," with Peggy Lipton, a slim, pretty, blonde and lovely Jewish classmate. This sense of "otherness" is perhaps why many readers find they can strongly identify with her work once they get in to it, despite the so-called amateurish style (though actually, her expressive style works particularly well with some strips, such as "Yusef the Hairsucker" -- check it out!).

Kominsky and Crumb, both controversial albeit for quite different reasons, and both genuinely fascinating artists. Wherever your opinion on the two may lie, there's no denying they are great fun to study!

Next week: Comics and Trauma with David B's "Epileptic" and David Small's "Stitches."

Laura Sneddon is a freelance comics journalist in the UK, writing for mainstream press and websites alike. You can follow her on Twitter and read most of her work at www.comicbookgrrrl.com. In her working hours she sells comics to an unsuspecting public and formulates her plan to become an evil professor of comics.

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