B y Z a c h a r y W o o d r u f f
FOR BEING SO flimsy and cheap to produce, it's amazing the power Comic Books have to capture one's imagination. There's a scary primal thrill to reading a narrative presented through well-drawn pictures. And even not-great-pictures can do the trick; I vividly remember feeling rather spooked by a Scrooge McDuck comic in which the wealthy old coot loses his memory and has to figure out a way past all the booby traps he'd placed in his own mansion.
The more banal types of comics--the ones that might contain advertisements for sea monkeys--still dominate the market, which is a blessing, because children shouldn't have to grow up without experiencing the joys of sea monkeys. But a whole universe of adult, underground and counter-cultural comics has blossomed as well, taking the possibilities of comic-book art far beyond what fans of the medium could have hoped for, and elevating Comic Books to new levels of scary imaginativeness.
Though I haven't had the chance to sample most of the comics in this new realm, my favorites are the slice-of-life confessional ones (like Hate or Peepshow), where the authors almost seem to be trying to outdo each other in measures of raw honesty about their insecurities, anger, foolishness, masturbational fantasy lives, and so on. If you look back into the history of this autobiographical form of comic, the granddaddy of it all is Robert Crumb, who has become the subject of a richly rewarding documentary directed by his longtime friend Terry Zwigoff.
Crumb, whose comics have appeared under a number of funky titles (including the all-too-aptly named Despair comics) since the late '60s, at first doesn't seem like somebody you'd want to watch for two hours. The man looks like the prototypical dork, with coke-bottle glasses, oversized features and an aloof, self-consciously sardonic nature. But Zwigoff nicely establishes Crumb as (1) a classic underdog, since Crumb's family life was horribly dysfunctional and his peers consistently treated him as an outcast until he became famous; (2) a representative of a particularly iconoclastic form of social commentary which is made up of equal parts misanthropy, psychedelia and shock value led by an unabashed willingness to let one's darkest impulses guide the material; and (3) a serious artist whose historical importance extends far beyond the limited realm of his comics or famous "Keep On Truckin' " design (in interview clips, Time magazine's art critic Robert Hughes compares Crumb to Brueghel).
Spanning six years, the documentary offers a multi-tiered look at Crumb's life, following him all over the place--from his suburban home to a college lecture; from notebook-drawing sessions in a San Francisco coffee house to a presentation of his work at the New York Museum of Modern Art; from visits with his ex-wives and girlfriends to a rather stupid photo shoot he participates in for a big-butt porno magazine.
We're also treated to plentiful doses of Crumb's art, which is endlessly interesting, especially when accompanied by Crumb's bitter yet self-amused explanations, or critical analyses from feminists who are understandably disturbed by his misogynistic streak (one of his stories depicts a man who cuts off a woman's obnoxious head so he can use the voluptuous body for sex). Crumb's distinct style serves him well: Even his most innocent drawings have a queasy feel to them, and his most hateful, freakishly pornographic works have touches of unnerving cuteness.
While watching Crumb, I found my opinion flip-flopping as to whether I liked this man. While obviously an enormously unique, talented artist, he also comes off as a particularly cold-spirited kind of jerk. Interviews reveal that Crumb has never shown any affection for his obviously hurt twenty-something son, his sexual relationships have been marked by obsessive kinkiness and infidelity, and at one point he blithely admits, "I've never been in love." But by the time the film ends, all of this makes sense.
Crumb's saddest and most revealing moments come during the film's ongoing interviews with his younger and older brothers, both of whom have been rendered emotionally nonfunctional by their childhood with an abusive (though now-dead) father. In scenes with Charles Crumb, who still lives at home with his mother, the sense of soul-decay is so strong you can almost smell the mothballs in the room. It's only appropriate that Crumb is "presented" by David Lynch, whose works often expose the sick underbelly of domestic America.
Watching Crumb with his brothers, laughing nervously at the tragedy of their existence, you can see how much he's had to labor to overcome his past. And you come to see his Comic Books as a paradox: These grotesque, therapeutic outpourings of Crumb's pained psyche are exactly what has allowed him to escape from the very world that created that psyche. Talk about finding power in comic books.
Crumb is playing at The Loft (795-7777) cinema.
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