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Weekly Alibi Crumb on Your Table

Underground artist R. Crumb goes legit with a big fat coffee table tome.

By Ernie Longmire

JANUARY 20, 1998:  In the minds of the sorts of people who use coffee table art books to define themselves to the sorts of people they allow into their home, comics artist Robert Crumb has finally "arrived." For now, he, too, has his own Coffee Table Art Book to place between the copies of Underneath Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater and A Day In The Life Of The Tiny Republic Of Togo that reside nonchalantly on the brass-and-glass monstrosity in front of the divan in the sitting room. But in the minds of the sorts of people who love the art of cartooning, Crumb "arrived" more than 35 years ago, when he first took up the pen professionally. In the early- to mid-'60s he worked as an illustrator for the American Greetings card company (under "Ziggy" creator Tom Wilson, if you can stand the irony), turned his pseudo-bohemian wanderings into sketchbook features for Mad founder Harvey Kurtzman's satire magazine Help!, dropped acid (natch) and finally made his way west into San Francisco's counterculture scene, through which he established his national reputation: Zap Comix, Fritz The Cat, "Keep On Truckin'," Mr. Natural, the Cheap Thrills album cover ...

Politically correct the boy was not. Crumb's work in the years immediately following the Summer of Love revolutionized the comics medium through his soul-baringly introspective autobiographical pieces, an unapologetic obsession with racial stereotypes and a seemingly endless stream of explicit sexual fantasies about big-assed women. None of which are in short supply in this collection. So those with little stomach for that sort of thing are warned to stay far, far away. But if you can stand (or actively enjoy) the stench of Crumb's naked depravity, let's face it, the man draws some damn good explicit sexual fantasies about big-assed women.

Whether or not you like the tone of the material, it's difficult to question Crumb's skills. The cheap newsprint his material usually gets printed on doesn't give the reader much opportunity to absorb his technique, but when cut loose on these glossy 11-by-13-inch pages, it's all brought into the open--from the bright, loose Rapidograph linework in his early sketchbook pages to the truly wicked hand at crosshatching he developed in the 1970s. Under Crumb's pen, realistic life drawing blends hypnotically with an almost Disneyesque cartooning style--sometimes within the same piece, as the generous sample of sketchbook pages provided within proves.

None of this is going to be much of a surprise to people who are already familiar with Crumb's work. But for those folks, there's a thread of new (prose) biographical material written by Crumb himself that abandons his usual self-caricature and lays out in an unusually straightforward way what he was doing and why during the various stages of his career. The context it provides helps lend structure to the book, and if you read between the lines there are a few revelations as well. (R. Crumb watches "Sightings?" Ye gods.)

The book's cover illustration hints at the quandary Crumb must have found himself in when he was approached to help put this collection together--frightening to think that the reclusive old fuddy-duddy, 78-collecting, technology-will-destroy-us-all father of the underground comics movement is now of enough interest to mainstream America to warrant the kind of $40 big-name-publisher hardcover career retrospective that's usually reserved for boys like Degas and LeRoy Nieman. But Crumb obviously overcame any reservations he might have had about the project, and so should anyone who hasn't already decided to drop the two Jacksons and take this thing home. It's a fitting overview of the life and work of a true American master. (Little, Brown, cloth, $40)

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