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Robert Crumb:

I Came Out Fully De-Formed!

Reproduced below is a previously untranscribed Q&A session with Robert Crumb which took place with the audience after a screening of The Confessions Of Robert Crumb, the BBC Arena documentary from 1987. The event was held on Wednesday 19 February 2003 at The Prince’s Drawing School in East London. Robert Crumb rarely enjoys public appearances or opening himself up to audience questions, but on this occasion he was surprisingly relaxed and communicative, even if the questions were not always that pointed.

After a day’s life-drawing class with students, Robert Crumb was joined at a public evening by Robert McNab and Mary Dickinson, producer and director of The Confessions Of Robert Crumb, and by fellow American cartoonist  Pete Poplaski, who went on gave a stirring lecture about his Zorro obsession, dressed in costume. This was followed by an screening of the Arena documentary. After this, McNab invited questions from the audience and Crumb came forward.

Robert McNab:
You can ask Robert, he’s had it easy, he’s been quiet but I’m sure you want to ask him stuff, so… does anyone have a question in mind? Yes…

Audience Member:
I’d like to know what Robert Crumb’s relation is to Philip K. Dick as a Californian visionary?

Robert Crumb:
Shall I come up there?

RM:
I think probably yes, you’ll have a few questions, it’s your turn now. (Round of applause)

RC:
I just wanted to say that I’ve changed a lot since that film was made. I’m not that guy anymore at all, I’m somebody else. I’m full of confidence (clicks his fingers, pretends to swagger, audience laughs). So what was the question again? Philip K. Dick? I just read an article about his religious experiences. I’d never read any of his fiction or anything. I just read this article and thought it was really interesting that he’d had this - whether it was induced by drugs or what, I don’t know - this vivid experience that he thought that some part of him existed in Roman times and was part of the Christian underground. That’s all… (coughs and moves to sit down again, audience laughs)

RM:
No, no, Robert, that’s too quick. Stay there!

AM:
How can an artist in the modern world ever hope to get at the truth when everything is so…

RC:
When everything is so fucked up? Well, Pete [Poplaski] said it all. It’s a struggle every day. You’ve got to be very persistent, if that means anything to you. But what happens to most people is that economic realities start to take hold, you have family, you’re tired of sleeping on floors, eating out of a can. The you start to accept a compromise here, another one there, and then pretty soon you don’t know what truth is anymore. So you just have to keep trying to get back to that original intent, as Pete calls it. It’s interesting, Pete is into the heroic character and we have a lot of discussions, because I’m into the anti-hero. Like he calls my drawing "picking at scabs". When Pete draws from life, he makes everybody look noble and heroic, every person he draws in his sketchbook. When I draw them, they just look (voice deepens) twisted and grotesque, so we have an interesting dynamic exchange, me and him.

R. Crumb Self Portrait

AM:
Are you interested in making your own animated films, on your own terms, or…

RC:
‘Bang!’ (gestures as if to shoot himself in the head). I’m not all interested in doing animation. It’s a whole other life’s work that you have to completely commit yourself to. I like working alone, just sitting in my corner, with my little pen scratching away.

AM:
Did you do much with those Fritz films?

RC:
I had nothing at all to do with those Fritz The Cat films, they just rolled over me. I was quite young when that happened. I didn’t want them to do it… Yes, sir?

AM:
When did you start listening to old-time music?

RC:
When I was quite young. Around the time that rock’n'roll started to become uninteresting, around 1958! (audience laughs) It was still the end of the period of 78prm records round the late 1950s so you could still find piles of these records around, and when I discovered that old music on 78s, I thought "That’s it, that’s the music for me".

AM:
Some of them played at the 1963 Newport Festival…

RC:
That’s right, a lot of those old guys were still alive then. Guys had gone to great efforts to find those guys and dig them up, because they are 1920s records.

I'm Grateful from Weirdo #25, 1989

AM:
Did you enjoy your life-drawing class today?

RC:
It was a humbling experience (audience laughter). I have rarely if ever done that, I never went to art school and actually having a model who’s being paid to sit there for quite a while and all these other people are also working and some of them are good. And there’s a teacher there, who gives criticism and stuff. I’ve been a professional for thirty, forty years and got my own style all worked out, so to go back to being a student again, I wondered if I can actually do a good drawing here! But it was great doing that.

AM:
How did you find making a documentary with the BBC compared to making a documentary with David Lynch?

RC:
Actually, David Lynch had nothing to do with it. It was directed by this friend of mine, Terry Zwigoff, who was in that band I had in the 1970s, The Cheap Suit Serenaders. Since he was a close friend and I’ve known him for like 25 years I was very open with him, and who knew this film was going to get all this attention? Over a period of about six years, I pretty much opened up my whole life to him. The BBC thing was nine days, I wrote the script, it was somewhat more managed and manageable. It was different. You have a question?

AM:
You don’t use colour much in your work…

RC:
Very little, mostly black and white…

AM:
Was it just happenstance?

RC:
Well, like Pete, I started out by being interested from the comic world and it’s all pen and ink and colour is applied afterward by printers. So I didn’t go the Fine Art route, I didn’t go through painting, where you use those kinds of materials, at all. I came from this world of pen and ink so colour was always a secondary consideration. It’s still problematic, how to apply colour over that pen and ink… 

AM:
Have computers made any inroads into your studio?

RC:
I don’t use computers, I don’t touch them at all, but it’s actually made colour easier because you can do a colour guide and give it to the publisher and have some guy on a computer do some really nice smooth-looking colour job with the computer, which saves a lot of work. We used to have to do colour separations by hand, using three overlays for each of the four-colour printing processes, it was tedious, it could take a week just to do those colour overlays. So now with computers it’s much easier. That’s a big help. Sir?

AM:
Why do these documentaries?

RC:
To be honest, for the BBC thing, I was broke, I needed the money! I had to bargain with them, they were stingey (laughter). They only wanted to pay me $1,000. I said for a nine-day ordeal like that, I gotta have at least $5,000, so they gave me $5,000. That was the reason I originally got involved in that thing. This other one, my friend Terry Zwigoff needed a career, he needed something to do! I always advised him to take up watch repair, but he wasn’t satisfied with that.

Mary Dickinson:
Zwigoff came to our filming, remember?

RC:
That’s right, he did. There was one day when there were two film crews there, what a nightmare. He’s just started to take footage for that documentary that he didn’t finish for nine, ten years. He just didn’t have any money, he had to wait till he got some together and work on it… Ma’am?

AM:
What do you think of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World film?

RC:
Ghost World is excellent, he’s a very talented director. He just finished directing another film for these guys, these horrible monster-Hollywood thugs. He thinks it’s a good movie, it’s not out yet.

AM:
(young guy) I wanted to ask you, erm, well you know that comic Pat N’ Nard, I wanted to ask you, what is Nard?

RC:
I didn’t do that comic, that was Jay Lynch.

AM:
There was one by you.

RC:
Oh yeah, that was a satire.

AM:
So what is Nard?

RC:
I don’t know, ask Jay Lynch! (laughter) I just did a satire on him and Jay never did it again after I’d done that satire. It killed it for him.

AM:
Are you glad you left America?

RC:
I wouldn’t want to be there now, I can tell you that. It’s getting worse and worse. It was my wife who really pushed us to leave. I live in France now, I’ve lived there for ten years. I think she precognated something. It’s nice living in the south of France, (voice deepens) a place to go and die!

AM:
Are there any artists you admire now, as you’re growing older (laughter) that you didn’t mention in the film…

RC:
Sure, tons of them, where do you begin, you know? Good art is rare but cumulatively there’s tons of great artists.

AM:
Are there any comic book artists at the moment who you admire?

RC:
Sure, there’s Dan Clowes, he’s great, there’s a guy named Seth, Peter Bagge, Phoebe Gloeckner, do you know her work? It’s great, tops. Chris Ware is great, I love him. And there are some more obscure ones whose names I can’t think of off the top of my head…

AM:
Do you like Ivan Brunetti?

RC:
Brunetti’s great. There’s a funny Scottish girl cartoonist named Lorna Miller who does these comics about these alcoholic Scottish cow people. It’s funny, she’s a funny girl…

Neal Fox (of Le Gun Magazine):
What do you think of Philip Guston?

RC:
Well, it’s a strange thing, because around the same time that I was taking LSD in the mid-1960s and having these visions of this underbelly of American imagery, he started doing these paintings in the same vein a little bit, it was kind of simultaneous. I don’t know where it came from in his case.

NF:
You never met him?

RC:
No, never had any contact at all. Maybe it was just those times, you know?

NF:
I get the impression he was looking at you.

RC:
No, I think he came up with it completely separately. Strange.

AM:
Did you come out fully formed? (laughter)

RC:
I came out fully deformed! (laughter) Like a geek, an alienated geek, filled with resentments and hatreds, twisted sexual fantasies, but anyway, it’s been a great life.

Posted: March 4, 2007

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