Would-be Pilgrims and the Cowardly Cartoonist: R. Crumb

Posted on April 19, 2015, 7:55 am
5 mins [post-views]

“Robert Crumb asked me to say that he lives in Albania, to discourage would-be pilgrims from beating a path to his doorstep.”


And so begins Ted Widmer’s interview with Robert Crumb for The Paris Review.

Don’t laugh: If. R. Crumb’s depiction of himself as a little, old man comic (Self-portrait of R. Crumb 1983) is an indication of his truest nature, the idea of would be fans knocking on his doorstep to do whatever overzealous pilgrims might do, must consume hours of his imaginative work.

However, I’ve come to be curious about Robert Crumb  through the stories I have read which reference the arrests and controversy which surrounds his work, which means my interest in him was peeked through the use of a literary tool, the written word. Perhaps, because of this, I see his work as that of a craftsman, fine tuning the use of words to deliver message.

R. Crumb is many things: comic, cartoonist, writer, artist and agitator, but at his core, his is a satirist. He is able to use the satirical device illicits an intellectual response (our consideration of the subject) with the immediate, competing physical response (our laughter).

But in the end, who doesn’t like a good joke? Humor wins.

In Jailtime for Selling R. Crumb Comics! the Village Voice describes the arrest of Charles Kirkpatrick, a 23-year old bookstore manager in the East Village, on the charge of promoting obscenity, “Last year an undercover policeman from the Morals Squad walked into the New Yorker Bookshop on West 89th Street and asked for a copy of R. Crumb’s Zap comics, number four.”

When I consider it, I imagine the officer – policed with the city’s morals in the 1970s – specifically referenced issue number four, in attempt to record the exchange on the wire beneath his shirt. But it still seems too bureaucratically inefficient for my tastes, as if issues number one or three would not have sufficed.

Had the bookstore clerk been sufficiently affected with a degree of paranoia which would naturally occur if one realized he was actually committing a felony, I’m certain he would have spotted the request for issue number four, with a degree of healthy skepticism appropriate the crime.

The owner of the bookstore was rightly outraged when he spoke with the Village Voice about the arrest and even managed to raise awareness for independent bookstores throughout the city, when he said “it’s only small, independent stores like us and the East Side Bookstore on St. Mark’s place get busted.”

The article is a treasure trove of imaginative paths – there is the backdrop of New York City in 1970, moral squads, police surveillance, images of “the man” – but the sobering fact is that the government of New York City  was able to see a connection between art and something else … and, I don’t think the something else was obscenity or indecency affecting New York City at the time.

New York was a financially strapped; seedy; corrupted town; and, was on the brink of collapse.  It didn’t have the time or the money to protect morals. Yet, investigating officers were assigned; stakeouts were engaged in; evidence was collected; and, the district attorney’s office was satisfied enough to bring a case.

This, for a man who describes himself as a Cowardly Comic in an interview with Reason magazine.

When asked about his decision to print a cartoon featuring Muhammed, he said, “”So if they come at me, I’m gonna say, “No, look, it’s not Muhammed the Prophet, it’s this guy, Mohamid Bakshi.”

R. Crumb may be many things: cartoonist, comic, writer, artist and agitator, but his work – at its heart – is that of satire. And, as any satirist knows, the first and only possibly effective defense to producing such potentially inflammatory work, is the question, “Did you not get the joke?”

Editors, writers and members of the Fraternal Order of the Leather Apron Club.