The Story of Robert Crumb
“Crumb” was a documentary that was recommended by Jordan Peterson in many of his lectures. I made note of it and finally came around to watching it a couple of days ago. One of the lines Peterson said was, “If you really want to know how a serial rapist/sex offender thinks, like really know how they think, if you watch Crumb and pay attention, you’ll know. And that’s only one of the many things this documentary has to offer.” He also said that it was “the best documentary ever made, certainly the best I’ve seen.”
I had to see what Crumb was about.
Before listening to Peterson’s lectures, I wasn’t particularly interested in how serial rapists thought or felt. But his sales pitch was too good to ignore. Exploring the dark side of humanity, something Peterson often discusses, didn’t interest me at first. But with time, I started to understand that the dark parts of human nature weren’t things I could ignore. After-all, they are a part of me and are a part of all of us. It would be impossible to understand the atrocities of human history, and the reality of human nature, without learning about people who manifested evil — and paying attention to how they thought.
Crumb is a documentary about a comic book artist called Robert Crumb who led the underground Comix movement in the 1960’s. He founded the Zap Comix publication and contributed to the East Village Other publication — and others. He created famous counterculture icons such as Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural. He had two sisters — who declined to be interviewed for the film, and two brothers — who were interviewed (Charles and Max).
In Crumb, we learn about Robert’s childhood, what inspired him, and how he rose to fame. But between the lines was a deep pathology.
Robert’s brother, Charles, was a middle-aged man who lived at home with his mother. His mother didn’t speak much but one of her sentences revealed what kind of woman she was “I’m just happy Charles isn’t taking or selling any illegal drugs. And it’s good he’s not with another woman, he’d only make her miserable.” That’s the negative aspect of the feminine — that Peterson repeatedly talks about.
Charles was a voracious reader, and highly intelligent. Even Robert admits that he was the most talented and that he would always wonder if his older brother would approve of his work. But Charles failed to integrate successfully into society. He was a rebellious teenager and was bold and creative.
When they were young boys, they both applied to an art course that required them to follow instructions and display their skills in a booklet. Robert played by the rules and was praised by the salesman who later came back to give them feedback for what they had drawn.
Charles didn’t play by any rules. He made a mockery of the whole thing and — while his rendition of the art application was creative and funny — was met with stern disapproval.
He was brutally beaten by his father, who was a ruthless, strict traditionalist — a man who was disappointed to see his children grow up to be weak, effeminate artists — instead of joining the marines. Unlike Robert, Charles didn’t try to make money from his talent or get any kind of recognition.
There was a scene where Robert describes Charles’ work when he was younger. One of Charles’ comic books starts out with a black and white comic about a boy and a pirate and slowly gets darker with every page. And then the text to image ratio rapidly increased until there was nothing but text. Eventually, it turned into a semi-intelligible written document and finally — into incoherent scribbles.
His life followed a tragic path — where he lived with his mother, attempted suicide (drank shoe polish) and failed multiple times, and it seemed like he did nothing but read and re-read old classics.
A year after the documentary was filmed, Charles killed himself.
Max, Robert’s younger brother, was a street beggar in San Francisco. He lived alone in a small apartment. He would sit on a bed of nails for hours a day and recounted a story of how he couldn’t repress his compulsive urge to pull down a woman’s pants in a subway. He was admitted to a mental hospital for a couple of weeks. He denied ever having raped a woman but openly admitted to sexually abusing several.
Then there’s Robert. He was a hero for having persevered where his brothers couldn’t. He wasn’t blessed with looks or a superior intellect to his brother Charlie, but he was smart enough and he didn’t give up. He was a survivor. And he was willing to play the long game, first applying to publications that curtailed some of his artistic identity, but gave him the security to create, and the opportunity to develop. Eventually, things worked out for him.
Robert had a disturbed mind. He drew a comic of a headless woman being raped. But when confronted about his offensive comics, he admitted that he didn’t know if he should be allowed to do them, that maybe he should be locked up, but that he was only doing what was natural to him and hoped that somehow it would be a good thing.
“There was this guy named Skutch…he was like this mean bully, but he was also very charming and all the girls liked him. He was the dreamboat, but he was also a bully,” laments the cartoonist in the biographical film Crumb. Robert Crumb is a scrawny, hunched artist with Coke-bottle glasses. The kind of guy teased in high school for being a nerd. “I couldn’t understand why girls liked these cruel, aggressive guys and not me, ’cause I was more kind and sensitive…. I was not very attractive physically, but I didn’t think those things really mattered, it was what’s inside that was important.” — A Billion Wicked Thoughts
He hated the sexual status quo. He didn’t fit the ideal mold of masculinity, and despised what women intrinsically found attractive — the alpha male who had a tough exterior and could only be tamed by the right woman. Women didn’t want a regular, nice guy like Robert, they wanted an alpha who they would manage to tame. This is the archetypal story portrayed in most female romances according to the book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts.
“When I was a teenager, girls were just utterly out of my reach. They wouldn’t even let me draw them.” Crumb leans back in his chair and laughs. “Yeah. All that changed after I got famous.”
I think Robert knew that he could use his twisted thoughts to his advantage, that controversy and shock were more sell-able and remarkable than plain — in between the lines — art. Besides, he had already done that, and he realized that he had to take risks if he was going to go anywhere with his career. And the other thing was that he found a proper channel to express his subconscious thoughts. He had a dark side, and as Peterson says, was “acutely aware of his shadow”, and that helped him develop normal human relationships with people and eventually get married and have kids.
According to his ex-girlfriend, he walked all over people. And you get the sense, that he always put himself first. Despite the trauma that he experienced as a child, he was able to integrate his shadow in a way his brothers couldn’t.
Robert did little to suppress the products of his unconscious and — perhaps at the expense of some people’s feelings — he regained his life. He was self-deprecating and while he wasn’t an astute example of a confident, charismatic man, he was smug and radiated a sense of self-importance. He took pride in who he was and what he was able to accomplish. He loved himself in a way his brothers couldn’t. And in the end, that made all the difference.
Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com on March 24, 2020.