Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Pollux writes:

Last night I had the opportunity to attend “An Evening with Robert Crumb” at UCLA’s Royce Hall, in which the renowned cartoonist sat down for a discussion with Françoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker.

It was a rare public appearance for Crumb. The cartoonist joked that he would need recovery time at an Austrian health spa after the night was over. “I’m never doing it again,” he said, with a chuckle, before the discussion had even begun. Crumb prefers the privacy of pen and paper.

The evening started with a discussion on his “self-pitying youth,” which is by now quite familiar to Crumb fans and to anyone who has seen Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 film Crumb: Crumb’s domineering father; his obsessive brother Charles, who got him to start drawing comics in the first place; his brother Maxon who went from sitting on the street in a lotus position with a beggar bowl to being an artist whose intense work is much in demand. “Self-esteem helps people a lot,” Crumb said.

A photograph of Crumb as a nerdy 13-year-old was displayed on the screen. The audience laughed as Crumb pointed to certain aspects of himself as a young man: the shirt buttoned all the way to the top and a gap in his front teeth.

Crumb said the origin of gap in his teeth was explained in a story of his called “Don’t Tempt Fate.” A kid in the neighborhood used to throw pieces of cinderblock over a fence. Crumb had thought someone could get hurt; he walked around the fence, and that person ended up being him.

“Do you recognize yourself?” Mouly asked Crumb, in reference to Zwigoff’s film. “Excruciatingly so,” Crumb said, and said that Zwigoff had depicted Crumb’s natural self. Crumb said he had expected the film to be shown at a few art houses and then die a natural death. It didn’t turn out that way: the film became a huge success and his mother ended up feeling very hurt by Crumb’s comments in the film about his family.

Crumb said that his family was angry at him for about a decade, but that he recently attended a family reunion of “hundreds of Crumbs”. Crumb talked about his “skinny ectomorph” of a cousin, Scott, who looks exactly like him and is living what seems like an alternate life in a trailer in northern Minnesota.

Mouly pulled up an old photo from Crumb’s childhood, which depicted a wall plastered with New Yorker covers. Mouly asked him if he had dreams as a young man of drawing for The New Yorker. Crumb said he could scarcely imagine it, since drawing for The New Yorker had seemed so unattainable. Crumb, of course, succeeding in doing so. “I only got my chance after Arno and all the others had died off,” he said.

Mouly and Crumb talked about the Crumb cover from February 21, 1994. Mouly said that Tina Brown, editor of The New Yorker, had initially not realized the image was a take-off on Eustace Tilley. Crumb loved that a sacred taboo had been broken in his depiction of Tilley as a grungy young man reading a flier for an adult video store. Crumb loved that it caused “fussy old grumps” to write angry letters and cancel their subscriptions in protest.

Crumb talked about his career at a greeting card company. A man at an employment agency man got Crumb the job after letting the greeting card company know that the young man he had in his employment office was a fantastic artist. The man at the employment had never seen of his work since Crumb had not thought to bring a portfolio of his artwork.

Crumb hadn’t thought a job in the art field was possible, and his first job at the greeting card company was working at the tedious and laborious process of color separation. Eventually, he was moved to card design after his superiors spotted doodles dotting the walls of his desk. First, they needed to teach him how to “draw cute,” which entailed creating characters with big heads and short bodies. “People love cute,” Crumb said.

Mouly asked Crumb about his life in France. “You live in France but not because you love France,” she said. Crumb said this was true; living in France was all his wife Aline’s idea. Crumb had worried that he would lose in touch with America, but said that his Book of Genesis would now make those fears unfounded.

Crumb said that his wife Aline now practically runs the French village they live in, organizing aerobic classes there, for example. She makes her husband design the fliers for the aerobics studio every season. Crumb said that his wife Aline pushed her aerobics class to scream and yell and really stretch instead of mincing around; she now has a loyal group of “fifteen French Amazons.”

Crumb talked about his wife’s interests in imagery, both Catholic and pagan, depicting goddess figures. He spoke admiringly of her and said that she was hard-nosed and street-wise but also “intuitively mystical.” Crumb talked about his love for big-legged, big-breasted women and his Catholic schoolgirl fantasies. He remarked that Serena Williams had a butt to die for, and that he would be a puddle if he were in her presence.

Mouly pulled up a drawing of a street from the French village. The locals liked the drawing, but hated the fact that Crumb had drawn a trash-bin as well. Crumb said that he was just drawing the reality of the street. Someone later asked him if he would use Nicolas Sarkozy as subject matter in his comics. “No, I don’t mess with politicians,” Crumb said. “It’s a waste of time.” The audience clapped.

Crumb and Mouly then talked about his illustrated Book of Genesis, which represents four years of hard work. Crumb dedicated the work to his wife, in honor of her encouragement and her idea to set him up in a hut in the mountains where he could live and work as a hermit without interruption. “I’m too famous,” Crumb said.

The genesis of Genesis was a satirical comic Crumb had previously done on Adam and Eve. Crumb said that he later realized that he didn’t have to present a satirical or mocking view of the Old Testament. If he followed the text literally, he could show how bizarre the Bible actually was.

Mouly asked if Crumb grew up reading the Bible. Crumb said he was raised Catholic but said that Catholicism involved a lot of reading of texts other than the Bible, such as the catechism. When he did hear from the Bible, it was mostly from the New Testament.

Crumb read part of an angry letter sent by a “Jewish Lesbian” to The New Yorker, which ran an excerpt of the work in the June 8, 2009 issue. Crumb chuckled as he read it; he loves angry letters. The letter held that Crumb’s work reinforced conceptions of God as a patriarchal, dominating figure.

Crumb said that he drew God as a man because the text says “He” and “Him,” but he admitted to using the familiar image of God as an angry bearded white man. But God is angry in a lot of these stories, Crumb said. The best compliment Crumb has received, he said, was that someone told him that his Genesis project made the reader want to know what happens next.

Crumb found some stories from Genesis to be incomprehensible and he took some liberties. On the whole, he was completely faithful to the text, and drew, for example, all of the “begats” as individual portraits.

He never consulted with Biblical scholars but did seek the advice of a Hebrew scholar he knew. For the props and details of everyday life, Crumb said he referred to stills from old Cecil DeMille and D.W. Griffith films, since information from the era in which Old Testament figures are said to have lived suffers from a paucity of historical information.

For his Isaac, Crumb used as his model an old Moroccan Jewish man who lives in the same French village. Otherwise, for his cast of characters, he generally referred to images taken from books. Crumb was later asked about how he intuited the emotions of female figures from the Old Testament, which Crumb said he was forced to speculate on, as the Bible makes little comment on Sarah’s emotions, for example.

Crumb said he was sick of the Bible and wanted to go back to “porn.” He was later asked if the project had made him more spiritual. Crumb replied that he had no reverence for the text and that he did not think that the Old Testament was the word of God, and emphasized that the Old Testament represents an oral tradition passed from generation to generation.

The Q & A session was disconcertingly chaotic. David Sefton, Executive and Artistic Director of UCLA Live, had said at the beginning of the evening that microphones would not be made available to audience members who had questions. This was intended, he said, to prevent audience members from plugging their websites, comics, screenplays —but this is what happened anyway.

The first question that Crumb received was more a statement than a question. “Mr. Crumb, I like big legs too,” a man in the audience said. “Oh, good,” Crumb replied. And then the man began to plug his website, which apparently was devoted to women with big legs. The audience roared in disapproval.

Since there was no usher handing a microphone to people who had questions, the audience simply yelled out questions, often simultaneously. Crumb took it in stride, joking at one point that he had heard a woman’s voice, and could he hear her question, please?

Questions ranged from “What’s your hat size?” and “Do you have carpal tunnel syndrome?” to “What finally pushed your brother Charles over the edge?” (a question that also elicited, understandably, grumbles of disapproval).

Some members of the audience became rather frenzied. “Talk about Fritz the Cat! Talk about Fritz the Cat!” a young man kept on yelling. Another asked a question in regards to a fellow questioner: “How many questions is this guy going to ask?” This was in reference to a man who stood at the balcony and called out one question after another.

UCLA’s total lack of control over the disorderly Q & A session reflected badly on the university as a whole. At times, Mr. Crumb was interrupted by people asking new questions before he could have a chance to finish answering a question that he was already asked. It could not have been an entirely happy experience for the cartoonist.

The man who had plugged his porno site kept on yelling comments and questions from his balcony seat. Whenever he made a statement the audience roared in disapproval.

I couldn’t help thinking that this is precisely why Crumb hates public appearances. He seemed relieved to get off the stage as soon as the evening had ended.

The best questions posed to Crumb involved his methods. He was asked if he would ever “go digital.” Crumb responded with a categorical “No.” His daughter Sophie has tried to get him to use PhotoShop but he found it laborious and he hated telling her (and the image editing program) what colors he wanted to use. He does not like using technology; in high school he had taken typing classes and had received F’s.

For coloring, he pastes a Xerox of his drawing onto a hard piece of board and then uses watercolor. But for his Book of Genesis he used no color, since it would have taken too long. Crumb uses a crow quill pen rather than a rapidograph.

With some exceptions, he generally required three days to do one page for his Genesis project. Crumb said he felt like he was “laying track for the Trans-Siberian Railroad or climbing Mount Everest” and had times doubted the value of the project. Mouly assured him that his work had great value, and had gotten people interested in the Bible, not so much for religious reasons but as a piece of historical text.

Crumb seemed relieved. “That’s good to hear, after all that fuckin’ work.”

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2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree