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A prodigious purveyor of perverted art and the doyen of underground comix, Robert Dennis Crumb (“R. Crumb” in his signatures) has been illustrating the unhinged imagery lodged in his unconscious for six decades and counting. To his ongoing bewilderment, the controversial and formerly destitute artist’s drawings and cartoons now fetch top dollar at esteemed gallery exhibitions, such as David Zwirner’s recent Drawing for Print: Mind Fucks, Kultur Klashes, Pulp Fiction & Pulp Fact by the Illustrious R. Crumb.
Before he was famous, though, Crumb endured all sorts of problems. Though he’d made a splash in 1968 with his Zap Comix series, which helped define the underground comix aesthetic, his early thirties were plagued by disastrous relationships, lawsuits, financial struggles, heavy LSD use, and copyright infringements (including an X-rated film made about his Fritz the Cat character without his permission). But things started looking up as Crumb approached his 40th birthday — thanks, in part, to Weirdo, an independent magazine he launched in 1981 following a flash of insight during a meditation session.
Running from 1981 to 1990, lasting 27 issues and three editors, Weirdo lived up to its title. It shone a spotlight on the bizarre, the perverted, the grotesque, and the marginalized; comics by schizophrenics, convicts, and homeless people all made their way into its pages. Each issue sported an original Crumb cover and included stories by veteran and newcomer comic artists, oddball ephemera (such as ads for the spoofy Church of SubGenius), and works by forgotten artists (Gene Deitch, Stanislav Szukalski). Weirdo was an important series in comix history, and contained some of Crumb’s best, most refined work. And yet the mainstream art and comic world largely neglected Weirdo during its decade-long run, even as Crumb gained notoriety.
Jon B. Cooke’s The Book of Weirdo: A Retrospective of R. Crumb’s Legendary Humor Comics Anthology (2019) aims to rectify the overlooked magazine’s sorry status. This 288-page hardcover retrospective tackles Weirdo from all angles, chronicling its birth, life, death, and afterlife, making sure to situate its content and key players in specific socio-historical contexts. Through interviews with the magazine’s contributors and editors — Crumb, Peter Bagge, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb — Cooke charts its influences and contemporary counterparts, such as the art publication Mineshaft, which shares some of the DNA of Crumb’s anthology. He notes — as does nearly every contributor in the book — Weirdo’s casual opposition to RAW (1980–1991), Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s contemporaneous eleven-issue anthology. Weirdo was punk and funky, where as RAW was self-consciously arty and European.
Cooke’s sprawling account includes many sidebar entries detailing the origin stories of various covers and particular features in the magazine, such as the overwhelmingly unpopular “photo funnies” that Crumb loved. The most salient of these sidebars draws attention to a pair of racist tales in Weirdo #28, titled “When the Niggers Take Over America” and “When the Goddamn Jews Take Over America.” Cooke, rigidly assuming the role of evenhanded historian, mentions that, although Crumb had previously drawn stereotypical depictions of minority groups for outlandish satire, the pair in this issue was more indignant than funny. “The ham-fisted irony of stories [sic] might have been lost on some readers, but pretty much anyone with eyes sensed a cartoonist’s rage laid bare. It was distressing,” he writes.
Crumb went too far here; there’s too much of a gleeful anger in these comics, making what was ostensibly intended to read as a satire of racist bigotry indistinguishable from bigotry itself. Taking them at face value, a Massachusetts-based neo-Nazi magazine even reprinted these comics without Crumb’s permission, prompting mainstream media scrutiny of Crumb’s work (“Is Crumb a neo-Nazi bigot?” read a headline in the San Francisco Examiner). Writing for The New Yorker in 1994, Hilton Als reported on these comics in a brief piece titled “When Comics Aren’t Funny,” giving Crumb space to defend his work as satire. “I just had to expose all the myths people have of black and Jews in the rawest way possible to tilt the scale toward the truth,” Crumb said.
This is a disturbing section in an otherwise overtly celebratory book that wouldn’t hurt to be more critical. Cooke largely ignores Crumb’s notorious misogyny, giving it only a few brief mentions. The Book of Weirdo doesn’t hold Crumb’s feet to the fire; it merely pays lip service to the more tainted and toxic aspects of the magazine and its creator.
The Book of Weirdo attempts to resuscitate a comic book anthology’s legacy, smoothing over its more repellant facets. Released now, during a time when comics have been elevated to literature, the book illustrates the medium’s defiantly lowbrow origins — which have lent it its potency. You can find the edgy Weirdo brand of humor online, in memes and social media accounts, in certain strands of stand-up comedy and shock jock radio. Nowadays, while gallerists are further canonizing his work with exhibitions, anti-PC and free speech media advocates rally around Crumb, such as Libertarian-leaning publication Reason and alt-right troll Gavin McInnes. Crumb and company continue to attract strange bedfellows nearly thirty years after Weirdo published one final anthology, further shedding light on the darker, uglier, stranger side of the human condition.
The Book of Weirdo: A Retrospective of R. Crumb’s Legendary Humor Comics Anthology by Jon B. Cooke (Last Gasp, May 2019) is available from Amazon and other booksellers for $28.