Foot-fetishist, misogynist, satirist and prophet of the ’60s San Francisco underground comic movement, Robert Crumb gets the warts’n’all treatment in Terry Zwigoff’s award-winning doc. Here, the man responsible for Fritz The Cat, Mr Natural and countless reimaginings of domesticated Middle American sexuality is subjected to what can only be described as “punishing objectivity”, painted as a genius, an emotional cripple, a victim, and a boxroom pervert.
Cannily, Zwigoff first introduces us to Crumb the celeb, in straw boater and oversized suit, sketching clientele in Californian coffee houses, giving self-deprecating lectures at comic conventions in San Francisco, and weakly deflecting unbridled adoration (“He’s the new Goyal”) at downtown New York retrospectives. Then we plunge down the rabbit hole for a bizarre look at Crumb in private?frozen in arrested adolescence, drooling over his many ink portraits of all the high-school girls with “powerful hairy legs” and huge asses who never went out with him. And still further down, with long and often darkly humorous interviews with unhinged Crumb brothers Maxon and Charles?both living on the margins of society (Charles is on anti-depressants, Maxon on a bed of nails, literally). Both are sobering examples of what Crumb could’ve been, and both serve to inform the sad story of Crumb’s sexually repressive childhood, which culminates in bizarre accounts of his current sexual peccadilloes, his masturbation (he’s a five-a-day man!), his member, and his leering, woman-hating libido. And THEN, after all that, Zwigoff cuts to a queasy close-up of Crumb’s skeletal hand gingerly hovering over his daughter’s tiny waist as she draws for daddy…
Zwigoff continues this ambiguous approach to his subject right up to the end, skewering feminist critiques of Crumb’s work with eleventh-hour bombshell accounts of Momma Crumb’s amphetamine addiction and Dadda Crumb’s physical violence.
Since Crumb’s original release in 1994, the subversive nature of underground comics has been co-opted by the rise of self-declared comic geeks like Kevin Smith, and movies like the Crumb-influenced American Splendor. Which makes it a refreshing experience to look back at the unapologetically dark heart of this movement, and to savour an unsparing portrait of a creepy genius.