The Illustrator Essay

Ruby Watts-Jones



2nd December 2013

The Illustrator




In this essay I am going to write a critical report on a famous comic artist, still living. I will investigate them by researching interviews, comments in journals and respected webpages. I will not only critically examine and analyze the cultural and professional context of contemporary illustration practice but formulating an independent judgment and articulate reasoned arguments through reflection, review and evaluation. I have chosen to write my essay on Robert Crumb. He is an illustrator for comics, ‘’Involved in the underground comix, this was an art form which originated in the US in the 1960’s ‘’[0] when comic books turned to graphic novels. ‘’Robert Crumb is generally considered the one, which stared the whole underground comix movement.’’ [1] Having briefly read that Robert Crumb has been influenced by drugs has intrigued me to want to understand the story and reasoning behind this. What are his influences? What are the relationships with people affecting his work? His story of how he got to where he is now? What were the cultural changes? Where now does he get his work; on products? Websites? Commission? This essay will be interesting as I know little about the comic scene, I am positive that I will critically examine and analyze Crumbs work. I look forward to reading about how his work was socially relevant at the time and having a greater understanding on the underground comix.


Robert Crumb is known mostly for his Comic book art, he was at his biggest in the 60’s and 70’s. From a very young age Crumb drew comics, he would always draw for his brothers. He would go around his neighborhood door to door to sell his work. Crumb later in life got a job working at Greeting Card America. He disliked working here, but had to because by this point companies showed very little interest in his work when he tried to sell it to them.


Minds are made to be blown – LSD Trip 1969



In 1969 Crumb and Dana his partner at the time took LSD, after which Crumb increasingly found his job at America greetings difficult to bear. He mentions how it was visionary, a very powerful experience. It gave him a very strange effect; it made him feel fuzzy, affecting his work greatly. He started to draw cartoon characters, nothing like he’d ever drawn before, characters with abnormally big shoes and features. ‘’He let go of having a coherent; he began to draw stream of consciousness comic strips, making up stuff that even to him did not have to make any sense. From this period these characters then stuck with him in his work for the next several years, they fitted right in with the vision he was having. It was a revolution of the seedy side of America’’ [2] He was unveiling the dark side of the country and expressing his thoughts on society through his images. 

This image here is portraying thoughts and visuals of the drug LSD. It is not as if he is encouraging drug use, it seems to me that he is fabricating the drugs effect. I could imagine fans of his being intrigued by the changes in his style. People at this time, when LSD was a popular drug people could relate to his work. His work could speak in completely different ways to other cartoonists at this time. This cartoon isn’t exactly poetic or beautiful; it is rather strange and disturbing. I could imagine his work enlightening and changing the public’s perception, extending an audience for him self. However his work can be funny; he takes cartoon style from the 1920s and gives it a hippy flare. This is where the technique Crumb used within his work began to change greatly. This image portrays a psychedelic feel to it.

“Minds are made to be blown.” [3]

“Psychedelic drugs broke me out of my social programming. It was a good thing for me, traumatic though, and I may have been permanently damaged by the whole thing, I’m not sure.” [4]





 Soon after he then became famous in the so-called underground comic.’ ’They are a small press or self-published comic books, which are often socially relevant or satirical in nature. They differ from mainstream publications by the comic code authority, including explicit drug use, sexuality and violence.  Usually sold in what were known as ”head shops,” underground comix generally reflected the rebellious mood of the 1960s counterculture movement: down with the establishment; make love – not war; rock n’ roll; women’s liberation, and eventually save the whales and most of the other social issues of the day’’. [5]

The underground commix were extremely popular in the U.S and U.K from the 60’s to late 70’s.


Underground comix gained prominence with films and television shows; Influenced by movement and with mainstream comic books, but their legacy is most obvious with alternative comics. Alternative comics being around since the 1980’s in America, then following the commix movement in 1960’s and 1970’s.

Until comics had been dominated by the worldwide Walt Disney and the re assuring sentiments of superman, truth, justice and the American way. But crumbs world is full of anti heroes, paranoia and anxiety; his demons come not from other galaxies but from modern America and his own subconscious.


Fritz the Cat, Underground Comix 1965


‘’His most celebrated creations take their place along side Mickey mouse and pop-eye in the history of comics. Like the rambunctious self-seeking fritz the cat and Mr. natural the archetype guru, ever ready to dispense wisdom to the young and enlightened their escapades provide the sharp satire aspirations on the love generation.’’ [7] – Created in 1959. Fritz was a cat of Crumbs from a child that he had always drawn stories about. Fritz became his most famous character. The strip appeared in Help! – And cavalier magazines. The strip received further attention when it was adapted in a 1972 animated film with the same name. Crumb ended the strip in 1972 due to disagreement with the filmmakers. 







Robert And Dana, His ex wife 1960’s


‘’But Crumbs most inducing character is himself, he turns the comic strip into a confessional he examines his troubles with women, his life and himself, owning up to feelings and fantasies, that most men would prefer to keep safely in the dark.’’ [8]

‘’It was Crumb who ‘’took the lead in breaking all existing taboos on expressions of sex, violence, and socially critical matters.’’ [9]

As Crumb’s work matured, the absurdist view of life he presented became more pessimistic and increasingly disdainful of mainstream culture. Crumbs social criticism was always based in his own problems dealing with society.


In an interview I found online Robert Crumb was asked several questions:

‘’What did it mean in terms of becoming an artists to choose to become a cartoonist? Why did you choose the route you did?’’ He replied ” well it wasn’t really a decision, when growing up people grow out of things, people stopped drawing around the age 14, people in my class moved onto other things, they got involved with football, or learnt how to drive a car. I never stopped drawing, i was one of the geeks who in their spare time all i would do is draw.” He was a child of popular comic books and television so just drifted into drawing comics. ”Then somehow miraculously I turned it into a living.” He jokes. [10] His creative process is unusual yet I find it rather inspirational. ‘’If he doesn’t draw for a while he gets really depressed and suicidal.’’[11]

He doesn’t work in terms of consciousness, It has to be something that he is revealing to himself while doing it, so when drawing he doesn’t know exactly what it is about he has the courage to take the chance. I like that his work isn’t planned, the spontaneity of his work through his sub consciousness is inspirational, it seems natural and relaxed, relevant to moods and feelings at the time making it more meaningful and interesting. I can imagine this being extremely interesting for him to see how work comes out, emotionally good and bad. He questions in a different interview, ‘maybe there’s something wrong with me?’ [12] He feels he didn’t turn out normal that’s why he has a lot of resentment. ”Self hatred is a strong motivating force in my work, especially sex drive.”



Crumb’s Ideal Woman 1960’s



Crumb talks about how he is attracted to big strong women the superior type. All American brat girl, the modern American, he likes it when their physically strong and when drawing these female characters he emphasizes the muscles and structure on the figure. He claims to be a sexist and that most women are attracted to the alpha male that Crumb is far from. Maybe this is why he is left so angry and bitter. Completely over exaggerating the figure expressing his unusual taste in women. He claims to be a ‘shy wimp’ and for many years struggled to be popular with women, his cartoons allow him to exploit this fantasy of his. He is sadly, self-loathing.



‘Keep On Truckin’  Published in the first edition of ZAP in 1968.


‘Keep On Truckin’ was picked up first by rock groups who used the word “truckin’” in songs.

The message: keep on doing your own thing regardless of obstacles.

Robert Crumb didn’t like the direction that the modern world has taken.

‘Keep On Trucking’ merchandise began to appear everywhere, bath towels, mud flaps, light bulbs. ” We rarely have harmony and control of your own surroundings.” [13]

Crumb was tired of it all; he got offered thousands to continue with this deal but turned it all down. He was clearly against the way society was working, this brainwashed rat race, keep-working industry, this clearly wasn’t Crumbs morals and soon left.

He creates such mood and emphasis with the heavy black here and in most cartoons of his. He has a distinctive pen and ink style.





The Whiteman introduced in Zap Comix1 1968.


He stood for everything wrong with the guys who ran America. Whiteman wanted people to think he was a tough character. Crumb transformed him into a lifestyle where he abandoned his wife, kids and civilization, able to satisfy his lust anytime he wanted, He found happiness in the forest culture.

Crumb came up with the character ‘Whiteman’ because it reminded him of his father. ‘’A ridged person who is basically caught up in all these illusions about what your suppose to do with your life as a member of society.’’ [14]

Crumbs illustration of Whiteman is influenced on familiar characters in the modern world. Its as if he is anti establishment, and disagreeing with society, using his art form as a message. His social criticism was always based in his own problems dealing with society.




Mr. Snoid Created in 1980


Another one of Crumbs classics, making an appearance in many of comic books this little character has his very own solo book. Created when Crumb went through his ‘fuzzy’ stage from LSD. ‘’ He can appear anywhere, from the sewer to the doctor’s office.’’ [15]

It seems to me that he is a character that slightly represents Crumb himself. Being a very negative, sexually frustrated and yet slightly comical person.

Even by looking at this image of Mr Snoid we can instantly understand he isn’t the most pleasant of characters. Emphasis on the facial expressions Crumb has defiantly created a comically hostile character. Not to mention the name he is given, Snoid meaning a character that is pseudo-intellectual a snob; Usually people that have personality defects and a superiority complex.





Mr. Natural, Comic Illustrations 1960’s.


Mr. Natural is a mystic guru. Has a long white beard and wears a long gown, he looks almost mystical. He is supposed to resemble the Old Testament, God, or a prophet. Very easy going. He is one of many of Crumb’s characters that are very likeable, a wise character, always speaking words of wisdom. People would pester him for the meaning of life. (As shown in the next image)




Mr. Natural And Flakey Foont. Comic Illustrations 1960’s


Flakey being a character resembling Crumb himself, Worrying, mostly always negative. When I read Flakey Foonts scripts I always associate him with stress. Crumb draws his cartoons with unflattering realism, wrinkly face, scruffy hair, just generally scraggily. By drawing his character like this he is creating a sense of unease and tension. Adding several speech bubbles we can imagine he is in a mood of anxiousness, continuously blurting how he feels to Mr. Natural, relying on him to make him feel calmer and tell him wise words that he shouldn’t worry etc.

(Flakey Foont and Mr. Natural are characters both made up by Crumb)





The Genesis, Created in 2009.


Spending five years on the making of the book Genesis Crumb incorporated a different twist, entirely new, It was more of a comic version of the bible.

It was money that drove Crumb to create his commix for Genesis in 2004. This book is now used as a teaching tool. Crumb put an astonishing amount of work into this book, His beautifully hand drawn illustrations I could imagine makes learning not just for the young but all ages more interesting. It adds a little sense of humor to the story. Illustrating the book like no one before him, revealing the story of the genesis in a unique, honest way. However there has been a Biblical row over Crumb’s ‘ over explicit’ illustrations within this book.

‘’It includes graphic illustrations of Bible characters having sexual intercourse, and other scenes depicting naked men and women as well as “gratuitous” depictions of violence.’’ 

“They’re great stories. But for people to take texts as something sacred, handed down from God… that’s pretty backward, I think.”



I can appreciate that to some, Crumbs work could be offensive, some argue; “If you are going to publish your own version of the Bible it must be done with a great deal of sensitivity. The Bible is a very important text to many-many people and should be treated with the respect it deserves. [18]





No doubt Robert Crumbs work has been highly influential on countless artists, both commercially and contemporary. His stories illustrate the most basic human qualities; paranoia, shallowness, sexuality, fear etc. and always manages to maintain a sense of humor.

 Crumbs earliest cartoons were inspired by the work Walt Kelly, an American animator and Cartoonist who contributed to working with the cartoon Pinocchio, Pogo, Dumbo and Fantasia. We can recognize that they both hold a similar style. Both work in a detailed black and white and then again in other comics, colour and the way speech is assembled.



Throughout Crumbs career we can see society in America has had a great impact on his work, as well as his drug use of LSD and women. His characters are always reflecting all the above, this makes his work a lot more interesting; people are able to relate to familiar individuals in society. I do not always agree with his morals but find his work process and influences extremely fascinating. Crumbs work in the early days (late 60’s early 70s) was a lot more with the trend, the counter culture, hippie trend. Things began to fizzle out with him for him in the late 70’s. The comic scene was still around but not has big as it had been, only people who were really comic fans appreciated were those who kept it going. Perhaps people who enjoyed Crumbs earliest work that now do not as much have reached their middle age and cannot relate to his work so much as in its earliest days. ‘’ It’s partly people who are just into comics. It’s partly old hippies; it’s partly just curious types who scan the culture for offbeat and odd stuff. They’re looking for something outside of the mainstream.’’ [19]


‘’Crumb isn’t perfect. Scatological repetition saps the film’s energy, as do interviews that focus on Robert’s luck with women after he became a name. Though a former lover claims his penis is prodigious, it’s the size and thrust of his talent that drives the film. Zwigoff links the child to the man, the man to the artist and the artist to personal responsibility in ways that challenge glib notions of psychotherapy and political correctness. Crumb is a funny, touching and vital portrait of a bad boy who can’t put a lid on it. Warts and all, he keeps on truckin’’. [20]



































[18 ]















[0,1, 5,] [Accessed 20th November 2013]


[2,6,7,8,10,11]  [Accessed 21st November 2013]




 {Accessed 21st November 2013


[4.8] ] [Accessed 21st November 2013]



[9] www.criticalinquiry.uchicago.ed/panel_lines_on_paper_bruetti_barry_panter_crumb/ [Accessed 21st November 2013]


[14] [Accessed 25th November 2013]



[Accessed 25th November 2013]


[16, 17] [Accessed 25th November 2013]


[18] [Accessed 25th November 2013]


[19] [19]

[Accessed 25th November 2013]




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