Graphic Lit: An interview with Aline Crumb
To a large part of the comics-reading public Aline Kominsky-Crumb is probably best known as the wife of Robert Crumb, famed underground cartoonist ("Zap Comix," "Fritz the Cat") and subject of the award-winning 1994 documentary.
The fact, however, is that she's a notable cartoonist in her own right. Crumb was one of the first artists to do confessional, autobiographical material in the '60s and '70s, delving into her angst-ridden childhood in a raw, no-holds-barred style. As a result, she has influenced a number of cartoonists who have come since, both directly and indirectly.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Crumb continues to draw, most notably on collaborative strips with her husband for "The New Yorker."
Now, she has a new book out, "Need More Love." Subtitled "A Graphic Memoir," Crumb combines comics, photos, paintings and text to tell her life story.
Crumb flew to the United States from her home in France to promote the book, and I talked with her from her hotel room in New York City:
Q: What was the impetus for doing this book?
A: Well, you know, I’m approaching 60 years old, and I’ve been in the comic-writing business since 1970 and I have a large body of work and it hasn’t really been seen by the public very much been hidden in the underground world, with an audience that wasn’t really the appropriate audience. I feel now that comics and graphic novels are really going mainstream and I felt I could reach more of the audience I was trying to talk to for the last 40 years.
So I thought it was a good time and also I have documented my life so heavily that the thought of doing this visual autobiography was really a very interesting idea to me.
And then I had a very encouraging publisher. That helped to. She really was behind me and she really wanted me to do exactly what I wanted to do and would not interfere with it at all. I ended up with a book only half as long as Bill Clinton’s, but nevertheless .... (laughs)
Q: I’m sure it’s more readable.
A: It has more pictures.
Q: More comics makes it attractive to me certainly. You said “audience.” Can you give me an idea what audience you’re shooting for?
A: I’m talking to people like myself. I think I’m talking to women, and men too, people who have had miserable lives, who are alienated, suffered. My work is expressionistic. It doesn’t really fit into any comic genre. It’s not superhero. It’s not manga. It’s not feminist. It’s not science-fiction. It doesn’t refer to any of the comics genres because I really come from a painting and literary background more. It’s just like my own storytelling is very angst-ridden. So I’m talking to the other angst-ridden fellow travelers out there. It’s work that I’m attracted to reading — Charles Bukowski, Gene Rees — writers like that. I know there are people out there that can relate to it, I just don’t think that I’ve ever reached that audience and now maybe I will.
Q: What do you think you’re work hasn’t reached that audience? Do you worry that your husband’s fame has eclipsed your own to an extent?
A: I’m sure that’s partially true, but I don’t think that even if I was not involved with him that my work would have had great financial or critical success in the comics world because as I said it doesn’t fit into any comics niche. I’ve always had a very small following. People look at this and go “What is this,” because I don’t have a comics background, and my works don’t look like other comics. My books were never distributed as books in regular bookstores. I was an ugly duckling and real outsider artist. I don’t think that being married to him has made that much difference although perhaps the public’s perception of me is affected by that. I have no idea. But it hasn’t affected my desire to work. I’ve been an artist since I was eight years old; I started painting. And he’s always encouraged my work, so it hasn’t really affected me as an artist, but I can’t judge those kind of things. I don’t know if the public perceives me as “the wife” and so they don’t look at my work seriously. I don’t really think so.
Q: You are one of the very first people to do autobiographical comics.
A: You are right.
Q: And now it’s become a genre unto itself. Do you ever pick up an issue of “Peepshow” or look at some similar comic and think “I started this?”
A: Absolutely, and I’m really happy because I love some of the stuff that’s out there now. There’s really a lot of good young artists. I feel like I’m the great-grandma because there’s several generations that have come after me and I’m really happy about that.
Doing this book now is partially because of that. Now there is a place in the book stores for this book. These artists have created a place in the book store where I can be now. It’s really wonderful. There’s great stuff out there now. I love Joe Matt and I love my daughter’s work and I love Adrian Tomine and I love Dan Clowes ... tons of stuff out there ... Joe Sacco, Phoebe Gloeckner who came in between, Rick Altergott, David Heatley, I could go on and on. That Iranian woman, Satrapi. My book can fit in a giant place in the bookstore that hopefully I helped create. That certainly makes me feel good.
Q: It’s funny because in certain comic circles there’s been almost a backlash against autobio comics. To an extent I think it’s people whining. There was one review of Mome, the Fantagraphics anthology, that singled out a few people’s work as being really mundane.
A: Well, too bad. When something’s really successful and flourishing, then some people have to make their achievement by being against it. That’s just a critic trying to make their name for themselves.
Q: Well my question to you is then, what is it about autobiography that appeals to you so strongly?
A: Well, I’m an artless person and I don’t know how to make anything up, so for me it’s not a choice. I’m still working out the issues of my childhood and I’ve worked them out through my artwork which I think most artists are doing in their artwork in different ways. I have evolved as a human being by telling stories about my childhood that were intolerable. That’s what autobiographical work is about for most people. It’s some kind of therapy.
Hopefully it’s entertaining and hopefully it’s so self -revealing that other people that read and identify with it and it makes them have some kind of knowledge about themselves as well and makes them feel less alienated. It serves a great purpose in the culture because people see themselves and they other people’s craziness, it makes them feel less crazy. I think it’s an important art form. It’s always existed in one form or another. I’m not saying there isn’t room for escapist entertainment as well, but it can all be out there.
Q: It does seem like something that works very well in comics.
A: And some people are better at it than others. It’s not all good. Obviously when there’s a lot of it coming out, some of it’s not as well-conceived.
Q: Are there any hazards to doing autobiography, both in terms of feedback or in terms of just ... putting out a good comic I guess?
A: Well, you can be too repetitive. You can get masterbatory. (laughs) I think you have to grow as an artist and you have to grow as a storyteller. You have to keep trying to push your limits and do better. I think you have to always try to be honest and not get into a rut. You have to be careful not to make yourself into a character too much. You have to keep the honesty and the rawness there so that it’s powerful. Because if you make yourself into a character it can become very cute and trite. You start playing to the audience. Then you’re Bart Simpson or something. You’re this cute, nasty character but it loses the power.
Whereas I think when you’re expressing raw emotion and pain, it’s always interesting even if it’s not pretty to look at or fun to look at. It still has a power and honesty. That’s what I like to look at myself. That’s what I like to read about. Some people don’t want to. I like to read Charles Bukowski.
Q: Is there particular stories that you find difficult to tell or cannot tell for whatever reason? Is there a line? I say this because you are very open and honest in your comics.
A: I’m sure there are things I don’t tell but I’m not really aware of where I draw the line. I have a certain self-protection obviously. I don’t think any artist tells stories until they’ve digested them themselves. I don’t think you talk about the pain you’re in today. You talk about the pain you were in yesterday. I think you digest it to where you’ve learned to live with it a little before you tell it. I think that’s more or less what it is. You digest it and regurgitate it in a way that’s tolerable for you to live with it. I think that’s a natural process of protection but I’m not real conscious of how I make the decision, “I’m not going to tell this.” What comes out is what I’m ready to reveal. I think that’s how most artists work.
Q: Getting back to the book, can you tell me how it came together? How did you decide upon the format?
A: The publisher approached me, and it was the publisher that had done Robert’s “Handbook.” The did a series of artists handbooks. They wanted to do a book like that with me where it was an autobiographical book with a lot of different visual elements. So I started thinking in those terms. And then of course since I can only write about myself I ended up writing an autobiography. And I ended up writing 100 pages of text, which surprised myself. There were a lot of things that I wanted to say and it just all came pouring out. And then I realized I had one of periods of my life really well document with comic stories, photos and paintings. So I kind of put it together as a montage almost, impressionistically where each period I found all of the images that went with that period. In some cases I blew up parts of comics that related to the text and colored them. So I used them in an illustrative way with the text. And I experimented with the autobiographical form in a way that to me was visually strong and easy to read and kind of hits you in a multi-faceted way. I think it turned out well. I liked the results. I called it a “graphic memoir” cause I can’t think of anything else to call it, but that’s basically what it is.
Q: Were there any records you wanted to set straight or rumors you wanted to quash? Did you have any agenda?
A: I didn’t have any agenda, but I did talk a lot about the early feminist movement of women cartoonists in San Francisco cause that was a really particularly bitchy group of women. And Diane Noomin and I broke off from it and started “Twisted Sisters.” She was there last night and she was really happy. She wrote something in the book too because those women were really awful to us because when we became involved with male cartoonists who they still considered the ultimate male chauvinist pig which is really ridiculous cause the men cartoonists were actually really encouraging to us. They were really backbiting and nasty.
I gave my version of a story which has never been said before. And it’s not a pretty story. (laughs).
Q: There was a story on some pop culture magazine on the Web which really railed ...
A: I read it. About Robert?
Q: I was shocked that you were not mentioned once.
A: That’s what they’ve done to me for the last four years, Diane Noomin and I did not exist. Cause we went with men and that meant that we were sell-outs. It’s so stupid and simplistic. The other thing is that those women, like Trina Robbins — I might as well say names — their work wasn’t very interesting. I actually think she’s an interesting historian and has written about the history of women’s comics in a good way, but her work itself was really dumb. It’s silly girls in adventure costumes. It was the dumbest thing I ever saw in my life. Her advice to me in comics was completely lame. I said to her, “But I like men, and I want to be sexy, and I want to be in control. I think that’s all possible. I’m not that angry. I’m tough. If someone tries to mess with me I’m going to punch them out.” I’m a bad girl. I want to be bad, dress bad-ass and do whatever the hell I want. Diane and I were early punks in a way. We couldn’t abide by that politically correct thing, hating men. It was so dumb. I think I told my side of the story in that book, but it wasn’t my main motivation for writing that book. But yes, I got it out of my system.
Q: The other thing that struck me so wrong about that article was there’s such a line between people like you and Robert Crumb’s work to the female cartoonists working today.
A: The thing that I think is wonderful today is you don’t say “male and female cartoonists.” There’s no distinction. Obviously everything has evolved where we want it to evolve because all the work is good. In the early 70s, the work of the women cartoonists was very, very unevolved. It was not professional level. It would not even have been published if it hadn’t been that particular time. What we’re really talking about is that women have evolved to be really equal in the genre and there is no distinction whatsoever. So what’s there to talk about?
Q: It’s funny, cause last year in the comics industry, on all the blogs and stuff gender was such a big issue, and all the books that were coming out that I absolutely adored were by these really established female cartoonists. Books like “Fun Home” and so on.
A: Yeah, exactly. Alison Bechdel, Lauren Weinstein, Roz Chast, there’s me, Phoebe Gloeckner, Carol Tyler, Gabrielle Bell, Sophie Crumb, on and on and on. I’m just happy that my daughter is not dealing with anything like that whatsoever. She has to kick herself in the butt and do the work and that’s it.
Q: Talking about that, your daughter has become a cartoonist, and is following in yours and Robert’s footsteps. Was there a point where you were worried for her or concerned about her career choice? I know around here a lot of people at the newspaper always joke “Oh, my kid can do anything they want as long as they don’t become a journalist.”
A: Well, I don’t know. We gave Sophie an education in The Three Stooges and Little Rascals and Marx Brothers and old Fleisher cartoons and old music and she just grew up in Crumbland and I don’t know. It took with her. She is such a talented and natural artist. She started drawing comics when she was a little kid. I don’t know if she ever thought of doing much else. She’s also a great musician. She didn’t go to a university. She was not at all interested in an academic education. We give her a warped point of view and poor kid, she’s got to live with that. What can I say? I can’t make a judgment about it. I’m not surprised. She’s rebelled against us in other ways. I’m not unhappy about it because she’s talented and I hope she keeps working and finding her voice more and more. She likes doing that work too. It could be worse, she’s living in France. She’s got fast Internet in her little village. She’s doing illustrations for Jane and Vice also.
Q: Like I said, the reason I ask is I know people who say “My kid can do whatever they like but I hope they don’t follow in my footsteps.”
A: Well, Robert and I have had a pretty interesting life. I think she’s seen the way we live as being good. Cause we’ve been able to live where we want and travel. We have a lot of personal freedom. I think that it’s appealing to her. I think it’s a very interesting art form so I really don’t feel that way at all.
She also is a tattoo artist. And she did a two-year apprenticeship with a tattoo studio in New York. So she also tattoos for money too, which is something that is sort of scary to me. She did tattoo me. I have a tattoo by her. She’s really good but I don’t see how she can do that, that’s scary. So that’s kind of going against us.
She’s real edgy. She lived in a squat in New York. She hasn’t been an easy kid to raise. She’s her own kid totally. She always has been since she came out. The culture that she was raised with in our house appealed to her. She agrees with me and Robert and it is weird because I’ve rebelled so much against my family values totally. And she and I agree in taste in a lot of ways. We fight about a lot of other things but we have a lot of similar tastes in terms of what writers we like, we exchange books. We always know what the other one is going to like. We have that kind of mental rapport really strongly. It is interesting. It’s kind of unique. I don’t know if it’s good or bad to be her sometimes. Critics are really hard on her . They judge her on much harsher standards than they do other artists her own age.
Q: Right, because of the two of you.
A: Yeah. I think she’s really good. She’s only 25. Her work is much better than either of our work at that age. And yet people come down on her really harshly. She’s supposed to be way beyond anybody else.
Q: I guess it’s a double-edged sword. If you like it, it’s “oh you just like it because it’s Sophie Crumb.” If you hate it, you’re being way too harsh.
A: Exactly. And that’s what she has to deal with more than anything else. But she’s in every issue of Mome and she’s getting more work because she’s good. I said to her, she was complaining, certain people will give you a chance because of your name, but if you’re not good it will end quickly. In the end, it’s going to matter if you’re work is good or not.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about how you developed your art style? Because it’s so unique.
A: I have no style. I’m artless. What style? I don’t have a style. It’s not deliberate. I’m an outsider artist, like art brut. Especially in drawing. My painting is a little more sophisticated and more controlled and planned and I actually try to paint in a certain style. But my comics and narrative is so painful to me, it just drags this painful scratching from my heart and gut. Very, very unfiltered. I don’t know if people realize that, but it’s like German expressionist art in its most extreme form. I haven’t consciously developed a style. I don’t have that much control over it. I’m not kidding. (laughs)
Q: I’m very curious as to how you and Robert do these collaborative strips. Can you give me an idea of how that process breaks down?
A: Let’s say we have a germ of an idea, something we want to tell. One of us will start penciling on a page and put in some dialogue. Then the other one will respond. We’ll get all the dialogue on one page and then we’ll go to the next page, continue with the dialogue. So we’ll have two pages of dialogue. And then we’ll go in and he’ll start drawing himself and then I’ll put myself in, and we’ll do it until we get two pages penciled. And then we each ink one page and then we exchange them. And we talk about story before in a general idea of where we’re going, but we don’t plan out the whole thing. We kind of let it go back and forth in a kind of improvisation. A little bit like standup comedy. Like a standup comedy team. And if we have to cover an event for the New Yorker then we think about something we want to say. We go to the event, look at all the stuff and take notes, look at it all and figure out something. We try to be a little more organized about it. Basically that’s how we work.
Q: Do you ever worry about running out of material?
A: Never. I’m still writing about my childhood. Every day I see new stories. My problem is I could never draw all the stories I have. Never in this lifetime.
That’s another reason why I decided to write text in my book, just to get it out there. Comics are slow. And I’ll never get all my stories done before I die. I’m getting old.