Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Crumb

Crumb and Dick in Disneyland

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In 1986, the cartoonist Robert Crumb published an eight-page story, “The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick,” in the underground comic book Weirdo. The combination of these two singular personalities seems both appropriate and somehow incongruous, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Crumb wasn’t a fan of Dick, or of science fiction in general, as we read in the new companion book to an exhibition of his work in Paris: “Crumb is known to have no interest in science fiction and no acquaintance with Philip K. Dick’s novels, but what seems to have interested him here is the undecidable nature of the writer’s experience: was this a schizophrenic episode or the authentic mystical experience of a spirit touched by divine grace?” (His primary source appears to have been Dick’s famous speech “How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” along with the interview with Gregg Rickman reprinted as The Last Testament.) Crumb was fifteen years younger than Dick, and they never seem to have met, but they had a number of surprising affinities. Both spent much of their lives in the Bay Area; both were major artists who first made their mark in vaguely disreputable genres; and both were indelibly linked with psychedelic culture, although they developed the most distinctive elements of their styles long before their earliest encounters with drugs. They were both obsessive record collectors who must have haunted some of the same music shops a decade apart, although their tastes, with one possible exception, were different—Dick preferred classical, Crumb the jazz and blues of the twenties and thirties.

Yet it isn’t surprising that Crumb would be drawn to Dick’s story, which would have been common knowledge in the circles in which he was moving. His comic adaptation opens with an account of Dick’s mystical vision in March 1974, when he had a wisdom tooth removed under sodium pentothal and received a prescription for painkillers. When a woman came to his house to deliver the medication, he was struck by the fish necklace she was wearing, which she explained was a symbol used by the early Christians. At that moment, Dick was hit by a sudden revelation, as freely adapted by Crumb:

I remembered who I was and where I was. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, it all came back to me. And not only could I remember it but I could see it. The girl was a secret Christian and so was I. We lived in fear of detection by the Romans. We had to communicate in cryptic signs. She had just told me all this, and it was true. I saw the world as the world of the apostolic Christian times of ancient Rome, when the fish sign was in use.

Dick was never able to explain to his own satisfaction what the experience truly signified, apart from what it implied about the unreality of time itself. But it left him with a sense that the Rome of the early Christian era somehow underlay the visible world, leading to a series of equally odd events, including a truly inexplicable incident in which he correctly diagnosed his young son with an inguinal hernia, after falling into a trance while listening to “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Crumb renders these incidents with his usual exquisite technical skill, without any apparent effort at editorial commentary, much as he would later illustrate the entirety of The Book of Genesis. For a hint of his attitude toward the material, we can turn to an interview with Jean-Pierre Mercier printed in R. Crumb: Conversations, in which he discusses the biographical comics that he was producing at the time:

The idea was to do classic comics like the old American “Classic Comics” that were out in the fifties when I was a kid…In all those literary things that I did, I saw something comic in the characters that was probably not intended there in the original. Even Sartre, there was something comical…The same thing with Philip K. Dick and his religious experiences. There’s something absurd and comical about his paranoia and his religious visions and how he interpreted them.

There’s something undeniably humorous in his presentation of Dick’s testament in the “Classic Comics” style, but he doesn’t condescend to the subject, either. In the interview, Crumb speaks of the difficulty in paring a dense biographical narrative down to ten pages, and it’s revealing that he chose one particular passage from Dick, who speaks with a howl of messianic anger: “The Lord of Darkness is very powerful. We have powerful adversaries. They don’t give up their interest in power voluntarily, their power must be taken from them. We are in a crisis situation of the like this planet has never seen before. We have lunatics in power with the capacity of blowing up the planet. Therefore, if we are delivered from these people, the planet survives; the ecosphere is not destroyed.”

Crumb never would have used these words himself, but he might have identified with their indignation, as well as with the fine line between artistry and madness—a relationship that he knew well from his own family life. (His other great work along these lines, “Jelly Roll Morton’s Voodoo Curse,” appeared a year earlier in Raw, and Dick, interestingly, mentions Morton by name in his novel Dr. Futurity.) And their deepest connection might have been as close as Disneyland. While Dick was shaped by his childhood encounters with Astounding, Crumb’s earliest influences were Disney comics and movies, including Carl Barks’s Donald Duck and the movie adaptation of Treasure Island, as filtered through the skewed perspective of his older brother Charles. He spent much of his career working through his memories of these works, which “profoundly enthralled” him, much as Dick broke apart and reassembled the conventions of the golden age. And he must have noticed how Dick opens “How To Build A Universe” with greetings from Disneyland, presenting himself as an official spokesperson of the theme park, and he offers a fantasy that seems curiously close to Crumb:

In Disneyland there are fake birds worked by electric motors which emit caws and shrieks as you pass by them. Suppose some night all of us sneaked into the park with real birds and substituted them for the artificial ones. Imagine the horror the Disneyland officials would feet when they discovered the cruel hoax. Real birds! And perhaps someday even real hippos and lions. Consternation. The park being cunningly transmuted from the unreal to the real, by sinister forces.

And Dick closes with perhaps the single most prophetic line in all his work: “When time ends, the birds and hippos and lions and deer at Disneyland will no longer be simulations, and, for the first time, a real bird will sing.”

Note: The Chicago Public Library announced yesterday that this year’s selection for the One Book, One Chicago program will be Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I’ll be discussing Dick’s place in the history of science fiction with Gary K. Wolfe at an event at the Sulzer Regional Branch on November 15.

The primordial monkeys

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Robert, Charles, and Maxon Crumb

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What pop culture did your cooler siblings introduce you to?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about siblings recently. My wife and I have just the one daughter, but when I watch her interacting with other children at the library, at the store, or at the pediatrician’s office, I can’t help but get a glimpse of what it would be like for her to be someone’s sister. Our niece has a little sister of her own coming soon, and we’re reaching the age when the initial surge of babies among our friends is reaching its second cycle. In short, there are a lot of little kids in our lives now, and it’s fascinating to watch them interact. For the first twelve months or so, babies don’t seem all that interested in one another: they’re still preoccupied with their own little worlds, and if you set two babies side by side, they’re just as likely to look past each other on their way to the next chewable object. Somewhere around the first year, though, they latch on intensely to other kids, whether real or representative—my daughter is obsessed with the baby on the Gerber jar—and rudimentary social interactions start to take place. They’ll hold hands, trade toys, assert or yield their personal space. And as soon as they’re able to find words to express themselves, that interaction, especially between older and younger siblings, takes the form of telling stories.

I don’t have any hard data to back this up, but I suspect that many writers were the oldest siblings in a house with one or more children. A younger brother or sister is a ready audience for whatever the older sibling wants to say—especially if adults seem frustratingly uninterested—and in the years when playtime shades naturally into narrative and the stories we find in books, kids have a lot to tell anyone who seems willing to listen. When I think back to my own childhood, one of the first things I recall are the stories I told my brother, who is four years younger than I am. As far as I can remember, these stories started out as detailed retellings of whatever Roald Dahl book I was reading at the time, and these blow-by-blow narratives could take weeks on end to finish, often in the bathtub. (The life of a kid who can absorb and regurgitate huge amounts of story without even being conscious of it gives us a glimpse of what it must have been like to live in an oral culture.) These later expanded into lengthy serial adventures starring my brother as himself, with me playing most of the other parts using whatever stuffed toys were lying around the house. I can’t speak for him, but I’ve never forgotten any of it, and I’ve recently started to revisit some of those stories with my daughter and her Ernie doll.

Ernie on Green Day's Dookie

When I think of the works of art that manage to capture the intimate huddle that exists between siblings, the first that comes to mind, weirdly enough, is Crumb. Robert Crumb’s family, at least as depicted in Terry Zwigoff’s astonishing documentary, isn’t one that most of us would have wanted to be a part of, and two out of the three brothers emerged from that experience with irreparable damage. Yet when Max Crumb refers to Charles, Robert, and himself as “three primordial monkeys working it out in the trees,” I know exactly what he means. The fantasy life created by Charles Crumb—which centered on a game of Treasure Island that evidently played out over many years—is only an extreme version of the intricate, intense stories that come into existence between any siblings around the same age. Robert, for one, never seems to have entirely emerged from that shadow, which consumed his brothers to an even greater extent, and much of his work feels like an attempt to come to terms with those twisted early adventures. (That said, there’s obviously a lot more going on in Robert’s inner life, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Zwigoff deliberately emphasized this particular thread in his interpretation of the material, if only because Charles Crumb himself is such an unforgettable figure.)

Ultimately, of course, my brother and I grew up, and in many ways, he’s a cooler and more interesting person than I am, at least in his ability to shape his life according to his own values. And although he’s exposed me to a lot of culture in his own right, particularly music, if I’ve been shaped by him in any fundamental way, it was in the years when we were active collaborators, conspirators, and dreamers. If I’ve said before that my ideal reader is myself at age twelve, my ideal self as a writer comes from those early stories in the bathtub. There was no distinction between the telling and the listening; we did it because we couldn’t imagine any other way of living, with one foot in reality and the other in an equally vivid imaginary world. Maintaining that connection into adulthood lies at the heart of what writers do, and achieving the proper balance isn’t easy. But I don’t think it’s an accident that so many writers, from Lev Grossman to Stephen King, trace their full understanding of themselves and their craft from their engagement with their children. When I look at my daughter, there are times when she seems eerily like my brother, and when we’re playing together, I often feel that I’ve managed to recreate those moments. And I’m grateful for it. Because it was only when my brother and I began to share in those stories that I discovered who I really was.

Written by nevalalee

March 21, 2014 at 9:56 am

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