Culture War

Cancel Culture Comes for Counterculture Comics

Today it's creators, not cops, who want to banish R. Crumb, onetime king of the comics underground.


Robert Crumb is the undisputed godfather of alternative comics. His work has appeared in museums across the world, from the Venice Biennale to New York's Museum of Modern Art; he was the subject of Terry Zwigoff's acclaimed documentary Crumb (Gene Siskel's favorite film of 1994); his drawings are so coveted by collectors that a sale of some sketchbooks in the early 1990s bought him a centuries-old chateau in southeast France. The legendary art critic Robert Hughes has favorably compared his portrayals of the human grotesque to Pieter Bruegel and William Hogarth, declaring Crumb "the one and only genius the 1960s underground produced in visual art, either in America or Europe."

Nearly every milestone on the long road comics have crawled from derided trash to treasured American art form was inspired either directly or secondhand by Crumb's choices and achievements. With his first issue of Zap in 1968, Crumb singlehandedly invented a format and sensibility, under the broad label of "underground comix," that permanently changed how printed cartoon stories are perceived. Along the way, it opened the form to social criticism, history, outrageous satire, and the full range of deeply personal human experience, including the both lightly and darkly sexual.

Crumb's occasional collaborator Harvey Pekar, one of the major innovators of quotidian comic autobiography, says his partner demonstrated that "comics were as good an art form as any that existed. You could write any kind of story in comics. It was as versatile a medium as film or television." Similar praise from other creators for Crumb's mind-blowing importance to them could go on for pages; anyone making noncorporate, nongenre, self-expressive comics occupies a space he created.

But events in the comics world last year served notice that the social-justice re-evaluation currently sweeping comedy, film, and literature has arrived at the doorstep of free-thinking comics. In September, at the Small Press Expo's Ignatz Awards ceremony in Bethesda, Maryland, Crumb's successor generation of alt artists let the 75-year-old have it with both barrels.

While presenting the award for Outstanding Artist, the cartoonist Ben Passmore, who is black, asserted that "comics is changing…and it's not an accident." He lamented the continued industry presence of "creeps" and "apologists," then called out the godfather by name: "Shit's not going to change on its own. You gotta keep on being annoying about it.…A while ago someone like R. Crumb would be 'Outstanding.'"

The room erupted with both "ooohs" and booing. "A little while ago there'd be no boos," Passmore responded. "I wouldn't be up here, real talk, and yo—fuck that dude." The crowd burst into applause.

The brief against Crumb is both specific to his famous idiosyncrasies and generally familiar to our modern culture of outrage archeology. His art has trafficked in crude racial and anti-Semitic stereotypes, expressed an open sense of misogyny, and included depictions of incest and rape. Crumb's comics are "seriously problematic because of the pain and harm caused by perpetuating images of racial stereotypes and sexual violence," the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE) explained last year when removing Crumb's name from one of its exhibit rooms.

Such talk alarms Gary Groth, co-founder of Fantagraphics, the premiere American publisher of quality adult comics, including a 17-volume series of The Complete Crumb Comics. "The spontaneity and vehemence" of the backlash, Groth says, "surprised me—and I guess what also disheartened me was, I'm pretty sure the vast majority of people booing Crumb are not familiar with his work.…This visceral dislike of him has no basis in understanding who Crumb is, his place in comics history, his contribution to the form."

Key to the misunderstanding is Crumb's willingness to probe human darkness, including his own, and his sheer maniacal delight in transgression. (Crumb's own explanation for one of his more notorious incest-related strips was, "I was just being a punk.") The Ignatz Awards crowd, Groth worries, "will not tolerate that kind of expression, and I think that's disturbing. Cartooning has a long history of being transgressive and controversial and pushing boundaries, and now we have a generation very much opposed to that, who want to censure fellow artists from doing work they don't approve of—even though they are able to do what they are doing and want to do precisely because of trailblazing on the part of artists they now abominate."

Crumb blew minds and inspired a generation with his eagerness to portray and explore "the stark reality at the bottom of life," as he put it, delivering "a psychotic manifestation of some grimy part of America's collective unconscious." In pursuit of that goal, he produced many comics, sometimes with reasonably clear comic grotesquerie, sometimes with undeniable—Crumb himself never denied it—truly dark personal expressions that would strike most people now (and many even then) as unacceptably hostile toward women.

Two of his most notorious stories were titled "When the Niggers Take Over America!" and "When the Goddamn Jews Take Over America!" His fans insist they were obvious pitch-black satires of bigoted madness. But they were so outrageous that they were reprinted in actual American Nazi papers. Crumb told The New Yorker in 1994, "I just had to expose all the myths people have of blacks and Jews in the rawest way possible to tilt the scale toward truth."

Trina Robbins, the first female cartoonist in Crumb's San Francisco coterie in the late 1960s and a co-founder of Wimmen's Comix (the longest-running all-woman-made comic series), was the first prominent voice raising feminist objections to how he portrayed women and sex. She says she was written off as an annoying scold by the scene's "little boys club" for noting the violent hostility toward women expressed in some of his work.

Defenses of Crumb, who is no longer producing new comics, read as anachronistic to many in our woke age. The Massachusetts Expo's reasoning for shunning Crumb follows an all-too-recognizable one-two formula for casting problematic artists adrift: "We recognize Crumb's singular importance to the development of independent and alternative comics, the influence that he has had on many of our most respected cartoonists, and the quality and brilliance of much of his work," the organizers explained. But! "We also recognize the negative impact carried by some of the imagery and narratives that Crumb has produced, impact felt most acutely by those whose voices have not been historically respected or accommodated."

Passmore did not respond to emailed attempts to interview him for this story. But MICE-like, he seemed to imply that respect for Crumb necessarily means disrespect for black cartoonists—that the racial and gender diversity flourishing in comics today is definitionally opposed to Crumb. As he said at the Ignatz Awards, "I wouldn't be here."

His comments elicited a wave of social media support from fellow artists and fans. A white male cartoonist named Derf Backderf, who belongs to the generation between Crumb and Passmore and is best known for a gripping memoir about being childhood friends with Jeffrey Dahmer, initially came to the master's defense on Twitter. But Backderf soon deleted his pro-Crumb tweets, admitting on further contemplation that he was prepared to "box up Crumb and stick him in the attic."

In Backderf's final tweet on the episode, he said he was moved by a post from black female cartoonist and publisher C. Spike Trotman, who said, "Personally speaking, I'm pretty relieved I no longer live in a world where I walk into a comic shop and there are Angelfood McSpade chocolate bars by the register."

Trina Robbins cartoon. Fantagraphics Books

Angelfood McSpade was Crumb's absurdly exaggerated and sexed-up depiction of an African wild woman. It is very easy to understand why a black woman would feel uncomfortable viewing that character. And yet, as the comics historian and New Republic writer Jeet Heer commented in a post not directly responding to Trotman at The Hooded Utilitarian blog, "anyone who can't see the satirical (indeed outlandishly satirical) element of Angelfood McSpade has no business being a comics critic.…I think it is to Crumb's credit that he is willing to implicate himself in his satires on racism—that he doesn't see racism as cultural phenomenon outside of himself that needs to be condemned but as cultural legacies that pervasively shape his own sensibility and need to be confronted internally."

Today, many think that fine distinctions between racist art and art that satirizes or complicates American racism are a luxury for people who, because of color or status, don't have to personally endure bigotry or its vestiges. Whatever the intent, they say, a racist caricature is a racist caricature, and it's long past time for that sort of thing to disappear.

But those familiar with Crumb's history have reasons to be suspicious of the idea that some art is so vile and offensive that its creators, distributors, and even consumers should not be tolerated. That attitude has led to bad places, in living memory.

'Zap No. 4 Is an Exploiter'

Crumb made the first two issues of Zap by himself, but soon a murderer's row of cartoon superstars formed a collective to produce the book. One of them was Robert Williams, now a founding father of a school of "lowbrow" figurative painting valorized in galleries from New York to Japan. At a 2018 San Diego Comic-Con panel discussion, Williams cheekily said that "me and Crumb appreciated that what we did, someone would have to pay for." Meaning: "Someone at a newsstand had to sell the damn thing, and that poor clerk could be arrested."

Indeed, many clerks were. On the panel, Ron Turner of the underground publisher Last Gasp told tales of his friends at stores and galleries being dragged downtown by vice squads. Joyce Farmer, founding co-editor of one of the first underground comix entirely by women, Tits & Clits, somberly revealed that she was scared off of creating anything potentially controversial for years after seeing a bookstore that had been run by her editing partner raided because of the comics she made and enjoyed. On a separate Comic-Con panel, Robbins said that the legal heat in the early 1970s around underground comix was so severe that Ms. magazine refused to print an ad for Wimmen's Comix for fear that Ms. itself could wind up charged with marketing obscene material.

Even finding a printer was fraught; some might keep and destroy your negatives after deciding they didn't approve of the comic you'd paid them to reproduce.

Most of the arrests from this era did not result in convictions, for various reasons. At Comic-Con, Turner and Williams tag-teamed a well-honed tale of an early '70s prosecution coming a cropper after an offending comic was apparently purloined from the evidence room by a sleazy cop, leaving a judge to ask in open court, to no avail, "Where's the Felch?"

An existing network of head shops and record stores, which had first centered around the market for psychedelic concert poster art, eventually took up the wave of underground comix being made by Crumb and his pals. Although Crumb himself cares for almost no American culture past 1930, Zap and a plethora of fellow travelers became a core part of the hip revolutionary counterculture of the time.

Thus, some suspect there was more than a concern with the moral fabric of Manhattan—something more like animus toward youth culture—that led a New York undercover agent from the Morals Squad to enter two different bookstores in August and September of 1969 to buy copies of Zap issue No. 4. On the second visit, he arrested several employees for selling an obscene publication.

East Side Bookstore manager Peter Dargis admitted to having stocked and sold around 200 copies of the comic, though he said he had not read it himself. He pointed out to the court that his business stocked more than 16,000 titles and that comics such as Zap amounted to less than 1 percent of the store's gross. Charles Kirkpatrick, manager of the New Yorker Book Store, told a similar story of a huge stock, a tiny percentage of which was potentially naughty comics whose specific content he had not studied.

The case was presided over by Judge Joel Tyler, the same man who declared the movie Deep Throat to be legally obscene. The district attorney offered no evidence other than the copy of Zap 4, whose scurrilousness was supposed to speak for itself. The sellers pointed out that the material was marked "adults only" and that the undercover agent was indeed an adult.

Expert witnesses from the world of comics and art—including Whitney Museum curator Robert Doty, who had included some Crumb comics in an exhibit, "Human Concern/Personal Torment: The Grotesque in American Art"—tried to convince Tyler there was more to Crumb and Co.'s work than smut.

Sidney Jacobson, who worked for the children's comic company Harvey, home of Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost, shook things up by insisting that Archie Comics, a rival, produced cartoons "purposely written and drawn to arouse sexualities in teenagers." The publishers and creators of Archie, Jacobson maintained, "are trying within it to appeal to the sexual desires of their public," while Zap's more grotesque representations of sex, including Crumb's depiction of sex acts between family members, were designed to be less arousing than Betty and Veronica. (Jacobson offended Tyler by referring to his own company's work as aimed at the lowest age group. The judge harrumphed that he himself read Harvey comics regularly.)

Dargis and Kirkpatrick were convicted in October 1970, with Tyler deciding that Zap was "utterly unredeemed and unredeemable, save, perhaps, only by the quality of the paper upon which it is printed. It is patently offensive.…It is a part of the underworld press—the growing world of deceit in sex—and it is not reality or honesty, as they often claim it to be. It represents an emotional incapacity to view sex as a basis for establishing genuine human relationships, or as a normal part of human condition.—Zap No. 4 is an exploiter; its effect is to purvey 'filth for filth's sake.' It is hard-core pornography.…The material must fail by any legal test yet announced."

Sellers of such filth, Tyler ruled, should have known it was impermissibly obscene (even though it did not become legally obscene for sure until the judge said so). As for those eggheaded claims to artistic value, he found "these witnesses failed to particularize in understandable lay terms their generalizations that the cartoonists were 'original,' or how they were 'influencing a new generation of cartoonists,' or how they showed 'enormous vitality,' or where was the satire or parody of the sexual experiences depicted…or how do these cartoons, dealing as they do in the main with perverted sexual experiences, attempt to 'humorously outrage' the reader and place in perspective human values."

In lieu of a 90-day jail sentence, the store managers were fined $500, the equivalent of more than $3,200 today. Their appeals in the New York state system failed essentially on grounds that they couldn't prove they didn't know Zap 4 was obscene. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that outcome in October 1973, leaving in place a ruling that the then-chief of the American Booksellers Association called "frightening," since "no one can possibly know in advance what a judge will consider obscene. The effect of this decision is to make every bookseller in the state a censor."

In a blistering dissent, Justice William Brennan repeated his assertion from an earlier case that "the First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit the state and federal governments from attempting wholly to suppress sexually oriented materials on the basis of their allegedly 'obscene' contents." Yet the Court seemed to have it out for Crumb and his compatriots in 1973. Earlier that year, in Miller v. California, it had shifted obscenity law by giving localities the power to punish expression for being obscene if it violated local mores while lacking "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." Many blame Miller for wrecking underground comics as a viable business, with hippie entrepreneurs in college towns across the nation deciding that the profit margins on these curious 50-cent pamphlets were not worth risking fines or jail time.

To Crumb's Zap partner Williams, applying a square's community standards to their transgressive work was an outrage. These comics "were not made for the general public," he said at Comic-Con. "They were made for an audience that seeked them out…an intellectual group in favor of free thought and imagination."

Censure, Not Censorship

No one of significance in the comics community today is calling for 1970s-style legal punishment for unwoke cartoonists. Charles Brownstein, who heads up the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, points out that "there's a distinction between censorship in the courts vs. dissenting points of view in the public square."

Trina Robbins cartoon. Fantagraphics Books

Brownstein's organization was born of a 1986 arrest and conviction (later reversed) of a comic shop clerk for selling, among other things, an issue of a Crumb-founded comic called Weirdo. The cases he deals with these days are more likely to be about censoring comics in specific public places, such as public schools and libraries. Arrests of comic sellers aren't much of a thing anymore.

Fantagraphics' Groth, who keeps in print the very same comic that got Kirkpatrick and Dargis hauled into court, grants that he hasn't once over the last two decades seriously feared any legal trouble for selling Crumb. Prosecutions of printed materials not clearly marketed as masturbatory aids are rarely pursued this century. And thanks to Crumb's gallery cred and fame, most prosecutors probably assume that judges and juries will consider his work, if only because it is his, to have literary or artistic value.

But obscenity laws still exist, and that prosecutorial energy has been especially fierce in the past few decades when targeting sexual depictions involving children. One of Zap 4's more offensive strips is an incest riff featuring kids having sex with their parents, so it isn't completely insane to fear that Crumb's work might once again come to be seen as not merely unwoke but illegal. The anti-Crumb sentiments are "still dangerous," Groth says, "because laws can in fact change because of public attitudes." Those attitudes now include mainstream consideration of legislation aimed at curtailing "hate speech."

During the social media storm kicked off by Passmore's comments, Jules Rivera, a black female cartoonist, tweeted out two panels of a Crumb comic in which an obvious cartoon version of him is having sex with a woman identified as being in "a drunken stupor," with no signs of consent. "I'm keeping that rapist ass Crumb art on my phone," she continued. "If anyone challenges me, I'll bust out my phone and say 'so you're down with this?' In person. To your face."

But holding art and expression to the moral demands implicit in that tweet may actually hobble what art is for. Appreciating a creator isn't—or needn't be—a matter of being "down with" the actions portrayed in his every work. One of the many reasons humans have art is to understand, play with, portray, question, and explore the human condition. Which, as Crumb firmly believes, includes a lot of awful, unacceptable thoughts and behavior.

Portraying darkness and evil in art is not the same as celebrating darkness and evil, even when the depiction is not safely anchored to a clear statement of the artist's anti-evil sympathies. Offense and transgression can be a vital part of how expression stays lively, fresh, startling, moving, and true to the human condition. That transgressive art is hard to defend in sober, sensible ways is precisely the point. As Simpsons creator Matt Groening wrote in an introduction to 1998's The Life and Times of R. Crumb, "it sure is a relief to read someone's beautiful Bad Thoughts and realize the world won't come crashing down after all."

The teen Crumb in his published letters saw himself as a good liberal condemning the racial ignorance and prejudice of the yokels surrounding him. The adult Crumb, in addition to his transgressions, did some excellent cartooning on the lives of black musicians who had made the old-time music he revered. Building a wall of exclusion around his art denies audiences the galvanizing work of an artist whose declared intent often aligns with that of his modern-day indicters, even if he's willing to toy with imagery they recoil from.

In a world of free expression and diminishing legal speech controls, if you want to "cancel" Crumb, well, it's your right to try. But Groth for one finds that attitude troubling. It "feels similar to trying to erase Ezra Pound or Yeats or Wyndham Lewis, any number of reactionaries in the history of art and literature," he says. "It's provincial and philistine and based on historical ignorance, and I don't think that's what art should be about."

The Frustrating Tango of Liberal Tolerance

The American culture that R. Crumb and his contemporaries grew up in restricted the ways people could talk about sex, violence, race, and class. The first wave of underground comix artists reacted with metaphorical explosive violence, especially once they realized nothing was stopping them but the constraints of their own minds. That freedom, in all its messiness and ugliness, upset and unnerved and offended many. It also inspired massive amounts of interesting, strange, life-enhancing art, not just in the comics world but in such offshoots of Crumb's aesthetic as National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live, and The Simpsons.

The attitudes Crumb satirized were real and, he thought, deserving of ridicule via crazed exaggeration. His feelings of hostility toward women are, as he has insisted in his comics and in interviews, true to him (and, he is certain, to many other men). What is to be gained by pretending they're not? Crumb was honest about being the sort of resentful nebbish who in his pre-fame days saw women as controlling something he desperately wanted and couldn't have—what would now be called a corrosive "incel" mentality, after the men who self-identify as involuntarily celibate.

In a 1991 interview with The Comics Journal, Crumb said art should be judged not on ideological purity but on whether it is "interesting or boring…honest and truthful and real…saying what's really on [the artists'] minds.…If it's really in there it ought to come out on paper." At the same time, he reflected, "I don't know, maybe we're all just dragging society down. Maybe we should all be locked up."

The paradox of liberal tolerance remains: Neither the transgressors nor the offended have a right to force the other side to just shut up about what its members think, feel, or imagine. The two are intimately linked in a mutually frustrating tango. The offended want certain expressions to go away or be universally recognized as unacceptable, and the transgressors want a social space to express themselves without feeling driven from society.

Liberal tolerance, as exemplified by the First Amendment—refusing to violently punish someone for his or her expression—offers a way for these battles to take place without anyone being physically hurt. The figurative game of expression, reaction, pushback, and constantly shifting mores can keep being played without either side mistaking the contest for mortal combat. Although cancel culture (without law enforcement involvement) stops short of violence, those who like to wield it should understand that human beings are social animals. To be told that you and anyone who doesn't join enthusiastically in condemning you should be expelled from society can feel like war when you're the target.

Many people understand that art is for expressing and exploring the human mind and soul—and the human mind and soul contain darkness, sexual mania, racism, hostility, and any number of awful truths. To force those things out of the conversation is to unreasonably limit the whole project, they say. Art is a treasured aspect of the healthy human condition, even if what the art says is unhealthy on various dimensions. Many others consider that tradeoff worth it in the name of protecting the status and feelings of previously excluded or oppressed groups.

Crumb's attempt to open comics to a vast range of human expression was victorious: Whether they want to acknowledge it or not, those working in the field today are his descendants. Like all children and grandchildren, they can choose whether or not to understand their patriarch, whether to emulate him or tell him to fuck off. Their choices may not always be kind or wise, but such is human freedom.