The other evening, I was talking with Doris Moskowtiz of Moe’s about Quirky Berkeley. She reached for her phone and showed me photos of Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natuaral painted on a City trash can at Bancroft and Telegraph. She told me of getting Crumb’s permission to use Mr. Natural.
And with that – it was – OFF TO THE RACES TOM!
Robert Crumb, better known as R. Crumb, has had a presence in Berkeley for more than 50 years. We can’t claim him as one of ours, but we can claim some lineage.
Crumb and other “underground” comic artists redefined the comic genre while binging it back to its roots.
There was little experimentation or social commentary in the comics of the 1950s, thanks in part to national syndication of strips that encouraged the comics to avoid offensive material, and thanks in other part to the anti-comic crusade of and his Seduction of the Innocents (1954), in which he argued that horror comics lead to juvenile delinquency. In a June 3, 1959 letter to his fellow-comic-loving friend Marty Pahls, a teenage Crumb went on for several paragraphs criticizing Wertham’s work, saying “Wertham grossly exaggerates many things.”
Crumb and his fellow artists started a comic revolution in San Francisco and Berkeley. They didn’t tiptoe up to the limits, they openly and blatantly defied taboos, fundamental American values and mores, and the comic industry’s self-inflicted censorship. They did not look backwards over their shoulders as they sped past the accepted limits and they did not rely on the industry’s distribution channels. Instead they sold their comics in head shops and on the street.
Robert Crumb was born in 1943 into a family with three boys and two girls.
He spent his early childhood in Philadelphia, Minnesota, Iowa, California, and Upper Darby, Pennsylvania.
His mother Beatice became addicted to amphetamines as part of an effort to control her weight. His father Charles V. Crumb, was an authoritarian sadist who was a combat illustrator for 20 years in the United States Marine Corps.
In 1959 the family moved to Dover, Delaware.
Crumb’s older brother Charles led the brothers – even drove the brothers – to make comics as the foundation of his obsessive devotion to his art. Crumb: “We drew those home-made comics throughout our childhood and adolescence, from 1952 right up until I left home in 1962: ten years solid of drawing comics with no let-up.” Crumb’s main focus was on Bombo the Panda.
The brothers often drew comics about “Animal Town” — one of the characters of which was Fuzzy the Bunny, Bob had a go-to nonsensical, all-purpose catch phrase – “How perfectly goddamned delightful it all is, to be sure.”
They tried selling the comics they made to fellow students and neighbors. Not much luck. Their only real audience was with fellow comic geeks.
Crumb lived at home for a year after graduating from high school in 1961.
In the summer of 1962 the family moved back to Philadelphia.
They lived on Wellington Road in Upper Darby. It is just west of West Philadelphia.
In the fall of 1962 Crumb moved to Cleveland. Crumb on Cleveland: “Of all the big cities I’ve been in, Cleveland’s about the deadest or something. But that’s only in certain ways. In other ways I really like Cleveland, ya know? It’s like the lowest common denominator or something. Like you can get right down to basics here or something. Like in Chicago, Milwaukee, or Detroit or Denver or a lot of other towns, I can get a lot of attention from people who appreciate artists. Like I get a lot of ego build-up that way, but Cleveland’s a big dumb town.”
On August 6th he had written Pahls: “As soon as possible, I plan to get an apartment of my own. I can’t stand my mother and father’s neurotic relationship anymore. When they start arguing I just have to get out of the house.”
In Cleveland he roomed with his friend Marty Pahls, who had just graduated from Kent State. He made this sketch of Pahls in 1962.
Crumb became friends with Pahls while in high school through letters and their mutual interest in comics and music of the 1920s.
Pahls came across Foo, a comic that Robert and Charles Crumb had printed in high school and advertised in early comic fanzines. Pahls visited Crumb in Delaware in 1959. Crumb: “We showed him all around that cruddy little town of Milford … had lots of long discussions about everything. … We had a good pillow fight ‘n’ Charles ‘n’ I turned the whole mattress of Charles’ bed over on him…. We went up to Philly the last day he was here… Canvasing the blocks, snooping in all the bookstores.”
Pahls was a left wing intellectual and read the heavy stuff. Charles was reading classic literature, but politics were over his head. Crumb said: “Marty made us feel like ignoramuses.”
Years later, Crumb’s sister Sandra married Pahls. Pahls wrote biographical essays for several collections of Crumb’s work. In the late 1960s, Sandra left Pahls and with her four-month-old son Avery came to stay with Crumb and Dana at their farm in Potter Valley.
Trina Robbins, an early and influential participant – and one of the first few females artists – in the underground comix movement heard about Sandra’s situation and invited her and Avery to move in with her. In June 1972, Crumb wrote: “Sandra lives in a house with a bunch of lesbians and queers and has a son named Avery or something and also collects welfare and s trying to get a divorce and support money out of Marty Pahls.” In August he wrote: “Sandra is a lesbian and lives in a women’s commune of something…Sandra hates my comics of course.”
We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Back to Cleveland!
Crumb: “[Harvey] Pekar lived a couple of blocks away. He was a record collector, so Marty took me over to meet him.” Pekar: “I took a look at his stuff. Crumb was doing stuff beyond what other writers and artists were doing. It was a step beyond Mad.”
Pekar was an underground comic book writer, music critic, and media personality, best known for his autobiographical American Splendor comic series.
Pekar’s first published work of comics was a collaboration with Crumb, the one-pager “Crazy Ed” published as the back cover of Crumb’s The People’s Comics (1972)
Pekar’s essay “Robert Crumb and the Human Comedy” was published in Funnyworld No. 13 (1971). Crumb’s reaction: “”Harvey Pekar … what a crazy guy!!! The last of the working-class Jewish intellectuals … he’s my good buddy, old Harvey … I stay with him whenever I’m in Cleveland and we have long debates about things and I learn a lot from him … he’s a vast encyclopedia of historical knowledge and seems to have a really good perspective on the world, but he’s better in person than in his writing.”Pekar stayed in Cleveland all his life,
Crumb went to work for American Greetings Corporation as a lowly color separator.
On March 19, 1963, he wrote in a letter “My job here is indescribably dismal.”
He was promoted within a year to the Hi-Brow Department where he drew hundreds of cards over the next several years. Crumb: “My boss kept telling me my drawings were too grotesque. I was trained to draw ‘cute’ little neuter characters which influenced my technique, and even now my work has this cuteness about it.”
Dangerous Minds published this blog about Crumb’s time at American Greeting Cards.
Crumb married Dana Morgan in 1964. The relationship was unstable on account of Crumb frequently went his own way.
Crumb: “I started taking L.S.D. in Cleveland in June of ’65. That changed my head around. It made me stop taking cartooning so seriously and showed me a whole other side of myself.”
Crumb hit the road, traveling to New York, Chicago, and Detroit during this acid-inspired period and created some of his future characters: Mr. Natural, Mr. Snoid and Angelfood McSpade. Mr. Natural will get his turn at the end of this piece.
Snoid or Mr. Snoid is a diminutive sex fiend and an irritating presence,
Angelfood McSpade is a stereotypical large, bare-breasted African tribeswoman dressed in n a skirt made out of palm tree leaves.[ She is drawn with big lips, rings around her neck and in her ears, huge breasts, large buttocks
In January, 1967, Crumb suddenly left Cleveland. “I escaped to San Francisco when I met two guys in a bar who said they were driving west.”
His then-wife Dana followed him there, and they settled in Haight-Ashbury.
These photos of Crumb are from the late 1960s and early 1970
So young! Such hope!
There was a nascent comic book scene in San Francisco.
Gary Arlington owned one of America’s first comics-only book store, the San Francisco Comic Book Company, located in San Francisco’s Mission District
The store became ground zero for the Bay Area’s underground artists, including Crumb.
Arlington published comics under the name San Francisco Comic Book Company.
John Thompson writes of meeting Arlington for the first time, How he was “familiar with cartoons Bob and I drew.” He brought Crumb to meet Arlington.
Crumb’s website identifies Zap as Crumb’s first comic book appearance. His work was seen in several publications before Zap.
The first issue of Yarrowstalks was released on May 5, 1967. Crumb’s work for Yarrowstalks culminated in the all-Crumb issue of Yarrowstalks #3.
In Yarrowstalks, Brian Zahn combined poetry, spirituality, and multicultural interests with psychedelic design, reflecting and shaping the countercultural community as it developed in Philadelphia. The name Yarrowstalks is drawn from Achillea millefolium (yarrow), the dried stalks of which used in I Ching divination.
At roughly the same time that Crumb’s work first appeared in Berkeley publications, two covers of Nope in 1968 featured his drawings.
Nope was Jay Kinney’s personal mimeographed ‘zine, featuring art and comix by Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Jay Lynch, and others. Kinney described it as “A personal letter substitute and esoteric fanzine.” Zine Wiki: “In retrospect Nope! is frequently referred to as a ‘counterculture’ zine, since it featured several of the most prominent underground artists of that era whose reputations would continue to grow in the coming decades.” It was published in New York.
Kinney was a younger (born 1950) member of the first wave of the American underground comix movement. He moved away from cartooning, first as editor of CoEvolution Quarterly from 1983 to 1984, and then as publisher and editor in chief of the magazine Gnosis from 1985 to 1999. Since the end of Gnosis, Kinney has written Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions, The Inner West: An Introduction to the Hidden Wisdom of the West, and The Masonic Myth: Unlocking the Truth about the Symbols, Secret Rites, and History of Freemasonry.
Back to Crumb – then came Yellow Dog, an underground comic newspaper and later a full-blown comic.
Time machine activated: In 1958, Moe Moskowitz arrived in the Bay Area. The Schenkers had known Moe in New York, where he worked for art galleries, studied violin and was a member of the Living Theater acting group. He opened his first Berkeley bookstore at 1986 Shattuck north of University, and then moved the northeast corner of Telegraph and Dwight (what I remember as the home of Shakespeare Books).
The store was called Rambam in honor of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, commonly known as Maimonides, and also referred to by the acronym Rambam).
In 1965, Moe dissolved his partnership at Rambam and moved across Telegraph to what had been Cody’s – which had moved to a new building on Telegraph at Haste. Don and Alice moved into Moe’s store, framing fine art reproductions. Moving into Moe’s was more than a partnership, it was a friendship as well. They’d run in the same Beat circles in New York. Moe and Don went to the movies together every Monday night for 30 years.
In 1966, the Schenkers published a reprint of Joel Beck‘s Lenny of Laredo,
In its 1999 obituary for Beck, the Chronicle wrote of Lenny: “In 1965, his first full-length comic book, Lenny of Laredo, was published. It was a satire loosely based on the career of embattled comedian Lenny Bruce. Mr. Beck’s protagonist, a child named Lenny, achieves fame and fortune by uttering “obscenities” such as “pee-pee thing,” only to find his career in the dumps when the public becomes satiated with his naughtiness.”
John Thompson, a comix artist and illustrator known for his detailed, mystical and erotic illustrations, wrote of working with Joel Beck to convince the “Print Mint to publish an underground newspaper of just cartoons called Yellow Dog.” Thompson said that he proposed the name ‘The Yellow Kid’ in honor of a San Francisco coms paper by Hearst in the 1890s.
Thompson still: “We pitched this again to my friends Don and Alice Schenker of the Print Mint, and they liked it. But Don, a former beat poet, worried that Hearst Publications would sue if we used the name it still owned, so he called it ‘The Yellow Dog.”
Don Schenker told Cavalier magazine: “Yellow Dog got started because, partly, interest in posters lagged. I turned to comix because the almost violent young public desire which produced the poster boom needed in some way to keep being tuned on. For the second part, the artists were present here in the Bay Area. Joel Beck … and John Thompson and, finally, the giant of them all, R. Crumb… Yellow Dog was designed to be a naughty paper.”
Alice Schenker remembers their early dealings with Crumb: “Don had a couple of Crumb’s drawings and asked Crumb if he could use them in Yellow Dog. Crumb ran into Don on Telegraph and gave Don his entire sketch book, telling Don he could use whatever he wanted to use and pay Crumb what seemed fair.”
Here are several pages from the sketch book.
The sketchbooks also had full-panel comics, including these two early Mr. Natural strips:
Of sketching, Crumb says: “I have to draw to maintain my balance. It’s an addiction. If I don’t draw, after a while I feel like I am adrift. I’m cut loose from my anchor. I might just drift away into insanity, or anarchy, or meaninglessness, or aimlessness. As long as I am drawing, life has meaning.”
The Print Mint published 22 issues of Yellow Dog from 1968 to 1973, featuring many of the most famous underground cartoonists, including Robert Crumb, Joel Beck, Robert Williams, Rick Griffin, Greg Irons, and Trina Robbins. It was published “as weekly as possible”
This is a paste-up of the masthead.
One might think that the Yellow Dog man bears some resemblance to Captain Ahab, the protagonist in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). Ahab is the monomaniacal captain of the whaling ship Pequod. On a previous voyage, the white whale Moby Dick bit off Ahab’s leg, and he now wears a prosthetic leg made out of whalebone. Do you think?
The early issues included work by Crumb,including these covers:
With issue 13/14 (July 1969) Yellow Dog changed format to a traditional comic book look. Crumb drew the first cover in the new format.
This July 1969 issue was the last issue to which Crumb contributed.
The group of early comix geniuses whose work screamed out of the Print Mint and other Bay Area underground comix publishers are shown in this Facebook video and the next photos.
Alice Schenker tells of inviting all the young artists to her house for dinner. Her daughters, young girls at the time, remember a most unusual evening. Alice: “Crumb came and went. It was an easy-going scene. There were no agents, no infighting. He was shy.”
The Print Mint’s production office was on Folger Street in West Berkeley.
This group photo was taken behind the office.
These artists were young and restless but not in Genoa City, Wisconsin – they were in San Francisco and Berkeley. For a generation that was proud of being, in the words of the Jefferson Airplane, “obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent and young,” these artists and their comix really turned out heads around.
In the main event in the main ring in the main arena was Zap Comix, the underground comix that defined the genre. It first appeared in early 1968 as a showcase for Crumb’s art. Crumb brought in other artists, including S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, “Spain” Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, and poster designers Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin. This group of artists remained largely constant throughout Zap‘s run.
Zap #1 was published in San Francisco in early 1968. It was printed by Charles Plymell, a poet, novelist,and small press publisher associated with the Beat Generation.
Plymell arranged with publisher Don Donahue for Zap to be the first title put out under Donahue’s Apex Novelties imprint.
With the caveat “Fair Warning: For Adult Intellectuals Only,” Zap #1 featured the publishing debut of Robert Crumb’s Keep on Truckin’ imagery, an early appearance of Mr. Natural and his disciple Flakey Foont, and the first of many Crumb self-caricatures. Crumb describes himself in Zap #1 as “a raving lunatic”, and “one of the world’s last great medieval thinkers.”
The tagline of Zap #1 is “Zap Comics are Squinky Comics!!” has an interesting origin. Cartoonist and comix advocate Art Spiegelman called his girlfriend of the time, Isabella Fiske, “Squink.” Crumb liked the word and decided to use it on the cover. Crumb himself credits[ Gershon Legman’s 1949 article “Love and Death” condemning the “Horror-Squinky” forces lurking in American comics of the 1940s.
John Thompson writes of taking the first Zap “up to Telegraph Avenue” where he and Crumb “sold them on the street corners. Bob very eagerly stopped passerby’s, and, surprisingly, a variety of people bought them from us.”
Zap #2, which did not feature a Crumb cover, generated an avalanche of criticism from the mainstream press. Comiixjoint.com tells what happened:
In the summer of 1968, the trailblazing Zap Comix #1 caused many minds to be blown in major cities across America. Somewhere around the end of that summer, the even-more-daring Zap #2 hit the streets and many of those blown minds went into shock. Even some of the counterculture radicals who saw Zap #2 were disgusted by S. Clay Wilson’s depiction of one man cutting off the tip of another man’s penis and eating it. Many were outraged by Robert Crumb’s use of racist imagery to depict a sexually insatiable African junglewoman named Angelfood McSpade.Criticism came fast and hard, and it came from all corners, with outcries from the left and the right that Zap had gone too far. Rather than feeling chastened, Crumb and Wilson decided to demonstrate just how far they could go. Crumb had already been toying with the idea of lampooning the bawdy little joke and cartoon digests that were sold to men on newstands and military bases. As Snatch Comics publisher Don Donahure explained Crumb’s inspiration; “They were just corny little cartoon magazines, pocket-sized. He started doing an imitation of one, only raunchier.”Wilson, the leading provocateur of the Zap Collective, quickly jumped on board.
Crumb and Wilson produced Snatch Comics #1 in just a few weeks and Don Donahue published it in the fall of ’68, though he strategically omitted his Apex Novelties imprint and all copyright information in the book (as well as the two Snatch books to follow).
As Snatch came into being, Zap charged on, cannon to the right of it, cannon to the left of it.
In late 1968, Crumb found Xerox copies of missing pages (Crumb: “Zap #0 was stolen by this guy Zahn”) from the original Zap #1. After Crumb re-inked the strips, they appeared as Zap #0. It was the third in the series even though it was drawn before #1 in 1967. The Barb of Decemher 27, 1968, reported that “Moe’s now has a new Crumb comic, Zap 0. Soon Zap 3 will also be on sale.”
With issue #4 (August 1969), Zap moved publishing to the Print Mint, Crumb: “The Print Mint paid the best… Zap really changed when the Print Mint took it over. It started really big time… All of a sudden this little hippie enterprise became this big deal with the lawyer and the Print Mint and drawing up this legal thing and making sure we don’t get ripped off.”
Here is the offensive story, “Joe Blow.” As a rule I don’t censor images that I post, but I will here. Sorry.
Crumb says that the “Joe Blow” strip as “the most heavily busted thing I ever did ’cause of the incest taboo. And it’s a taboo I go along with. I don’t think incest should be encouraged. Judges and people like that thought it was some kind of Communist plot to break down the genetic pool in America by encouraging incest. They were real paranoid. I think I was just being a punk.”
Crumb in the Comics Journal:
There was an organized, systematic, repressive action taken against every aspect of that outburst against the system, including alternative print media, by the powers, agencies, and institutions of the corporate state. It is not paranoia, but the fact of history to say these things. They didn’t sit back and passively watch while Abbie Hoffman and Huey Newton strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage. They had their think tanks staying up nights plotting and scheming new techniques to squash, neutralize, and co-opt this threat to everything they held dear. They constructed sophisticated strategies for instilling fear into the general population. You could watch it happening all through the ’70s and into the ’80s. Fear was a weapon the bastards used very effectively.
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund describes Zap 4:
With an awareness of the exposure the title faced, Zap’s artists upped the ante with a fourth issue designed to attack social conventions and tackle taboo topics head-on. The issue’s most notorious contribution was Crumb’s “Joe Blow,” a searing, blackly humorous satire of gray flannel suit suburban reality in which an outwardly “perfect” family is shown having an incest orgy behind closed doors. Crumb’s visuals recall images from Leave It To Beaver to inspirational Communist propaganda, while also being firmly within a recognizable comics tradition.
The Berkeley Police arrested Print Mint owners Don and Alice Schenker on October 21,1969, and charged them with publishing pornography – Zap 4. The Tribe (October 31, 1969) reported: “Now we’re up to ZAP 4 and the pigs have intervened. ZAP 4 is being suppressed because of the ‘Joe Blow’ story, the theme of which is the family that fucks together, father-daughter, mother-son fucking, which Arlington says ‘is so heavy that the world is not ready for it yet.'”
Moe’s Owner Moe Moskowitz was arrested at about the same time for selling obscene materials – R. Crumb’s Zap Comics and Snatch Comics, the S.C.U.M. Manifesto by Valeria Solanas (who shot Andy Warhol in 1968), Horseshit Magazine (The Offensive Review), and Mah Fellow Americans, editorial cartoons by the Underground Press Syndicate’s Ron Cobb.
The Barb reported that the arrest was made by “undercover fuzz Fred Schwarm.” (November 29, 1968).
The Daily Californian of November 18, 1968, reported:
Morris (Moe) Moskowitz, the cigar smoking, balding owner of Moe’s Bookstore, was cited Thursday for violation of 311.2 of the Penal Code. This section makes it illegal to sell, or display for sale, obscene materials. In his store Friday, Moe commented on the police action. “I an not even sure what the charges are. They wanted to get me because of ‘Snatch’ magazine. But I sold out and they were disappointed when they couldn’t find any copies. So they got me for ‘Horseshit’.”
In addition to “Horseshit” and “Snatch,” police confiscated copies of “Mah Fellow Americans,” “Zap #2” and “Scum Manifesto.” Moe said, “All except ‘Snatch’ have been on the stands for a long time. ‘Scum Manifesto’ and ‘Zap #2’ for three or four months and ‘Horseshit’ for several years.”
Shakespeare’s Bookstore still had copies of “Horseshit” on their shelves. The only precaution they took was the move them from the main shelf to a more obscure one. A number of bookstores on Telegraph Avenue have offered support to Moe. Cody’s Bookstore had previously organized the other bookstores to fight a ban on certain books by the Richmond Public Library. A spokesman for Shakespeare’s said the merchants “were just waiting to see what the charges are” before acting.
Moe said he hoped to get the support of the American Civil Liberties Union to fight the case. Arraignment was scheduled for Friday afternoon at 2 p.m. While Moe waits the outcome of his trial there was growing interest in the magazines in question. Friday a number of people asked for them of at least gave support to Moe.
According to M. Keith Booker, the charges against Moe were dropped because someone or someones with access to the Berkeley Police evidence lockers stole the comics and books. I think of the words of H.P. Lovecraft: “From even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent.”
The Schenkers and Moe weren’t the only ones or even the first ones arrested in Berkeley because of Crumb drawings.
Simon Lowinsky owned the Phoenix Gallery on College Avenue, which Artforum Magazine described as a “Movement gallery.” Lowinskey was arrested on similar charges as a result of an exhibition of Crumb’s original drawings in a “New Comix” show. The Tribe (October 31, 1969) described the exhibit as “a show of psychotic art, going under the name of the ‘The New Comix (sic) Show.’ It contained the works of 23 known psychopathic cartoonists from the Bay Area” Crumb was among the 23.
Lowinsky’s case came to trial first. He was acquitted after supportive testimony from Peter Selz, a Cal professor. The charges against the Schenkers were dropped.
At roughly the same time, a clerk at the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco was arrested for selling literature representing graphic sexual activities. City Lights had opened an underground comix section on the mezzanine in 1966.
“The offensive item was a piece by Robert Crumb in Zap Comix #4 called “Joe Blow,” which ends up showing the father making it with the daughter and the sister making it with the brother.” (Berkeley Barb January 16, 1970). The charges were dropped in this case as well.
For more on the legal troubles of Zap see the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (click on the headline):
Crumb’s take on the the police involved in the arrests: “They just react ’cause they’re too freaked out, ’cause they’ve got the worst shit going on in their heads.”
Crumb had been at the 1969 opening of the show at the Phoenix Gallery that led to Lowinsky’s arrest. So was Janis Joplin. She teased Don Schenker for wearing socks with sandals.
Crumb had done the art work for Joplin’s Cheap Thrills album, which was released on August 12, 1968.
Dave Getz was the drummer for Big Brother and the Holding Company. In this blog he describes Crumb’s involvement in the album cover:
I remember us all sitting around and talking ideas for the cover and I said ‘How about asking R.Crumb?’ Janis, James and I were all big fans of his work, we loved his cartoons which were appearing in the SF underground newspapers and Zap Comics. But outside of SF not that many people knew of his genius. Everyone thought it was a great idea.
I had a friend at that time, a guy who had just come out of medical school who was going out with a girlfriend of my girlfriend at the time. I knew he’d come from Cleveland with Crumb just a few years earlier and they were still close friends. I said “why don’t we try to call him, I’ll get his phone number” and Janis jumped right in; “Can I be the one to call him?” So I got his number from my friend, Shelly Rosen and I gave it to Janis and Janis called him and he said ‘yes.’ Amazing! The next weekend Crumb came to our show at The Carousel Ballroom, sat on the floor in our backstage dressing room and observed. He really wasn’t into our music but it didn’t matter. It was maybe one or two days later Crumb called Janis to come and pick up what he’d done.
When Janis brought it to us at the warehouse, there was a different front cover. The original front cover Crumb did had these cartoon stick figures with instruments on a stage with photos of our faces pasted in; it wasn’t great..but the back was – to all of us without question – totally brilliant. It was obvious to all of us that what Crumb had intended as the back had to become the front cover and this decision turned out to be the most noticeable and important game changers in the story because the back, with all it’s comic – book panels for each of the songs and for each person in the band is what would forever be known as the cover of Cheap Thrills. It has become iconic, one of the greatest album covers of all time and its greatness is that it is an inseparable expression of the music inside. We now had the whole package.
Crumb had written a friend on June 22, 1968, saying “I’m going over to meet Janis Joplin tonight… CAN’T WAIT”” Of meeting her, he said “I just did it as a work for hire. Janis used to come around, smoke pot, talk about the comics. She was nice.” John Thompson wrote “There was an electricity between her and Bob. I pulled up a stool and watched him as he meticulously inked her outline… in such a way that the caricature glowed with his fondness for her.”
They vamped big-time for the camera. They admired each other’s work greatly.
Crumb made these drawings of her. Of her he wrote:
Yeah, Janis, she was my buddy—poor thing. She was a very talented, gifted singer, but she got sidetracked by fame and her life went into a disastrous tailspin. In her last days she was surrounded by sycophants and music business hustlers just full of bad advice for her. She was young and, in spite of her tough, hard drinking exterior, she was innocent. She just wanted to please the crowds, who got excited when she screamed and stomped her feet and carried on histrionically on stage. The crowd loves a good show. The drawing of her that you have here is a remake of an earlier drawing I did of her back in 1969 when she was still alive. It presents this screaming showbiz Janis as she came to present herself to the public, the Janis that sweated blood to please the crowds. But personally, I think she was a better singer years before that, when she sang old time Country music and Blues in small clubs. She was great then, a natural born country girl shouter and wailer in the good old-time way. Just my opinion.
When I first met Janis in the spring or summer of 1968, she was already a big deal in the Bay Area, I don’t know about the rest of the country. But it was easy to be around her. She was a regular gal, you know, and she was kinda homely. I mean, I was always extremely intimidated by beautiful women, and since Janis was like this plain, regular gal, she wasn’t intimidating to be around at all. I didn’t see her all that much. She liked to drink too much, and get high too much. She hung around this group of girls – not when I first met her, but like a year or so later – this group of women who were really hard-assed and scary. They sort of attached themselves to her and they were into, you know, hard partying and drinking. They were sort of rough and tough and challenging, a little bit feminist but with a tough girl attitude. Like, ‘What can you show me? What kind of man are you? Can you out-drink me? I bet you can’t. I bet you’re just a pussy.’ That kind of thing. They were kind of intimidating. There was this one girl named Sunshine. She was a hard case. Another one named Pattycakes. [laughs] And Janis had this other friend who was kind of her bodyguard, this big girl who looked rather masculine, but she was the nicest one actually. She was sort of Janis’s valet after she got famous. But these people just attached themselves to Janis like leeches. But that’s what happens when people get famous. And Janis, she was kind of innocent, she didn’t know what was going on completely. She was young and naive, insecure and all that stuff. But you had to like her because she was very vulnerable kind of person. Not a tough person really. But you know, like I said, she tried to act tough, but she really wasn’t. But those other people around her, they were tough, hard cases; hustlers, hangers-on, opportunists.
After Cheap Thrills, Crumb was given the chance to draw Mick Jagger for the cover of Rolling Stone. He found Jagger “irritating, actually. Phony posturing, strutting around, it’s really annoying. Ten times more annoying because girls liked it. Girls didn’t like cartoonists. They liked Mick Ja-a-agger.”
By 1969, Crumb was crowned comic royalty.
Rollling Stone in its March 1, 1969, issue told us “Crumb is a direct descendent of Lenny Bruce, but working with the tools of a visual age and without Bruce’s alienation, or rather, in an age when alienation is a majority feeling; the inward turning bitterness of isolation has yielded to a sense of solidarity which no longer requires a defensive exclusiveness, but can absorb, synthesize and have genuine fun with all the traditionally maligned trivia of American mass culture.”
So too in Berkeley. The Barb of November 7, 1969, reported “Of all the comics in the show, R. Crumb’s work stands out as unquestionably superior. Crumb is undoubtedly the Dean of the new cartoonists, his lines and shadings create a universe singular in every respect, one of his city scales reveals more of the squalor and ugliness of cars and building, sidewalks and garbage cans, that a million photographs could possibly show. His characters are right on target, accurately drawn and named so that there can be no mistake in identifying who they are or what they stand for or relate to”
Don Schenker said that “Crumb’s a spokesman for a whole culture. People out there are waiting for that language and imagery he hands down, so that they can name portions of their lives by it.”
The Print Mint continued to publish Zap until 1978, when the company stopped publishing comics altogether.
Crumb’s art appeared on the cover of Zap #8 in 1975 and then not again until the final issue, #16, in 2014, long after the Berkeley publishing connection had ended.
The Print Mint published other underground comics with a Crumb connection.
Crumb: “This drawing was originally made in 1975 for the hopeful magazine venture Arcade, started by Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman in an attempt to reunite and revive the rapidly disintegrating “underground movement.” They worked very hard to make Arcade a success, tried to give it a professional look, with a contents page and even page numbers. But after seven issues over a period of one and a half or two years, they threw in the towel. They wanted me to do the covers thinking that would help sell it. I did five of the seven covers.”
Bijou Funnies evolved from The Chicago Mirror, an underground newspaper co-produced by Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson.
After seeing Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix #1, the Mirror was converted from a newspaper to a comic book and under the Bijou Publishing imprint the first issue of Bijou Funnies with Crumb as one of the contributors was produced in the summer of 1968. Bijou Funnies was produced slightly smaller than standard comics size, measuring 6-1/2″ x 8-1/2″.
The Print Mint published issues #2-4 of the title from 1969–1970.
Honeybunch Kaminsky, America’s most famous teenybopper, first appeared in Bijou Funnies.
She famously appeared in this 1970 poster, described as “Jail Bait of the Month” and “A Little Yummy.”
Despair was a Crumb one-off.
Comixjoint.com says this of Despair: “Despair is Robert Crumb’s first existential diatribe about the perils and shittiness of modern life in America. Most of the stories are deceptively clever and provide some classic Crumb, including ‘It’s The Ruff Tuff Creampuff’ and ‘Fuzzy The Bunny in The Same Old Crap.'”
“However, the lead story, “It’s Really Too Bad,” jettisons the cleverness and just mainlines Crumb’s bitter perspective about American life.”
In 1970, the Priint Mint published Crumb’s Uneeda comix.
The website Atomicavenue.com writes: “Coming at the end of R. Crumb’s hippie period, Uneeda reflects his growing lack of interest in the counterculture. The centrepiece, ‘Honeybunch Kominsky, The Drug Crazed Runaway,’ is a very unconvincing procession of counterculture clichés that even seems to have bored Crumb. Rounding out the comic are a short Mr. Natural strip and a few Bo Bo Bolinsky shorts that have far more power (even poetry) than the lead strip”
Crumb called Bolinsky “a fine example of modern manhood.” Those words amuse me.
Don Schenker pasted up this collage of Crumb comics that the Print Mint sold.
He also made this montage of Crumb sketches, punning on “Crumb”:
The Print Mint was the first publisher to invest heavily in the underground comix movement and its distribution,
It was instrumental in the popularity and reach of underground comix. In 1969, several artists left Print Mint and started their own publishing house, the Rip-Off Press.
Crumb went with them.
The Print Mint ceased publishing comics in 1978, but the poster shop continued. The Print Mint’s commitment to underground comix was epic.
Crumb first published Fritz the Cat In Help Magazine #22, January 1965.
Fritz grew into one of Crumb’s most popular characters.
Crumb began sketching Fritz strips when he was a teen.
As his comix fame grew, so grew the popularity of Fritz.
In early 1972, the movie Fritz the Cat was released.
Fritz the movie opened in Berkeley in April. I warn you – some of the images in this trailer will offend the pious eye.
It was the first animated feature film to receive an X rating in the United States
Crumb didn’t like the movie. The April 21, 1972 Barb reported that “Crrumb feels that the lines and the dialogue are not his. Even though Fritz is his creature, the character,and the neurosis, and the problems are not his, and the essence of the character is not his. The screenplay is so substantially different from his that he doesn’t want to be associated with it.” He issued a statement denying any connection with the production and objected to the “redneck and fascistic” tone of a scene where Fritz denigrates a group of revolutionaries. Crumb: “It was not my movie. I had nothing to do with it. They just used a couple of my stories.”
He threatened to file a lawsuit to have his name removed from the film’s credits. No suit was filed, but an agreement was reached to remove Crumb’s name from the credits.
Showing his distaste for the film, Crumb published “Fritz the Cat—Superstar” in People’s Comics later in 1972.
Fritz is killed in the strip and Crumb never used him again Crumb: “I didn’t mind killing him off at all.”
Crumb was in Berkeley in the late 1970s to testify in trial against Robert Rita, the then-owner of the Print Mint. Crumb sued for the unauthorized use of his “Keep on Truckin'” art by the Print Mint.
Keep on Truckin’ is a one-page comic that was published in the first issue of Zap Comix in 1968.
A visual riff on the lyrics of the Blind Boy Fuller song “Truckin’ My Blues Away”, it consists of men strutting confidently across various landscapes. Crumb explained that “trucking” in the 1930s was “used in place of the word ‘fuckin’… I never thought that it would become so famous”
Crumb’s trucking’ drawings and the phrase became images of goodwill and affirmation during the hippie era. Thomas Maremaa calls the phrase “as ingrained in the collective American psyche as ‘Kilroy was here.'”
Crumb lost the suit against Rita, and told the Barb (August 4, 1978) “I lost the case because I wouldn’t testify against Bob Rita who had put a second mortgage on his house to finance Arcade magazine.”
In the 1970s, Crumb formed a band eventually known as the Cheap Suit Serenaders. They played songs from the 1920s and in the style of the 1920s – old-time music, ragtime, jazz standards, western swing, country blues, hokum, vaudeville and medicine show tunes.
Crumb’s sexual mischief was present with the music. One example – “My Girl’s Pussy” is a song recorded in 1931 by bandleader Harry Roy and his orchestra, the Bat Club Boys. Crumb and the Cheap Suit Serenaders recorded the song. The lyrics are blatant double entendres – there is no doubt as to the nature of the “one pet I like to pet.”
In his musical persona he visited the Bay Area and Berkeley from time to time.
Crumb stopped performing with the band in 1977, but it soldiers on. The Serenaders-minus-Crumb performed at Freight and Salvage in 2018 and were scheduled to perform in January, 2019, but cancelled the show.
In an entirely different vein, in 1985 Crumb came to Berkeley in 1985 for a book signing of The Monkey Wrench Gang at the Nature Company.
The book was written by Edward Abbey and illustrated by Crumb. It celebrates four wilderness defenders who join together to attack those who are wrecking the wild – by any means necessary.
And then there are the relationships between Crumb and the late Bruce Duncan and the still-here Ace Backwards, two absolute outsider geniuses of the Berkeley streets
Bruce Duncan is now ten years gone. He was an integral part of the Telegraph Avenue scene until his death in 2009. He sold used books for $.25 in front of Cody’s for years, made cartoons, he made and sold The Tele Times (April 1978–December 1982) and The Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar (1990–2004). These obituaries, from the Comics Reporter and the Daily Planet (by Ace Backwards) give a sense of both his creative genius, his mental illness, and his courage and persistence.
Duncan interviewed R Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb by mail about comics in the Tele Times of July 1980 (pp. 35-45). At the risk of accusations of hyperbole, it is a truly brilliant interview. Duncan knew the field, prepared the questions, and for all the world he sounded like an academic – a scholar of the street.
Here Crumb sits with Duncan at the Cafe Intermezzo on Telegraph in 1989. This next photo of Crumb and Duncan was taken the same day:
Claire Burch was was an author, filmmaker and poet. The photo of Crumb and Duncan was used on the cover of her the DVD case for her The History of Tele Times.
Ace Backwards wrote this about the relationship between Crumb and Duncan:
He [Duncan] published the first 20 issues of Tele Times—“Telegraph’s Tight Little Monthly”—in relative obscurity, with print runs of about 100 copies. In truth, Duncan probably lost money on every single publication he ever put out by himself. He was one of the first publishers to focus on homeless street people and so-called ordinary people, treating them the same way that most mainstream publishers treated celebrities. Then he began corresponding with famed underground cartoonist R. Crumb. They immediately clicked. Crumb recognized a fellow traveler, calling Duncan “the quintessential underground cartoonist.” And Crumb should know. Duncan published an interview with Crumb and his wife in Tele Times, and that opened up whole new worlds for Duncan. For Duncan was an artist’s artist.
In a 1999 interview by Jean-Pierre Mercier, Crumb said this of Duncan: “Bruce Duncan was another one that I used. This guy was fairly crazy but his work had a strong, unique quality. You see certain peoples’ work that is truly mentally disturbed but something in their artwork is truly revealing.”
Ace Backwards (“real” name Peter Labriola) has not met Crumb but they have corresponded and Crumb has published Ace’s work.
Ace wrote this about Weirdo: “When R. Crumb started his Weirdo underground comic book back in 1981, I was very excited about the possibility of getting some of my comics published in it. So I spent several weeks working away on a batch of comics to send to him. And I painstakingly labored over every panel, to make sure that they were the best comics I could produce.”
This is one that Crumb published:
And then there was Ace’s Dip Shit cartoon.
Of it, Ace writes: “But for the hell of it, I also thew in this “Dip Shit” cartoon in with the batch of submissions. I had just done the thing on a goof. Hacked it off the top of my head in about an hour. In fact, I thought so little of the cartoon, I hadn’t even drawn it on the expensive art paper that I usually drew on. I had drawn it on this cheap piece of typing paper that just happened to be lying around on my desk. Some of you old-timers might remember typing paper. It was so cheap, it was practically transparent. And when I looked at the original art I could see where my ink had bled into the cheap paper. Of core that was the strip that Crumb ended up publishing. Ha ha. Crumb real is nutsol”
Crumb used a striking photo made by Ace Backwards as the basis for drawing in “Girls of the Street” in his Art and Beauty. This is the photograph made by Ace Backwards:
It appeared in the 2000 Street Calendar.
Of this woman, Ace writes:
She was a somewhat mysterious woman who hung out on Shattuck for a month around 1999. Sometimes she’d be with her shopping cart. Other times I’d spot her late at night, all by herself, sitting on the sidewalk, dressed in an expensive skirt and high heels as if she was going out on the town (or possibly hooking), with a suitcase along side her.
She had a boyfriend with facial tattoos who seemed in a constant rage. Giving him the impression of an angry clown.
I asked her on a couple of occasions if I could take her photo. And I took a series of them (this one was the best). I gave her a couple of bucks and copies of the photos in exchange.
Never imagining it would later be immortalized by Crumb
Well, immortalized it was.
An article on “Girls of the Street” in Crumb’s Art and Beauty Magazine includes this Crumb drawing:
Crumb appreciated the Telegraph Street Calendar. Ace Backwards writes: “Crumb was a big fan of the Telegraph Street Calendar. He collected all the issues and often hung them up on the wall of his studio (he said he preferred it to the crappy calendars they made of his comics). In the Crumb documentary — the scene where he’s in his studio packing up to move to France — you can see our calendar on his wall”
Crumb made this drawing of Berkeley’s Gypsy Catano.
In his stunning blog Acid Heroes, Ace Backwards wrote this about Catano:
Gypsy Catano was a legendary Berkeley street person in the 1970s and 1980s. “Gypsy always reminded me of Charles Manson,” said my friend Vince. Gypsy was a cocky, swashbuckling little guy who walked with a swagger and the air of a charming rogue.
Gypsy was homeless back in the day when there was plenty of available housing in the Bay Area. “Gypsy was homeless because he wasn’t housebroken,” explained a girlfriend.
“I never dropped out,” said Gypsy. “I was never in.” Gypsy was born on the streets. And the street scene was his natural mileau.One of Gypsy’s favorite panhandling routines was to have one of his friends stand on their hands while Gypsy worked the crowd like a carnival barker. “Help me get my down-and-out friend back on his feet!!”
Gypsy’s favorite thing to do was to drink and to fight. And when he was in a bad mood he could be a holy terror. And Gypsy was a natural leader who was usually surrounded by a gang of buddies. Some of whom were hulking lunatics who would crack your head open for kicks. So Gypsy could be a formidable force.
But he could also be very charming. And he often charmed normal, straight mainstream people who enjoyed Gypsy like an exotic pet. While Gypsy — ever the hustler — angled them as marks.
The first time I met Gypsy Catano in 1982 in People’s Park (his natural habitat) as he swaggered up to me I was struck by the malevolent, mischievous leer in his eye. And the home-made necklace around his neck that was made from the teeth of some wild animal. And he also had a fur stole wrapped around his neck. Gypsy suddenly grabbed the head of the fur stole and waved it in my face. It was the head of a dead dog. “I skinned the dog myself,” said Gypsy proudly. Then he did a puppet show pantimine with the dogs head for my amusement. “ARF ARF!!” he said, opening and closing the dog’s mouth.
Naturally, Gypsy Catano died a sudden and electrifying death. As befitting “as ye live so ye shall die.” If I remember right he choked on a chicken bone and had an epileptic seizure. Hundreds of people showed up for the memorial on Telegraph Avenue. A local newspaper covered the story and they were amazed that so many people, from all different walks of life, would show up to pay tribute to a guy who was basically a “homeless bum.”
Backwards included this photo in his blog:
It was perhaps taken by Bruce Duncan. Julia Vinograd, our late poet laureate, was friends with Catano. When I visited her in her apartment she pointed to a cinched velvet bag and told me that the bag held his teeth.
Ace has reflected on Crumb, first on his treatment of the counterculture: “Crumb was too brilliant, and too cynical, not to be aware (often painfully so) of the pretensions and falseness of so much of the ’60s hippie trip. And Crumb couldn’t resist skewering the hippie excesses in his satirical comix (often gleefully and savagely). And yet, Crumb would remain a lifelong believer in the basic worth and value of the ’60s counterculture.”
And on Crumb’s abilities: “Every panel perfectly designed and executed. Every line in the exact right place. It’s easy to take for granted until you actually try to draw like him. And he’s an even better writer, in my opinion.”
Another Crumb was featured in a Telegraph Street Calendar.
She is Sophie Crumb. She was born in 1981, daughter of Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb.
The caption by Ace Backwards: “SOPHIE CRUMB at the Caffe Med, during a brief period when she lived in Berkeley around 2003. She was very sweet and very friendly to me. But she scared the hell out of me. A cute young chick AND R. Crumb’s daughter. Holy gee-ziz!!”
More Ace on Sophie: “She lived in Berkeley for a year or so, in part I think because she had read a lot about it in the Telegraph Street Calendar, and my Surviving on the Street book (which she told me she really liked). Duncan did a long interview with Sophie that was published in the COMICS JOURNAL.
While in Berkeley, she worked at Comic Relief – opened in 1987, closed in 2011.
In 2002, Fantagraphics Books and Oog & Blik published Sophie Crumb’s first comic book, Belly Button, followed by Belly Button Comix #2 in 2004.
In 2010 she and her father’s Evolution of a Crazy Artist. NPR’s review of the book may be found here.
Speaking of Ace Backwards, ’twas he who led me to the latest issues of Mineshaft.
Everett Rand created Mineshaft. The name for Mineshaft came from Rand’s favorite bar in La Paz, Bolivia. Rand and co-editor Gioia Palmen lived in La Paz in the early 1980s. I’m guessing that the bar was called “Pozo de Mina.”
Crumb’s art appears semi-regularly in Mineshat, including this in the most recent issue.
We are in the home stretch now.
Let’s end where we began, with Mr. Natural on the trash can at Telegraph and Bancroft.
The first Mr. Natural strip, “Mr. Natural: The Zen Master,” appeared in the premiere issue of underground newspaper Yarrowstalks, described above, on May 5, 1967.
He appeared in a number of underground newspapers and Crumb comix, including Zap #1 and then in 1970 the first of three Mr. Natural comics appeared.
It was published by San Francisco Comic Book Company/Apex Novelties, Aug. 1970), and featured “Mr. Natural’s 719th Meditation,” “Om Sweet Om” (with Shuman the Human), “The Origins of Mr. Natural,” “The Mr. Natural Drawing Contest,” “On the Bum Again”
Crumb told us that “Fred Natural” had been a jazz musician and then faith healer in the 1920s. He was somewhere between 60 and 100 years old when he first appeared in Crumb’s work. Fred left America and traveled in Asia, including a stint as a taxi driver in Afghanistan. In Asia he acquired his unique combination of wisdom and chicanery. He repatriated during the Beat era of the 1960s. He loved America with its nubile girls, people willing to listen and pay for his improvisational spirituality, people willing to buy his line of “Mr. Natural Brand Foods”, and people who would listen to his broadcasts on WZAP radio. Crumb: “I can’t explain his behavior.”
Mr. Natural #2 (San Francisco Comic Book Company, Oct. 1971) featured “A Gurl in Hotpants” (with Flakey Foont), “Sittin’ Around the Kitchen Table” (with Flakey Foont), “The Girlfriend” (with Flakey Foont), “Have you seen ‘um lately?”, “I am the greatest! Make way! Make Way!” (with the Snoid), “On the Bum Again, part two.”
Mr. Natural #3 (Kitchen Sink Press, 1977) consisted of 43 one-page stories that had been originally published in the Village Voice.
Mr. Natural has magical powers and possesses cosmic insight; but he is also moody, cynical, self-pitying, and he exhibits from various strange sexual obsessions.
A number of people have been identified as possible inspirations for Mr. Natural, including O. G. Wottasnozzle from Popeye (Harvey Pekar theory), Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (Barry Miles theory), radio DJ David Rubenstein (R. Crumb attribution in Comic Book Confidential), a character called The Little Hitchhiker from a comic strip called The Squirrel Cage by Gene Ahern (another Crumb attribution), an E. C. Segar character, Dr. O.G. Wotasnozzle, Richard F. Outcault’s early comic strip The Yellow Kid, and San Francisco music teacher Roger Greene (the Chronicle).
From Zap #5 comes this Mr. Natural quiz:
He was famous and popular fast:
Mr. Natural appeared in Phonus Balonus, an underground cartoon exhibit at an offshoot of the Corcoran Gallery on Dupont Circle, May 20-June 15, 1969.
In the end, he got his own book.
This was published by Apex Novelties in Berkeley in 1972.
Twas Ever Thus is a 1915 silent film directed by Hobart Bosworth, written by Elsie Janis, and starring Elsie Janis, Hobart Bosworth, Owen Moore, Myrtle Stedman, Harry Ham, and Helen Wolcott. It was released by Paramount Pictures. Elsie Janis plays a Stone Age maiden who is being pursued by caveman Long Biceps (Owen Moore, who, at the time, was married to superstar Mary Pickford), much to the chagrin of her father … and so on. I don’t see any point in going on. I see no nexus with Mr. Natural.
Crumb’s Twas Ever Thus included the entire 40-page “Mr. Natural and Devil Girl” epic. She is shown here with Mr. Natural and Flakey Foont, a clueless would-be disciple of Mr. Natural.
Until the trash can on Telegraph, Mr. Natural last appeared in “Don’t Fuck With Him,” Mystic Funnies #3 (Fantagraphics, Mar. 2002).
And then came the trash can.
These words by Doris Moskowitz about Crumb could be mine: ”
He is smart and funny and just “keeps on truckin.” Some of Crumb’s images are pretty shocking even by todays standards. We want to encourage everyone to be here and express themselves like he did, but leave some room for people to discover what else he was up to on their own. His Blues portraits are great too, but they are not as iconic and Mr Natural.
Although I had long hair and dressed unconventionally in the late 1960s and early 1960s, I did not consider myself a hippie. I didn’t read underground comics and only knew about Crumb through peripheral vision. My best friend and housemate in college (1969-1971) was Peter Korn and he was a little bit more of a hippie than I was. He knew underground comix, especially Crumb, but he never bought them, only saw them at other people’s houses.
I knew, read, and reread the Last Supplement to the Whole Earth catalog (1971) and have my copy still. It has a Crumb cover and I know that I knew about Crumb then. I embraced some Ken Kesey writing in it as part of my core college belief system.
My first serious exposure to Crumb was in 1984 when Ken Weaver published Texas Crude. Weaver was the drummer for the Fugs, an underground/counterculture band of the 1960s. The FBI in 1969 correspondence called The Fugs the “most vulgar thing the human mind could possibly conceive.”
Excepts from Texas Crude appeared in Co-Evolution Quartlery. I found Texas Crude in my life as a slang lexicographer. In Texas Crude Weaver recorded colorful phrases he heard while working in Texas oilfields. Crumb’s illustrations are perfect. The late genius linguist Reinhold Aman turned me on to Weaver’s work. It is one of the best books about language that I ever read. I can’t recommend it enough.
My work on this piece has been a joy and a gift, a proper introduction to the genius of Robert Crumb – his drawings and his writing and his world view. Especially his language. Wow!
I see a dangerous rabbit hole in my future.
When I was finally sure that I had finished this post, I showed it to my friend and asked for his opinion. He went through a whole pot of Darjeeling tea as he read it.
When he finished, he put the printed-out post on the table and looked up at me. “This is a long one, isn’t it? I like Darjeeling. We don’t have it enough. I like the thin-bodied, light-coloured infusion with a floral aroma. Sometimes I sense a tinge of astringent tannic characteristics and a musky spiciness which some might describe as “muscatel.'”
He left the room, went to his quarters,and was back in not very long at all with this:
He had immersed himself in Gene Ahern’s Little Hitchhiker comic strip, mentioned above as a possible inspiration for Crumb’s Mr. Natural.
Surreal is far too tame a concept for what Ahern did with the Little Hitchhiker in his Squirrel Cage comic. How is it possible that stuff like this was ever published in mainstream papers? Ahern was out there in territory where few others have ventured.
My friend was focused on the Little Hitchhiker’s Slavic-tinged mutterings. By researching not one but two blogs by Paul Tumey he found some translations.
Hoosh veegoz ska heenya foom volooskum = There’s a lot of competition here for me in n hitchhikers and beards
Osh golop vsk! = This settles it
Nov Shmoz ka pop = NEVER TRANSLATED
My worlds at this point are about to collide. Arnold Zwicky is a perennial Visiting Professor of linguistics at Stanford University, and Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of linguistics at the Ohio State University. He is a central figure in the American Dialect Society, an organization which I was part of until very recently in my slang incarnation. On January 7, 2007, Zwicky posted on Comic Language.
In his post, Zwicky included this Zippy strip from December 28, 2006, populated with catchphrases and nonsense terms from the past, including Nov shmoz ka pop?
My friend conceded that he hadn’t gotten to the bottom of Nov Shmoz ka pop, but he was anxious to tell me about the leads that he was tracking.
I did not mince words. “You have told me more than I knew or needed to know or (sigh) wan tto know about the Little Hitchhiker. Let me know when you find the granodiorite stele that is your Rosetta Stone but let’s move on.”
NOTE: Granodiorite is a plutonic igneous rock, formed by intrusion of silica-rich magma, which cools in batholiths or stocks below the Earth’s surface
NOTE: A “stele” is an upright stone slab or column typically bearing a commemorative inscription or relief design, often serving as a gravestone.
He smiled, said “How perfectly goddamned delightful it all is, to be sure” (which I have the feeling I will hear a lot for a while) and handed me a present.
Bless him – he had found a sheet of Crumb wrapping paper and wrapped the present.
I opened it.
Holy Mackerel!!!! Holy Moley! Holy Moses! Holy smoke! Holy cow! Holy Mary! What a gift – Twas Ever Thus!!!!!!!
I thanked my friend but got back to the task at hand. What does he think of my Crumb and Berkeley post?
Sources: I don’t plan on turning Quirky Berkeley into a fully sourced production, but for this piece I choose to identify major sources from which I drew quotations. The first is Robert Crumb’s website, especially the biographical section. The second source is R. Crumb Conversations edited by D.K. Holm, Jackson: University of Mississippi Press (2004); Bruce Duncan’s interview of the Crumbs is included. Third is The R. Crumb Handbook by R. Crumb and Peter Poplasi, MQP (2005). Fourth, Your Vigor for Life Appalls Me: Robert Crumb Letters 1958-1977, edited by Ilse Thompson, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books (1998). Last is John Thompson’s Yellow Dog: Robert Crumb & Origin of Comix, Satya Designs.
Ace Backwards was a big help. He is generous with his prodigious knowledge and experience. Alice Schenker was giving and a joy with her memories and archives.
Excellent article, Tom!
For me this is very nostalgic and redolent of my early teenage-hood in the heyday of the Haight-Ashbury era as I was an aficionado of all of the local underground comics, and was particularly fond of Zap Comix, Fritz the Cat and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.
They spurred my own nascent attempts at drawing comics, something I unfortunately never further developed.
R. Crumb must have still had some connection with Berkeley because my wife and I saw him on a few separate occasions in various restaurants in the early 1980s accompanied by his wife Aline and his friend and former fellow Cheap Suit Serenaders bandmate and filmmaker Terry Zwygoff.
Another couple of interesting examples of the six degrees of separation that I often seem to part of is that one of my former Berkeley housemates had himself been a housemate of Maxon Crumb’s in Philadelphia, and when I lived in Point Richmond, the cartoonist Joel Beck used to live in an apartment down the hall from mine.
I particularly enjoyed your search into the possible inspiration of Mr. Natural with the old cartoon character who uttered the phrase, “Nov Shmoz Kapop”, a phrase that my father would occasionally utter, which until now I was unaware of its etymology.
Just wanted to add this about the Cheap Suit Serenaders: The year that “Crumb” was released, Crumb played several shows with the Cheap Suits, one at Strawberry, I think, one on “Prairie Home Companion” (Garrison Keillor tried to get him to talk but couldn’t), and one at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. Crumb played but didn’t sing because of a sore throat. I asked a friend in the band if Crumb was having fun, and my friend said, “Who knows? He doesn’t talk to me.” Apparently, Crumb is well-known for only talking to people he has known for a long time. A year later, Crumb returned and played and sang with the Suits, again at the Freight.
Yikes. I need a drink. Down at The Melancholia.
One of the posts ever Tom, Brings back many fond memories of His absolute genius.
Great article which I enjoyed immensely. A couple of points:
You didn’t mention the conflicts and legal problems in the Print Mint that led to the store on Telegraph changing its name to the Reprint Mint. I believe this is covered in Aaron Cometbus, The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah, for sale at Moe’s. I assume you know this book.
I often saw Ace Backwards selling books for 25 cents at the corner of Cody’s, but I don’t think BN Duncan did the same. I saw Duncan selling The Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar at that corner, but not books. I was there often enough that I would have seen him if he sold books regularly.
I never knew that Ace Backward’s name was Peter Labriola. Thanks for that. How about a post on Ace Backwards and BM Duncan some day?
BTW, once when I was passing by early in the morning, I saw that Ace got those books from the recycling bins in front of Half Price Books on Shattuck and Addison. At some point, Half Price began tearing covers off of their discarded books, and Ace began selling the books with their covers taped back on.
In an earlier post on the Print Mint I went into the print/reprint issues and the change of ownership
I am absolutely sure about Duncan and Ace working together. Ace talks about it regularly still and has posted many photos of the two of them there.