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THE WAY THE CRUMB CRUMBLES

Devotees--and detractors--of the underground comics pioneer R. Crumb may be startled to learn that this trafficker in headless female sex objects, anxiety-ridden male outcasts and pornographic kitty cats was probably the happiest member of his family. That's just one of the things we learn in the course of Terry Zwigoff's extraordinary documentary Crumb, which reveals in gruesome detail the sources of a social satirist's art, alienation and sexual obsession. It's a deeply comic film, but no horror flick could match it for sheer creepiness.

The son of a violent ex-Marine and a meddling amphetamine addict, Robert Crumb grew up, by his own description, nerdy and disconnected in Philadelphia. While enduring his classmates' scorn and plenty of discord around the dinner table, he took early refuge in his fantasies, which, he says, included an erotic attachment to Bugs Bunny and a penchant for humping his mother's cowboy boots in the dark of her closet while singing "Jesus Loves Me."

This is just the beginning of trouble. For six years filmmaker Zwigoff, a longtime friend of the cartoonist, enjoyed (if that's the word) intimate access to the Family Crumb. The terrors he uncovered there might keep a small army of psychoanalysts busy for years. Crumb's father is dead, and his two sisters declined to be filmed, but no moviegoer is likely to forget the rest of the Crumbs. Robert's older brother, Charles, was the family's first cartoonist, and probably the best. But that was long ago. The Charles we meet is a gray-faced hermit who's been living in his mother's Philadelphia attic for years--still possessed of wit and sharp intelligence, but clearly a tragic casualty of the family's emotional battleground. If anything, Robert's younger brother, Maxon, is an even scarier case: A convicted molester of women and veteran of the psycho wards, this gaunt figure remains holed up in a San Francisco fleabag with a collection of his own nightmarish paintings and a literal bed of nails.

As for Mom, well, watch and listen for yourself...
Seen in this light, the corrosive and--some say--liberating view of life expressed by "Mr. Natural" or the sweating, panting desperadoes that dominate Crumb's work hardly feels exaggerated. His father broke Robert's collarbone on Christmas Day when the boy was five years old. He watched his two brothers descend into madness. He found himself in the middle of an incessant middle-class nightmare. Little wonder he turned out to be a hollow-cheeked, badly damaged misanthrope walking the streets in a shabby suit and stingy-brim hat straight out of the Depression, a man devoted to scratchy 78 records from the Twenties. But he clearly had talent and, with a little help from LSD, began applying his paranoiac view and his exaggerated, faintly poisonous nineteenth-century drawing style to the falsities and follies of the twentieth.

In the Sixties, Crumb tells us, the hippies suspected he was a narc. Perfect: Even in the era of "communal love," he remained an outsider.

But Crumb is also the story of survival: This twisted family produced three artists, but only one of them found the strength to endure. Unfortunately, his best defense always appears to have been the same kind of detachment that characterizes his art. We can almost feel the chill wafting off him as he calmly asks brother Max about the ten-foot shoelace he regularly swallows and passes, or as he dispassionately sketches the bums, drunks and wackos strewn about Haight-Ashbury. Clearly, Crumb's personal armor has damaged his self-regard, too: "At least I hate myself as much as I hate anybody else," he says, smiling mysteriously.

Give the filmmaker credit, though, for thoroughness. Despite all the traumas endured by his protagonist, Zwigoff is not content to churn out another hand-wringing portrait of an artist in torment. Instead, he also goes to Crumb's most vociferous critics--feminists who see him as a vile misogynist, liberals who call him a racist--to check the current barometric pressure. Truth be told, the condemnations of magazine editor Deirdre English, cartoonist Trina Robbins and journalist Peggy Orenstein seem no more conclusive than the fulsome praise of Time art critic Robert Hughes, who proclaims Crumb "the Brueghel of the late twentieth century."

For his own part, the elusive Crumb remains, well, detached. "Maybe I shouldn't be allowed to do it," he shrugs. "Maybe I should be locked up and my pencils taken away from me."

Then again, maybe not. Whatever else we think of R. Crumb's work--Brilliant! Unspeakably ugly! Revolutionary! Take your pick--his obsessive gift for exposing the cheesiness and greed of American mass culture and what he calls "the seamy side of the American subconscious" has never waned. It's evident not only in the deranged hucksters and frauds that pop up in his work, but also in the stubborn alien's attitude that has grown ever stronger with the years.

In the film, Crumb gives us some fascinating Nineties takes on his old grievances, usually punctuated by the same nervous cackles he emits whenever his mother shrieks up the dark stairs to Charles, or when an old girlfriend reminds him of his morbid self-absorption.

But in the end, this harrowing documentary--probing and prying though it may be--turns out to be a kind of mystery thriller. Terry Zwigoff has probably captured (that's the word) as much of R. Crumb as any filmmaker or biographer could, but the man's life and work remain fugitive, constantly put to flight, unavailable for comment. Indeed, the last scene of the film, shot in 1993, shows Crumb and his second wife, Aline Kominsky (she's another story), packing up their belongings for a permanent move to France.

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