Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Creator of the 70s icon "Keep on Truckin'" and the graphic novel American Splendor Robert Crumb was born in West Philadelphia.
Born in Philadelphia, Robert Crumb worked as a greetings card illustrator for American Greetings, but quickly moved on to creating content for the underground comics movement of the late 1960s/early 1970s. Besides memorable characters such as Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, and the Snoid, Crumb is well known for his "Keep on Truckin'" graphic, a ubiquitous image throughout the 1970s. Crumb continues to illustrate and play music from his home in France. His latest work includes The Book of Genesis Illustrated by Robert Crumb (2009), an expansive graphic novel adaptation of The Book of Genesis.
Robert Crumb was born in West Philadelphia on August 30, 1943, to a Marine father and a Catholic mother. Moving frequently during his childhood, Crumb and his family eventually settled in Delaware in 1956 when his father retired after 20 years in the US Marine Corps. Crumb credits his older brother, Charles, for being his biggest influence growing up. The two shared a love of comics and co-wrote comics together, which included early renditions of Crumb's famous character, Fritz the Cat. Crumb also has a younger brother, Maxon, who creates abstract, Cubist-influenced oil paintings and lives in San Francisco.
In high school, Crumb was not very popular and often felt alienated. "I was one of those social rejects," he says on the Official Crumb website. "But then, you know, a lot of people were — nothing unusual about being an outcast in high school."
After graduation, he spent a year at home, during which he drew a lot, read at the insistence of his brother, Charles, and endlessly discussed the meaning of life with Charles, who would remain at home and later commit suicide in 1993. In 1962, Crumb was invited to live in Cleveland, Ohio, with his friend Marty Pahls, who had discovered him through Foo — an imitation of Mad Magazine that Crumb, at fifteen, and Charles created, Xeroxed, and tried to sell door-to-door for a dime. Impressed by Foo, Pahls stayed in touch with Crumb until he graduated from Kent State and then invited Crumb to Cleveland.
"When I got to Cleveland," Crumb tells Ted Widmer in the Paris Review, "I was determined to find a job and not go home, it was too depressing at home. I was determined to do anything for a job. I went to the Ohio state employment agency, and there was an old guy, I'll never forget him. I went into his office and he said, What can you do, what are your skills, what've you got to offer? I said, Well, I'm an artist, I draw." Without a single drawing sample in hand, Crumb was scheduled for a job interview with American Greetings two days later, thanks to that employment agent.
Crumb began his career with American Greetings as a color separator until the cartoon sketches he had around his light table caught the eye of another department. He was then hired to design cards, a higher paying job that required him to draw "the simplest neutered little cartoon characters." He drew hundreds of cards over the next several years, a job that would influence his future work. "[E]ven now," he says. "My work has this cuteness about it." While at American Greetings, Crumb also worked under Tom Wilson, who later went on to create the popular cartoon character Ziggy.
When Crumb recounts how he first got published, he includes losing his virginity with his first wife, Dana Morgan, in 1964, and LSD experimentation in 1965 as pivotal changing points. I started taking LSD in June of '65," he explains on his website. "That changed my head around. It made me stop taking cartooning so seriously and showed me a whole other side of myself." He also met fellow jazz aficionado Harvey Pekar while in Cleveland. Crumb would later illustrate early issues of Pekar's working class comic American Splendor.
While working, Crumb had also been submitting some of his work to Harvey Kurtzman in New York, the creator and editor of MAD Magazine. Kurtzman liked Crumb's controversial work and published it in his underground satire comic Help! It was in this magazine that Crumb introduced and developed Fritz the Cat, one of his most popular characters.
Kurtzman invited Crumb to New York to work with him on Help! in 1965, but by the time Crumb got there, the magazine ceased publication, preventing him from stepping up as assistant editor to Kurtzman. After nine months of trying to make it as a commercial artist, Crumb returned to Cleveland with his wife, Dana, in what continued to be an acid-soaked period during which he'd create many of his characters, including: Mr. Natural, Mr. Snoid, and Angelfood McSpade.
Crumb describes his years on acid as a fuzzy state, during which he saw "dancing electric images" in his head and couldn't think clearly. His mind would wander, most commonly to 1940's cartoon images, and while his rational mind was dysfunctional, his drawings poured from him without the worry of what other people thought. This drug-induced state lasted from late 1965 to late March of 1966.
In January, 1967, Crumb says he "escaped to San Francisco when I met two guys in a bar who said they were driving west." He had also abandoned his job and temporarily broken-up with Dana, but she soon followed Crumb to San Francisco. They later settled in Haight-Ashbury and had their only son, Jesse, in April of 1968. In this same year, Crumb spearheaded the underground comics movement by selling his own creations, Zap! #1 and Zap! #0, in the streets out of his son's baby carriage. Zap! was a comic for adults that addressed sex, racism, absurdity, and alienation, and featured characters such as Mr. Natural and Shuman the Human. After creating all of the content for its first two issues, Crumb took on the role of editor and contributor, allowing the inclusion of other artist's work. In the next several years he contributed to many magazines, and served as editor to Mystic Funnies and Weirdo comics. He continued to draw and travel, and in late 1969, he received a $10,000 advance from Ballantine Books for a Fritz the Cat book. He used that money to move his family to a new house in Potter Valley, San Francisco.
In 1972, Crumb's character Fritz the Cat was used as the basis for Ralph Bakshi's film Fritz the Cat. The movie was the first animated film to receive an X-rating, but went on to be the first independent animation to gross more than $100 million at the box office. Crumb was displeased with the movie, and killed the character soon after the release of the film. His marriage to Dana was also faltering, as he had an ongoing relationship with girlfriend, Kathy Goodell, and would later meet Aline Kominsky (to be his second wife) at a friend's party.
When he met Aline, he had coincidentally just drawn a character named Honeybungy Kominsky and also the character, Dale Steinburger, who was a Jewish cowgirl — Aline had been a cowgirl living in Arizona at the time. "So maybe he conjured up this person," she told a Comic Festival audience in June 2013, "and they arrived and then maybe he regretted it, maybe not, but anyway, it's definitely a weird kind of destiny. And I wasn't necessarily interested in getting married, neither was he, but—ya know, there you have it. He was married and so was I, actually. Already married to other people. Nevertheless. This destiny was a powerful force that held us to be together. Now 42 years later, we're still together. Now we're grandparents."
In 1976, Crumb lost a legal battle to retain the rights to one of his most famous images: The "Keep on Truckin'" graphic so commonplace on T-shirts and posters. The image had been heavily plagiarized and pirated, and Crumb was unable to defend his copyright in court. In the same year Crumb illustrated the first issue of Pekar's comic, American Splendor.
Crumb and Aline had a daughter, Sophie, in 1981. During this year, he also produced and edited a new comic called Weirdo, which Peter Bagge (and later Aline) eventually took over as editor so Crumb could spend time on his own comics. Crumb also devoted a great deal of time to collecting records and befriended University of Pennsylvania Associate Professor of Communication Arts & Sciences and American Studies, Jerry Zolten, in the early 80s. "They shared a fondness for 78s [78 revolutions per minute records]," Bill Zimmerman stated in his November 2013 article, "A decade later, WPSU radio program 'Chimpin' the Blues' is reborn" for Penn State News. "... Each [boasted] collections of several thousand and would meet for marathon listening sessions." The two indulged their obsession for rare records with in-depth conversations that they later shared with the community by recording the program "Chimpin' the Blues" with WPSU in 2003.
After developing a cult following, Crumb published collections of his work, including R. Crumb's Carload O' Comics (1976) and Complete Crumb: Mr. Sixties (1989). After much success, he sold a stack of his original sketchbooks in the late 80s in exchange for a chateau in the countryside of southern France, where he continues to live and work. Crumb's friend, Terry Zwigoff, filmed Crumb (1995), a documentary about the career and personal life of Robert Crumb and his brothers, before Crumb moved. The resulting documentary achieved some success at the box office in America and Europe and gained Crumb the attention of a new generation.
Between 1968 to 2004, Crumb has created over 100 comics that include issues of Zap!, Snatch Comics, Motorcity, Jiz, Mr. Natural, Bijou Funnies, Mystic Funnies, and many more. He is recognized as a pioneer in underground comics and has been widely acknowledged for his work.
Today, he lives in southern France with his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, who pursues comics, painting, and sculpting. His daughter Sophie lives 45 minutes away and is an English teacher who hopes to publish a children's book that she wrote & illustrated. His son Jesse is also an illustrator, as well as a painter, who lives in Northern California.
Crumb plays in the band Les Primitifs du Futur and illustrates their album covers. He released what has been described as an encyclopedic, as well as his most ambitious, work: The Book of Genesis Illustrated by Robert Crumb (2009). This graphic novel adaptation of The Book of Genesis won Crumb the 2010 Best Cartoonist Harvey Award. Recently, The Complete Crumb Comics Vol. 2 (2013) was published, and Crumb is currently at work on a collaborative, autobiographic book with Aline titled, Drawn Together.
Of creative work, Robert Crumb has said: [We] must thank the gods for art, those of us who have been fortunate enough to stumble onto this means of venting our craziness, our meanness, our towering disgust.
Roberta Smith — Office Girl. American Greetings Corporation Late News Bulletin, 1963.
American Splendor. Harvey Pekar, 1976.
Kafka (with David Zane Mairowitz).Northampton: Kitchen Sink Press, 1996.
The Complete R. Crumb Comics, Volumes 1-17. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2002.
R Crumb Sketchbooks, Volumes 1-10. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2005.
The Book of Genesis. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.
The Complete Crumb Comics Vol. 2: Some More Early Years of Bitter Struggle (Complete Crumb Comics). Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2013.