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R.Crumb headlines comics panel in Chicago

Updated June 13, 2012

By Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune reporter
5:18 p.m. CDT, May 20, 2012

Over the weekend, as the NATO summit was stopping traffic across the Loop and you wondered whether Chicago would ever get a grip, farther south, at the new Logan Center for the Arts, a different, more mellow kind of summit was going on, a gathering of cartooning royalty. While someone, somewhere Friday night was surely gushing to a visiting dignitary about how great Turkey is, a young Chicago art school graduate was nervously gripping the hand of cartooning superstar Chris Ware, vibrating so visibly that cartoon squiggles seemed to leap off. Ware, deadpan, patient, smiled.

A moment later, the kid said into his phone: "I touched Chris Ware! And I see Ivan Brunetti. And I see R. Crumb, but I've heard horror stories about him. If I approach and he laughs …" As he said this, Bill Ayers, Hyde Park mainstay, retired professor, former member of the Weather Underground, the kind of guy who in another life would be downtown protesting, randomly walked by, heard this and interjected:

"Oh, do it. It'd be good for you."

And so the kid, an amateur cartoonist named John Zylstra, bounced down the auditorium steps. Crumb, underground comics legend, intimidating founder of a genre, famously reclusive, just in from France, dressed in a bow tie, sports coat and tweed cap, watched what was about to happen and tried hard to hold his wide grin.

"Mr. Crumb," Zylstra said. "Sir, you are a rock star."

"A rock star," Crumb said.

"Can I get a picture?"

"Yeah, OK." They stood side by side like slats in a fence, Crumb with his lanky arms dangling at his sides, his signature smile gone. "You're my hero, so this is a big deal for me," Zylstra said. "You know, there are other cartoonists here," Crumb, said, not unkindly, waving a hand, gesturing at the living history of cartooning around them.

About a dozen miles north of the Logan Center, NATO, solemn and heavy, met in a long, horizontal aircraft carrier of a complex, McCormick Place. The Logan Center, where the University of Chicago hosted "Comics: Philosophy & Practice" — the official, academic excuse for getting together 17 of the most important alternative cartoonists of the past half-century — was tall, vertical. With its rectangular windows seemingly drawn against its plain, flat surface, it resembled a comic book page, oddly perfect for celebrating, as Ware calls cartooning, "the emphatic doodle."

In the hall where most of the conference took place, at the quiet parties afterward and at the dinners, the visiting dignitaries were a heady, legendary bunch: R. Crumb sitting next to Ware, who sat next to Daniel Clowes. Gary Panter and Joe Sacco huddling behind them; Lynda Barry napping; Phoebe Gloeckner sketching. Art Spiegelman, smoke curling around the hands bunched at his face, sat with wife Francoise Mouly, art director of the New Yorker — themselves editors of a magazine, RAW ("The Graphix Magazine Of Postponed Suicides"), that made a few careers in the room.

Most of them were staying at the Hilton on Michigan Avenue. Asked if they had been granted a motorcade to Hyde Park during the conference's three days, Leslie Danzig, program curator, said, not entirely joking: "It occurred to me today the city brings in all these police for world leaders, but this hotel shuttle taking (the artists) here, now there's real value. I mean, dear God, what if something happens to the hotel shuttle?"

Those fears were overblown.

While NATO banners fluttered along Michigan Avenue promising a safer world through global cooperation, the cartooning summit's poster (designed by Ware) promised: "Ruin your life! Cartoon and doom yourself to decades of grinding isolation …" While NATO assumed rightly it would be taken seriously and set about discussing missile defense systems and security in Afghanistan, comics conference participants wrestled with whether the art form was being taken too seriously. During his opening night remarks, Spiegelman, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his book "Maus," said he didn't want to be a writer or painter, that the vulgarity of early comics was the draw: "What's interesting to me is, with this (Roy) Lichtenstein show opening here, with Dan (Clowes) having a museum show, Robert Crumb and I have shows in France — the culture is way past whatever Lichtenstein's comic images intended."

Comics, he said, need to be in a museum before people can feel OK about them: "We're an anxiety ridden country that has always felt we should be more cultured."

Indeed, whenever things grew too academic, whenever academics tried pinning cartoonists down on why this image was placed here, there was pushback. R. Crumb heckled from the front row frequently, all weekend. Barry was more direct. During a conversation with Crumb, Panter and Brunetti, she digressed for a moment: "You know, it's hard for me not to throw spitballs when I hear people up here getting analytical: 'Why, uh, is, uh, this image placed above this.' Shut the (expletive) up!"

The Canadian cartoonist Seth sat in the front row during a conversation with Aline Kominsky-Crumb, R. Crumb's influential cartoonist wife of 42 years. He wore a cream-colored fedora and long matching overcoat, looking as though he stepped out of "The Thin Man." He raised his hand and asked Aline why, if she wanted men to like her so much when she was younger, did she draw herself so disgustingly?

"I dressed in a sexy way to attract men in my life," she explained. "But in my art I felt that ugliness, I felt that grotesqueness."

"Yeah, but that's really unusual," Seth said.

"Yeah, but do I seem like a normal woman to you?"

NATO is an organization of powerful nations, a coalition of frenemies that owe money, bicker, and whine about each other. The cartoonists of "Comics: Philosophy & Practice" formed "a big cousins picnic," as Barry put it. Both groups, however, share traits: Both memberships appear disproportionally bald. OK, one trait. In fact, though NATO meets with the goal of harmony, these cartoonists seemed to be here as much for each other as for any fans who had registered for the conference.
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Chris Ware


  Calgary Herald likes R. Crumb and Michel Rabagliati

Updated August 27, 2003

It's official: The Calgary Herald has reported on June 7th, 2003 that "Comics [are] not only for kids". Oh well, at least the article itself was well-written. Click here for a PDF of 2 of the reviews that appeared that day...
click here to download the PDF (186.49 KB)

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R. Crumb
Michel Rabagliati

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Paul Has a Summer Job

New Crumb Placemat Book: In Stores Now!

Updated March 24, 2003

"It’s not my fault I’m unfit for normal social life"

So declares the tense angry picture that greets the viewer: a guy screwed up, gripping a knife and fork in a restaurant, radiating rage.

This is a collection of sketches by one of the masters of American cartooning and in even his most casual linework R. Crumb, the American iconoclast, has something to say.

These sketches were made on placemats in restaurants across Frances, where Crumb and his family have lived since the mid-1990s and themes of over-consumption, pop-consumerism and alienation pervade the drawings.

Literally, bug-eyed aliens creep through the thick glossy pages, peering out behind portraits of women and blues musicians and old men, looking ill at ease. They signal Crumb’s dread of the mindless consumption of pop culture and the unpleasant overweight American tourists in France. He’s clearly searching for something, something authentic. Crumb finds solace in the round faces of old forgotten musicians, French girls, and lovers sitting together.

"I, Robert Crumb, declare my intent to enter the warrior’s path."

Heroes, thinkers, spiritual gurus and medieval blazons remind Crumb to Be Bold, Be Brave. But the self-portrait that accompanies this dauntless declaration is ironic; he’s a Don Quixote, feebly holding aloft a trembling sword.

Interior covers of this beautiful hardcover book feature black and white photos of chefs butchering turtles and of a 1950s couple eating at a drive in. Kitchy and distressing, they enfold the reader in Crumb’s imaginative world of dissatisfaction, fear, and anxiety. But the book never gets bogged down in self-pity or despair. They crackle with satire, humor and wit. Crumb’s wife, the esteemed artist, Aline Crumb-Kominsky, pokes her head into the pages and cackles to a hapless Crumb, "Bon Apetite, tout le monde!"

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R. Crumb


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