Aline Kominsky-Crumb hysterically screamed with joy when Lena Dunham appeared on the HBO show Girls sitting naked on the toilet. Fifty years ago, the underground comics artist drew herself in the same scenario, with all her imperfections and neuroses exposed. One could argue that without Kominsky-Crumb’s groundbreaking autobiographical comics, Hannah Horvath wouldn’t exist.
For those unfamiliar with Kominsky-Crumb’s comics alter-ego, “The Bunch,” there is a new collection of her work, Love That Bunch, out with Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly. Be warned: it’s messy, crude, sexually explicit and at times the honesty is painful. But it’s also very funny in how it reveals the imperfect side of one woman’s wild life.
The Bunch was born out of the underground culture of the 1960s, fuelled by Kominsky-Crumb’s rebellion against her bourgeois upbringing. She took her first painting lessons when she was 8 and fell in love with Picasso and Matisse. After having a baby and giving him up for adoption, she dropped out of art school in New York, met her first husband and moved to Tucson where she found a home at a hippy art college. After graduating, she ran away to live with a cowboy in rural Arizona for six months before taking off for San Francisco, attracted by the city’s burgeoning underground comics scene. It was there in 1971 she met her second husband, the infamous Robert Crumb, and joined a women’s comics collective.
While many of the women drew themselves as feminist superheroes with a political agenda in mind, Kominsky-Crumb’s dense narrative-driven stories are more creatively aligned with Jewish comedians such as Joan Rivers and Jackie Mason. “I wasn’t thinking about making a statement,” she says. “I was doing it because I had to.”
Now a 70-year-old grandmother, Kominsky-Crumb doesn’t return often to her early work. “I had a strange and unhappy childhood in many ways. It’s painful to look at because I realize how much pain I was in,” she says. “What I hope is that other generations have been influenced by it somewhat. I feel like, somehow either consciously or unconsciously, I gave other women permission to write about themselves.” Along with Dunham, she sees glimpses of her spirit in the drug-addled adventures of the comedy duo Broad City and in cartoonist Alison Bechdel. “People who are telling really true, deep honest stories with a lot of humour, sadness and sensitivity,” Kominsky-Crumb says. “Now they can let all that sloppy stuff come out and not have to think they have to hide that to be attractive.”
Personal life looks a lot different these days for the Crumb family, too, who have lived in the small village of Sauve, France, for more than two decades. Kominsky-Crumb has been teaching free yoga for 24 years. She never misses a class, even last year as she recovered from “an incredible warrior battle” against cancer that nearly killed her.
She still paints and creates themed shrines assembled with old jewellery and toy parts. There are also her comics collaborations with Robert Crumb. She compares their process to an opera, in which they both draw and write dialogue, though often she is the instigator behind the ideas. Despite the fact that she is successful in her own right, Kominsky-Crumb still occasionally has to deal with sexist comments that she is the lesser contributor, or that she is suffering under Crumb’s rather large and controversial identity.
“I started writing comics before I got together with Robert and he was my biggest fan otherwise I never would have stayed with him,” she says. “I can see how people would look at things this way because he is very famous and I’m less well known and I’m the woman, so of course I’d feel like I’m in his shadow, but it’s not true at all.”
In fact, Kominsky-Crumb laughs at how established she is now, and the irony that her comics are taught at places such as Harvard University. “They were meant to be read on the toilet; they’re a rejection of the art world and everything academic,” she says. “But if you hang in long enough, it comes full circle.”