Don’t be that girl. Don’t be a groupie. Don’t be a yenta. Don’t be a “sex-crazed housewife.” Don’t get in a car with that boy. Be thin, but don’t obsess over exercise or calories. Have sex, but not the wrong kind of sex. Don’t think you’re somebody, but don’t bore other people with your self-doubt and self-loathing either.
In the new reissue of her 1990 collection, Love That Bunch, Aline Kominsky-Crumb confronts the crazy, ever-shifting expectations of how women are supposed to be — and blows them to smithereens. Her work invites us to ask what kind of life — what kind of freedom — is opened up by a refusal to be a good girl.
This autobiographical comic spans Kominsky-Crumb’s life, stretching from infancy to grandmotherhood. Two strips, published here in full for the first time, fill in the years between the book’s original publication and today. The reissue also includes a new afterword by renowned comics scholar Hillary Chute.
Chute claims Kominsky-Crumb — who calls herself “the grandmother of whiny tell-all comics” — was the first woman to pen autobiographical comics. Since her earliest strips in the 1970s, her work has been a rough, bracing mix of honest depictions of sexual and childhood trauma, self-deprecating humor, and examination of the body’s pleasures and degradations.
Kominsky-Crumb is the author of two books with her husband, iconic underground cartoonist Robert Crumb — The Complete Dirty Laundry Comics and Drawn Together — as well as a 2007 graphic memoir, Need More Love. Her forty-plus years of work have exerted a major influence on succeeding generations of artists, including Phoebe Gloeckner, author of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and Alison Bechdel, MacArthur Fellow and author of Fun Home.
Born in a mainly Jewish section of Long Island, Kominsky-Crumb was precociously talented and precociously disgusted by what she saw as her family’s “crass” and “materialistic” lifestyle, as she described it in a 2012 interview in Critical Inquiry. Her father, Arnie, was a small-time schemer and the co-founder of BARG Industries (“grab” backward, as in “grab the money and run”); her mother was a housewife and ad salesperson for the Yellow Pages. It was a volatile, unhappy home, where Kominsky-Crumb appears to have been physically and sexually abused.
She left home early, and after floundering through art school at Cooper Union and the University of Arizona, moved to San Francisco to join its burgeoning underground comics scene. She arrived just as the first issue of Wimmin’s Comix, an early all-female comic series, was being launched by Trina Robbins, Pat Moodian, and a collective of other women artists: Kominsky-Crumb’s first published work debuted in its first issue. It was 1972, and while the feminist movement was raising consciousness, female comics artists were still, as Kominsky-Crumb told the Huffington Post, “a novelty.”
That first published strip, “Goldie: A Neurotic Woman,” still has the power to shock. Though there are mercifully more depictions of “difficult” women available today than in the early Seventies, it continues to be rare to see a woman deliberately depicting herself as fat and hideous, or indulging unusual sexual behaviors — in this case, masturbating with a carrot and squash. “I was always guilty and horny,” Goldie confesses in one panel.
Goldie was Kominsky-Crumb’s early alter ego, a diminutive of her maiden name, Goldsmith. After arriving in San Francisco, Kominsky-Crumb met the man who would become her husband, R. Crumb. Episodes from their marriage, the raising of their child, Sophie, and their move to France make up much of the second half of Love That Bunch. Soon, she had a new nickname: the Bunch, an ugly abbreviation of the name of one of R. Crumb’s characters, Honey Bunch Kaminski.
Honey Bunch bore a striking resemblance to Aline Kominsky in name and body type. The two were often compared, which Kominsky-Crumb didn’t much enjoy. Overhearing one of Robert’s friends refer to her disparagingly as “the Bunch,” Kominsky-Crumb seized upon the name as a way to “defile that stoopid Honey-Bunch image.”
We first meet the Bunch as an adolescent. In a painfully realistic way, she’s obsessed with, and made vulnerable by, sex and male attention. She’s eager to appear vixeny and tough, in short skirts and tons of white lipstick. But she’s nevertheless unprepared and frightened when her classmate Al starts feeling her up, a situation that quickly escalates into rape.
Sexual assault is so damaging, in part, because of its erasure of you as a person with your own subjectivity and desire. It’s powerful, therefore, to watch Kominsky-Crumb wrest control of the narrative of her violation, and make primary the Bunch’s version of the story. She exaggerates the size and details of Al’s penis — it’s as big as his meaty forearm, aggressively veined, with an ooze of pre-cum — making us feel the young Bunch’s terror in that moment. “It’s so ugly,” she thinks. “Looks like gizzards.”
Crafting a personal history is a process of elimination. A writer might elide an element of her life that’s unflattering or seemingly anti-feminist; she might gloss over what seems unruly, inconsistent, or hard to contain in a single narrative framework.
Part of what makes Kominsky-Crumb’s work feel radically honest is that she lets in so many contradictory aspects of her life. On a certain level, she enjoys her body — it’s a “source of endless entertainment,” she says, moments after popping a zit on her boob. She likes sex, and “makes it with hundreds of guys.” She enjoys the power sexiness gives her over men. On the other hand, her body is a source of anguish: She struggles through pregnancy, and worries about wrinkles and weight gain. She’s a survivor of rape and sometimes intensely disgusted by male sexuality. She vacillates between feeling like a “sex Bunch” and a “slug.”
In other words, she’s a walking contradiction navigating a landscape of gendered double binds — and thus intensely relatable.
Though Kominsky-Crumb’s work is almost always analyzed through a feminist lens, she’s a keen observer of the various hypocrisies and ironies that characterized postwar American life. In a few episodes, she takes aim at her bigoted father, whose moneymaking schemes involve exploiting black people’s desire for education and uplift. “Well don’t you think yur poor kids deserve a chance to elevate themselves too!” is the sales pitch he uses to peddle overpriced encyclopedias in black neighborhoods — while privately considering his clients “dumb n*****.”
In Critical Inquiry, Kominsky-Crumb described her style of drawing as “crude” and “grotesque.” Her pages and panels are busy, crammed with detail. In Chute’s words, her comics “refuse to be pretty.” The Bunch’s story is an ugly one, in many ways, and Kominsky-Crumb’s selective attention to detail; her expressionistic style, which warps form in the service of emotion; and her willingness to veer into the grotesque convey that ugliness as nothing else could.
This refusal to be pretty is especially provocative given Kominsky-Crumb’s focus on sexuality and her female body. We tend to expect women to be on display, perpetually aiming for approval. Kominsky-Crumb breaks those rules. Often, she draws the Bunch with an exaggerated lower body, a sausage-like nose, and cartoonish features. She doesn’t hesitate to give her fictional self “wolf eyes,” strip her head bald, or make her face animalistic in the midst of sex, either.
Her depictions of women’s bodies so disgusted some Christian printers that they refused to print her work. The in-your-face messiness of her work also received pushback from feminists in the underground comics community of the 1970s. In a 1975 interview with The Berkeley Barb, Trina Robbins, founder of Wimmin’s Comix, called Kominsky-Crumb’s work “obviously crude.” According to Kominksy-Crumb, Robbins asked her, “Who wants to read about whether you’re worrying about being fat and ugly?”
Kominksy-Crumb felt that Robbins and others in the community wanted her to turn out glamorous, heroic images of female life. This conflict reappears in fictionalized form in Love That Bunch, where she recounts with pointed irony the criticisms her work received from the feminist comics artists she met in San Francisco: “Why are you so down on yourself? You should have a more positive self-image,” one tells the Bunch. “An’ you shouldn’t show yur legs…They’re yuge!!”
“I don’t romanticize life,” Kominsky-Crumb told Critical Inquiry. “And I don’t think that romanticizing women makes other women feel better. It makes most people feel worse.” At least in the comics version of her story, Kominsky-Crumb seems determined to live beyond any set of rules or dogma — including the set of rules governing what makes a good feminist, which can sometimes seem as impossible to adhere to as traditional conceptions of femininity.
Perhaps most powerfully, she rejects the idea that for women, being beautiful and good is a prerequisite to finding — and perhaps even to deserving — love. Kominsky-Crumb not only dares to make herself ugly, she demands love anyway, and she gets it — from her husband and child, and maybe from the sympathetic reader. In one memorable panel, she pictures herself singing, “I’m the Bu-unch + I’ll never be any good/I’m the Bu-unch + I never ever do what I should/Just because I never do what anybody else does/That’s no reason why you can’t give me all your love!!!” She claps her hands, pointy, witchy nails prominent.