A zany sense of humor fused by a psychedelicized vision made Robert Crumb one of the most influential comic artists of the 1960s. His characters, including Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, Flakey Froont, and the Vulture Demoness, and his underground comic books, such as Zap Comix, combined elements of social commentary and the British tradition of caricature. His illustrations often graced the covers of record albums, including one for Big Brother & the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills. Comics, however, represented only one side of Crumb's eccentric persona. A clawhammer-style banjo player and vocalist, Crumb led his band, the Cheap Suit Serenaders, through three albums of tongue-in-jowl, early 20th century string band and jazz ditties.
The third of five children born to career Marine Charles Crumb, Sr. and his wife, Crumb started drawing comics at the age of three. As a child, he spent hours drawing comics and was heavily inspired by Mad magazine. In 1962, Crumb accepted a job drawing greeting cards for American Greetings Corporation in Cleveland. Two years later, he married Dana Morgan and drew the earliest version of Fritz the Cat for Cavalier magazine. A turning point came in 1965 when Crumb experienced his first trip on LSD. Inspired by the experience, he shifted his artwork to reflect the growing hippie culture. After living temporarily in New York and Chicago, he moved to San Francisco in 1967 and launched Zap Comix. With its pro-drug, pro-free love emphasis, the illustrated magazine was highly provocative. A strip in Zap #4, "Joe Blow," caused several comic stores to be busted on obscenity charges in 1969. The following year, movie producer Ralph Bakshi acquired the rights to Fritz the Cat and produced the first X-rated feature-length film.
Together with accordion player Robert E. Armstrong and mandolinist Allan Dodge, Crumb formed the first version of the Cheap Suit Serenaders in 1972. Over the next six years, the band recorded three albums: The Cheap Suit Serenaders!, Number 2 (reissued as Chasin' Rainbows in 1993), and Number 3 (reissued as Singin' in the Bathtub the same year). The band's third album featured folklorist and guitarist Bob Brozeman. In 1977, Crumb and the Cheap Suit Serenaders toured the United States with Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, and Iris Dement.
Although he continued to be active as a comic illustrator, Crumb suffered several setbacks in the late '70s. His lowest point came in 1977; in addition to having a judge rule that he had no right to the copyright for the slogan "Keep on Truckin'," Crumb was hit with an IRS bill for 30,000 dollars in back taxes and his marriage ended in divorce.
Crumb's bad luck began to reverse the next year when he married a cartoonist, Alice Kominsky, and moved temporarily to Winters, CA, a suburb outside of Sacramento. In 1990, Crumb's artwork was honored with an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Three years later, he traded six notebooks for a house in the south of France, where he lives with his wife and daughter.
Crumb, a 1995 documentary about Robert Crumb, his work, and his family, received a Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and was one of the most acclaimed films of that year. ~ Craig Harris