The R. Crumb Handbook
By R. Crumb and Peter Poplaski
Published by MQ Publications; $25.00 USD
Not so much a handbook, as a beautifully-illustrated multi-media autobiography of our finest living cartoonist, and perhaps the best single volume ever devoted to a comics creator.
Up until now, I would have said that that honour belongs to B. Krigstein Volume One, Greg Sadowski's lavishly illustrated biography of the late Bernard Krigstein. That massive book still looms large as a singular achievement in comics journalism, but perhaps it is because Crumb is still alive and vital, and was an active participant in the creation of the Handbook, that I have to revise my opinion: From design and execution to the amazing way that Crumb's voice speaks directly to the reader through the first-person text, The R. Crumb Handbook is a priceless memoir that provides a total immersion in Crumb's consciousness.
There's a CD on the inside of the front cover. Peel it away carefully, and find little Bobby Crumb staring out through his thick glasses, welcoming you to this strange world, so familiar after all these years of reading Crumb's comics. Pop the CD into whatever device you play CDs on. The full-length disc features Crumb himself playing with various bands ranging from The Cheap Suit Serenaders to his own family, playing the music he loves and speaks about with such authority. A tone is set. You're ready for the journey.
As an autobiography (though it seems deliberate that it is not called that), we find Crumb living in the past here: "I hate modern architecture. Every building built after 1955 should be torn down!" There are days it's hard not to agree with that sentiment. But Crumb knows human nature. He knows people weren't perfect in some idealized past, some unspecified good old days; he just knows that modern devices have made communication faster and quicker, so it's easier by far today to lie, cheat and swindle your fellow man, and God knows Crumb's had enough of that. If you don't know how many times he's been screwed, you'll know a bit about it after reading the Handbook.
The book -- well over 400 pages -- is arranged by four eras of Crumb's life, noted as Fear, Clarity, Power and Old Age. The story Crumb and Poplaski relate may not be altogether new if you've read much of Crumb's work or seen the brilliant Terry Zwigoff documentary Crumb. But what neither reading Crumb's comics or watching the movie about his life could give you is what this book does: You're experiencing Crumb's own story, in his own words, while taking in a well-chosen selection of his stories (much of his best work is in here) accompanied by wonderfully-selected and beautifully reproduced photos and illustrations. And if you can also listen to the music of Crumb's life as you do so. The immersion into Crumb's consciousness can be as total as this. Nothing like it has ever quite been done before in comics, and no creator deserves it more: Crumb's outspoken point of view is a true American treasure, the voice of experience honestly chronicling what it is to rise from a troubled family life to the very top of your chosen field. And how many comics creators could be so honest about their own obsessions and failings as Crumb is here? As he always is?
I came to Crumb relatively late in my comics-reading life; I do think it takes some life experience to truly begin to appreciate that the man's honesty -- expressed through not only what he says but the art he says it with, the very lines on the paper he draws on -- his honesty is his greatest gift to his audience. For all the times Crumb has been disparaged as a misogynist, as a racist, as a misanthrope -- what, really, could be more decent or more respectful or more powerful than speaking your mind honestly? That's all Crumb's ever done. This book gives us the experience of direct communication with, I'll say it again, our finest living cartoonist. I defy anyone to experience this book and argue that distinction. Grade: 5/5
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