R. Crumb's Debut in the 'Voice': as Fashion Designer!
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
October 30, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 55
by Blair Sobel
When you come right down to it, fashion is about pure fantasy. Image-achieving or head-tripping to be exact. So why not have one of the biggest fantasy "heads" of all time -- cartoonist R. Crumb -- design clothes. He's a natural. After all, his women are truly legitimate with their high bubble asses and their knockwurst thighs. His chicks you've seen on the streets a hundred times. R. Crumb seems to be more in touch with today's younger breed of female than any Village designer or certainly Jonathan Logan. He's even been drawing chunky-heeled shoes long before they appeared in real life at Beck's (glad to see that Beck's shoe designers are avid readers of Zap). Besides the fashion industry could always do with a little help from some artists and R. Crumb (R stands for Robert) is one of the heaviest cartoonists today.
His Zap comic book series is now at number four, with the fourth recently getting busted from the stands -- and as D.A. Latimer of the East Village Other said, "If you can bust Zap for long-leggity bare-assed women then you can bust Vogue." At any rate, among the "in porn" group the latest onslaught of dirty comic books is the hottest art form, not to mention the horniest. However you may feel about the strips themselves is secondary. The images somehow do reflect the mass American attitude -- an attitude exaggerated to absurd levels, of course, but nevertheless a basic attitude. Now what could be more basic mass American than fashion?
R. Crumb agreed to rap about the idea when he flew in from San Francisco for a week visit. At first he seemed unsure, but once I got him talking about his dream female image his mind took off with jet-propelled speed. Within six hours he delivered six sketches, all with captions and explanations. It must be understood that R. Crumb isn't exactly selling out and opening a "Crumby Rags Inc." on 550 Seventh Avenue; this was merely a suggestion made by me and he obligingly took up on it as a mind-blowing exercise. "To me fashion is...er...um...really person. I mean what I draw or what I say about it is only my view. I mean I dig certain kinds of freaky chicks. Sort of half teenage love goddess with saddle shoes, rolled-down socks with chubby knees, and the other half is a hippie chick with tight blue jeans, bobbing breasts, and long mangy hair."
R. Crumb is a tall, gangly, and shy Arnold Stang. You'd recognize him instantly as the awkward 13-year-old boy you went to school with who used to sit in the last seat of the last row and during class he'd look so unassuming and peaceful doodling away his dreams on the back of his notebook. Unassuming looking, that is, until you caught a glimpse of his doodles which were usually a sexy naked chick with her legs spread. R. Crumb keeps to himself and is extremely soft-spoken and most genteel. His glasses magnify his eyes to twice their size and his eyes are always wide open ready to take in anything and everything. He's super-observant -- but then he has to be since his work has to dow with what's momentarily going down. Some of his fans say he is his own insecure Flakey Floog character; others say he has the philosophical solidity of Mr. Natural. I think he's both.
He doesn't get into talking about himself easily and his modesty is so ingrained that it's difficult to get him to talk about the effect his strips have had on people. "Yeah...the feedback is incredible. It really has been changing my head a lot. I mean the people's reaction to my stuff makes me see myself much better now. Like right now you could say I'm on the edge of my head...and it's tough...tough because I dig my own fantasy life of the comics but I dig reality too and sure they clash...and sometimes it gets a bit tough." Reality for R. Crumb is being 26 years old, having lived all over the country but settled now in San Francisco with a wife and a year-old son. He publishes his strips in Zap and elsewhere, not to mention his album covers for Janis Joplin -- both "Cheap Thrills" and the latest, "Kozmic Blues." "Janis's look I really dig -- I guess my women are based on her image but they're a lot more militant. My Lenore Goldberg, for instance, is an exaggerated Janis figure." Lenore Goldberg is Crumb's Women's Liberation character. "She's cerebral yet sexy. I'm all for women's liberation, man. I like a girl who has a mind of her own yet still has sexiness. It must be hard for chicks to do that though. But if more of them got into it they'd be a lot better off. I can't stand the traditional role of female passivity...that's a drag. There's not threat in a chick being strong. Strong within herself...her head...that is, as long as she doesn't become physically overpowering."
Women for Crumb should be tactile and sensual beings. "I hate spike shoes and bouffant plastic heads...who can touch that? That whole look is so 'hands off' and creepy. I want to know that girls are girls and not guys. For instance, Twiggy was a girl's head trip; not many guys that I know of really dug her. I've also found...and this is strictly my head...that guys who like thinner scrawny chicks are more masochistic and more oral while guys that dig bigger tougher girls are more sadistic and anal."
Crumb's views are straight and honest. Fashion for him is no big thing and girls on the street are better than ever. Maybe cause there's none of that 1952 split shit about high fashion versus low fashion. High fashion used to be so dippy, remember? and the low fashion was so obscenely sexy. Now they both overlap...I'm still against high fashion, though. Why should a couple of uptights dictate to the masses what should or should not be worn? Clothes should come from each person's individual consciousness."
Sure, some of Crumb's fashion views are exaggerated (like grossly thick legs poured into an overflowing thigh high laced boots or Little Lulu panties peeking out from a tutu mini on a 200-pound girl) "but see there's more intensity in that exaggeration. Like there's more going on in that 'hard on' look. It's not so blatantly perverse. Nothing is perverse about ass-gripping bermuda shorts or rolled-down socks and stockings. Maybe it's the dumbness not the ignorance of the images that I draw that turns me on so much. Others I'm sure are turned off by that look for the very reason that I'm turned on...see there's that personal aspect coming in again." But what is Crumb's woman all about anyway? Generally she's got a small head, thin face, and strong bullish neck, small through the arms and torso ("I'm not a tit man. Matter of fact a girl should have more in the thighs than the chest."), short-waisted, huge ass, and "dancer's Amazon legs." For him tights have got to go "panties and garter belts and black stockings are truly sexy." Bright clingy floral printed dresses -- the kind worn in the '40s -- with white lace V-neck collars, cuffs, and puffy shoulders are "incredible turn-ons." Most of all...forget all underwear.
As for Crumb's female idol, it's not Sophia or Raquel or even Annie Magnani. "Girls on the street are better looking to me than any famous movie star produced by mass media. For me a chubby teenage chick in short shorts from Sioux City freaks me out more than anything...or maybe a dream of mine is a seven-foot tall black Amazon chick...but that's a private fantasy number of mine and I've yet to find her."
At the end of our fashion rap Crumb laughed (or was it a "heh, heh" or a "teethe" or a "hubba-hubba") over his fantasies being picked up by real people. "My fantasies...I keep saying...are only exaggerations and if they affect live people then I guess soon people will become exaggerations of themselves, no?" I flashed Jackie Onassis doing her judo trick on that photographer outside the "I Am Curious" flick. Get this: she was wearing a dark leather short skirt and dark stockings -- softer version of R. Crumb, maybe? So it's already happening and R. Crumb, cartoonist-turned-designer, is not such a far-out thought after all but one to be seriously and sensually considered.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]