There was a long line outside the door of the Society of Illustrators in the Upper East Side of Manhattan that stretched to the corner subway station.
The attraction was a retrospective for Robert Crumb, the gangly pioneer of the underground comix movement. Crumb produced his first comic book, Zap #1, in 1968, selling them on the streets of San Francisco; later books were sold at head shops.
Crumb drew and wrote about the hippie lifestyle, chasing women and sex, and marketed his comic books for “intellectual adults.” They were an instant hit.
Also known for living on his own terms, Crumb, who once turned down an offer to illustrate an album cover for the Rolling Stones because he hated the band, now lives in the south of France with his second wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, with whom he is working on a new book.
Crumb drew and wrote about the hippie lifestyle, chasing women and sex, and marketed his comic books for “intellectual adults.”
Monte Beauchamp, the curator of the new show, “R. Crumb: Lines Drawn on Paper,” got his first taste of the Crumb comics growing up in Moline, Illinois.
“I used to order them from a place in California, and they’d arrive in a plain brown envelope,” he said, sitting in the upstairs bar, temporarily away from the growing crowd in the galleries downstairs. “They were comics you just had to hide from your parents.”
Beauchamp has a youthful face and short blond hair peeked out of his black cadet cap. He wore a black shirt over a white T-shirt.
“Back in the day, there weren’t graphic novels,” he said. “There wasn’t this whole thing about comics having literary validity. All they had back then was a comic book code, and if you wanted to get your comic book published in America you had to get it approved by the Comics Code Authority.”
The governing body, so to speak, was run by John Goldwater, who created the Archie comics, Beauchamp said, “so he wanted to have all comics to have that squeaky clean image.”
“You couldn’t put words like ‘terror’ or ‘horror’ in a title,” he explained. “You couldn’t even do that. So you could imagine what the climate was like when Crumb showed up. And I saw the Zap comics and stuff. He was spreading the seeds of a new consciousness of about what a comic book could be.”
Crumb, who worked for a spell in his early years designing greeting cards for American Greetings, also illustrated magazines and album covers for the bands he did like (Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead). The show at the Society of Illustrators focused on the comic strips and included some of his most famous books and characters, like Fritz the Cat, a sexually charged feline con artist; Mr. Natural, a long-bearded mystic guru in a yellow robe and brown boots; and Crumb, himself.
Beauchamp said he wanted to focus the show on Crumb’s sequential art, i.e., frame-by-frame comics “because that’s a category they’re trying to bring more awareness to at the Society of Illustrators.”
He said that there was a second wave of independent comic book artists in the late 1970s – those who built on Crumb’s work. “And comic book shops started happening,” he said. “And it made it possible for all this other independent work to be created.”
It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see the line drawn from Crumb to South Park and the Simpsons.
“He made comics fashionable,” said Beauchamp, who publishes a hardcover comic book annual, called Blab. “He brought them into vogue. But he was dealing with subject matter that adults could relate to and understand.”
He added, “Some of his stuff still offends people.”
Interview over, Beauchamp embedded himself into the crowd, which had shifted from an older demographic during the VIP hour to a decidedly younger audience, who preferred Stella Artois to white wine.
One of the snazzier-dressed guests squeezed into the middle of the gallery was Eric Sack, a distinguished collector of underground comix. Sack, who contributed most of the pieces in the Society of Illustrators show, said he bought his first Crumb original series for $150 – to compare, one of the original books in the show is worth $5,000 – as a graduate student in New York City.
He had another more fascinating story to tell. “I graduated from graduate school in the summer of 1978 and flew out to California to go out to the San Diego Comic Convention, which is a spectacular event in itself,” he said. “And I met a guy who was representing the artist – not so much as the original art but he was selling the comic books themselves out of his station wagon, where he was living.
“He was living in the station wagon with the comics and he was selling them door-to-door at head shops. And he found out that I was interested in buying originals. And he said, ‘If you buy a Robert Crumb original from me, the artist will give me an original and I’ll be able to sell it and get some money and that’ll be my commission, and I’ll be able to put my kid through acting school. And mark my words, one day, my little 8-year-old kid is going to be somebody.’
“And I said, ‘Bullshit, Mr. DiCaprio, you’re kid’s not going to be anything.’” Sack laughed. “I put Leonardo through acting school,” he said.
Lines Drawn on Paper is on view at the Society of Illustrators through April 30, 2011 at 128 E. 63rd St., New York, NY, societyillustrators.org.
For more from Richard S. Chang, follow him on Twitter.
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