Legendary comics artist R. Crumb (above, with fan) spoke at the Prince Theater on Saturday as part of the Chestertown Book Festival. The talk was moderated by Robbi Behr (of Idiots' Books), and she proved to be the perfect choice for the job. She asked probing, sometimes provocative, questions that elicited insightful answers and some good-natured sparring. There was no hero worship involved.
"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity," Behr told the crowd. "But I was also a little nervous because, frankly, when I looked at Robert’s work, it kind of made me sick to my stomach. And it makes me start to sweat. I can’t tell if it’s because I dislike it, or if it’s because it makes me uncomfortable."
She showed slides of Crumb's work, including examples of the voluptuous women that are his trademark. "He reduced them to just butts, legs, and thighs," Behr pointed out.
"That’s an oxymoron," quipped Crumb. "What are they reduced from?"
That drew laughter and a few groans form the audience.
"The question is," continued Behr, "Is he a misogynist? Does he hate women?"
"I’ve been called pornographer, misogynist, pervert, and it’s all true," responded Crumb. "At least I’m honest. I put it out there."
With a disarming smile, Behr asked, "Are you brilliant or stupid?"
"I don’t think I’m brilliant or stupid," said Crumb. "I’m crazy."
That he is, but Behr also drew out his keen intelligence and subversive sense of humor. It was interesting to hear Crumb tell why his most recent book, an illustrated version of the Book of Genesis, is completely devoid of satire or irony. "The story itself is so strange that it doesn’t need to be satirized," he explained. "It was four years of work, and, once I got into it, there was no turning back. It was like laying track for the Trans-Siberian Railroad."
Crumb's sister Carol, who lives in Chestertown, arrived near the end of the talk, and Crumb told the crowd she was the reason he was in town. She'd just gotten out of the hospital after being treated for a lung ailment, and Crumb had the audience chant, "Carol, you must stop smoking. Carol, you must stop smoking."
"Now, she's so mortified she needs a cigarette," he joked.
It was all great fun.
While there, I ran into Jeffrey Gordon, who was interviewing Crumb for his Johnny Eck documentary. Apparently, Crumb and Eck corresponded in the early 1980s, and Crumb did the cover art for Eck's autobiography, whiich was never published.