Robert Crumb was born in Philadelphia in 1943. As a kid, he started drawing homemade comic books, together with his brother Charles, for the amusement of himself and his family. One of the characters he invented back then was Fred the Cat, named after the family's pet. Eventually, Fred became Fritz the Cat, one of Crumb's best-known characters.
Crumb left home in 1962, getting a job as a greeting card artist in Cleveland, Ohio. At the same time, he continued his comics, sending one to the public gallery section of Harvey Kurtzman's Help! Magazine. Encouraged by Kurtzman, Crumb moved to New York to work for Help! Unfortunately, this magazine folded just after Crumb returned from an eight-month stay in Europe. Crumb stayed in New York for a while, making comics trading cards for Topps Gum, among other things, and then returned to Cleveland.
I Remember the Sixties, from Wierdo no. 4, Robert Crumb, 1981
In January 1967, Crumb moved to California, where he did some comics for a magazine called Yarrowstalks. His work was so well received they asked him to do a whole comic book, and soon the first issue of Zap was ready. The publisher however disappeared with all of the original artwork. Crumb, who had not only saved xeroxes of his work, but was already halfway with the next issue of Zap, found Don Donahue and Charles Plymell willing to publish it. So it is that the material for the second Zap comic was published as Zap #1, after which the older material for the first issue was printed as Zap #0. All of these have become collector's items.
Zap Comix became a success, and soon other artists, like Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso and S. Clay Wilson, started contributing their work. Interest in Crumb's work resulted in 'Head Comix', a collection of his comics published by Viking Press, and a 'Fritz the Cat' book by Ballantine. Crumb also contributed to other publications from the underground movement, such as the East Village Other. When animator Ralph Bakshi turned to Crumb to make Fritz the Cat into an animated movie, Crumb eventually agreed, but soon became exhausted with the pressure and left it to his wife, Aline Kominsky, who signed the contract. Crumb hated the film so much that he killed off Fritz once and for all in a strip in The People's Comics.
The end of Fritz the Cat
Eventually, Robert Crumb and his family moved to France, where they still live today. The creator of unforgettable characters such as Mr. Natural, Mr. Snoid, Angelfood MacSpade and Devil Girl still has a tremendous production, which has been collected in many books. He has worked on a series of comic books with Charles Bukowski in the 1980's, produced a book on Kafka with David Zaine Mairowitz and also illustrated several issues of Harvey Pekar's 'American Splendor' series.
Especially worth mentioning is his outstanding comics biography, as well as 'The Complete Crumb' series by Fantagraphics, with each volume introduced by the artist himself. Robert Crumb regularly contributes to Mineshaft magazine, and he works together with his wife on 'Self-Loathing Comics' and work published in The New Yorker.
Mr. Natural, by Robert Crumb
In 2009, W.W. Norton & Company published his graphic novel version of the 'Book of Genesis', which contains an annotated and literal adaptation of the first book from the Hebrew Bible. Unlike Crumb's other work, the book was not satirical or psychedelic, but did contain graphical depictions of sexuality. A collection of the comics created by Robert Crumb and Aline Kominski during the period 1974-2003 was published in 2012 under the title 'Drawn Together'.
From Crumb's Book of Genesis
Crumb is also a talented musician. He plays banjo and mandolin, and has performed with R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders and Eden and John's East River String Band. He has also illustrated a great many album covers, including 'Cheap Thrills' by Big Brother and the Holding Company and the compilation album 'The Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead'.
In recent years, Crumb has been the subject of so many biographical and bibliographical works - Terry Zigoff's moving biopic film, Monte Beauchamp's 'The Life and Times of R. Crumb', Peter Poplaski's 'The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book', and the Robert Crumb letters in 'Your Vigor for Life Appalls Me' - and has established himself as the great name in the underground comix scene. 'Crumb, From the Underground to Genesis', an extensive exhibition covering nearly five decades of his work opened at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in April 2012.
Left: photo of the young Robert Crumb, left: Kees Kousemaker and R. Crumb at Lambiek in 1995