Crumb: Beauty and Failure

Posted by on July 19th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

©1996 Robert Crumb.

You may know Artsy Fartsy, Robert Crumb’s beautiful hippy-boy character with the flowered shirt and the flowing brown hair parted down the middle. I don’t think he ever got too much work from Crumb, certainly less than the girl you see there with him. (Her name is Asper Oggus. She was Artsy’s female counterpart and a minor supporting player in the Crumb repertory group.) But he was front and center for a 1969 strip all about his horrible problems with flatulence. It was humiliating for the poor, floppy-haired bastard. Crumb, of course, considers himself an ugly man, and he’s never liked the sort of fellow who typically wows the chicks.

Editor and designer Peter Poplaski may have noticed a resemblance between Artsy and the guy in “Stoned Agin!,” Crumb’s 1971 strip that shows the stages in the post-toke meltdown of a hippy’s head. At any rate, Poplaski positioned the two strips side by side in The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book. The hippy is more weathered than Artsy, and he’s wearing simple denim instead of his old flowered blouse. Still, he’s got the hair and the features, so that could be our man. Everyone was feeling pretty ragged about the counterculture by this point. It would make sense for Artsy to be showing a few miles.

Crumb himself was nearing the end of his own particular road with regard to drugs. To my mind, anyway, the experience shown in “Stoned Agin!” doesn’t look all that happy: bloodshot eyes, spasm-like smile, the collapse of skull, face, self. The emphasis in the title would be on “Agin,” or “again.” What was once transcendence had become a habit, a drag of a habit. I also have to acknowledge the possibility that the title is a pun, as in “stoned aging.” But I hope that’s not the case.

Now for something I find very odd. In Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, filmed at the start of the ’90s, Crumb sits for a chat in Haight-Ashbury. He talks about how the occasional “broken-down old hippy” will start talking to him, and he reminisces about how he just couldn’t cut it on the counterculture scene back in the old days. He tells us Janis Joplin once asked him, “Crumb, what’s the matter, don’t you like girls?” and then told him to get with the program and grow his hair long and wear billowy shirts and satin jackets and platform shoes. That is, to come on in a way that was more than a bit like Artsy. Presumably, Janis and Crumb spoke in 1968, when he worked on the Cheap Thrills cover. The Artsy Fartsy strip appeared in June 1969, so it’s possible Crumb had Joplin’s advice in mind when he drew it.

While Crumb tells us about her advice, we see a man sitting at a table some way behind him. The fellow isn’t young anymore and it looks like he’s had a rough time. The camera cuts to him as he gets a pet mouse out of his pocket and feeds the thing with a bit of lettuce, gives it a drink from his water glass. You look at him, or I did, and think, “The poor damn freak.” But he’s a good-looking fellow, beautiful even. In fact his hair and features suggest an aged, bedraggled, beat-up version of young Artsy from a quarter of a century back.

Personally, I can’t believe that Zwigoff and Crumb somehow set this up and then let the implications sit there to detonate. That would be too mind-bending, not to mention a bit silly. But, still, what a coincidence. The wheel turns, the last becomes first. The ugly creep sits up front to be lionized by the camera, and there in the background is his old enemy huddled with a white mouse.

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