What the Hell

Posted by on June 13th, 2010 at 4:43 PM

update, We were squabbling in comments about what Crumb meant in a paragraph I had taken from The R. Crumb Handbook. To provide context, I went back to the Handbook and found the paragraph that came immediately before the one I had quoted. I’ve now lined up the two paragraphs together, just the way they are in the Handbook.

So here is the complete package, plus a crossed-out sentence of my own writing that is no longer needed.

R. Crumb:

The best comics combine both powerful images and strong narrative. Most cartoonists are stronger in one or the other. Many artists with technical ability are good image makers, basically illustrators. Other artists have minimal art skills, but are good storytellers, with an understanding of plot structure, character development and dialogue. It’s rare to find in one artist both of these elements combined with equal strength.

From The R. Crumb Handbook by R. Crumb and Peter Poplaski, these thoughts by the grandmaster:

If you look at a comics page drawn by Jack Davis or at Wally Wood’s science fiction stuff, who cares about the narrative? But the artwork is wonderful, a true pleasure to the eye. What technique! With Charles Schulz or Jules Feiffer, it’s quite the opposite. The story’s great, but the artwork’s not much to look at. In comics there’s always this dichotomy.

Now the original post resumes with my cool, dispassionate response to Mr. Crumb’s thoughts:

What a stupid thing to say. Really, it’s a collection of stupid things. Charles Schulz and Jules Feiffer don’t have technique? Since when? They draw simply; that is not the same as drawing without subtlety, skill or (wait for it) technical command. Everyone knows that complication is not automatically better, that simplicity is not automatically worse. Everyone — from Harold Bloom to the people who write cover stories for Time Magazine. And everyone knows that Charles Schulz and Jules Feiffer draw brilliant pictures. You just have to look.

But Crumb just throws their names out there, casual examples of a spavined thesis. I say spavined because his underlying argument is rickety to the point of death. No, there isn’t always “this dichotomy” in comics. Some comics do indeed have good art and a good story. In fact, to draw really good comics you can’t just make the pictures nice-looking; you have to make them tell a story. First-rate comics art is, among other things, a first-rate narrative machine. He’s got to know that. So . . . what the hell?

Man, that guy. Always giving the song and dance about poor Mr. Downtrodden, but he opens his mouth and lets the pearls tumble before us. Can’t somebody tell him when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about?

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20 Responses to “What the Hell”

  1. patford says:

    That quote stuck in my mind as well.
    It could be Crumb is mainly talking about the ink-line/surface of the drawing.
    Crumb himself has a detailed inking style, and he has expressed admiration for the technique of an artist like Frazetta.
    Many people have an affection for old comic books which in many instances is limited almost entirely to the art work. They will pour over old silver or golden age comics, but not read the stories.
    Feiffer and Schulz don’t use much surface decoration. They employ a simple style.
    Personally my view is Schulz has a superb inking technique, which can only really be appreciated fully by looking at the original art.
    I like Feiffer’s drawings, but the surface doesn’t show a highly skilled pen or brush technique.
    There have been a host of cartoonists who have stressed the importance in comics of storytelling over a detailed drawing which might prove a distraction. Schulz, Toth, Sheldon Mayer, C.C. Beck, Roy Crane, Jack Kirby, and others have all commented on the importance of eliminating extraneous detail.
    In that sense Crumb is correct, the comics worth reading very often don’t have the look of a Joseph Clement Coll illustration.
    If you are just looking at the pictures, then it might be more fun for some people to look at Reed Crandall rather than Harvey Kurtzman.

  2. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    I suspect that if you spent an afternoon with Crumb, or with any opinionated person, they would eventually produce an opinion or two that you would not agree with or like.

    But in this case I think Crumb isn’t so much disparaging Schulz and Feiffer as pointing out that their cartooning doesn’t have that lush Wally Wood/Jack Davis technique.

    His choice of Wood and Davis is interesting. Both Wood and Davis are strong stylists with fantastic technique. A Davis or Wood strip, regardless of genre always looks terrific and instantly recognizable. But neither of them could have ever done anything like Peanuts.

    As I recall, in the Comics Journal Jack Davis interview he expressed tremendous admiration for Gary Larson, specifically citing Larson’s drawing ability!

  3. GeneHa says:

    You can learn a lot about an artist by how he criticizes other artists:

    “The story’s great, but the artwork’s not much to look at. In comics there’s always this dichotomy.”

    This obviously isn’t true of all comics. Lone Wolf and Cub. The Hunter. The Eye of the Storm. Marvels. Et cetera. Ad infinitum.

    But Crumb obviously thinks this of his own artwork. Does he think he sucks as a writer or an artist?

  4. Tom Crippen says:

    The thing is, Crumb is quite a good writer. I don’t think that side of his work gets talked about too much, but he has quite an ear and a good knack for prose.

    I love that line from his piece about old-style music (“Where Has It All Gone,” etc.) when the obnoxious schlockmeister talks about Benny Goodman, Sarah Vaughan and so on, and says, “This is the great music of America!” I don’t even disagree with the guy, necessarily, but the phrasing is so unctuous, so pseudo-profound. It’s a great touch.

  5. Kim Thompson says:

    Wow. Tempest, meet Teapot. To convert Crumb’s perhaps somewhat clumsily phrased comments into a dis of either Feiffer or Schulz takes a bit of an indignation-seeking leap. (Especially since I think that if pressed via a follow-up question, Crumb would probably prefer Schulz and Feiffer to Davis and Wood as cartoonists qua cartoonists.)

    I think it’s pretty indisputable that in the vast, vast majority of cases, the great comics are dominated to some degree by either the writing or the art. And saying that some comics’ unique brilliance comes predominantly from the conceptual/writing side (the minority, as it happens) certainly leaves one open to add, “…of course, they are also superbly drawn.”

    C’mon, admit it: If Schulz had drawn SALLY FORTH or Feiffer had drawn MALLARD FILMORE you wouldn’t have been clipping those strips. Conversely the worst-written piece of bilge drawn by Wood at the top of his form is probably worth having.

    Of course, there are some exceptions, cartoonists whose work seems to hit a perfect balance between writing and art. Walt Kelly, for instance.

    Or Robert Crumb.

  6. Tom Crippen says:

    “… saying that some comics’ unique brilliance comes predominantly from the conceptual/writing side (the minority, as it happens) certainly leaves one open to add, ‘…of course, they are also superbly drawn.’”

    That’s not an accurate paraphrase. Crumb said this: “the artwork’s not much to look at.” That phrase does not say the artwork is quite fine but that the comic’s unique brilliance lies in its ideas. It says that the artwork isn’t much to look at.

    Adding the words you imagine wouldn’t be a caveat, it would be a contradiction. Try lining them up, “not much to look at” versus “superbly drawn.” It’s quite a contrast.

    Might he have added the words you imagine? Sure. Would he have been likely to add them? Not at all sure. Can we assume that he believes them? No, not given what he said.

    My original post comes down to this: “What the hell was he thinking?” All right, you told me what you think he was thinking. But your version of Crumb’s thoughts turns out to be the opposite of what he said. In cases like this, we really need some evidence. Instead we have your view of which comics-related opinions are so self-evidently correct that they can be slotted in for whatever actual remarks some chump happened to make.

    FWIW I agree that the opinions you voice are correct. But we’re not talking about what you and I think. We’re talking about what Robert Crumb thinks. And, on this particular subject, we have only what he said.

    “Especially since I think that if pressed via a follow-up question, Crumb would probably prefer Schulz and Feiffer to Davis and Wood as cartoonists qua cartoonists.”

    The weird thing is that, in my hypothetical follow-up exchange with Crumb, he said I was completely right! The hypothetical Crumb seems a bit two-faced. I get the feeling he tells people what they want to hear. So the lesson here is to be very careful about what hypothetical people have to say when they get talking..

  7. Kim Thompson says:

    I think you’re spinning an awful lot out of five off-the-cuff words, “not much to look at.” (On a purely semantic level in terms of quantity of lines and detail to pore over, Crumb’s of course exactly right, there LITERALLY is not “much” to “look at.”) Illustrative work like Davis and Wood is “browsable” in a way that Feiffer’s and Schulz’s isn’t. Would I spend a couple of minutes staring at a really gorgeous Wood page? Yes. Would I do the same for Feiffer, or for Schulz? No, not really. In fact, I think Feiffer and Schulz are better artists than Wood, actually. (I think Johnny Hart’s a better artist than Wood, for that matter.)

    Some cartoonists would argue that actually the whole purpose of successful cartooning is specifically to NOT give readers too “much to look at” because if you’re looking at comics you’re not reading them. (MAUS is based on this principle: A “better” drawn MAUS with more to “look at” would be a less good book.) That would be an interesting discussing to spin off in. Although admittedly not as bloggably entertaining as calling one of the great cartoonists of his generation “stupid” and “a chump.”

  8. Tom Crippen says:

    Not five words, sixty words. There’s a plain meaning to “not much to look at,” and the passage where the phrase occurs suggests that this meaning was what Crumb had in mind.

    The alternative you suggest (that Crumb meant Schulz and Feiffer drew in a spare, uncluttered way) would be more plausible if Crumb, in setting up his contrast between Davis/Wood and Schulz/Feiffer, hadn’t described the former as “wonderful” and a “true pleasure to the eye.” If he had described the Wood/Davis work as “lush,” “detailed,” “lavish,” “extravagant,” any of those things — it would have helped a lot. The same if he had described the Schulz/Feiffer work as “spare,” “elegant,” or “understated.” In fact, if Crumb had said something quite different than what he said, your theory would be on much stronger ground.

    Again, if you have evidence, feel free to put it forward. The evidence we have right now doesn’t support you.

    As to this business about being “bloggably entertaining” — I think that’s what’s called an attack on motives.

  9. patford says:

    Out of curiosity I went to the Heritage Auction archive, and looked at some huge scans of Feiffer original art.
    They only have a few examples, but it all looks like it was inked with a marker. Feiffer’s line is expressive, but it isn’t the kind of thing you let wash over you.
    As pointed out by myself, and others it’s my take Crumb is saying good comics (which properly are something you read) most often won’t have an elaborately rendered surface like a Franklin Booth illustration.
    Jack Kirby: Drawing a good figure doesn’t make you a good comics artist. I can name you ten men, right off the bat, who draw better than I do. But I don’t think their work gets as much response as mine. I can’t think of a better man to draw Dick Tracy than Chester Gould, who certainly is no match for Leonardo Da Vinci. But Chester Gould told the story of Dick Tracy. He told the story of Dick Tracy the way it should have been told. No other guy could have done it. It’s not in the draftsmanship, it’s in the man.
    I feel that telling a story is no matter what kind of style you have is more important than having a nice drawing to look at. I don’t have to be Michelangelo to be effective.”

  10. Tom Crippen says:

    “it’s my take Crumb is saying good comics (which properly are something you read) most often won’t have an elaborately rendered surface like a Franklin Booth illustration.”

    But Crumb’s own comics go in for dense line work and visual detail. How do you reconcile that with your argument?

  11. patford says:

    Just most often, not always.
    I think Kim’s point that it’s a few words with no follow up are the nub of this. If Crumb had been drawn out more I think that point would have been more clear.
    I see the “not much to look at” as being literal (not a lot of rendering) rather than critical (the drawing is pffft).
    Aside from Crumb there are other exceptions; foremost George Herriman who’s drawings often look like Rembrandt etchings.
    Has there every been a cartoonist who rendered atmospheric effects with the diligence of Herriman?

  12. Caro says:

    I don’t know, guys; I don’t think you can get him off the hook by parsing “not much to look at” as “not a lot of rendering.” That doesn’t even match the tone let alone the letter of that passage Tom quotes. It specifically says “it’s quite the opposite,” right after “a true pleasure to the eye” and “what technique.” Crumb calls it a dichotomy. You can give him the benefit of the doubt that he meant something else, but Tom’s right: it’s not what he said.

    But I also agree with Kim that this:

    Some cartoonists would argue that actually the whole purpose of successful cartooning is specifically to NOT give readers too “much to look at” because if you’re looking at comics you’re not reading them.

    is by far the more interesting point. Especially to me in light of Matthias Wivel’s comment last week over at HU that he doesn’t “read” images. (I’d point you to the comment, which was really interesting, except I think it was eaten by the backup failure. At least, it hasn’t been restored yet that I can find.)

  13. Tom Crippen says:

    Patford, it sounds like you’re revisiting old ground. I’ll point you to my comment that starts “Not five words, sixty words.”

  14. Noah Berlatsky says:

    I don’t see how folks can read that as anything but a diss on the art of Schulz and Feiffer. Which like Tom I disagree with. Schulz draws beautifully — especially his earlier strips can take your breath away if you look at them for more than a second or two. I definitely prefer his art to Crumb’s I think.

    I’d agree though that Crumb randomly saying something dumb isn’t that big a deal…but I don’t think Tom really makes that big a deal of it. Short, stupid comment; short snarky blog post. Not a tempest in a teapot so much as a teapot in a teapot, really.

  15. Tom Crippen says:

    Hey, I agree with Noah. Except maybe “tea in a teapot.”

  16. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Well, it depends on what you’re looking for. “Tea in a teapot” is more logical and perhaps more eloquent. “Teapot in a teapot” is goofier.

    My hypothetical Charles Schulz when writing a hypothetical Peanuts cartoon would have used the hypothetical punchline “teapot in a teapot.” Thus a hypothetical victory for me!

  17. Tom Crippen says:

    My hypothetical Charles Schulz promised me 1% of his Met Life money.

  18. Kim Thompson says:

    “As to this business about being ‘bloggably entertaining’ — I think that’s what’s called an attack on motives.” Man, the snarkier the TCJ blogger, the glassier the jaw. (Hello, Noah!) Cry me a river.

    Although as someone who (corporately) is apparently now paying you to blog about anything that flits through your noggin including Lucille Ball, I would gently suggest that perhaps your commitment to providing interesting and site-relevant commentary is at the very least in a tight race with your quest for blogger bucks (meager as they are).

    Back to the matter at hand. It’s a silly argument. It’s daffy even on a basic semantic level to imply that Crumb claimed that Feiffer and Schulz didn’t have “technique” and then beat up on him for that. (Gene Ha’s implication that Crumb had said their art “sucked” is even dopier, a typical escalation of interpretation; three more posts and people will be claiming Crumb said Feiffer should be killed.) If I want to see someone tease an insult out of a remark and get all huffy about it I can watch cable news.

    It’s true that some of the 1950s PEANUTS Sundays are near-Walt Kelly level lush and gorgeous. But it’s also true that in terms of the whole package, as successful strips, none of them can hold a candle to the 1960s or 1970s done in Schulz’s “mature” style. No sensible person would say that Schulz’s later drawings are worse, or his “technique” an artist. On the other hand, if I was going to pause and soak in the drawings, I’d probably look more at the 1950s ones. And then if I made the mistake of saying I was enjoying the “technique” on display rather than their “lushness” or whichever Crippen-approved phrase applies, Tom could write another blog post about what an idiot I am for claiming 1950s PEANUTS are better than 1960s ones and that Schulz forgot how to draw.

  19. Tom Crippen says:

    “It’s daffy even on a basic semantic level to imply that Crumb claimed that Feiffer and Schulz didn’t have ‘technique’ and then beat up on him for that.”

    You don’t really say why my interpretation is daffy. In your final paragraph, you give an example of how a remark can be misinterpreted, but I don’t see where you make the case that I committed a parallel mistake. Yes, remarks can be misinterpreted. That doesn’t mean that any interpretation that you don’t like is going to be a misinterpretation.

    There’s one other thing I’d better address, namely this business about an “attack on motives.” Attacking someone’s motives isn’t necessarily a nasty, heinous thing to do, and I don’t think it was in your case. But most often such attacks are pointless. Either an argument matches the facts and holds together or it doesn’t. If someone wants to bring up a side issue, I’ll label it for what it is and move on.

    And if you have any evidence regarding Crumb and his views on Schulz, Feiffer, simple vs. complicated, etc., go ahead and add it to the mix.

  20. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “Man, the snarkier the TCJ blogger, the glassier the jaw. (Hello, Noah!) ”

    Yeah, well, sticks and stones may break my bones but snarky jibes will crack my face and leave me drowning in a pool of my own wretched bile.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go into the other room to lie down and stare at the ceiling and emit the occasional tortured “AUGGGGH!”