“‘No matter where you point your toes while squatting, your quads are always worked the same,’ quoth this cheerful, self-confident young bodybuilder. And what an inspiring vision to the artist.”
— R. Crumb, Art & Beauty Magazine, issue two
For most of his 62 years, Robert Crumb drew cartoons of knock-kneed milquetoasts making whoopee with the buxom. His LSD-fuelled comics were orgies of sex and satire drawn disarmingly cute, in a style that fused early Disney with 19th-century illustrators like John Tenniel. He made “Keep on truckin'” a catchphrase and became an icon to hippies and outcasts.
His eminence has endured — his topicality has not. The swipes at youth culture in his recent comics and illustrations are, to put it delicately, misguided. A 2002 strip called “The Hipman” features a seedy homunculus who spouts mock Ebonics (“He’s m’man! I love ‘im! He’s one a’ my killas!”) while making devil horns with his fingers. Not the most trenchant digs.
But Crumb fans take heart. Unlike his currency, his libido has not gone gentle into that good night. Bottled up in his rural French chateau, Crumb speckles the public with artwork at his leisure — here a New Yorker cover, there an issue of his other comic book, Mystic Funnies. Precious little of it tingles with the lecherous charge of his early work. Incongruously, it’s in a book called Art & Beauty Magazine, a quasi-comic serial he’s drawn at a tranquilized pace since 1996, that Crumb follows his viscera; and it guides him to some of the best work of his career.
Part stroke book, part textbook, A&B, according to its cover, seeks “to render and glorify the life of today” (a quote from Italian futurist Umberto Boccioni). Its drawings boil with carnality; not the leering-old-man variety but the vigorous red heat of lust in full flower. “The beautiful feminine champions of sport as seen every day in magnificent action in the mass media are inevitably a source of inspiration to the artist,” Crumb writes in issue two, “… [and] are also, it must be said, one of the more positive phenomena of this ‘post-modern’ age.”
He’s describing such milk-fed madonnas as the “cheerful, self-confident young body builder.” She has a barbell over her shoulders and a taut smile unzipped across her face. But it’s her legs, dunes of muscle, pulsating mid-squat. They’re cause for rejoicing.
Sure, Crumb has drawn legs before. Forests of them, in fact; hulking, columnar shanks supporting prodigiously fertile torsos. In one infamous cartoon, which failed to endear him to the era’s feminists, he reduced a woman’s essential features to a pair of fleshy legs holding up a vagina. To call his fixation a fetish is to understate his singleness of purpose, the sheer number of times he’s returned to this subject with renewed vigour. Even the cars he draws seem engorged with powerful girl energy.
But this? It’s the work of a master savouring the fermented sap of a life-long obsession. Crumb has magnified the legs just enough to emphasize their musculature, which he’s carved with caressing strokes of his pen. One foot creeps seductively out of the frame, a running shoe and sock barely sketched — no time for trivialities. Her training shorts are likewise rushed, mere punctuation. His control is such that, in black ink on white paper, he can mimic the skin’s tawny glow, with its streaks of platinum glare.
For the background, Crumb unveils a new technique in his repertoire. He suggests gym equipment and a trainer through a downpour of hatching. All is unfocused, a blur. It sinks behind the bold subject into a vague semi-distance, creating the illusion of three dimensions, that grail of draftsmen since time immemorial. Here is a ripe expression of Crumb’s tastes. A masterpiece, in other words.
Throughout the books, his women are flanked by the words of William Blake, Marcel Proust and others, jewels of sagacity (or pomposity) on art, perception and life. Issue two has Venus Williams in her catsuit, coiled for an overhand volley, the racket dangling tantalizing behind her gelid rump. Occasionally, Crumb will add his own thoughts. “A highly satisfying challenge for the artist’s skills,” he says of Williams. Though coyly written in the third person, these quips show him basking in his achievements.
Which might be pathetic, even tragic, if he weren’t so good. A virtuoso. The portraits are photo-realistic but “cheated” to bring out the curves. They condense the pounding lust of his best work, the passion for mass and texture, and expose it without the veneer of shame or contempt. These women are not the vulture-headed demonesses his comic stand-ins quaked before. They are goddesses, studiously, even reverently, attended. He doesn’t hide behind satire or self-loathing. He’s outgrown that.