Monday, 2 September 2013

Hey, Cartoonist!

Last week saw the 70th birthday of Underground Comix legend Robert Crumb, master of hilarious, perverted, crazy, borderline insane, subtle, life-like and musical comics - using often many of these stylistic choices in the same strip. That's why I thought it would be kind of cool to pay tribute by taking a look at two comic book movies about underground artists - one a documentary, one fictional, that's still a part documentary. Crumb is of course featured in both of them.

I got to say, I'd like to see more underground comic book movies. Let's hope someday the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers stop motion animation movie Grass Roots will be completed.

USA, 1994
Dir. Terry Zwigoff

Terry Zwigoff's extensive R. Crumb doc is held in high esteem, and for a good reason. Not only does it provide insight on the mind of an artist, it also features characters colorful enough that the feel like they would've jumped out of Crumb's own comix. The most interesting ones are Robert's two eccentric brothers, Charles and Maxon, reclusive and tragic figures who resemble some aspects of their brother and his neuroses, but whose life took to entirely different paths. The film is called Crumb and it certainly doesn't just refer to the famous one, but the whole family.

The movie is dedicated to the memory of Charles Crumb, who died prior the release, but is interviewed here. He had immense artistic talent as a young boy, maybe even moreso than his brother. His odd obsessions with Treasure Island are dealt with, as well as his more and more obsessive behavior, which results to his art getting too experimental for its own good. Interviewed here, Charles is a husk of a man, a mama's boy who never managed to become his own man. It's tragic that a promising artist never takes off, and doubly so if it results in bitterness and melancholy for the rest of his life.

The film was not an easy shoot, and took six years to make. Zwigoff had stress about funding, but his friendship with the main character helped to pull him through. It also shows on the screen. R. Crumb himself is also a bit of an introvert, and probably wouldn't have been as open with another director. But here he is frank and honest about his work, process and life in general.

And also that time he posed with women for a porn magazine shoot.

We deal with the most famous R. Crumb comix and characters pretty quickly. The film is driven more by the character, a constantly doodling gawky jazz-fan, who views the modern life and pop culture in general more or less with contempt. Crumb's sex drive is also discussed, and his most controversial works are shown in a new light. Art critics, feminists, peers, fans and journalists discuss their merits, but there's no conclusion. It doesn't feel like a fan film, and I would imagine it to be interesting even to people who don't care that much about comics, underground or not. Go check it out.


American Splendor
USA, 2004
Dirs. Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

Crumb also does collaborations from time to time, and the most famous of these is illustrating the scripts written by his friend, the bitter file clerk Harvey Pekar. His comics always tell about one thing and one thing only: Harvey Pekar. Pekar is a complete contrast to your superheroes or high adventurers of typical comics, as he lives a somewhat mundane life and just does observations and musings on that. He does manage to make good humor out of that, and make his ordeals feel identifiable. The title American Splendor may be ironic, but in some ways, it is also perfectly apt.

Pekar is the furthest from being a sell-out cartoonist this side of Bill Watterson. The film feels like his story, in that it's your regular A-B-C life story. The basics are there, but in addition to that, there are small skits from the pages of the comic, animated sequences, the viewpoint goes over to his nerdy friend Toby for a while, and most confusingly, there are documentary bits with the real-life Harvey Pekar and his wife. These scenes have some retrospective views on the things just shown in the main storyline. Most of the movie Harvey's being played by Paul Giamatti.

The comics in this film are an outlet for the neurotic Giamatti to let off some steam and come to terms with things. A key scene features Harvey and Toby (Judah Friedlander) arguing over the merits of the college comedy Revenge of the Nerds. Do the downtrodden need a story which allows them to be the heroes for one day, even if the movie is by-the-numbers lint? Is the need to identify oneself so strong? (For the record, I like Revenge of the Nerds)

This gives an idea of a chaotic film, but there is weird synchronicity here. The grumpy Pekar just does his thing, bit by bit. That's why he wouldn't want to have a moral on his story, but the film does make one. Even though life may seem boring, chaotic, unobtainable and hard, looking at the long run, all the various patches and places do form some sort of a story. It may not be a grand, adventurous story of making a change or doing something spectacular, but then most of us are everymen. It is interesting to hear about another one once in a while. Particularly if the movie is funny to boot. Which this is.


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