by Aline Kominsky Crumb
M Q Publications, 2007.
I was trying to think of a way to describe Aline Kominsky Crumb’s art, and then she went and described it perfectly herself:
I […] draw, erase, and scratch out some tortured looking image that clearly shows how much I am struggling with the medium. I honestly don’t think this makes my work less interesting, just very expressionistic and often very ugly.
In fact Crumb is so aware of her own work as an artist that I could skip reviewing the book and just pull quotes out of it to do the same job.
The book takes us through Crumb’s life, from birth to childhood to hippie-hood, to cartooning, marriage(s), motherhood, and moving to France, to the present, aged 58-59 at the time of the book’s release. But it’s not all comics, or even mostly comics. It’s comics, prose, paintings in various media, photos, collages featuring cheap plastic jewelry and Barbie dolls and glitter among other things, individual pages from longer comic stories, individual panels blown up (and colored after the fact?), occasional essays by friends and family, and even ends with an interview by her publisher.
I don’t know why more people don’t take this approach to memoirs. It’s especially interesting in Crumb’s case because we see her sometimes reiterate the same information in different ways with different effects.
The reason it’s important with her is because her approach to cartooning isn’t so much “warts and all” as “distill everything out except the warts.” The very first comic Aline ever published included a panel of her masturbating with fruit and being crushed by guilt! She says:
I was raised on a certain kind of Jewish fatalistic humor […] where you make fun of yourself, to make other people laugh. You exaggerate in a certain way, and it’s all to make a philosophical point, and also to get people to relax and respond to you.
And if you’re familiar with her at all then you know that she’s a beautiful woman who draws herself ugly. You might conclude it’s because she can’t draw, but looking at her paintings, she’s actually capable of “accurate” studies and beautiful landscapes and portraits. And, in one panel, at the request of a friend, she draws herself beautifully, and says: “Boys + men… this is what I really look like! That other hideous me is just how I feel about myself!” (In the early 70s, she rifted with the feminist underground comics movement: “they didn’t approve because I drew myself ugly and they all drew themselves as beautiful superheroes riding on white stallions.”) She often depicts her mother as some kind of fanged fiend as well, so don’t take the drawings too literally. My point is, I think she draws the way she does deliberately despite the raw appearance of her line work, and if she had drawn things “beautifully” they would have deadened the impact.
The opening chapter about her hellish youth and her insanely neurotic, hypocritical parents may be the most interesting, as Aline experiences growing up Jewish in Long Island. Her father may have had mob connections which she tries to discover more about with limited success. An argument at dinner leads to the table being violently overturned. Her mother demands she get a nose job. (She just barely escapes it, but everyone else in her school gets one.) At one point when she’s taking too long on her make-up, her father tells her “Ya can’t shine shit!” — an incident so painful that it is recounted four times in this book.
If you just read her comics, you might get the impression that she was an ugly girl who lived in complete hell. But in the prose pieces in this book, she laughs off her harrowing youth. We feel okay for her, she turned out all right. So we can laugh along with her, in a tragic-comic sort of way, and now her zest for life is insatiable! It creates a very fully rounded experience, and I can’t think of a better way to present her work. Comics-Aline is someone you cross the street to avoid. Prose-Aline is someone you invite over to dinner.
The book is kind of a companion piece to the R Crumb Handbook, which we discussed on this very website some years ago, but it is a far richer experience in every way. I also think the R Crumb Handbook kind of let us into his head. This book lets us into Aline’s life at all its stages. I was quite amazed by the clarity of her memory as well. I’m unable to reach that deep into those years, but as she herself says:
I felt like an alien in that Long Island environment where I grew up, and I always felt slightly removed from everything. So I think I chronicled everything because I felt like a witness in a certain way.
I love the way she captures vernacular dialog as well: “Arnie we gotta do something with that dawder of ours! For starters a nose job!! Ya wan’ hurh to get a decent husband??!” And her insider perspective on the underground comics scene of the early 70s should be of interest to anyone into comics.
My only complaint may be that there could have been a few more complete stories where Robert and Aline jammed on the comics, each drawing themselves. The complete 15-page “Euro Dirty Laundry” is included (in which Sophie Crumb also draws herself when she was 11!!), and it is an absolute rambling joy of a comic.
This is about as genuine a book as you can get — or at least I felt that way, no matter how distorted the comics had to be to get to Truth. It is a big, heavy 380-page hardcover. It’s got a whole vibrant life inside it, one that’s still being lived to the fullest. It’s the kind of book you get something different from depending on your age when you read it, but will always want to make you go out and live your life. “I have so far had an adventurous and richly fulfilling life and, now that I’m in my fifties, I feel so full of love that I am bursting with the desire to share it with you!” Aline says in the intro, and that is an offer that’s impossible to refuse.
(Note: The scans below were taken off the internet, as this book is too damn big to fit on my scanner. “Nose Job” actually appears in it in color.)
Kumar Sivasubramanian is the writer of Weird Crime Theater.