The LSD Affair

Robert CrumbThe last lecture we had in English 388 Dr. Beaty mentioned a celebrated cartoonist named Robert Crumb, who is referred to as “The Godfather of Comics”. He started taking LSD at the age of 22 and his whole outlook on cartooning changed forever: “I started taking LSD in Cleveland in June of ’65. That changed my head around. It made me stop taking cartooning so seriously and showed me a whole other side” (Crumb). Without this drug, Crumb would still be stuck drawing for the American Greetings Corporation and none of his beloved characters would have been discovered. He even credits using the substance for his new life, new friends and how he became “a legend”. So my question is: to become a memorable and celebrated cartoonist, does your imagination need to be as tripped out as Crumb’s?

Crumb’s first graphic novel was created in 1963 and was called The Yum Yum Book. It is a fragmented fairytale about a frog named Oggie who climbs a magic beanstalk, only to discover a female naked giant who wishes to devour the frog. The drawings are amusing and simplistic; emphasizing that this was Crumbs’ first work. The comic was not a giant success and Crumb went back to the drawing board.

Zap Comix 1

Two years later, Crumb began using LSD and discovered a new way to think and draw, “It was during that fuzzy period that I recorded in my sketchbook all the main characters I would be using in my comics for the next ten years; Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont, Schuman The Human, The Snoid, Eggs Ackley, The Vulture Demoness, Shabno The Shoe-Horn Dog, this one, that one … it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, like a religious vision that changes someones life” (Crumb). His comics took a new twist and he created an array of work, Zap Comix, Bijou Funnies, Motor City Comics, Fritz the Cat, etc. Several of his works feature sex, humour and a lot of obscure cartoons that he has taken out of his real life situations.

The Killing JokeSimilarly, there have been an array of cartoonists who have participated in drug abuse and have become celebrated with their trippy work. Most notably is Alan Moore, a British comic artist, best known for his series including Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Lost Girls and From Hell. He began working on poetry in his early youth and made small contributions to The Arts Lab. When he reached the age of seventeen, he began dealing with LSD and changed his vision and outlook on his cartooning style. “LSD was an incredible experience … but for me it kind of – it hammered home to me that reality was not a fixed thing. That the reality that we saw about us everyday was one reality, and a valid one, but there were others, different perspectives where different things have meaning that were just as valid. That had a profound effect on me” (Moore). While living in England, he felt that he was not fulfilling his love for his work and so moved to America. He began working for DC Comics, working on big name characters such as Batman, and Superman. During this period, Moore helped bring a great social respectability to the genre form. With the help of LSD, he has become one of the most prominent figures in the comic industry.

So again, the question remains… to become a memorable celebrated cartoonist, does your imagination need to be tripped out by drugs? I believe that craziness and drug use are requisite conditions for creative genius.

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6 Responses to The LSD Affair

  1. Mackenzie Strang says:

    Though I see a great deal of value in what you have to say, I think it’s a bit essentialist to say that in order to become a “memorable celebrated cartoonist”, one must be under the influence of psychotomimetic drugs. There are several brilliant artists in music, film, painting, drawing, comics, etc., that have been able to express themselves and display very unique forms of art without the use of drugs. In an interview, director Stanley Kubrick, was asked if he had experimented with hallucinogenic drugs, primarily because of the “psychedelic imagery” in his film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. He responded saying,

    “I certainly don’t think that drugs, which make everything seem more interesting than they might otherwise be, are a useful thing to the artist, because they minimize his powers of self criticism, or of trying to decide what’s interesting. If everything becomes interesting to you and your mind begins to echo and resonate by looking at a piece of cellophane, it becomes awfully difficult to make any valid, artistic decisions. I think that drugs will be more useful for the artist’s audience than for the artist.” (Kubrick).

    I agree with Kubrick, in that part of an artist’s job should be to sift out any ideas that are perhaps not as good as others, and to be a self-critic of ones own work. I feel that these important abilities would be diminished with the use of drugs. I believe that true artistic talent comes from a mind that is already very colorful and perhaps a little stranger than usual without the use of drugs. Claiming that talent is something that comes from drugs seems dismissive.

    All this being said, I think that this topic relies largely on the style of art. For example, it’s probably a better idea to be on LSD when creating abstract art, rather than a landscape painting. Obviously Crumb’s very eccentric style of comics benefitted from his LSD use, and that’s great, but I don’t necessarily think that artistic genius equates crazy, LSD inspired art. I think it is very much an individual matter, and that it is too much of a blanket statement to say that hallucinogenic drugs would have the same effect on, or improve every artist’s art.

  2. dcfoy says:

    I’m really glad someone posted about the relationship between LSD and Crumb’s career, I think it’s an interesting topic worth addressing given the psychedelic nature of many comics.

    I also don’t think that LSD or other psycho-active drug use are necessarily a “requisite condition for creative genius”. Like Mackenzie said, there are plenty of artists out there who seem to be able to create memorable work without such drugs. I myself have never used LSD but I wouldn’t say that it isn’t useful to artists, it could be extremely useful to artists. LSD affects everyone differently, in the case of Crumb, it seems to have provided him with a career-spanning list of characters which have given him substantial reputation.

    I believe the underlying issue has less to do with the impact of the drug and more to do with the decision to use it. The issue I would like to present to this subject is that if indeed Crumb’s inspiration came from LSD, is that ethical? Is the use of drugs in the competitive world of comic writing to achieve inspiration cheating yourself as an artist? Whether drugs are good or bad for comic writing is not the issue given its range of interpretations. If we attribute Crumb’s style to his LSD experience, is this devaluing him as an artist? Perhaps the use of drugs in the comic world is similar to the use of performance enhancing drugs in the sports world and a similar set of ethical considerations should be involved. (I know, this can’t be enforced!)

    ~dcfoy (Duncan Foy)

  3. Andrea Madsen says:

    Agreeing with MacKenzie here, but I’d like to throw in the examples of Harry Lucey, Carl Barks, and other creative individuals that are remembered and have fan-followings for their work. We can also look at the creators of Asterix and Obelix, whom, because of the time in which they were around, are excluded from the LSD trenD. LSD really only cropped up partway through this century,loose fact-checking telling me somewhere in the last sixty years or so. It really hit its peak trend in the 60’s, for reasons we are probably all at least vaguely familiar with. There are plenty of creative products that are immortal, memorable, and relevant that came about before LSD was even conceived.
    I’m thinking that LSD for that artist helped unlock some creative visions, that because invigorating for his audience because of the surreal flavour the author presented in conjunction to with their experience with LSD, but that drugs are not a “Pass Go, Become Memorable Artist” kind of situation. I’m going to suppose that the artist experiences creative inspirations. They probably are just that, experiences, moments that are brought on by life and the process of living it, or perhaps some trippy little pink pills that they decided to try out one fateful Friday evening. Regardless of which, it’s an internal engine, not an external one that determines what the artist can contribute and where their legacy goes from there.
    That said, I’m also going to try to counter your use of Alan Moore’s drug habits as a purely beneficial process. I find it very hard to believe that he even thinks so. We can take what he has said directly about his experience with LSD, but I don’t believe it is the only way to have a similar revelation. I’d be inclined to believe that Moore is not an advocate of LSD use, as opiates and other drugs are depicted in a rather uncomplimentary light in Lost Girls. To flesh that statement out, if you all aren’t familiar, Lost Girls is basically what happens when Alan Moore decides to write a porno and have it star Wendy, Dorothy, and Alice of childhood fairy-tale fame. In his rendition however, they are sexually frustrated adult women, each recounting to each other the eerily-familiar tales of how they have gotten to be where they are. most notably, Alice’s past is tremendously affected by drugs, the use of which resulted in her molestation and rape on more than one occasion. The rest of her stories centre around the events that she depicts as knowingly depraved, but she could not help herself from partaking in. At the end of it all, the characters unite in coming to terms with those pasts, but I find it leaves a negative light on, at the very least, Alice’s introduction to the drug world and the damage that it wrought. I find it pretty hard to believe that Moore would lent his success to LSD when he depicts in such a way.
    Rebuttals welcome!

  4. hannahcritchley says:

    I’m glad my post started this debate! I find all your comments really interesting. I never said drugs were a “past-go” to becoming a memorable artist. What I was saying, for these two gentleman, in particular, they have pretty much stated that their creative work became a lot more celebrated after they used LSD and were able to create ideas and visions that they had not been able to formulate prior. It had a “profound effect” on Moore, and in juxtaposition, Crumb states that it was a “religious vision” for him in using the drug. When stating that I believe craziness and drug use were requisites; I was stating that LSD was needed for Crumb and Moore.
    Mackenzie, I agree with your last statement. These two “comic” artists, in particular, needed abstract art. Crumb and Moore’s style did benefit from this drug. I’m not stating that every artist needs it: but there are a significant amount of famous musicians, artists, actors, creators, etc… that have used drugs to help move them forward in the world. Here is a list I found of a significant amount of famous people that have used drugs:

  5. nsbarzella says:

    I think your blog post brings up an interesting point about the use of drugs as a way of artistic expression. Another famous cartoonist that also used drugs during his career was Vaughn Bode. Bode like Crumb were apart of the underground comics. Bode said that some of his inspiration came from Crumb, graffiti and Disney. Bode said that “drawing was a way of escaping”. Like art, drugs are another form of escapism, many artist use both to escape the world around them and have created some of the most well known are pieces to this day. One of Bode’s most well known comic is Cheech Wizard. Cheech wears a giant hat and all you see are his big red feet, he is always on the look out for alcohol, drugs, women and parties. Attached is a link of a short interview of Bode as he draws Cheech.

    (Natalia Sbarzella)

  6. jaygervais says:

    I’ve noticed that many influential artists have found some inspiration through LSD and other hallucinogens, and some even claim this to be the source of their success. One of my favorite theorists for example, Aldous Huxley is renowned for his experimentation with LSD and mescaline. In Huxley’s essay “The Doors of Perception,” he gives a first hand account of his experience with Mescaline as the subject of a psychological study. Huxley describes his perception of the world under the influence of mescaline as a valuable awakening, claiming, “[m]escaline raises all colors to a higher power and makes the percipient aware of innumerable fine shades of difference, to which, at ordinary times, he is completely blind” (Huxley 27). Huxley then goes on to compare his insight to the beauty captured by artists such as “Wordsworth’s daffodils,” which he explains as a “manner of wealth—the gift, beyond price, of a new direct insight into the very Nature of Things” (28). Like Huxley, many artists seem to find LSD and similar substances very inspiring towards their work, and it seems plausible that it is due to drug use that many extraordinary pieces of work exist.

    If hallucinogens create can open our eyes to normally overlooked details, there is no doubt that these substances are probably used by many famous artists searching for innovative techniques. These substances seem to be a primary influence of many artists, including comics such as Gary Planter and R Crumb. In my opinion, psychedelics have allowed comics to develop into what they are today by providing these artists with alternative outlooks on life.

    -Jay Gervais

    Works Cited
    Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. Harper Perennial: New York, 2009. Print.

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