R. Crumb – That’s Life

Crumb’s comic That’s Life is the story about an African American man, Tommy Grady, in 1931 Mississippi who makes a blues record that, at the time, goes largely unnoticed.  Later on, a record collector finds it at the home of an old African American woman who is assumed to be the wife of Grady, and it blows up in popularity among collectors.  This comic can be found in the Brunetti Anthology on page 311.  I can only assume that the aforementioned record collector in That’s Life is, either Crumb himself, or the man whom the comic preceding That’s Life in the Brunetti Anthology (How I Quit Collecting Records and Put Out A Comic Book With the Money I Saved) is about.  This comic is illustrated by Crumb, but written by Harvey Pekar and is autobiographical.



We have talked at length about Crumb in class, and it is no secret that he has been criticized for his depiction of women and racial minorities.  His views on these matters are, to put it nicely, outdated.  Others are not so nice in their description of Crumb, and with good reason.  Nevertheless, the man has contributed to underground comics and comics at large irrespective of less desirable qualities he may possess.  However, this post is not arguing whether or not Crumb is racist or sexist in his comics, I think the answer to that question is fairly obvious.  The real question is, why?

There are, in my opinion, two possibilities for this answer.  The first: Crumb is simply a product of a bygone era and his comics reflect that; his critics would say this is correct and that he is a bigot.  The second possibility is more interesting, however.  Some would argue that Crumb, with his extremely politically incorrect depiction of race and gender, is in fact commenting on white male attitudes.  Does this argument hold water?  Let’s look at the first page of That’s Life.  We can see Tommy and his wife arguing, and then physically fighting over Tommy dipping into the ‘spirits’.  The artwork here very clearly caricaturizes the two African Americans, following prevalent stereotypes of the late 19th and early 20th century.  It is so extreme that I would venture it as a sort of satire, but for the fact it was created in 1975, and I am not so familiar with the possible attitudes toward a comic like this at that time.

With 3 full pages of the story of Tommy ending in his death, followed by a full page that serves only to tell the reader that Tommy wasn’t a success, and only a few panels dedicated to Tommy’s future popularity, I just don’t see on the surface how Crumb is displaying anything other than historical insensitivity.

Does anybody have any thoughts on this?

Am I on the right track?

Or am I completely wrong?  Is Crumb really making a larger commentary on society?

– Dylan Rama

Image retrieved from: http://www.henniker.org.uk/html/RobertCrumbDrawsBlues.htm

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5 Responses to R. Crumb – That’s Life

  1. samanthabotros34 says:

    I think it’s very difficult to consider why a person is the way they are, and trying to figure it out can be very problematic. None of us really know Robert Crumb personally, and for all we know, he could be very misunderstood: maybe he satirizes old conventions (albeit, this is probably not true) to propel a pro rather than anti mission. Further, I found this quote by our sexist, racist, misogynistic friend: “I do this stuff, and then I’m horrified and embarrassed when I see it on the paper, and I say, ‘Oh, my God,’ but somehow I can’t stop doing it,” Crumb says. “I have this hostility toward women,”–Crumb doesn’t even know why he does the things he does, so it’d be pretty hard for us to piece together a guy who causes himself confusion.

  2. Rachel Hambidge says:

    Great post! I think you question some very interesting issues. I also think it is very difficult to understand why Crumb is the way he is. It is possible that he is making a larger commentary on society but I think this is something that none of us could really argue without truly knowing who he is.
    After I watched the documentary on the life of Robert Crumb i’m not sure if I truly felt like I knew him anymore compared to having not watched it. It is clear that Crumb and the rest of his family are very deranged and are all quite narcissistic. Crumb is portrayed as an obvious womanizer and didn’t portray any true emotions. In the documentary he mentioned that he decided to “reject conforming when society rejected me”, maybe these comics and the issues that are portrayed in his comics are just ways to shock society as a result of his misunderstood teenage years? Or maybe it’s best that the world doesn’t know what possesses someone to create comics that are often very sexist and racist, because I doubt we would like the answer.

  3. mflittle says:

    It could really go either way due to Crumb’s well known attitude towards gender and minorities, and like you said, without knowing the attitudes of the time frame towards a comic such as this it’s hard to determine if it was just satire or genuine bigotry. I would argue that it does stem from Crumb’s own bigotry, but is intended to be viewed as a satire. Perhaps it was used as a way for Crumb to express his bigotry while hiding it in plain sight within a satire.

  4. S. Simpson says:

    Not a bad person. If black people didn’t act like this and didnt reflect behaviors in reality and rap videos that are exactly like his work then he wouldn’t have portrayed them as such.

    • Giovanni Theodore says:

      The post wasn’t discussing whether or not he was a bad person. It was discussing his works and his motivation. Whether or not he was being satirical or just a plain racist bigot.

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