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 His views on these matters are, to put it nicely, outdated.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