|CULTURE & SOCIETY
COMIC CON INDIA
Keep on Truckin’
Robert Crumb’s cult began in the flower-power 60s, where his iconic imagery became one of the cornerstones of that era’s movement. He’s the founder of Zap Comix, and created characters such as Fritz the Cat, and remains a controversial figure because of his sexist, often misogynist depiction of women. He’s in town for the 2nd Comic Con India Festival. Shone Sathish Babu talks to the icon who wonders about the reaction of the present day reader to his works.
Illustration: Samia Singh
Robert Crumb is a ‘legend, out there’ in the comic book universe, but Delhi wasn’t so forthcoming in its welcoming of this icon. Sure, the lack of football-stadium-size crowds that usually throng a notoriously private Crumb was probably a relief to the 69-year old prolific artist and his artist-wife Aline Kominsky Crumb, who’re in the Capital as guests of the Comic Con India festival. However, not knowing the granddaddy of this underground comic book cult is rather surprising for a country that furtively loves to consume fetishist porn, as revealed by the smug statisticians at Google Co. Disturbing as it may seem, Crumb’s portrayal of women as degraded objects – headless or head stuck in a toilet pot – would, at least, warrant some cognition from the masses, of a cult dude who at least provokes, if not downright descend into pornography? Either that or it says a lot about the stage we’re at in global comic book dominance.
The Comic Con India festival was flagged off on Thursday with an awards ceremony. A ceremony that, without the one-sided earnestness of the organisers, would have remained a self-aggrandising festival of publishing houses and their CEOs.
It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Crumb’s presence was the lone source of delight at the ceremony. More tantalising, than delight. The fact that most attendees didn’t have much of a clue about Crumb’s credentials was probably a good thing. The sparse attention brought out the most affable part in Crumb. His wife, a graphic novelist herself, was actually grateful to be spared the mob-frenzy that her husband’s public appearances are normally associated with: “The last time, there were like 25,000 people lunging for the stage and I personally had to sign a few hundred autographs and portrait-scribbles.”
Usually reticent and known for keeping the media at a reasonable arm’s-length, Crumb was just happy to hear that people in this side of the world even managed to read graphic novels: (But how would you guys react to the explicit stuff in my books?) He was also impressed by the Internet, something he has earlier called the scourge of modernism in its role in taking the underground to various places. Even as far as India.
The duo enthusiastically fielded queries, scribbled in fan-books, accepted a generous gift of a 78-rpm record from a devoted fan, and even perused through TEHELKA illustrator’s sketchbook while waiting for the awards ceremony to begin. In between, they spoke of their work, legacy, the Indian comic scene, and Bugs Bunny, who apparently turned a five-year-old Crumb on.
Excerpts from an interview:
Any special reasons for coming to India?
Robert Crumb: We came not just for the invite, but also because my wife has been raving about India for ages. She’s not new here, so I’m hoping to have a good time.
Why is the trope used in graphic novels, especially in the West, autobiographical in nature?
RC: That’s an interesting question and I really don’t know the true answer. Growing up in the 60s, there was this tremendous temptation to be liberal with your expression. It was also about asserting your identity, whether it was ethnic or cultural or artistic. A lot of us felt that there was a story everyone could relate to, even though it was about our personal lives…
Aline Kominsky Crumb: I actually wrote one of the first autobiographical accounts by a woman, in a comic form (Goldie: A Neurotic Woman). The truth is, it was an experimental era back then and graphic novels were making a transition from fantasy and super-hero comic books to the more nuanced stuff of these days. I felt people would want to read about the everyday stories, the little aspirations of trying to lose weight, or self-loathing and other real issues.
What led you to illustrate the first book of the Bible?
RC: I am interested in historical accounts, and I do like reading up scholarly work. The Mesopotamian/Sumerian era intrigued me and I figured Genesis would be a good place to start. The challenge was to see how I’d fare in adapting something that is, sort of like a foundational script of Western Civilisation. It’s a very neutral account, you don’t see any more than what you get to read in the Bible. Of course, it’s very explicit with all those crazy sexcapades, but I have been faithful to the original text. I used both a Jewish Torah version and the King James Version.
What’s the reason for the overt sexual imagery in all your (other) works?
RC: I guess I don’t know. I had this strong compulsion to depict things a certain way. It wasn’t incidental, it was just compulsion. Maybe, if I went through intense psychoanalysis for 20 years, I’d have a clue.
AKC: But you’ve run out of time for that now.
RC: Yes, and sometimes I do wonder, looking back at my earlier works, what was I thinking. What will people think of them now or in the future?
AKC: Yeah, what would your grandchildren think?
The irony is that Robert Crumb is the poster child of an underground phenomenon that was crucial not just to the comic world, but to the arts scene as a whole. It wasn’t confined to cartoon panels or memoirs, but cast its influence on a huge band of artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers and even fashion designers. In India though, the comic culture is largely populist, as evidenced by the technocratic array of works produced in the last two years. The artist’s role here, going by the nominees short-listed for the awards, seemed reduced to that of a Photoshop-android – a technical virtuoso churning out picture perfect panels that only serve as a means, not even a simulacrum of an artistic end. It seems like our graphic novelists do not take inspiration from anything apart from other graphic novels, which probably explains the grease-monkeyish treatment of the plot, the writing, and even the image aesthetic.
And no, it definitely has nothing to do with that much-abused term: freedom of expression. Because even the mass-appealers come out poorly. What was the last pot-boiler graphic novel fiction that everyone was talking about? The marketplace of ideas in the graphic novel medium, it seems, is on an indefinite strike.
Anshumani Ruddra, author and game designer based in Bangalore, says this is because of the numbers: “The Indian comic book industry, just like its parent company, the book industry, follows Sturgeon’s law that 90 per cent of everything is crap. So to leave a mark, or create a momentum, we need a couple of thousand new titles to see a fair amount of decent stuff.” Unfortunately, the number of graphic novels that have come out in the last four years has not even crossed 100. Ten percent of that is occupied by the likes of Sarnath Banerjee and Amruta Patil. But the rest is all, as they say, et cetera.
The covers of some of the ‘award-winning’ novellas were so utterly bland in originality and totally fulsome in their garishness, that only a sheer lack of anything better entitled them to their respective awards. It’s not that the comic industry in India is at a nascent stage. What we see is not slow progress but a corruption of what it used to be: a fun-filled, entertaining, imaginative account of various original stories. According to Ruddra, it’s a myth that people have moved on to other sources of entertainment. “Children are always fascinated by comics, and I’d blame the publishing industry for not keeping up with the times and using unique marketing skills to lure them all in,” he says.
As is often the case with the arts, there is no good or bad stuff. It’s all relative. One extraordinary piece of art, or book, or film won’t do what hundreds of moderately exciting works will accomplish. For that you need numbers, and the Comic Con fest is an attempt to make that happen.
Editing by Karuna John