Essay for Graphic Texts

This is an essay I wrote for Anna Joy’s Graphic Texts class.

Life Sucks, Then You Die: The Comics of Robert Crumb and Mark Beyer

            Comic strips are not the first medium that jumps to mind when trying to communicate the sorrows of the world. And yet both Robert Crumb and Mark Beyer create strips that speak straight to the soul of the urban wretch. Crumb’s bevy of twisted characters and Beyer’s unlucky couple Amy and Jordan provide points of comparisons between these two brilliant artists, a label that should be used with caution since both are anti-artists if anything and would mock a critic for days for even suggesting such a description. Both Crumb’s and Beyer’s work are comparable in their distinctly grimy visual style, emphasis of the awfulness of modern urban society, and existential probing into the artist’s own psychology and relationship to the public.

Both Crumb and Beyer are self-taught artists. This lack of formal tradition comes through in the frenzied quality of their line work. This is not to suggest, however, that the drawings of either artist are in any way mediocre. Indeed they are some of the most beautifully laid out and executed pieces of art found in comics. Crumb worked as an illustrator at American Greetings, a large greeting card company for some years before his fame (Crumb et al. 112). Both his illustrations and comic strips buzz with textural complexity. Each surface of a scene is packed in with so much impeccable hatching and stippling that the entire frame seems to vibrate. The repeated hatch marks also impart a sensation of smuttiness, of the city’s literal and metaphorical soot coating its inhabitants.

Despite his lack of formal training, Crumb’s characters are well formed and round, keeping at once with the traditional “cute” comic aesthetic as well as introducing a hallucinogenic “warped” one. He is also a master of body language and facial expressions. In “The Unbearable Tediousness of Being,” the characters remain tightly in their seat for nearly the entire strip, yet the subtle movement of an eyebrow indicates a completely new emotion. The colors he uses are garish and bright, like a room illuminated by ugly fluorescent lighting. Overall, the visual effect is of uncomfortable tension—exactly what the storyline demands. It is no surprise then that Crumb became an American sensation with various galleries setting up shows of his work, in part due to his controversial themes but also by virtue of his excellent drawings.

Beyer’s aesthetic is flatter than Crumb’s and more simplistic in its shapes, but much more complex in its obsessive rendering of patterns commonly found in art brut, or outsider art. The neurotic marks seem almost pathological; they make the skin crawl and suggest a psyche close to snapping. His character design is never constant. Amy and Jordan look either slightly off or completely different from panel to panel like a shifting mirage. Scott McCloud claims that “symmetry is the natural order of things, we tend to react to feelings of discontent by miming with out bodies that something is figuratively “off-balance”…without that symmetry, the sender’s self-image can start to look more like self-loathing” (McCloud 109). Beyer’s complete disregard for symmetry does indeed give the strip a feeling of emotional instability. The perspective is always a bit distorted and varies dizzyingly from panel to panel so the reader has the vertiginous sensation of watching a scene from a roller-coaster.

As strange as his drawings are, it is Beyer’s gorgeous layouts that make his strips so interesting. Almost completely forgoing traditional rectangular box panels, Beyer creates elaborate shapes within which to have his stories play out. The geometric patterns start to take on a visual rhythm evocative of tribal African art and cubism. In one strip, the panels are inserted into ocean waves while in another they are depicted within the feathers of a bird, creating the illusion of a collage. The surprising layouts undercut the morbidity of Beyer’s themes and add an element of beauty to the otherwise grotesque depictions of pestilence and death.

Crumb’s dreary existence in Cleveland, Ohio made a big impact on his opinion of urban life. He hated the way his own life was heading, being stuck in a job where “almost everybody who worked there was depressed and alcoholic” (Crumb et al. 124). So he moved to San Francisco and started dropping acid—an experience that took his mind into a place “that was very electrical and crackly, filled with harsh, abrasive low grade, cartoony, tawdry carnival visions. There was a nightmarish mechanical aspect to everyday life” (Ibid 132). During this period he developed some of his most infamous and controversial characters like Mr. Natural, Angelfood McSpade, The Snoid, and The Devil Girl. Crumb’s characters exaggerate stereotypes to such an offensive scale that the social message becomes our own bodily reactions: outwardly repellant but on some level, strangely attracted.

One strip entitled “Joe Blow” is about a happy bourgeois family who all end up having sex with one another. The graphic pictures create a weird disconnect with the Beaver-Cleaver-ish text. The strip ends with a fascistic image of the beaming parents saying “Yes, youth holds the promise of the future!” Another strip shows Angelfood McSpade, a naked “darky” icon of the kind commonly used in advertisements in the early 20th century, happily singing and dancing while white men scheme to take advantage of her raw sexuality. The reader is at once disgusted at the blatant racism and yet conflicted in the identification of that racism. Therein lies the amazing thing about Crumb—he can easily be a racist sexist pervert, and actually admits to being one, but not before he shows us that we are all those things on some level. He does what Alan Moore’s version of a successful writer does: “You fascinate the reader with your first sentence, draw them in further with your second sentence and have them in a mild trance by the third…then having surrendered themselves to it, you do them terrible violence with a softball bat and then lead them whimpering to the exit on the last page” (Moore 17). Likewise, Crumb’s bleak vision of the urban world filled with scheming businessmen, be-boppin’ Negroes, and omnipresent sexual violence never manages to lose its comic edge and forces the reader to continue till the end.

If whimpering readers are a mark of a good comic, then Beyer’s Amy and Jordan wouldhave to be in the Hall of Fame. The ridiculous cruelty of their urban setting and each character toward the other is at once hilarious and depressing in its honesty. In one strip Jordan wishes he could use Amy like a dishrag and throw her away when he’s done. “I know what I’m saying is terrible, but that’s how I feel,” he says while he wrings out her limp body. The acknowledgement of our terrible desires is what links Beyer and Crumb together and creates such emotionally compelling strips. Each of Beyer’s stories end with a beautifully straightforward gem of reality, like “Enjoyment is limited by the constraints of the flesh,” and “We’re no better than anyone else. We’re kidding ourselves if we think any differently.” The humor in the pieces comes from the Pollyanna-ish tendency of the characters to look for the bright side in morbid situations. For example, a hot day prompts Amy and Jordan to hang a man with slashed wrists from his window so his blood can cool off the neighborhood kids. Another story features a swarm of flies that dry off the sweat from Jordan’s face and also provide a tasty snack in their subsequent death. On one hand, the childish drawings and gross humor make the stories seem as if they are written by a middle-school misfit. On the other, much more elegant hand, the existential gloom and snarky humor “reads like Sartre doing The Lockhorns” (Arnold). McCloud states that “no matter how abstract or stylized a piece of art is, if it displays that basic arrangement, humans will see themselves in its features” (McCloud 60). The absurdly scary situations that Amy and Jordan get into are abstracted on many levels but nonetheless are realistic enough for the reader to see herself in their dilemmas.

Both Crumb and Beyer address their problems with fame—the former uncomfortable with the amount of attention he begins to get in the media, the latter heartbroken by his unsympathetic public.

Works Cited

Arnold, Andrew D. “1 BR; Rats; Near Downtown—$2400”. Time.

http://www.time.com/time/columnist/arnold/article/0,9565,685285,00.html.

Breyer, Mark. “Amy and Jordan”.  McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue 13.

McSweeneys Global Enterprises, Inc. San Francisco, California. 2004.

Crumb, Robert. Poplaski, Peter. The R. Crumb Handbook. MQ Publications Ltd. London,

2005.

McCloud, Scott. Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga, and Graphic

Novels. Harper Collins. NewYork, 2006.

Moore, Alan. Writing for Comics. Avatar Press Inc. Illinois, 2008.

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