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excellent writing
exceptional art
historical bonus 4
total score 9
big ass comics 1 _ big ass comics 2
Big Ass Comics #1
Big Ass Comics #2
Big Ass Comics

1969-1971 / Rip Off Press - Last Gasp

Robert Crumb had already produced or contributed to a multitude of comics in 1968 and early '69, including three issues of Zap Comix and the smut digests Snatch and Jiz, not to mention all the stuff he did for tabloids (like Yarrowstalks and the East Village Other) and magazines like Help! and Cavalier. While underground comics had brought Crumb considerable social and financial status, he also endured quite a bit of criticism for his chauvinism and outright hostility towards women.

After the hyper-smut content of the Snatch and Jiz comics, Crumb said that he hoped the raw porn in those books had broken all the sexual taboos and would subsequently allow cartoonists to move on to something else. In the spring of 1969 Crumb produced Motor City Comics #1, which introduced one of his most earnest feminist characters, Lenore Goldberg. The Goldberg character still perpetuated some aspects of Crumb's sexism, but she was his strongest female figure up to that time.

However, three months later, Rip Off Press published Big Ass Comics #1, in which Crumb returned to pure objectification of women and featured raw sexual imagery. Big Ass #1 engendered a flood of new criticism about Crumb's sexism and violence against women. The criticism merely antagonized Crumb, as evidenced in Big Ass Comics #2, where Crumb delivers the one-page free-speech rant, "A Word To You Feminist Women." In the strip, Crumb welcomes female readers into his home to let them know, "I'm all for women's lib, believe it or not!" But then he defends his right to draw whatever the hell he wants to draw, declares he is an artist and not a politician, and that he'd be a liar if he tried to appease anyone else's ideology. In one page, Crumb deftly summarizes a key rationale for all those who defend his right to unleash whatever demons he wants to portray with ink on paper.

Crumb's refusal to give in to his critics is just part of Crumb being Crumb, but even he admits that his underground comics were sexist and played out his (male and female) domination fantasies. Given his rather bizarre childhood, it's not surprising that he struggled to have healthy female relationships and harbored a certain amount of hatred towards women. As he plainly stated in a 1970 interview in the East Village Other, "I am hostile towards women." It's also not surprising that many men who didn't grow up like Crumb still identified with (and supported) the sexism and chauvinism presented in comics like Big Ass. The two-issue set proved to be one of the most popular titles in underground comics history, perhaps only outsold in the early '70s by the first issue of Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

But it's too easy to dismiss Crumb's work during this era as mere pandering or sexism when he bares his soul and conscience with such clarity and ferocity, and yet simultaneously with such beauty, humor and elegance. Crumb's purgative rants about women (and all manner of societal issues) through the 1970s, which began in earnest with Motor City and Big Ass in 1969, seem more like his own form of primal therapy than a treatise on the nature of humanity. Given his background and his own nature, it would take a lot of therapy to even come close to re-setting his sails (his relationship with Aline Kominsky certainly helped him with that).

Regardless of his motivations, Crumb was scorched with criticism by most women underground cartoonists for his rantings. But Barbara "Willy" Mendes (All Girl Thrills, Illuminations) had a different perspective when she commented in James Estren's A History of Underground Comix: "If the world is smart it will learn that Crumb is a genius, so let the world weep that its geniuses' heads are where they are! I would not have anyone as brilliant as Wilson, Spain, Crumb, Green, Deitch, or Bill Griffith do anything other than what their souls tell them, make them do. I know I have no choice of subject matter myself--my whole being just does what it must. But poor fucking America! Listen to your Artists! Look where they're at!" Indeed, Crumb's "whole being just does what it must."

The fact that America could foster an artist like Robert Crumb is indeed meaningful, but no more or less meaningful than the fact that America fostered an artist like Norman Rockwell or a murderer like Charles Manson. It is evidence that our society produces a broad spectrum of voices that are either embraced or shunned, and Crumb's oeuvre is certainly more embraced than it is shunned. Crumb's sexualized and violent fantasies and his fear and hatred of women are part of the fabric of the male psyche, and their existence in every man are only a matter of degree. Over the course of time, exposure to Crumb's personal compulsions may ignite a re-examination of the sexism and racism inherent in our own consciences.

Big Ass Comics gives us ample material to provoke that examination.