Monday, April 28, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #117: Drawn Together by Aline and R. Crumb

Aline Kominsky-Crumb and R. Crumb bill themselves as "the world's only cartooning couple." By this, they don't mean that they're the only couple that both work in comics, because there's dozens of those. They don't even mean that the two of them are the only couple that work together on the same projects, because that's not uncommon -- for example Paul Tobin & Colleen Coover, or Frank Miller & Lynn Varley.

No, the Crumbs mean cartooning in a much more restrictive and stark sense: that they draw themselves on the same page, each working in final inks next to the other. They may mean their definition to be wider than autobiographical comics, of the kind they do together, but that's not clear -- but, by claiming to be the only ones who do what they do, they are forcing that thing to be defined very tightly. (It's an interesting, probably unique thing, admittedly -- but saying that you're the only ones who do a sub-genre that you invented is not quite as impressive as it might seem.)

Drawn Together collects over thirty years of those comics, originally published in pamphlet form in Dirty Laundry Comics and Self-Loathing Comics and in other places -- this book doesn't include any information on prior publication, which is a huge and horrible oversight in any retrospective. Without that publication history, all of Drawn Together runs together -- the reader finds himself searching for the copyright notices, just to have a sense of what year a particular piece was created or printed.

Luckily, while the trappings of the Crumbs' lives change a bit over that period -- their daughter Sophie is born and grows up (mostly on the edges of panels), and they move to rural Southern France about a decade in -- what their cartoons are about is their relationship, their complementary neuroticisms, the cartooning life, and, above all, trying to show the outside world what it's like to live inside their skins. They are '60s cartoonists par excellance, always mining their own psyches and throwing the pieces they find against each other, always simultaneously trying to understand and better themselves and at the same time wallowing in the fervent belief that they will and can never change.

These are wordy cartoons, filled with word balloons -- both Crumbs are talkers, and they talk even more when they can draw their arguments and take time to fix the wording. The art is deliberately a mish-mosh, with Crumb's detailed, controlled lines ramming into Aline's more impressionistic, looser drawings in nearly every panel. (Each of them sometimes takes over for a few panels at a time, and their are some guest stars late in the book who also draw a bit -- Sophie Crumb, art spiegelman, Charles Burns, and Peter Poplaski.)

Aline and Robert can be annoying on their own, but they tend to force each other to be more accessible -- and their rhetorical styles are so different that merely shoving them together makes the final product more energetic and expressive. Admittedly, a reader has to like the underground comics aesthetic -- all confession all the time, autobiography as cheap therapy -- to get anything out of this book, but that reader should know that about the Crumbs by this point.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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