Saluting a cheap suit serenader

I love pen and ink drawings—the high contrast of the black lines on the pale pages, the challenge of conveying subtle shadings with pen strokes instead of color variations. It probably goes back to my days of scribbling in notebooks during classes. This weekend I enjoyed a close-up examination of a master of the form, R. Crumb.

Haven’t heard of him? Don’t remember his name being taught alongside M.C. Escher, Albrecht Dürer, and other line art notables? That’s probably because he’s a comic book artist. He was a founder of the underground comix movement and helped broaden the scope of an entire art form. Crumb brought back the adult material suppressed since the Comics Code imposed self-censorship on the industry. His most famous drawing is the ubiquitous Keep on Truckin’ cartoon. Now his artwork is touring major museums.

All that is well and good, but I was at the exhibition for the aesthetics. I was not disappointed. The showing was held at the Frye Art Museum, a temple to art in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood, and I was happy from the moment I pushed open the heavy metal doors. Once at the exhibit, I worshipped the drawings. I’ve been sketching with a pen myself, and it’s instructive to see how a master depicts texture and volume with ink. His drawings look alive—his women are fully rounded; his cities are multi-layered. It was inspiring to see the panels close up—such detail drawn by one hand! I didn’t always like the subject matter—Crumb is far more obsessed with the male anatomy than I am—but I am glad he helped open up the genre. He’s also done a lot to promote the early legends of jazz, and that’s a mission I can get behind.


I brought home a few of his comic books so I could study his technique at leisure. R. Crumb’s artwork is published in many collections.  If you want to learn more about him, there is a well-regarded documentary called Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1994). I haven’t seen it, but I plan to. I’m intrigued. I loved the companion piece, American Splendor (1993, Berman and Pulcini), which focuses on the life of Crumb’s friend Harvey Pekar. Together Crumb and Pekar made Harvey’s very ordinary life into a work of art, a work of splendor. As you might have guessed, I’m all for that.


Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

32. What one thing can you do today to celebrate the work of art that is your life? Do it!

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