10/24/2008

The Negative Zone: Why You Shouldn't Idealize Charles Crumb

This piece from the blog 'Spurious' titled "Saint Charles Crumb" has been making the rounds on quite a few comics sites of late-especially odd as it was written in April of this year. Dirk at Journalista (who's been linking this blog like crazy lately, thanks!) called the entry "fascinating" and over at Comics Comics it's "a pretty amazing reflection".

With such glowing words, it seems all the more important that I do the thing that even in assholey "negative zone" posts I'd rather not do: Shit on the actual writing before I even get to content. One can't help but slog through too-curt short sentences that yell out "this is serious and thoughtful" and think of how way too many people'll be duped into thinking this means something profound or serious is being said.

Additionally, two glaring errors about the movie Crumb become obvious and kinda absurd because the writing's so fucking serious. Charles' bully was not called "Hutch" but "Scutch" and Crumb's father wrote a book called Training People Effectively and not "How to Manage People" (the latter being a title too terrible even for a son and wife abusing dumbass like Crumb's father to settle on..).

And outside of the reverse-purple prose--which is so Palahniuk-ian it becomes purple all over again--that cries out "I'm writing reeeaaallll serious here", there's little left but the problematic idealization of a person that really shouldn't be idealized. In the world of visual art and especially in comics, there's a obsession with suffering and pseudo-honesty that's every bit as adolescent as reading about buff-as-shit dudes fighting big-titty bitches with big guns.

From the mind-bogglingly problematic term "outsider art", to re-releases from kinda talented weirdos like Fletcher Hanks, to any number of self-loathing, super "honest" (and rarely just honest) comics and 'zines, us comics reader just love the fucked-up and weird and long ago, mistook it for artistry and honesty. Now certainly, it can be art--look no further than Charles Crumb's uh, brother Robert!--and indeed, some of Charles' work is fascinating and good art (not outsider art, just art) but to fall into the trap of not only idealizing Charles and semi-seriously "Sainting" him, but to present his life and times as somehow more tragic and uncompromising than the rest of us is just silly.

Yes, Charles is a sympathetic character and in a lot of ways, the most interesting and affecting part of Crumb and the title card that tells you of his suicide brings tears to my eyes every time I watch the movie, but it's because he touches on some adolescent, acting out, goofball fantasy that of continuing to be a weirdo, book-reading fuckup that a lot of us sensitive, artsy-fartsy types have and not because he's some special, rarified individual.

Indeed, that's sort of the point of Crumb or one of the like points you're supposed to ponder...how Robert, who grew up in essentially the same household, who has his own group of horrible stories (Dad broke his collarbone on Christmas anyone?), ended up fairly well-adjusted and successful. Plenty of people grew up in worse places than Charles Crumb and plenty were beaten worse by their fathers or school bullies and didn't end up mumbling sardonically in their book-filled bedroom. Those are the people to celebrate and adore, the ones that forced their way through it and found some way to keep on fucking living (actually living) after whatever tragedy(s) took hold of their body and mind and kinda wouldn't ever really let go.

15 comments:

T Hodler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
T Hodler said...

I actually called it a "pretty amazing reflection", though I guess I don't care about whether or not you leave off the modifier. And without getting into any of the nitty-gritty--everyone's entitled to their own opinion, after all--I'll just say that to call the linked post an "idealization" of Charles Crumb is more than a little literal-minded and reductionist.

brandon said...

t hodler-
Fixed. If I'm gonna call someone else out for inaccuracy, I should at least be accurate.

Obviously, there's some like distance or irony at play in calling Charles a "saint" but unless the entire post is truly ironic, and meant to be saying the total opposite of what it's saying, I think my post stands. Gettign into the nitty gritty though, is sort of what I'm about, tell me why I'm wrong...I don't post this stuff to have people agree with me, you know?

Thanks for commenting too!

Anonymous said...

Actually, it's "Skutch" with a k.

T Hodler said...

Hey Brandon --

Sorry I haven't replied; I'm kind of preoccupied today. The reason I didn't want to get into all the details is that I think they're kind of moot besides the point that I reject your premise: I think you fundamentally misread the Spurious post by presenting it as holding up Charles Crumb as some sort of positive role model to be emulated.

I also think—and I know this may sound condescending, but I really, truly don't mean it to—that if you don't understand why some would feel empathy for (and identify with) human failure, then you're either young, or very lucky. (The alternative would be that you were callous, but based on your writings, I don't think you're that, by any means.)

By the way, I enjoy your blog, even if I disagree with probably 90% of what's on it. Keep it up, please.

T Hodler said...

Ninety percent is too high. More like fifty. Sorry about that!

brandon said...

T-
I totally empathize with failure and understand it and I think plenty of parts of this rant expose my empathy. Additionally, my issue with the essay on Charles isn't that I read it as Spurious saying we SHOULD act like Charles, but idealizing his inability or refusal to act like the rest of us and holding that up as admirable somehow even as it's wise enough to see that this isn't a way for most of us to act...

Glad you like the blog. Do you disagree with most of it or just most of what I say? ha-

T Hodler said...

Ah. Well, I see what you're trying to say better now. I kind of still feel like you're oversimplifying the post, in the sense that I think its attitudes towards Charles Crumb and failure are more complicated than simple idealization. But that's okay.

You might be interested in looking at more of the Spurious blog, as almost none of it is about Crumb (or comics), but almost all of it is about failure. Maybe because I had the contextual knowledge of having read a lot of it over time, I read the post differently than you did. I dunno. I have a feeling you might not like the rest of the blog very much anyway (it doesn't strike me as your cup of tea), but it might complicate your take on the specific Crumb thing, anyway.

Sorry about the crossed wires in any case. And I disagree with half of everything!

Karen said...

as much credibility as i know i lose for saying this, i couldnt even get through the whole spurious article. basically i can foresee the same type of shit being said about my stepdad, and if that makes him a saint, shit, i dont even know.

brandon said...

LOLZ Karen. Yeah, I mean that's the biggest issue with the article...it's TERRIBLY WRITTEN. So fucking precious and "contemplative"...

That's sort of the sub-point. Charles Crumb is real cool to all of us that didn't have to like raise him or take care of him or weren't apparently yelled at by him on the street or had to cope with his suicide and a lot of other things.

Praising sad-bastard fuckups for being sad bastard fuckups makes more sad bastard fuck ups.

Karen said...

its like "this is something that happened. this. happened. this means something. IT. MEANS. SOMETHING."
don't gimmie that noise.

T Hodler said...

I have to say, this is all very confusing. Now you do seem to worry about people emulating the late Charles Crumb again.("Praising sad-bastard fuckups for being sad bastard fuckups makes more sad bastard fuck ups.") Oh, well. Your main point is clear: Charles Crumb isn't "cool". And you're right—not to point that out (in case anybody missed it!) would be "adolescent". Carry on.

brandon said...

t-
Nah, what I'm saying is, Spurious wrote that because she's celebrating Charles' weirdo-outsider-ness as being singular and in some sense, radical IN PART because most of us will not follow that line of action/life. She's celebrating his essentially self-destructive-ness without asserting it. That's weird and condescending to--gasp-Charles. And if he read her post, he'd laugh it off as idealistic nonsense.

But in another sense, but celebrating, anti-social behavior, it certainly encourages or justifies it and turns another asshole who reads a lot of books and is a dickhead to his mother into thinking himself some transgressive genius.

Alex Buck said...

I always thought the dude was schizophrenic. Not really a fuck-up or a saint, just a guy with a horrible brain disfunction. I mean the guy was on seriously debilitating meds just to keep his head half-straight.
I would say both of these articles are kind of pointless.
Also, it seems wrong to say that R. Crumb is fairly well-adjusted. I mean, he just lucked into his success. Not to say that he is not hard-working and talented, but there was a lot of right place at the right time involved. Don't forget Maxon. It was probably good for Charles and society that he stayed indoors. Those dudes came from a rough place, probably best not to judge.

Anonymous said...

Probably too late to post, but...

I agree with Alex. Robert was lucky enough to escape Skutch and maybe some other life altering events by staying invisible as he put it. However, just because Robert was able to make a living does not mean that he was well adjusted.

While watching the two I found myself feeling very angry with Robert's lack of empathy for what Charles was going through. Robert's laughter was extremely callous. He seemed to be using Charles for his movie.