Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Crumb, Spiegelman, and Mouly

The Crumb/Spiegelman event was pretty good, despite some pre and post show personal drama, which I will be whining/writing about in another post.

The stage setup consisted of a trio of comfy-looking living-room-type chairs, a table with a MacBook on it, and a large screen to the rear. I had a pretty good view since I was dead center in the 8th row. I had snuck my point & shoot camera in hoping to snap a couple of shots, but the response to a guy in the row in front of me kept me from attempting to do so. Someone who worked there said something to this guy as he was futzing with a small video camera before the show, after which he stowed it for good. I also didn’t see anyone with an i-phone try to snap any photos. So I didn’t either, which will be deeply ironic when you read about my pre show drama.

At about 8 or 9 minutes past the scheduled 8PM start time, an announcer kicked off the proceedings by introducing the participants, who all walked out together. The format of the presentation would be a “conversation” with both Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb, hosted/facilitated by Francoise Mouly. Mouly is an artist & designer who co-founded the influential RAW comics anthology magazine with Art Spiegelman and is the art editor of The New Yorker. She is also Art Spiegelman’s wife.

It was strange to see Crumb looking a bit older and with a beard. I still picture him as he appeared in the documentary. Mouly sat in the middle chair, with Crumb on her right and Spiegelman on her left. Spiegelman asked if we minded if he smoked, which I didn’t since I couldn’t smell it, and he lit a number of cigarettes throughout the evening.

The conversation began with Mouly touching upon some of the details that were covered in the Crumb film, such as how he became interested in comics and how his brother Charles influenced him. Both Crumb and Spiegelman were influenced by Mad Magazine as kids, in particular the work of Harvey Kurtzman, with whom Crumb would later work. They both shared some recollections of Kurtzman, as well as Hugh Hefner (whom Kurtzman had worked with). Crumb mentioned that his drawing style was in some ways a reaction to the minimalist style of drawing that was popular in comics in the early ‘60s, such as Peanuts. Crumb and Spiegelman both mentioned that although they were both really into comics as kids, neither of them were into superhero comics. They both gravitated more towards Disney-style comics that frequently featured animals or titles like Richie Rich.

I thought one of the more interesting things mentioned was what life in France was like for Crumb. As seen at the end of the documentary “Crumb”, Crumb and his family moved to France in 1991. He said that he likes it there, but even after living there for so long he still doesn’t speak the language, and he makes no attempt to understand or comment on French culture. He mentioned that he doesn’t have a lot of friends there - “maybe one or two”. When Mouly asked him why he moved there, he mentioned that his wife Aline “comes from a long line of salespeople” and that she talked him into it eventually. Crumb and Mouly made note of the fact that they went in opposite directions, with her going from France to the U.S.

A good bit of time was spent talking about Crumb’s latest project – an illustrated version of all 50 chapters of the King James Version of Genesis. The text of the book is straight out of the Bible, and the drawings are not intended to be humorous or taken as a joke. Crumb attempted to illustrate the words in a straight up fashion, but as you might expect these are not the sanitized drawings of say Adam & Eve that you might see in Sunday School. There’s a lot of sex & violence in Genesis, which Crumb doesn’t shy away from portraying. This realistic portrayal of source material that is often romanticized in the popular imagination is what makes this project interesting to me.

It took Crumb 4 years to complete the book. He mentioned that he thought it might take 1 and a half to 2 years when he started. As such, he unequivocally stated that he would not be illustrating any other books of the Bible. He mentioned that he did all of the drawings in pen, and that he wished he had used a brush because it would have been much easier - “All that cross hatching is a pain in the ass!” He dedicated the book to his wife Aline, who rented a cabin in the mountains of France so that Crumb could work in solitude for the final 2 years of the project. Crumb’s love for his wife came through in several of his answers, and I must say that was somewhat touching to me. He doesn’t exactly seem like a romantic, but he genuinely seems to love her deeply.

Crumb used screen shots from several movies as references for drawing clothing, buildings, and even food preparation techniques in the book. Some of the movies that the screen shots came from were D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance”, “The 10 Commandments”, and “The Last Temptation of Christ”, with “Intolerance” being perhaps most important. He said that these photos were invaluable to him in completing this book, and it really shows in the detail present in Crumb’s drawings. He is a very detail-oriented artist, and this latest work is no exception. If you’ve seen the documentary, you know that Crumb likes to get his mundane details accurate, like with his reference photos of telephone poles and electrical lines that he has used as background in many of his drawings.

Another part that I found interesting is that Crumb did a small portrait of each of the people that is mentioned in the “Begat” portion of chapter 5. You know, the part where it says “And so and so begat so and so” seemingly ad infinitum. A couple of pages of this section were projected on the screen, and you could see that each small portrait was a distinct and unique image. Mouly asked Crumb why he did this, and he said “I didn’t want people to skip over the ‘begats’”.

Mouly showed images of several New Yorker covers, with a particular focus on ones done by Crumb, Spiegelman, and covers that generated controversy such as the 1993 cover that depicted a Hasidic Jew kissing a black woman in the wake of the Crown Heights riot (in which a Hasidic Jewish man who hit some black children in a car accident was beaten and robbed when he left his vehicle to try and help the children he had hit) and the Obama “terrorist fist jab” cover from 2008. Some time was also spent discussing the article and images that Spiegelman produced in response to the controversy over the Muhammed cartoons that appeared in a Danish newspaper in 2006.

At the end of the main presentation, time was allotted for audience members to ask questions. The majority of the questions were targeted to Crumb, which he answered in his typical acerbic style. When someone asked the notoriously reclusive Crumb why he decided to go on this 5 city tour to promote Genesis, he replied that he “was railroaded into it” by the publisher, and that he was very happy to be going home the next day. Someone asked all the participants whether they thought there were certain images that should not be drawn, and Crumb jokingly said that now that he has drawn images of pretty much any depraved act known to man, he thinks they shouldn’t be allowed anymore.

I didn’t know much about Mouly and Spiegelman before seeing this presentation, but it is obvious to me now why they made a good fit with Crumb. All three of these artists have produced controversial work and strongly believe in their right to do so. I thought it was an interesting evening, and I am interested in seeking out more of their work.



Blogger Michelle said...

Wow, I learned a lot from this. I am not at all familiar with Crumb or the other presenters but I think the idea of Genesis is brilliant and doing it in pen is daring. I hope to find a man someday who has ascerbic wit and is not afraid to display love for me in front of an audience. That's impressive.

11/19/2009 10:12 PM  

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