“I get crazy and depressed and suicidal if I don’t get to draw,” says the titular cartoonist as he sketches away in Terry Zwigoff’s “Crumb” (1995; available on the Criterion Channel). “But when I’m drawing, I feel suicidal too.”
That might sound like typical artist’s hyperbole. But for R. Crumb (the “R” is for Robert), who more or less started the tradition of underground comics and graphic novels with his freaky, surreal, absurdist, grotesquely obscene, and generation-defining cartoons (the “Keep on Trucking!” guy is his), it probably is not.
To learn the origins of Crumb’s pathological genius, the film drops in on his similarly talented but not so fortunate brothers. Their conversations with Robert underscore the fine line between genius and insanity and the consequences of an abusive childhood and a tormented adolescence.
Robert’s older brother, Charles, who lives at home with their amphetamine-addicted mother, is blithe, sad, funny, and heavily medicated. While growing up he had been mercilessly beaten by their martinet father and then tormented by bullies in school. He turned Robert onto cartooning when they were kids, and they and their younger brother, Maxon, developed their own comics.
Charles at that time had developed strange obsessions, including an infatuation with Bobby Driscoll, the child actor in “Treasure Island” (1950), whom he would insist on including in his drawings. He would also dress up like the film’s one-legged pirate, Long John Silver, and wander the neighborhood. Not that Robert didn’t have his own fetishes — he had a crush on Bugs Bunny and an attraction to his aunt’s boots — but he was able to move on. Charles, however, couldn’t shake his demons and his art grew increasingly bizarre and incomprehensible. Also, quite beautiful; he would rank high as an outsider artist.
Maxon has had better luck. He lives penuriously in a cheap hotel in San Francisco and paints canvases in varying surrealist styles. Though reclusive, he opens up with Robert as they lightheartedly recall the brutal, bizarre old days growing up in a wildly dysfunctional family.
Crumb had his breakthrough in 1967 in San Francisco, then the hippie hotbed of alternative culture. He had been taking LSD, and it sparked his transition from more traditional cartooning to his distinctive, assaultive style. With Zap Komix, album covers for Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead (Crumb confesses he hated the rock music of the period), and the lecherous and scatological Fritz the Cat he became an underground superstar. The establishment also took note. Interviewed in the film, Robert Hughes, Time magazine art critic famed for his book and TV series “The Shock of the New,” compares him to Goya, Hogarth, and Bruegel.
Thus, Crumb’s drawing not only kept him from killing himself but also brought him fame and artistic recognition. But not much fortune — he spurned all offers to go commercial. However, it did attract women, a new experience for the eccentric and nerdy cartoonist.
Some of these women — former girlfriends, an ex-wife, and his current wife, Aline Kominsky — share their observations about Crumb and they can be unflattering. One shrewdly analyzes Crumb’s sexual immaturity and puerile sexist attitudes.
Indeed, misogyny has been a major criticism of his work, and some of his images of rape and violence and giant devouring women with huge legs and reptilian heads haven’t aged well. Crumb acknowledges this tendency but says that to be true to his art he must draw what comes uncensored from his subconscious.
At any rate, he has fared much better than his siblings. Maxon sits on a bed of nails several hours a day and was arrested for sexual assault after pulling down a woman’s shorts. Charles committed suicide shortly after the film was made.
In 1979 the Chinese government, alarmed by the threat of overpopulation, imposed a draconian measure rigorously enforced that allowed parents to have only one child. Like previous sweeping efforts at social change, such as the Great Leap Forward in 1958, which resulted in a famine that killed an estimated 45 million people, or the Cultural Revolution of 1966 with a death toll of up to 30 million, the consequences of this so-called one-child policy were catastrophic.
The toll was not as overt as in those previous two disasters, and much of its history has been suppressed. Nanfu Wang, director of the prize-winning “Hooligan Sparrow” (2017), had been born in China when the policy was in effect. She immigrated to the United States as an adult, but when she had her own child, she felt compelled to return to her remote native village, risking imprisonment in search of the truth about those times. What she learned can be seen in “One Child Nation,” which she co-directed with Jialing Zhang.
Interviewing her mother, younger brother, and other relatives who still live in the old neighborhood, she uncovers some dark family secrets. Since the patriarchal Chinese culture valued boys far more than girls, Wang was a disappointment to her parents, so they defied the law to have another child. If it had not been a boy, her mother confesses, she would have put the infant in a basket and left her in the street.
That, Wang learns, was a common practice, so much so that child traffickers would search the roads and marketplaces for abandoned babies. They would smuggle them for a fee to state-run orphanages that would offer them for adoption to Western families for a steep price. Some of the smugglers, like one whom Wang interviews, were motivated by compassion as well as profit. But it was a risky business, as the government would hypocritically hunt them down and punish them.
To sell its plan, the government bombarded the population with propaganda, seen here in a surreal montage of kitschy, mind-numbing, and surreal posters, signs, public service announcements, and theatrical performances. To implement it they raised an army of midwives and other medical personnel to perform hundreds of thousands of compulsory abortions and sterilizations. Today many of those then-zealous birth control crusaders express regret, and some try to amend the past by aiding women with infertility problems.
The one-child policy was expanded to two in 2015, not out of humanitarian concerns but because the government realized that there might not be enough young people to care for China’s aging population. And in a “1984”-like denial of reality, the abuses of the one-child policy were erased from Chinese history.
Wang hopes her film will expose this history. But she also points out the irony of leaving one country where abortion was mandated by the state to another where it is in increasing danger of being made illegal. “Both are about taking away control of women’s bodies,” she says.
“One Child Nation” will premiere on March 30 at 10 p.m. on WGBH-2 as part of the “Independent Lens” series, and will be available to stream on PBS.org.
Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough at gmail.com.