Mr. and Mrs. Natural
Proving that two cartoonists can live the expat life as dysfunctionally as one.
Aline Crumb, cartoonist and wife of the cartoonist, Robert Crumb, shares her inspiration for her new graphic memoir "Need More Love."
Mr. and Mrs. Natural
VALLÉE DU Vidourle, France
SHORTLY after Robert and Aline Crumb moved from the United States to a small village in this valley in the South of France, they were asked to participate in a summer medieval festival. For the event local politicians don robes like those once worn by feudal lords, and most of the citizens wear peasant rags.
Mr. Crumb, timid, like the famous cartoon caricature of himself he draws in his comic strips, is not one for parades. The father of Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural and Devil Girl declined to participate.
Ms. Crumb, bold, like the red-haired cartoon version of herself she draws, agreed to join the procession and asked for the cotton rags. The festival organizers would not hear of it. “They told me, ‘No, you have to get a costume of a lady in waiting because your husband is an important person,’ ” Ms. Crumb, 59, recalled over breakfast at their 13-room house, parts of which date from the 11th century.
Although the brocaded costume was stiflingly hot — “I felt like a giant sweating chair,” Ms. Crumb said — it turns out the townsfolk were prescient. In a twist as unlikely as the plot of an R. Crumb comic, the couple, known to many from the 1994 documentary “Crumb,” which portrayed Mr. Crumb’s troubled early family life and adult predilection for riding piggyback on large women, have become something of a lord and lady in their village. They are surrounded by a bohemian court of artists, lovers, sycophants and jesters engaged in fits of intrigue.
“We live in Crumbland,” Ms. Crumb said.
They moved to France 16 years ago, sickened, they said, by the infiltration of their once sleepy California town, Winters, by newcomers who bulldozed hilltops for McMansions. The Crumbs also wanted to shield their daughter, Sophie, from a growing conservative and fundamentalist Christian influence while continuing to educate her in what they consider the classics. They reared her on “Little Lulu” comics from the 1940s and ’50s and Three Stooges videos.
It was Mr. Crumb’s absorption of such popular culture that led to his signature style. He applied a lowbrow, all but forgotten crosshatched technique to a kaleidoscope of sexual fantasies, controversial racial topics and images of the hippy counterculture. In so doing, he laid the groundwork for adult-theme graphic novels, influencing everyone from Daniel Clowes, the creator of “Ghost World,” to Art Spiegelman, the author of “Maus.”
“He’s a monolithic presence, who rewrote the rules of what comics are,” Mr. Spiegelman said.
Much of Crumbland’s energy is devoted to preserving space for Mr. Crumb, 63, to continue his work and for everyone to feed off it.
When the Crumbs moved to their village west of Nîmes — which they asked not be named, fearful of attracting streams of fans — many old houses were empty. Villagers preferred modern homes with square rooms across the river, where streets are wide enough for two cars to pass.
But since the Crumbs’ arrival, many of the achingly quaint, empty stone houses have attracted other newcomers. One of the first was Ms. Crumb’s brother, Alex Goldsmith, who lives in the lower ramparts of the Crumb home. Mr. Goldsmith, 54, said he had fought drug addiction, and if his sister had not welcomed him to France, “I’d probably be in prison, if I was alive.”
He earns money buying used R. Crumb comics on eBay, taking them upstairs for Mr. Crumb to sign and reselling them “for quadruple” on the Internet, Mr. Goldsmith said, smiling.
For years, Mr. Crumb would occupy his time waiting to be served at village restaurants by doodling on place mats. When his New York agent, Paul Morris, said that he had a market for the drawings, Ms. Crumb offered to help one restaurateur sell his collection. They fetched $25,000. A pizzeria sold its R. Crumb doodles to Mr. Morris for $2,500 each.
Another village newcomer is Christian Coudurès, a printmaker, who moved from Paris. When he was depressed after breaking up with a girlfriend, Ms. Crumb decided he was a project she wanted to take on.
“When I first met him, he was in bad shape, drinking a lot,” she said. “I decided I needed to save this worthy person.” Mr. Coudurès eventually became what Ms. Crumb calls her “second husband.”
The Crumbs have long had an open marriage, that brave (and largely discarded) institution of the 1960s. Mr. Crumb travels to Oregon once a year to rekindle a relationship with an old girlfriend.
Speaking of Mr. Coudurès, Mr. Crumb said, “Between the two of us, we kind of make an ideal husband, because he can do all the masculine things I can’t do.” He cited Mr. Coudurès’s talents for wiring, plumbing, engaging in shouting matches with the highly energetic Ms. Crumb and driving a car.
“If she ever started making comparisons about our lovemaking technique, I might get jealous,” Mr. Crumb added.
Their daughter, Sophie, is not so sure about the arrangement. She called the idea of her mother’s having a second husband “gross.”
Nonetheless, the strong-jawed Mr. Coudurès, 61, has become a part of the support system that frees Mr. Crumb to focus on work. The Frenchman, who has a thick mane of black hair, does handyman chores. His daughter Agathe McCamy, 35, helps Ms. Crumb color her comics.
“I am a Situationist,” Mr. Coudurès explained in French after sharing a dinner with the Crumbs next to a gently crackling fireplace in his kitchen. He was referring to a European avant-garde philosophy born in 1957 and championed by Guy Debord. “I am an adventurer of the present.”
Mr. Crumb’s current project has him spending a lot of time in the past. He is illustrating the opening book of the Bible, Genesis, and spends hours in his study deep in the Crumb house consulting translations of Sumerian legends, Hebrew and Christian scholarly interpretations of the Bible and reproductions of illuminated manuscripts.
The work contains biblical scenes populated with classic R. Crumb women, their legs and ankles hearty, their breasts straining through flimsy dresses. But the work is not sexually graphic. Nor has the artist altered a word of the Genesis text.
Mr. Crumb has calmed considerably since his early days, when he was so afraid of social interaction that he focused all of his energy on drawing. “I basically lived on paper,” he said, reclining on a small wicker couch in his study, where the shelves are packed with vintage 78 r.p.m. records, comic book figurines and back issues of Fate, a magazine of the paranormal.
In recent years he has taken to sitting in a chair every morning and meditating for 45 minutes, following the rising and falling of his breath. The resulting inner calm has changed his vibe. As a younger man he was a gerbil-like creature with a whiskery mustache and a twitchy demeanor. Now he seems more like a small Lincoln or van Gogh, a bearded, although still bony, thinker with a certain gravity.
“He’s less wimpy,” said Sophie Crumb, now 25, who lives in a village a half-hour drive from her parents with her American boyfriend.
She is still mentally processing her upbringing. “It’s weird, the mixture of the culture of California, France and underground comics, this random strange mixture of things that don’t add up at all,” she said, sitting with her dog, Poopsie, in a sidewalk cafe. Trying to learn a new language and to fit in at school with French children made her “really good at adapting,” she said.
Now a cartoonist herself, Sophie Crumb has work in Mome, a comics quarterly, and she is coloring “Genesis Illustrated.”
Comics have always bound the Crumbs. Aline and Robert met in 1971 after she heard about a large-rumped woman named Honeybunch Kaminski created by Mr. Crumb for his Snatch Comics series. Ms. Crumb, whose surname from her first marriage was Kominsky, bore a physical resemblance to Honeybunch, and she set out to meet the famous R. Crumb.
“She was the first woman I met whose emotions didn’t scare me,” Mr. Crumb said.
They began drawing comics together in 1974. Many readers of their occasional reportage-style comics in The New Yorker, where they have written about the Cannes Film Festival and New York Fashion Week, do not realize that Ms. Crumb draws herself in the panels and writes her own dialogue.
Wider recognition may come soon. A graphic memoir, “Need More Love,” including Ms. Crumb’s comic books, paintings and musings, is scheduled to arrive in stores next month. An exhibition of her drawings and other works is scheduled for the Adam Baumgold Gallery in Manhattan, Feb. 15 through March 17. On Feb. 14, Mr. Crumb is scheduled to interview Ms. Crumb at the New York Public Library. (Mr. Coudurès also plans to be present.)
Three times a week Ms. Crumb leads an American-style Pilates-yoga-dance class in her village’s Napoleonic-era barracks. Regulars include Estelle Kohler, a legendary actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company; and a French marionette maker, married to a man who publishes a newsletter about flying kites.
The village seems to be thriving with such free spirits. An Israeli, Khaïm Seligman, set up shop making wooden flutes. Melinda Trucks, the wife of Butch Trucks, the Allman Brothers Band drummer, has taken Ms. Crumb’s exercise class. The Truckses have bought a nearby estate.
A longtime friend of the Crumbs, Peter Poplaski, moved to the village in the ’90s, collaborated with Mr. Crumb on a 2005 collection, “The R. Crumb Handbook,” and continues to work on a pet project he describes as “the quintessential Zorro book of the 21st century.” Mr. Poplaski, a Wisconsin native, dresses as Zorro for festivals to entertain the village children.
Despite her dalliances, Ms. Crumb is fiercely loyal to Mr. Crumb. In addition to overseeing much of his business, she has transformed their labyrinthine home into a sort of Crumb archive and museum.
A narrow stone staircase leads unevenly from a room at the front door to a long hallway, whose ceiling reaches up three floors.
In the hallway hang two abstract oil paintings by Mr. Crumb’s younger brother, Maxon. Mr. Crumb said his brother is in better shape than when he appeared in the documentary, in which he is shown disheveled, meditating on a bed of nails and begging on the streets. Although Maxon still lives in the same room in a San Francisco skid row hotel where he has stayed for a quarter-century, his paintings are fetching healthy prices, and he is in a stable relationship.
Also on the wall is a portrait of Jesse Crumb, Mr. Crumb’s son by his first marriage. They are estranged because of a dispute over a business selling Crumb merchandise, Mr. Crumb said.
Controversy continues to find Mr. Crumb. A poster he drew to protest a proposal to build a large supermarket in the village drew controversy after a local politician whom the artist caricatured filed charges for “insult to a private person.”
But the legal action backfired when it drew the attention of a local newspaper, which ran a front-page article sympathetic to the opponents of the supermarket. This also profited Mr. Goldsmith, who sold a pair of autographed R. Crumb anti-supermarket posters for $385 to a Danish collector.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the dramas around him, Mr. Crumb continues to find the inspiration to produce art.
After dinner one night at Mr. Coudurès’s apartment, Mr. Crumb sat looking at a book his wife’s lover had brought to the table about the World War II escape of many European artists, Jewish and otherwise, via Marseille to New York.
There was a photo of a grandly smiling Salvador Dalí and his wife, Gala, in front of a painting. “He was a real self-promoter, that Dalí,” one dinner guest said.
Mr. Crumb pointed at the wife.