R. Crumb is more than a little famous in the comics world, and rightly so. In the world of alternative or underground cartoonists, he’s got some serious seniority, and his characters, his singularized, often sexualized caricatures, and detailed, heavily textured inks make up one of the most recognizable styles in comics.
That detailed, textured inking, those sexualized caricatures, that overall recognizable Crumb aesthetic brings with it a problem: a certain segment of the population seems, by and large, not to like it. A large segment of the population. Say, about half. At least this is the observation of MQ Publications, who charitably note, “many women find his work so repellent”, and the opinion of the artist himself, who admits “If I were a woman, I probably wouldn’t buy my work either”. But it’s the job of a publisher to push an artist’s work to new markets, and so MQ Publications has forced out The Sweeter Side of R. Crumb, “to see if we could come up with a book that would win over the ladies.”
Ironic then that The Sweeter Side of R. Crumb may be the bleakest possible commentary on Crumb’s ability to reach a female audience. It’s sweeter, to be sure, missing the strident overpowering women, cowering men, and often disturbing sexual politics of his usual comic work. Still life abounds, detailing corners of hotel rooms or intriguing random alleys. There are a couple of random strips about his family. A great many portraits have been included, by far the most interesting pieces in the book. And there are pictures of babies and kittens, because everyone knows, that’s how you get those women out there to look at your work. It’s a sparse, random, discombobulated assemblage of work, nice enough to look at but lacking any greater attraction. It’s as though the publishers thought women would want nothing but to not be offended; and having winnowed out the offensive, felt safe in assuming the work would therefore be interesting. Crumb, to his credit, makes no such assumption, hoping that perhaps women will find this book acceptable to buy for the guy in their life who likes Crumb.
And so they might. The book is very neatly put together; the art is well done, and inoffensive. But so is a greeting card. Sweet it may be, but The Sweeter Side of R.Crumb lacks flavor. Women, men, or children, humans might accept art that doesn’t offend; but Crumb’s own career should prove art that pushes the boundaries makes its own audience.