CHARLES CRUMB (Robert's father)
Robert: My father was the fifth of fourteen children; five girls and nine boys. He grew up on a farm in Minnesota. The Crumb Family Homestead was founded in 1878 by my great-great grandfather. It might have been my great-grandfather, I forget. I think it was my great grandfather.
Alex: I read that piece that he wrote about his his father, your grandfather. I thought it was really well written. I thought it was interesting. I even asked you ‘can we put this on the site?’ and you said, ‘Oh, no one’s gonna care about that.’ But I was very impressed with the guy.
Robert: He, like many people of his generation, had ideals and aspirations when he was young. He read Jack London and he loved that kind of writing. He wanted to go out and see the world, get out of Minnesota and see the world, and be a writer, you know, write about his adventures. But life just ground him up. He was a restless young man, and he grew up in the depression. Most of his education was in a one room school, and the teacher’s name was Miss Brady. He always used to talk to us when we were kids about Miss Brady and how she used a buggy whip on the boys. So, he wanted an education and education was very stressed in that Crumb family by my great-grandmother. She was a schoolteacher and believed in literacy and education. Anyway, he went to this local teachers college somewhere nearby (Albert Lee or someplace) for two years, but the only job available was, guess where? In the same one room school where he went when Miss Brady retired. [laughs] So he did that for a little bit but was so restless that he went and joined the Marine Corps in 1936. I just recently was looking at his service record, I was looking at a bunch of stuff I have on my father in his file, all the shit he went through in the US Marine Corps. He was sent to China just a couple of weeks after he enlisted. He was sent to Chicago or someplace after he enlisted, and it must have been no more than three weeks later, they shipped him to Shanghai where the US Marines were guarding the American interests there, in Shanghai. Because the Japanese were trying to take over parts of China at that time and he wrote letters home. My Aunt Dorothy sent me these three letters that he wrote home, which are very interesting. And he had only been in the marines a few weeks and so he’s all dazzled when he first got there, he’s in this completely foreign place. He’s talking about how beautiful his uniform is, and how good the training was and how China was so exotic and everything. And in the second letter, which arrived a few months later, he’s seen terrible things and he’s really traumatized; he was quite young he was only 23 in 1936 or ’37. In the second letter he describes the horrible things he’s seen: the Japanese are bombing Shanghai and he’s seen the starvation and famine. There are corpses in the streets and he was quite shocked and horrified by all of this. And then a few months later, the third letter arrives and he’s already past all that stage of shock, and the third letter is very grim. He’s obviously gritting his teeth, and hitching up his pants and doing his duty. They had made him a “Special Duty” man. He had done something, some kind of thing for which he was rewarded with this special duty. And my brother Maxon, I don’t know where he got this idea, but he thinks these starving Chinese were coming to the US Marine Corps base, the military base, and trying to get food, looking for food, and making a nuisance of themselves, and the captain or whoever was in charge asked for a volunteer to go out and to shoot one of them to get them to go away. My brother Maxon thinks my father volunteered to shoot a beggar, and all his karma comes from that. My brother Maxon deeply believes this.
I don’t know what Maxon’s ideal is based on but it struck a bell with me. It struck a bell. And I remembered this story my father used to tell when we were kids about how when he was 14 or 15, they had an old family dog that was dying, he was just feeble and blind and everything and my grandfather asked for a volunteer among his sons to take the dog out behind the barn and shoot him, put him out of his misery. And nobody had the heart to do it, but my father said he stepped up and he went and took the dog behind the barn. He described a tearjerking description of how the dog looked up at him with these big, sad eyes and knew that the end was near. My father shot him, tears running down his face. But he said that day he became a man, that type of thing. I think he thought that was the manly thing, that you had to harden yourself and do the manly thing. So, I don’t know. I don’t know. I remember when I took LSD in 1967, this one time, and I was going along and the LSD had the usual hallucinations and everything and then I started getting this like negative energy from this Asian source. It started to take a visual form in my LSD saturated brain of this angry crowd of angry, far-east Asians, like far-east Chinese types. Just angry faces, thousands of them. And it became stronger and stronger and became very, very oppressive and painful. This feeling was like killing me. This feeling of just anger from these Asians and I thought well, it’s the Vietnam war so there’s got to be a lot of angry Vietnamese people at Americans, and the Chinese at that time were under Mao and had this focused extreme anti-American campaign going on there. I had seen these magazines and books in this Chinese bookstore in San Francisco, just filled with anger and hatred towards the United States and American Imperialism. So it could have been that, too, this collective anger towards the US, but it felt deeply personal against me. I started screaming in my mind “It’s not me! I don’t have anything to do with it — I’m not part of that, I don’t believe those things! I’m against the war!” But still it got like stronger and stronger until I felt like it really was going to kill me, this hatred. And then, I suddenly had this vision. Suddenly I had this vision, it’s my father. This anger is directed at him. And I saw this vision, of these Chinese people cursing, putting a curse on my father. And I remember later, when Maxon told me the story about him shooting the beggar, ‘ohhh yeah…’
Alex: What was Maxon's relationship with your father like?
Robert: Well, he was actually my fathers favorite of the three sons.
Crumb: Yeah, he was more manly as a boy than Charles or me. Charles and me were both sissies. Max was more masculine; he played sports and just had a more masculine way about him. But, when I had that vision of my father on LSD, and this hatred of him and the curse, I suddenly was free of it and it went away. The whole thing just kind of evaporated. The anger was no longer there, and I realized this anger had been passed down to me through my father somehow and was hidden under the surface of my consciousness for all those years. I don’t know how those kind of things work exactly, but there’s these undercurrents in consciousness. I don’t know how it works but it’s all very strange. And so my brother Maxon and I, we started calling this The Chinese Curse, that had been put on my father and handed down. Probably, the curse might have involved, if it’s a real thing, I don’t know, this curse would involve the first born son; the number one son, which is my brother Charles, who indeed was cursed; terribly cursed in his life. And aside from his artistic brilliance in writing and all that and passing that to me, his life was really a big, terrible miserable flop. His sexuality was all screwed up, he never left home and he ended up committing suicide. He was there to haunt my father and until my father's death my brother would sit in his bedroom up there, a complete and utter failure in the eyes of my father.
Alex: What year did your father die?
Robert: He died in ’82. Charles died ten years later, in ’92. It’s funny, my father always had this contempt for Charles. And Charles just couldn’t get out in the world and get his life started. My brother Maxon and I both somehow managed to do that, but Charles couldn’t do it. And my father tried to get him a job around 1970, he got him a job at the Philadelphia Enquirer, a daily paper in Philadelphia, as a phone solicitor, soliciting subscriptions over the phone. This job had such a bad psychological effect on Charles that after six months he tried to kill himself. Having the phone slammed down in his ear all day long, day after day, he just couldn’t take it. My father got him that job, ya know. And there was always this antagonism. My father got sick about a year before he died, he got very sick. To this day we don’t know what it was, no one was able to figure out what it was, but he had to lay in bed and my brother Charles had to nurse him. And Charles told me after my father died that he derived a pleasure from nursing my father. He got some kind of satisfaction out of that, and that for the first time in their relationship ever that they had any kind of feelings towards each other. My father died mysteriously in the Veterans Hospital in Philadelphia. My mother couldn’t get a straight answer out of these doctors as to what was wrong with him and what killed him. She never got a clear answer and then one day on the phone about a year later, I asked her about it I said, “Did you ever get any kind of answers out of those doctors?” and she said, “No, but you know, I thought maybe it might have something to do with the fact that he was sent into Hiroshima five days after they dropped the atomic bomb there.” The marines were sent in there to keep order or something, I don’t know. Maybe he got radiation sickness or something. Who knows. But, if that’s what harmed him it took a long time. It was 1945 to 1982, that’s almost thirty — 27 years.
Alex: But he had seen some things: the late ’30s he was in China, which by the way the Japanese were absolutely brutal and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Chinese people —
Robert: More than that. More than hundreds of thousands. One book I read said they think the Japanese might have killed in the 1930s and ’40s combined, 19 million Chinese all together. I read this book called the Rape of Nanking. Oh! One of the most horrible books I’ve ever read. Written by a young Chinese woman whose parents were there as eye witnesses.
Alex: So where did he go from there, after China where did he go?
Robert: Well, he came back and he was working in the recruiting office for the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1938, ’39. Because all the marines had to get out of China in, I think, 1938 or ’39, the marines withdrew from Shanghai. The Japanese took it over completely. So, he was in Philadelphia, that’s where he met my mother. My mother was working in a hamburger joint and my father would come in, in his uniform, and my mother just thought he was the handsomest thing she had ever saw in his marine blues. I’ve told you that before.
Alex: Your father grew up in this very decent, hard working family in the middle of Minnesota and was a decent, honest hardworking man who really wanted to do this job.
Robert: All the Crumb family, all the Crumb side are all those honest hardworking people. There wasn’t a single one that had any criminal tendencies whatsoever, not a single one of them. They had no scheming, con-artist in that family ever. They just believed in hard work, that’s it. You just work hard and that’s what you do. My father used to tell us when we were kids, ‘Life's mostly hard work, as you’ll learn.’ But he had problems. He had a red-hot temper. He exploded at me when I was five or six years old and started beating me and broke my collarbone accidentally. He used to beat Charles unmercifully. Charles got it the worst. So, I learned to steer clear of my father and stay out of trouble just watching what happened to Charles. Charles had a problem with all authority figures though: teachers, cops, store clerks, anybody with authority like that he always wanted to get under their skin and annoy them somehow. So he always got in trouble. My father would get reports about Charles and would beat him terribly. And that just made Charles worse, it just made him more and more twisted.
Alex: How did your Dad get along with your sisters?
Robert: Well, my older sister, she was the first one. She was Daddy’s little girl, and my older sister Carol still had this great fondness for my father and kind of had this worshipful attitude towards him. When we were adults, much later, I would talk to her about the family situation, she shed a light on it that I’d never thought of. She said that my mother, I always thought that my mother was persecuted by my father, but Carol kind of felt the opposite. That my mother persecuted my father, that my mother wasn’t very good looking, that she was crazy jealous that my father was very handsome and women were attracted to him all over the place. So my mother was insanely jealous and thought that he was having affairs. I don’t think he did, I just — I think he felt cruelly accused, unjustly accused. And my mother grew up in this kind of low-life, dissolute family. And she knew how to hurt him, to stick the verbal knife into him. It was awful, awful. He would get angry, and hit her and, you know, things would be flying around the room. My mother threw an ashtray at my father once, a big giant, heavy glass ashtray and he dodged out of the way and it hit me in the head. I just happened to be standing in the doorway. My mother came up running, “Oh! I’m so sorry Bobby. I didn’t mean for that to hit you!” I had a big gash in my head. [laughs]
Alex: But you're just a product of your parents, and you’re a highly sexed person, why can’t he be highly sexed? Why do you say he didn’t cheat? If he was handsome, most men who can, they will. So, why do you say that you don’t think he cheated?
Robert: I think he had a very rigid sense of honor about that kind of stuff. By the time I was like fifteen years old, they were fighting all the time and my mother would always start these fights with him and he’d come home from work and she’d start a fight with him. And he would always say, “I’m not going to get a divorce because nobody in the Crumb family has ever got a divorce and I’m not going to be the first one.” I don’t think he had time to have affairs, he just worked his ass off. He had two jobs, you know, a huge amount of the time I was growing up. A large portion of that period he worked like sixteen hours a day. I think he preferred work to being at home. For a while he had a job at a chicken plucking plant, talking about having to dunk these chickens in boiling hot water all night long.
He did have a hard life. That’s what ground him up. He had all these aspirations for being a writer, he still kept trying. He’d send stories to Readers Digest and stuff, but he wasn’t in the writing scene enough to really make it as a writer. Finally, the last thing he wrote was a booklet called “Training People Effectively.” Because after he got out of the Marine Corps, my mother finally like screamed and hollered and made him quit the Marine Corps, in 1956 after twenty years, and then he tried to make it in the corporate world, and he just, I don’t know, he never quite really made it in the corporate scene. I don’t know. But, he worked as a trainer of supervisors and people like that. And there was a lot of talk of employee motivation and everything, and stuff like that. He wrote this booklet about training people effectively. He had a smile on his face whenever he was out in the world among his colleagues in the business world. He had this real rigid clenched jaw grin on his face and then when he came home he would immediately drop that. He didn’t have that at home.
Alex: So growing up and seeing your mother the way she was, and seeing your father the way he was, how do you think it made you?
Robert: Well, it’s hard for me to answer that without, you know, having some Freudian analysis. All I know is that me and my brothers and my younger sister, not Carol so much, but my younger sister and my two brothers, all became extremely alienated and disassociated ourselves in our minds from our parents. In my mind, I was not like them at all. I was not. As far as I was concerned, I had landed from Mars and they adopted me or something. Aline said this about her parents too. She disassociated herself so totally from her parents because they were so fucked up and crazy. I kind of had some, a few little marginal things in common with my father. When I was a kid he was interested in history, he read a little bit like popular history, things like James Michener and stuff like that. And he would talk about that, and that would interest me a little bit. And sometimes he would talk about the ’30s or the war in a way that was interesting to listen to. He was a good storyteller in that way. But he was such a hard man and so cold, and removed and so stern and strict. He was a US Marine from central casting, he was like Lon Chaney in that movie “Tell It it to the Marines,” the silent movie. My father was totally that mold. He used to line us up on Saturday and walk us up and down and give us lectures. It was classic. My brother Charles got to this point of seeing my father as a big phony. Because when my father was out in the world among his peers he would put on this brisk sort of, “Hey! You bet! Hey! How you doin’?” kind of behavior, classic in his generation. But at home he was just grim and stern. By the time I left home, I was already so totally disassociated and alienated from them and their world they lived in and their values. My father was such a gung-ho loyal American, and in my late teens, I started becoming very left wing and socialist and all that. But he could not tolerate any talk like that and he just would blow his stack. He would start yelling in this booming, stentorian voice that he had that was scary. He had been a drill sergeant for a while in the US Marines.
Alex: So was there ever a point towards the early ’80s, or before he died, did you ever have a good conversation with him? Was there every any reconciliation or anything?
Robert: No, there wasn’t. The last time I saw him alive, he was in bed in this hospital and he had a tube down his throat and they had these mittens on his hands so he couldn’t pull it out. And he was like begging the nurse with his hands, in a praying position, to take a tube out of his mouth because he wanted to tell me something. And I would tell him about how I was married and had a kid by that time and Sophie was like, a year old. And he smiled at that, he was very happy to hear that. For a while he was kind of proud of my success, this was about ten years earlier, he had heard that I was successful with my comics, and all that. And then one of his colleagues showed him one of my comics with some obscene drawings that had something Snatch or Big Ass or something and he was so shocked and horrified by that that he wouldn’t speak to me for about five years or something. He was so embarrassed and ashamed that his colleague had came to him and said, “Is this your son who drew this?” He was from another world. My father was from another world. He used to talk about his childhood to me, it was like somebody talking about life in the nineteenth century or something. He would say “Yeah, you kids don’t know how soft you have it, how good you have it. When I was a kid, I had to get up and milk the cow at five in the morning and the water in the washstand next to the bed would be frozen solid,” and blah blah blah. He lived in a different world.
Alex: Yeah, I think maybe had he lived another ten years, maybe —
Robert: Yeah, I probably would have resolved things with him. I kind of regret that I never got to resolve things with him because yeah, if he had lived I would have just gotten to the point of drilling him for details about his life experience; the war and everything. I would have just interrogated him in depth about that. And not in a challenging way, just want to know, I want to know what he experienced. There was certain things he didn’t talk about. He mentioned very obliquely about being in Japan after the bomb, very obliquely; very little was said about that.
Alex: and you kind of skipped over World War II, I mean, he was in charge of enlisting before the war but the recruiting, but then, from ’41-’45 where was he? Stateside, or was he serving overseas?
Crumb: he didn’t actually get shipped overseas until he must have been very good as the recruiting officer because they kept him there until, I don’t know, something like early ’44 or something. And then finally he was over there in the islands, he was in the battle of Siapan, one of the worst battles of Pacific theater, he was in that. We used to watch “Victory At Sea” on TV when we were kids, and my father would be sitting there and he’d suddenly sit up “I was there, I was in that scene right there!” ‘Victory At Sea’ was this documentary TV series about World War II and they showed all kinds of footage, shot-during-the-war film footage and often about the Pacific theater, and fighting the Japanese, and he would talk about that sometimes, how terrible it was.
Alex: Did you ever see your parents being affectionate together?
Robert: Yeah, they would go back and forth between having like an adolescent, teenage sort of romping kind of affection and horsing around flirtatiously to screaming at each other. You know, they went back and forth. And I used to hear them having sex at night, sometimes. I could hear my mother, I couldn’t hear my father say anything but I could hear my mother. She was very expressive. She would say “Oh no, no, Oh no, please, oh no.” (Laughter) But even as a kid you could tell that she wasn’t actually being hurt or anything, you could tell it was something else. You could tell it was something else but you didn't know exactly what. Well, you know they had sex, they had five kids.
Alex: Going back to what Maxon said of you, that you were the only entrepreneurial one in the family, where do you think you got that entrepreneurial spirit?
Robert: I must have got that from my father. When I was 13 or 14, he made me go out and draw people’s houses and then his whole idea. He gave me this whole idea, he made me do it. You go out and you draw these houses, and you go up to the door, you knock on the door and you ask the person if they want to buy the picture, and you just take whatever they give you for it and say thank you. So I’d do that. I hated doing it, but my father used to make me do it when I was in my teens.
Alex: Did you ever sell pictures?
Crumb: Oh sure, they always bought them. I think there was only once or maybe twice when the people didn’t want to buy the picture. They would say ‘how much do you want for it?’ and my father told me to say ‘Just whatever you feel like paying.’ So sometimes I’d get a quarter, and one time this rich old lady gave me five dollars. So I quickly realized I had to draw rich people’s houses. (laughing) Don’t draw an ordinary family home, they don’t have any money. In recent years, a couple of those house drawings have come up on eBay. I hadn’t seen those drawings, you know, since 1959, 1960. I don't think they were particularly outstanding or anything. They were okay, nice drawings. It was interesting to see them again, to see the level of my skill at that time. I hadn’t seen them since I did them. I seriously doubt if they sold on eBay, but maybe. Who knows?
The old man was a firm believer in everyone pulling their own weight in the world. Put your best foot forward and your shoulder to the wheel. Don’t expect a free ride. I remember one time he was watching me draw – I must’ve been about 16 or 17. He quietly remarked, “Robert, you’ll never have to do a hard day’s work in your life.” Drawing couldn’t possibly be hard work in his book. Okay, it’s not like bailing hay. It’s clean work – you’re not sweating out in the hot sun. But I got the point. I made the most of my talents and inherited that thing about working and carrying your own weight. I got that from him, I guess. I could never bear the thought of mooching off others. Also, like my father, I can’t stand to have debts. Debts drive me crazy. I gotta pay it off as soon as possible. My mother was always buying stuff on the installment plan, which just annoyed the hell out of the old man. It was one of the things they fought about. He always talked about how reckless it was to live “beyond your means.” He was the opposite of my mother, very tight-fisted with money. When I graduated from high school, my mother gave me two gifts, a watch and a radio. My father, when he saw the watch and the radio, said, “We can’t afford it.” He took them back to the store, got the money back. My mother raved about what a mean, stingy miserly thing it was to take back my graduation presents. I said nothing. In truth, I didn’t care about the watch or the radio. There was nothing on the radio that I cared to listen to.
The U.S. Marine Corps was the real love of my father’s life, and the war was the high point. I think it was all down hill for him after that. And marrying my crazy, truly mentally ill mother and having five kids with her… It just went down and down and down for him ‘til life was really a living hell. You know, I hope he had a few love affairs on the side, to relieve the unremitting grimness. I hope he did, but I dunno… When would he have had the time?