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Aline Kominsky Crumb:

Me and Mr Crumb

On Friday, April 15th, Aline Crumb will be interviewed by Sarah Lightman as part of the exhibition Comix Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics at House of Illustration, King’s Cross, London. For more details and booking for ‘Arnie’s Air-Conditioner and other fond memories’, click here… To whet your appetite, here’s a cover-featured newspaper article (above) about her life and her work, which I wrote in 2007 to coincide with the publication of her graphic memoir Need More Love, for The Independent on Sunday’s Review magazine.

Aline Kominsky first met Robert Crumb at a party in San Francisco in late 1971. He was 29 years old, shy, scrawny and geekish, and already well on the way to becoming the most influential underground cartoonist of his generation; she was 23, with the sort of rock-hard buttocks and robust legs that could have walked straight out of a Crumb comic. In fact, he had already drawn such a character called, coincidentally, Honeybunch Kaminski in Snatch Comics three years previously (later used to raise funds to defend the publishers in the Oz Trial in London, above). The attraction was instant and intense.

“Robert had offered to show me around the house and we arrived upstairs,” she recalls in her new graphic memoir about her life, Need More Love. “There, he started to grope me and play with my face in a most unusual and exciting manner. I became totally absorbed in his strangeness and wanted to continue, but just as he was climbing up on my butt to take his first of thousands of ‘horsey rides’, his girlfriend Cathy showed up hands on hips ready to kick Robert in the shins (can’t blame her: we were in her bedroom.)”

Crumb admits she was “the girl of his dreams”. In 1969, in his aptly named Big Ass Comics, he had also drawn a sweet-voiced Jewish cowgirl called Dale Steinberger — Kominsky had recently arrived in California from Arizona, where she had been just that. It seemed fated. “I thought, how can someone know what I’m like and not know me?“ she says now. “I’m living this completely unique, bizarre life where this Jewish girl from Long Island is a crazy cowgirl out in small-town Arizona with a cowboy boyfriend and then this person I never met draws this comic about a Jewish cowgirl, and does another character with my last name. Am I this much of a stereotype or what?”

From the start, their relationship was not exactly straightforward — both had been married, Crumb had a son — but within a few months, they were together; a powerful, passionate and complicated arrangement that has continued — more or less, including a famously open marriage — for the last 36 years. “We didn’t know it would last this long, although I had this sinking feeling that this was my future,“ says Aline Kominsky Crumb. “I wasn’t ready to be seriously involved with anybody, I was having too much fun, but I felt this was it. I also had this prophetic dream around that time that we were living in a little white house and had a baby with curly blonde hair. That’s exactly what happened.”

And they have worked together, too. Kominsky Crumb has drawn her own comics since the 1960s and, even if her output has been overshadowed by her husband’s (whose hasn’t?), the autobiographical content and unrefined “non-style” of drawing has a devoted fanbase. They have drawn a comic called Dirty Laundry, detailing the Crumb family life, and produce regular collaborative strips for the New Yorker magazine — he does his parts, she does hers — although, as Crumb concedes, “She’s doomed to be overlooked as an artist, ignored, unappreciated.” Or maybe not. As the sprawling, 600-page Need More Love is released, Kominsky Crumb, now a glowing, glamorous 58-year-old, is set to be exposed to a new audience.

Aline Goldsmith was born in post-war Long Island to unhappy, divided parents. They were wealthy enough to have a family yacht named after her, but prosperity did not last long. “In my comics,” she writes, “I’ve reconstructed my impressions and stories from a selective, albeit drug-damaged, memory bank… there are recurring themes of sleaziness, out-of-control materialism, upward striving, tension, financial problems, selfishness and misery… not an atypical post-war jerk family atmosphere!”

Though hardly coming from an artistic household, she discovered painting at about the age of eight. “I had neighbours who were slightly more cultured than my parents who took me to museums,” she says. “When I saw real paintings, they made such a deep impression on me, it was just what I wanted to do.” Her parents might not have understood, but they paid for her to go to classes and relatives bought the copies she painted of Picasso and Modigliani to hang on their walls. “All they could think was, ‘Oh, she has some talent, we’ll give her money and that will encourage her,’ because they could only think in terms of reward involving money. Throwing money at me made me think, ‘OK, maybe this isn’t such a dumb pursuit after all.”’

By the summer of 1966, aged 17, she was smoking pot and taking speed and sneaking into Greenwich Village whenever possible. She became pregnant (“That summer was so wild… I can’t recall a single name of any the guys I slept with”) and ran away to the Lower East Side. Her father tracked her down and, when he banged on the door of her slum apartment, she couldn’t open it. “I was so scared of his reaction,” she says. “I had never told him anything about my real self, we had never talked about sex, I couldn’t imagine him seeing me like that.” It was a year before abortion would be legalised, and anyway, by the time she realised she was pregnant, it was too late. In June 1967, Aline gave birth to a boy, whom she put up for adoption. To this day, she has not contacted her first child, not wanting to interfere, though she has since left her details with the agency, in case he ever wants to contact her. Six months after the birth, Aline’s father died. “He was messed up in many ways, but there was that moment of realisation and communication right before his death. I felt very vindicated by that.”

After her father’s death, as if to erase their former life, Aline’s mother refused to even enter their house again; Aline and her grandfather cleared it and sold off nearly everything. Years later, her mother was throwing out one surviving trunk from her grandmother’s condominium storeroom in Florida. “Robert and I asked her if we could open this suitcase,” she says, “but my mother said, ‘No, there might be bugs in there.’ So we had to take this suitcase and open it in a parking lot. Inside we found all these incredible photos, hundreds of them. We asked my grandmother to identify all the relatives and that’s how we got those archives together. If we hadn’t done that then, it would have all been lost.” It was these albums that motivated Aline to make a visual autobiography with every period richly documented with photos, her paintings and her comics.

Unlike Robert, who grew up in the 1950s with the Disney ducks of Carl Barks and the stinging satires of Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad, Aline came to comics late, via the underground and Crumb himself. Another major inspiration was Justin Green, whose 1972 work Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary, about the sexual guilt instilled in him by his Catholic schooling, pioneered candid confessional autobiography in comics, an approach Aline also adopted. “Green is a genius, and the public never appreciated him because the stories are painful,” she says. “I made a pilgrimage to San Francisco just to meet Justin and asked, ‘Do you feel better now that you did that comic?’ And he said, ‘No, I still see those pecker rays!’ He was as crazy as ever.”

In Aline’s case, creating her sometimes shockingly frank first-person comics seems to have helped. “You can see in my earlier work I‘m much more full of anger and my drawings of myself are much uglier. It’s how I felt about myself, coming out of that unhappy childhood and adolescence. It took years of drawing that to feel more like my real self, but as time has gone on, my stories get a little more entertaining and I’m a little less hideous. So I have shed some of that really deep self-hatred.”

While her drawing style can look scratchy or ugly to some eyes, there is great warmth and humour in her comics. This particularly comes out in her joint work with Crumb, where he almost plays the straight man to her compulsive, Jewish-comedian character. “Robert had done comics like this with his brother Charles when they were kids,” she explains. “So one winter, when I fell and broke my foot, to stop me driving him crazy, he suggested that we try one. We enjoyed doing it and it developed to where we get into character and it’s almost become like a stand-up comedy routine.” More recently, the New Yorker has sent the couple to report in strip form on New York Fashion Week and the Cannes Film Festival, and for Valentine’s Day this year, they reflected on their life and love today.

These days, America might be a nice place for the Crumbs to visit occasionally, but they have not lived there since 1990. At that time, they were concerned about the growing conservative and fundamentalist Christian influence and decided it was the last place they wanted their daughter Sophie to be raised and educated.

Kominsky Crumb’s passion for all things Gallic led to her uprooting the three of them from the modest California home they had outgrown to a stone-walled, labyrinthine, 13-room sprawl in a village near Nimes. “We packed up all of Robert’s 78s and he said, ‘If one record breaks, I’m divorcing you!’ All the records arrived intact. We made a three-year plan of coming here and ended up staying. None of us spoke any French, so we all had to learn it on the spot: Sophie first, then me, Robert last.”

For Aline, raising her daughter has been one way to address the problems created by her own mother, nicknamed “Blabette” in her comics. “Sophie understands a lot of what I lived through just by knowing my mother. There is such a bigger cultural gap between myself and my mother than there is between me and Sophie, but that makes Sophie’s rebellion even harder and more esoteric in a way.” As well as being a gifted cartoonist, Sophie has marked herself out from her parents as a tattoo artist. “She tattooed me last year: she did one of her little cat characters on my upper back.” After three years in the US, Sophie recently moved back to a nearby village in France. “We raised her as a bohemian. We’re all outsiders wherever we are. I’m a wandering Jew and I feel as much at home here as I do anywhere.”

Historically, the village has a reputation as a haven for artists and outsiders, and now a strange sort of “Crumbville” is starting to build up. Down the road lives friend and fellow American cartoonist Pete Poplaski, who likes nothing better than dressing up in black as his hero, Zorro. The extended, exuberantly decorated Crumb household now shelters Aline’s younger brother Alex, who lives in an apartment downstairs and makes good money from buying Crumb memorabilia on eBay, taking them upstairs to be signed and then selling them on to collectors. “He had a drug problem and was very messed up as a result of our childhood,” says Kominsky Crumb. “He still feels like a wounded child, and I’m kind of the parent now.”

Also frequently under their roof is Aline‘s “second husband” Christian who, as well as being their local printer, handles all the practical chores so Robert can be left free to concentrate on his mammoth graphic-novel version of the Book of Genesis. Aline draws Christian in Need More Love as her “cute nude French guy”, smoking in bed, naked apart from a strategic towel, with a long baguette between his legs. Over the years, both Robert and Aline have had their share of extramarital affairs, some intense - Crumb still travels to Oregon once a year to visit an old flame. But thanks to this arrangement with her French “husband”, Aline says, “Robert feels less guilty because he’s always had other girlfriends and now he knows I won’t be lonely if he’s gone for a long time.”

After Aline and Robert’s often stressful, sometimes explosive, experiences of communal living and loving back in swinging California, their current mature relationship seems to suit her and her two husbands perfectly. “Partly it’s because we’re older and we just don’t care as much anymore, were like this big tribe, everybody has their role,” she says. “We’ve all been through so much stuff, everybody’s needs are satisfied and I guess that’s what counts.” Far-from-prudish Sophie might have jokingly called her mother’s ménage-à-trois “gross” but, as Aline points out, “Actually, Christian is like an uncle to her; he was just up at her house and fixed the plumbing. And she’s very good friends with his daughter, so for some reason it works out.”

As for the future, the Crumbs have no plans to move again. “I see us staying in this house till the end of our lives but travelling around. We’re never moving this junk again. One of the reasons Robert and I knew we could live together was that his collection of old records and cars, and mine of dolls, dishes, quilts and curtains, went together so well.” As Need More Love affirms, what has made their relationship work over all these roller-coaster years is lots of communication — in contrast to Aline’s upbringing. All their interests are shared or discovered through each other, and they enjoy being quietly together. “That’s most of our life, to tell you the truth,” she laughs. “Fortunately there’s lots of down time in between the big dramas that go into our comics.”

Posted: April 3, 2016

The article originally appeared in The Independent on Sunday Review, March 11th, 2007. With thanks for photograph above © Lora Fountain

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