There's still lots that's uncomfortable, if not outright offensive. Like his sweaty, leering voyeurism. Angelfood McSpade is his caricature of an idiot, sex-starved black Amazon, naked except for her leopard-print skirt. "Just a simple primitive creature," he pens on a '68 strip. Even her name is an insult. Or check out his 1970 Jumping Jack Flash comic. It begins with a Charles Manson–type hippie guru mesmerizing a young woman until she eats his shit (not a figure of speech) and then joins his lady cult. The guy gets off on the gals stabbing one another to death; then he fucks the corpses.
In part, he's tweaking holier-than-thou liberal posturing, much as Jules Feiffer did in his Village Voice strips of the '50s and '60s. But Feiffer is always exquisitely refined. Crumb happily wallows in the gutter. There's great fun there.
Yet Crumb — except for when he's rhapsodizing about lust — is forever a contrarian, a curmudgeon. All his characters are either starry-eyed dimwits (usually the voluptuous girls) or jerks (the guys). He seems to have been born a cantankerous old coot. Then he ventures beyond satire into the real, awful thing — misogyny, bigotry, sadism. There's something Nixonian in his sordid grandeur, his Silent Majority reactionary raving against everyone else as phony, stuck-up, spoiled swells, his success mixed with paranoia and loathing — especially loathing of himself.
Crumb is self-aware enough to satirize this in a 1971 comic in which he appears on an imaginary TV talk show. The busty, leggy female host says, "Even in your most twisted, deranged . . . uhh . . . sick drawings, there's definitely deeper significance that goes beyond the crude sadistic surface level." The Crumb character agrees, then strangles her.
Like most of his '60s underground-comics peers, he's a dumb-ass storyteller, only rarely getting beyond brief adolescent fantasies, or nightmares. It wasn't until Maus, which Art Spiegelman began in the late '70s, and then folks like the Hernandez Brothers, Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Chester Brown, and Seth that comics storytelling matched the heights and, uh, sophistication of Crumb's drawing.
"R. Crumb Underground" offers more than 50 works from the '60s to 2007, nearly all them original drawings, and many with multiple pages. Much of it is excellent, and the show hits many key points — an unpublished Zap comics cover, a Keep On Truckin' poster, a Big Brother and the Holding Company Cheap Thrills album cover, a Janis Joplin acid blotter, a Harvey Pekar collaboration.
But because it draws from just one private collection, there's a key omission: Crumb's sketchbooks (which have been published in a grand series by Fantagraphics Books). Unencumbered by having to tell stories, his drawing and kinks and incredibly sensitive observation come into full flower. The show offers inklings of this — a sketch of people filling a street, a tender lusty drawing of three young women in their underwear, a trio of blues-album-cover sketches of lonely guys playing guitars in vacant lots or hanging around rundown liquor stores. In his comics Crumb distills the pop culture zeitgeist; in his sketchbooks he distills life as it's lived and dreamed.