R. Crumb’s Dream Diary
(Elara Press, 2018)
At the midpoint of R. Crumb’s Dream Diary, a new book by legendary cartoonist Robert Crumb, the artist details a dream he once endured called “Dream of Huge Woman in Thigh-High Boots,” in which he lusts after an overweight and incredibly tall woman who wears nothing but thigh-high leather boots. He attempts to resist her charms but eventually climbs into bed with her, despite the presence of a prying crowd that includes his wife Aline and a film crew. He is overcome with desire, shame, and anxiety so powerful it awakens him. Sounds about right.
Since his arrival on the psychedelic comics scene in the 1960s, Crumb has built a career on the abandonment of inhibition and subsequent excavation of humankind’s inherent filthiness. He is a dedicated chronicler of the id and no stranger to the public confessional. He has repeatedly mined every aspect of his personal life for his work, utilizing both caricature and portraiture to feature scenes from his own life and relationships. Incredibly prolific, he lent his vision to the mainstream (Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills album cover for example) and subculture (consider Zap Comix, or the serialized characters Fritz The Cat and Mr. Natural) but often returned to an inward gaze. To quote Crumb from the preface: “What could be more interesting in life than exploring this inner realm of the mind?”
Now, the artist has released a decades-spanning catalogue of his dreams. Despite his explicit intention to record the nightly activity of his subconscious, he admits to forgetting many details once awake. Consequently, most entries do not exceed a page or two. There are dreams of the mundane, like “Dream About Kittens” and “Dream About Sleds,” the disturbing, such as “Dream of Burning Dead Babies” and “Dream of Begging God To Help Me,” and, of course, the sexual: “Dream of Making Out With Big Female Athlete” and “Dream of Girl With Big Legs.”
Nearly every theme that pervades Crumb’s art—libido, ego, deviance, insecurity, violence and fear, to name a few—is explored in Dream Diary. As a result, for a Crumb enthusiast like myself, the book is both familiar and surprising, pleasurable and enlightening. It strikes and maintains the difficult balance between thrill and intimacy. When Crumb ends a section with “Sex and old records, story of my stupid life,” it is easy to nod in agreement. We have had the privilege of peering into his life for quite some time now, via the public persona arguably best established by the 1995 Terry Zwigoff-directed documentary, Crumb, which profiled the artist and his family.
Readers seeking new comics may be disappointed to find that only a few of the entries are accompanied by drawings. The entry that describes “Dream of Helicopter Girl” is made both more humorous and more intelligible by the accompanying drawing of Crumb sitting on a thickly-built woman as they fly through the air, and the 1997 nameless dream of a disturbing bird-like creature is made more potent by the illustration of what creature, exactly, haunts the artist. There is little context or analysis, indeed Crumb’s own confusion is palpable: after awakening from “Dream That I Was Czar Nicholas II,” he writes, “I marveled at this dream and wondered what it could mean, where it could have come from.” He had no plans to publish his journals until he was encouraged to do so by indie film stalwarts Sammy Harkham and Ronald Bronstein (Bronstein’s creative sensibility is notably similar to Crumb’s; his directorial debut, Frownland, is both lovely and disturbing) who together acted as editor and publisher.
What, then, does a dream journal add to this artist’s oeuvre, when he has already demonstrated a career-long commitment to a wholehearted embrace of all that is taboo? Bronstein writes, in a letter to Crumb included as an introduction, “We read these dreams and we see that an utterly lawless incontinent dream-state Crumb is literally no different from the controlled waking Crumb that populates and propels his art.” This may be Crumb’s greatest skill. He does not lose his essential self when he puts pen to paper, a not-so-simple feat—who among us feels that we possess the ability to express our fundamental truths at all times, or even ever?
The book certainly demonstrates an integrity. If we assume the entries to be faithful accounts of his sleep state, then readers who may suspect that Crumb's provocative shtick is inauthentic—I myself have wondered this on more than one occasion—will see that he was not engaged in deception when declaring long ago that he is unable to control what he draws. Dream Diary is a confirmation that the self he projects in his masterpieces derives from the deepest depths of his subconscious.
The book’s release has coincided with the opening of Drawing For Print: Mind Fucks, Kultur Klashes, Pulp Fiction & Pulp Fact by the Illustrious R. Crumb at David Zwirner Gallery (February 21—April 13, 2019). The show was comprised of previously published and archival work, accompanied by some never-before-seen sketches including an illustration of fellow Great American Transgressor Stormy Daniels. We live in a strange time, when truth is fraught. From his biting satires of suburbia in early underground comic papers to his 2017 dreams of magic cults and government agents, both the exhibition and book demonstrate Crumb’s admirable recklessness in pursuit of expressing what is true but unpleasant, tempting but dangerous, childish but necessary. As Roger Ebert wrote of the Zwigoff documentary, “Crumb is a film that gives new meaning to the notion of art as therapy.” Ebert was referring to therapy for the artist; I’d venture Crumb’s work is a form of therapy for us all—to consume his art is to engage in a curious form of psychoanalysis. Where is the line between public and private? On which side does pleasure lie? In “Dream of Surveillance Helicopter,” Crumb asks, “I had my dick out again, what’s that about?” Good question. We’ve been wondering.