Though The R. Crumb Handbook promises to sum up the art and life of "America's Best Loved Underground Cartoonist," it's only a partial memoir. For the first half of the book, Crumb charts his path from a dreary middle-class childhood to his emergence as a comic-book artist in the late '60s, with illustrations from his work selected by collaborator Peter Poplaski. The other half of The R. Crumb Handbook is more of a manifesto, as Crumb—with more curatorial help from Poplaski—reflects on art and American culture, and where his work fits into both. It's too bad the memoir half doesn't run longer, since a lot of the information about Crumb's early life has been well-covered, primarily in the documentary Crumb. But the manifesto does raise vital questions about whether Crumb's explicit, satirical drawings make more sense hanging in a museum in front of a detached, forgiving audience, or whether they need to be on cheap, disposable newsprint in order to leave their inky stain.
Crumb's primary influences have been newspaper strips and funny-animal stories, both of which rely on brevity, and Crumb himself is a one-or-two-page kind of guy. In a medium that's been increasingly moving toward graphic novels, the lack of any substantial long-form Crumb work—aside from his sketchbooks—has been an unexpected handicap. The R. Crumb Handbook may be that overdue essential volume. It's an anthology and an encapsulation, and it explains a lot of his contradictions.
Crumb claims he bucked at his early success because he didn't want to become "a greeting-card artist for the counterculture," but he also describes his lifelong efforts to become a cartoon character, starting as a boy, when he wore a turned-down cowboy hat everywhere he went. Late in the book he frets, "What I don't want to do, what I dread more than anything, is to leave a legacy of crap… more of the second rate, mediocre junk that future connoisseurs will have to move out of the way so they can get at the good stuff." But he also confesses that the junk is what's fueled the bulk of his art, as he's sifted through the wretched iconography of American popular culture, searching for meaning. Crumb's awareness of his own limitations and hypocrisies provides a head-clearing howl that runs through The R. Crumb Handbook. More than anything, it's the sound of a man who's spent his life exposing the ongoing commercial pitch of American life, only to see his kind of rebellion become another marketing technique.