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Monday, September 18, 2006

The Sweeter Side of R. Crumb -- Leave your sense of irony at the door, folks. While the title may recall Dave Berg's long-running Mad Magazine satire strip "The Lighter Side of [fill-in-the-blank]," this beautiful new hardcover collection from MQP is serious about offering up Crumb for those who might be intimidated or turned off by the self-confessed "nasty, negative misanthropic sex pervert" (as Crumb calls himself in his droll, confessional and explanatory introduction). Mainly, it seems, it's aimed at women, and if the pastel flowers and kitty-cat on the cover weren't proof enough, Crumb comes right out and says it in his introduction: "If I were a woman, I probably wouldn't like my work either." But MQP and Crumb and his wife Aline assembled this volume anyway, and perhaps being a bit too doubtful of his own appeal, Crumb says if the approach to female readers doesn't work, at least "maybe they'd be able to stomach it enough as a gift for their boyfriends."

Crumb is without question one of our finest living cartoonists, and beyond the targeted marketing and tongue-in-cheek self-doubt evident in the introduction, The Sweeter Side of R. Crumb is a welcome new assemblage of beautiful, vital drawings alive with the interest and respect Crumb clearly invests in his life-drawing subjects. There are a few strips, often about the early years of daughter Sophie, but the pieces that impress and arrest the eye are the mind-boggingly detailed French streets, the lovingly rendered family members, and yes, even a few pretty girls. If a nipple is evident here or there, there is nothing in evidence that would offend anyone to the left of "The Reverend" Fred Phelps, so the book actually is gift-worthy for any man, woman or child in your life, especially those with an interest in art in general and cartooning in particular.

Thankfully, Crumb's personal history pervades the collection, and I was stopped in my tracks by the portrait of Crumb's brother Charles as a young man. I defy you to study the image and not be immersed in the sense of love, respect, affection and lost potential Crumb conveys in the drawing. It is, in its way, Charles Crumb's tragic biography, rendered in a single, masterful image by the man who knew him and loved him best -- heartbreaking and awe-inspiring, all in one single drawing. I think it's the eyes that contain the heart of the drawing, but you must judge it for yourself.

Other people that have touched Crumb's life are rendered herein, from his first wife Dana and their son Jesse to second wife Aline and their daughter Sophie (and later on, it seems, a few of her friends). A smattering of hotel room still-lifes, advertising art and musician portraits are also included, but to me the most compelling images in the volume are always the people and places that have defined Crumb's life. He is, finally, one of the greatest reporters of his own life in cartoon form, a foreign correspondent from an unknown country of unique life experience that he generously, compulsively shares through his art. There's no greater proof that comics are art than the life's work of R. Crumb, and The Sweeter Side of R. Crumb is a wonderful and wondrous showcase for that art.

I suppose it might seem cynical, creating a book to market to women like this. If Crumb's self-effacing introduction doesn't eliminate those concerns, then let this: The Sweeter Side of R. Crumb may be the least-perverse, most accessible book the cartoonist has ever issued. But it is still 100-percent Crumb, and that makes it
absolutely essential.



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