by Paul Buhle
Sophie Crumb: Evolution of a Crazy Artist. Edited by S.A. and C. Crumb. W.W. Norton, ISBN 978-0-393-07996-8, 279pp, 8x10, $27.95
Make Me a Woman, by Vanessa Davis. Drawn and Quarterly, ISBN 978-1-77046-021-8, 176pp, 8x10, $24.95
(Swans - October 18, 2010) Autobiographical comic art books, unimaginable before the Underground Comix genre of the later 1960s-70s, took flight in the work of Justin Green, Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb and others, not quite fading with the collapse of the genre at the onset of the Reagan years. "Alternative Comics," finding and indeed creating a niche market where deeply idiosyncratic and personalized styles competed with sex comics and "classic" reprints, made their way in the 1980s-90s, setting the stage for a certain respectability and a living wage (or at least a good turnout at book festivals) for a few dozen comic artists in the new century.
The depressive, barely disguised childhood memories in Lynda Barry's stunning work, serialized in the Chicago Reader for the final decades of the old century, had perhaps marked the way to another level of specifically women's autobiographical work. If so, Marjane Sartropi's Persepolis (adapted to an outstanding French black and white film) and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home hit the big time in sales and admiration. Behind them, young by at least one generation tending toward a second, would be Lauren Weinstein, Vanessa Davis, and...Sophie Crumb.
Sophie was born into the most famous Couple's Comics imaginable, subject from birth to the artwork of dad Robert and mom Aline (Kominsky Crumb), whose self-revelatory comics were considered the acme of Jewish tell-all embarrassment of the 1970s-90s. New Yorker excerpts (Robert has since sworn off drawing for them) gave the two an international, upscale presence as art personalities of a distaff kind, grumpy, disapproving (in Aline's case, power-shopping) in a variety of locations, European film festivals to Manhattan. What an act to follow!
All the while, since she could pick up a crayon, Sophie Crumb was following. That is to say, she never stopped drawing. But while dad and mom came respectively from Delaware (with a serious stop-off in Cleveland, with a first wife and Harvey Pekar, among others) and suburban Long Island, Sophie is a sophisticated Frenchie, for better or worse. Whether she is a European comic artist or an American-type living in the south of France is a different matter, and texts vary from French to English throughout. Her saga, ups and especially downs, belongs to a troubled journey through the U.S. She gets better, comes back to France, and has a baby. She ends less unhappy, in any case.
But the point of this is less narrative and more documentation. Prefatory notes from dad and mom note that as they were drawing, day by day, she was drawing, too. Whether by example or, less likely, genetics, she got stuck with the opportunity and burden of a particular kind of artist. Let's hope France is as kind to her as it has been to her parents.
Vanessa Davis's Make Me a Woman does not begin her art when she is five or six. But the notebooks of her work from 2004 (when she started showing her work, going to comic events, etc) until now draw heavily upon her preteen and especially teen years. She insists that Crumb's example of speaking about himself set her in motion, gave her the courage to talk about nothing more important than herself. But she is at one with Aline Kominsky's psychological struggle over Jewish identity. Growing up in West Palm Beach, Florida, she has plenty of angst, none of which involves psycho parents, pure hatred of her surroundings, promiscuity, and the other elements that made Aline's work so shockingly special. These are lower-level anxieties: summer camp, sex fantasies and disappointing sexual realities, family talk (her father is good at consolation), Judaism of the religious kind, and perhaps most visually striking, being overweight.
Davis's strong point is her color work and she uses it to good effect here. West Palm and the little northern California town of Santa Rosa where she moved on a romantic whim seem warmer, their human inhabitants more full of life, than any black and white treatment could offer. The stories' strengths depend very much upon readers' continuing interest in her life, or rather her understanding of her life; yet the progression of the art through half a decade or so is interesting as well. She is an artist growing up.
Aging readers, like this reviewer, are bound to miss the political, antiwar, anti-racist, ecological comic art of the Underground years, but it is too early to say where the new generation of more personal art will finally lead. Keep tuned.
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About the Author
Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. Buhle is working on his ninth comic book. (back)