Secrets to a Successful Marriage: an Interview with Aline Crumb

Aline and Robert Crumb are one of the great couples of comicdom. Robert Crumb is know for such iconic underground comix creations as Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, as well as a recent graphic adaptation of the Book of Genesis. Aline Crumb was an early fixture in underground comix as well, and author of the raw and hilarious memoir Need More Love. We were lucky to get a chance to speak with Aline Crumb about Drawn Together, a new book collecting comics that the duo created together over several decades of marriage. The book contains plenty of eye-popping artwork and raunchy humor, with guest cartoonist appearances by Sophie Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns and others. At the same time, Drawn Together depicts a very close and dynamic partnership between two people whose journey together never ceases to evolve and amuse.

NFNT: You and your husband are both are notable cartoonists in your own right – tell me about your background.

Aline Crumb: I was a painter before I met [Robert Crumb] and I started drawing comics in 1971. I was in the first Wimmen’s Comix and that was before I got together with him. So I already had started drawing comics but I still painted – I still paint now. I’m essentially a visual artist.

NFNT: When and how did you start cartooning together?

AC: The first year I was living with him we were up in the country in northern California, really in a remote place, and I fell and broke my leg. I was going crazy so – when he was a kid he used to draw two-man comics with his brother Charles and they would just go back and forth – so he suggested we try doing it. We did it in the beginning just to amuse ourselves really.

So that’s how we got started, and we found that it worked really well between us,  which is not obvious. At one point we tried to get some other cartooning couples to see if they could participate in a project with us and nobody could do it. As far as we know, we’re the only couple in the world or that’s ever existed in cartooning that’s ever done this to the degree that we’ve done it. We know couples where one person writes and the other person draws or vice versa but we don’t know any other case of a couple where each one draws themselves and writes their own dialogue and it’s sort of like a conversation.

NFNT: What is your process when you work together – do you both draw at the same time or do you write it first?

AC: We write it first – whenever we travel together or even go out to dinner or whatever we always have a notebook with us. We write all these mundane stories – something will strike us in a really funny way and we’ll write a story. One of the last stories in the book is called “The High Road to the Shmuck Seat” and that took place in a café in France where we had kind of an amazing revelation after years of marriage.

We write them and then we pick out a story. We pencil out the panels and do all that and then we put the dialogue in each panel in pencil. Depending on how many pages it is we’ll do the whole story – not if it’s a thirty-page story but if it’s like a three or four page story we do the whole thing. Otherwise, if it’s a long story, we’ll do two pages at a time. After we have the dialogue penciled in we each draw ourselves in in pencil, and then when that’s done one person starts inking and then passes it to the other one, and then we just go back and forth like that.

We work in the same room when we’re working on stuff together. We have two desks in Robert’s studio – normally I don’t work in his studio but for this I do. So we have the desks kind of up against each other and we work looking at each other. We don’t do it all the time, this is just one thing that we do. But it’s interesting and in a way it’s more fun than working by yourself, I have to say.

NFNT: You’ve got someone else sort of pushing you in different directions.

AC: Yeah, you get this feedback and you take off –  it’s like improv a little bit. A lot of the time you bounce off the other person and their ideas, one thing leads to another, and sometimes it ends up quite different than we intended. If we have something we wanted to say we try and make a point to stick with that a little bit, even though it still doesn’t always come out as we intended.

NFNT: Some of these comics have been collected previously but is the one you mentioned – “the High Road to the Shmuck Seat” – is that one new to this collection?

AC: That one’s new, “Dinner with Slacky” is new and the one about senior sex is also new. Those are all new stories.

We really wanted to do something really raunchy and sexual because there’s nothing more disgusting than the thought of old people having sex so that seemed like an important idea.

My daughter looked at it and she said “Oh my god, you’re sixty-four, I thought by now you’d stop embarrassing me with this stuff!”

NFNT: You both take a very self-conscious tone throughout the book, frequently worrying about what readers will think. At the same time, you often show things either as they are, or at least not in the most flattering light. Nothing’s held sacred. What motivates that?

AC: It’s some deep neurotic need to say “Look how disgusting I am, do you still like me?” I don’t think it’s much more than that. I could put it in more complex and pretentious sounding terms but I don’t think it would be more accurate.

NFNT: In some of those final stories you do talk about self-awareness as a positive thing – so it seems like all the self loathing  ultimately leads to an awareness of yourself and what’s going on around you.

AC: Well I do think the dialectic of self-criticism is really important and it’s an important theme of all of the work – it’s a theme of my life. In comics I’m making fun of it but it’s a very serious thing actually –  but it wouldn’t be very enjoyable to read if I didn’t make it funny. I do think that constant self-criticism is really important. As you get older, hopefully you have more detachment about yourself and you’re taking that criticism in a different direction a little bit, evolving. But I do think that the ability to self correct and to improve and to move ahead is one of the essential things in life – one of the reasons long term relationships can work is that you’re both constantly refining yourselves and you’re redefining the relationship as you grow and change. You’re always criticizing and always looking at where your fault lies and how you can improve.

In my old age I’ve gotten into yoga and Robert meditates – we both have gotten more into another level of looking into ourselves, as hopefully you do when you get closer to the end of your life.

NFNT: It’s interesting because obviously you’re real people, but in the book I have to read you as characters. And you do mature over the course of the book.

AC: Thank god!

NFNT: It made me think that these are adult comics in two very different ways. There’s the raunchy sex stuff, and underneath that there’s the story of two people maturing, which is a different kind of “adult” – it’s actually a book about adults and adult concerns.

AC: For me, I think our work is not pornographic particularly or erotic at all – it makes fun of sex, actually, as it does everything else. So to me it doesn’t count really as pornography – I don’t think it’s titillating at all. I think it’s the opposite. It brings sex down to the level of eating and everything else, which is just a part of life. It’s really the opposite of titillating. But some people just see images and nothing more.

NFNT: What’s next for you? Are you still making these comics? I know you said you were painting…do you have any projects you’re working on now?

AC: I’m working on a story now about our recent trip we took to Serbia. I’m also thinking of working on a book by myself now.

Robert’s got two or three projects he’s thinking of doing he’s not sure which one he’s going to do. So we’re kind of putzing around here, we’ll see.

Or maybe we’ll retire! We’re not sure. We play with our grandchildren a lot.

NFNT: I did like it that in the book, while almost everything is collaborative, there are a few stories that either he did by himself or you did by yourself, and it’s nice to have that contrast in there where we can see your individual styles.

AC: Oh good. That one where we each do a day in our lives – I thought that was pretty funny. I wasn’t sure how much that would work but I like that it’s just this very small slice of time and so many annoying things can happen in that small space. I’m glad it worked because it’s different than the other stuff.

My one criticism of this book, and I don’t know if this is true, is that it might be too much – I don’t know if it’s a book that you should read in one sitting. It might be a book that you want to look at and read a little bit and then put it down and read again later because it might be too much of us in your face for one sitting – that’s my feeling about it.

NFNT: Recommended in small doses.

AC: Yeah! Maybe in several sittings. I think some of the stories are maybe a little bit of a relief too.

NFNT: What kind of response have you seen so far?

AC: One reason why I like to do book signings out in public once in a while is because I like to see who reads the work. Really it’s all ages – it’s really interesting. All ethnic groups and everything – it really amazes me, that people from such different backgrounds – different religious and socio-cultural backgrounds can relate to it. It crosses over a lot of lines and that always amazes me. I’m really happy to see that, because if you don’t do that once in a while you really don’t know who you’re writing for anymore as you grow older and your audience disperses and they become grandparents or die off, you wonder “who’s reading this stuff?”

It’s interesting to go out there – I just came back from the Miami Book Fair and I did stuff in New York and that was very stimulating . I get to see people’s faces and talk to them – so then when I’m working I imagine them, and that’s really good for me.

NFNT: I was curious about that. When you talk about “what will the readers think of us”, I was wondering who you were thinking of as the readers.

AC: Well now I have a whole new crop of people I can think of because they’re a lot younger than I expected. I used to think I’m talking to these old hippies and now I see all these other generations reading this stuff so that really inspires me. It’s kind of what makes me want to produce this book now too. The name of my next book, if I do it, it’s going to be called “Talentless Parasite”. That’s what someone said about me in terms of working on the same page with my illustrious husband. They said “he’s really great, and she’s just a talentless parasite.” I thought well, that’s so great! Once someone called me the Yoko Ono of underground comics years ago and I use that a lot, I thought that was pretty good. But now I like talentless parasite – I felt that’s a poetic book title. So that’s my title.

NFNT: That’s good that you can own that too, rather than feel pressured to stop making work.

AC: Yes, exactly.

NFNT: Well I’ll look forward to reading that, so I hope you do it!

AC: All right well you’ll have to be patient. I’m not fast. I teach yoga and pilates and I have an art gallery and I play with my grandchildren – I’m busy.

NFNT: Sounds like a good life.

AC: Yeah, it’s okay! I can’t complain.

Drawn Together
by A. Crumb and R. Crumb
Published by Liveright
ISBN: 9780871404299