Monday, October 05, 2020


 Artist Robert Crumb stumbled into the perfect sweet spot.

If he'd been born a few years earlier, he would've been censored, jailed or burned at the stake.  If he'd been born a few years later, during the era of MeToo and Black Lives Matter, his work would've been shunned.

If he'd been less crazy, his art wouldn't have stood out.  If he'd been crazier, he might've followed his brothers into dysfunction and suicide.  Instead, he found the perfect middle ground for a productive and lucrative career.

If Crumb started a few years earlier, art directors would've dismissed him for his lack of technical skill.  Fortunately for Crumb, the illustrators who immediately preceded him fought to open popular taste to naive and crude drawing, placing a premium on personal authenticity and eccentricity. Fine artists who preceded him legitimized comic art and pop art, creating an upward path for Crumb from underground comics.

Crumb wasn't the only oddball artist to benefit from the climate of the 1960s.   The new combination of rock music and psychedelic drugs produced an entire school of poster artists who, in another era, might have trouble finding gainful employment. 


I was thinking about this as I read the tributes to artist Ron Cobb, who passed away last week.  Cobb, too, benefited from that moment of artistic ferment in California. 


Cobb was a California high school student who loved to draw. After high school he worked as a mailman before being drafted to Vietnam. When he left the army he returned to a home transformed by mid-60s craziness. Writer and friend R.H. Fischer reported:

The Vietnam war was less traumatic than was his vast leap out of Army life (structured and predictable) into the great unknown that was Bohemian Hollywood in the early sixties.

One sign of the big shift was the emergence of underground newspapers, such as The Los Angeles Free Press which was launched by an unemployed tool-and-die worker and former organizer for the Socialist Workers Party.  Cobb wandered in the door and became their resident cartoonist.  The street paper became a success and within 5 years Cobb's left wing editorial cartoons were syndicated in 90 newspapers. The 60s revolution, flower power, radical politics and the summer of love swept across the nation, planting Cobb's cartoons in previously establishment publications.


But that wasn't the end of it.  In the 1970s, a lot of creative energy shifted to making science fiction and fantasy films.  The screenwriter for the film Alien lived near Cobb and happened to see him drawing a space ship for an album cover for the rock group Jefferson Starship.  He drafted Cobb to work on the movie-- a job which led to Cobb's involvement with Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian. 

While he worked on Conan,  Cobb ran into a young Steven Spielberg working down the hall.  Cobb's drawing impressed Spielberg who suggested that Cobb direct his next movie about people who have a close encounter with extra terrestrials. Not bad for a middling high school student who liked to draw.  

In short, the 1960s created an artistic interregnum, when artists who might normally live and die in caves on the outskirts of town were free to wander the newly vacated corridors of power in the town center.  They could even occupy the city hall where Norman Rockwell once reigned.  

All the forces of nature and the marketplace seemed to combine to create a sweet spot for unconventional talents and eccentricities.  Robert Crumb's weird masturbatory fantasies sold for millions of dollars and transported him to a chateau in France.  Stoners and druggies achieved lasting fame with their psychedelic posters.  And Cobb, the unschooled Army vet had the opportunity to apply his unorthodox creative visions to shape some of the biggest films of the century.  


Tom said...

Quite a story David!

MORAN said...

Cobb's political cartoons are awesome.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

MORAN--Yes, I also find those cartoons magnificent.

DAVID--Cobb was actually hired by Dan O'Bannon, who later also wrote Alien, for Dark Star, John Carpenter's debut feature. You probably just left that out for storytelling, but Dark Star was such a hugely influential film (and launched the careers of quite a few people) that it feels worth pointing out here in the comments.

As a young filmmaker I feel the other side of such stories--endless wondering whether I am born at the right time and that sweet spot will appear. I guess we'll find out!

Chris James said...

Just now finding out about his death. Was flipping through an Alien design book just a few days ago. Cobb was one of the greatest designers of tech the entertainment industry ever saw. Top marks on both form and function, as well as iconic-ness. I think only Syd Mead rivaled him. I wonder if Scott and Cameron have made any statements about his passing.

Wes said...

Great stories! I had loads of rock posters in the late 1960's -- always loved that crazy beautiful art.

Glad you singled out Crumb for praise. You don't have to like him to find him interesting. I always loathed his style, his meaness, his crudeness, and his cynical view of people. But he is remarkably compelling and fascinating.

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- Yes, the art world is overflowing with such stories-- fascinating coincidences and sweet spots miraculously opening up just when things seem darkest. If you're not careful enough, it could have you believing in fate.

MORAN-- Yes, they were quite distinctive in their day. Cobb combined technical drawing skills with a realistic style that was unusual in the editorial cartoons of that time (and of course he was far more liberal).

Benjamin de Schrijver-- Yes, it's always a struggle deciding what to leave out; my posts are already longer than they should be, but there's so much interesting material. I agree with you about Dark Star, an important film and another element in creating the "sweet spot."

David Apatoff said...

Chris James-- Agreed. There was nothing in his professional training or his education to explain his artistic accomplishments. You'd think he'd worked in the aerospace industry with an advanced degree in technical drawing. Instead, he just had a vivid imagination.

Wes-- I share your views about Crumb. No matter how creepy, he is indeed "remarkably compelling and fascinating."

Richard said...

Pseudo-Artists like Crumb and Cobb were heavily involved in the downfall of all that is good.

Guys like this should be in prison, not making big budget Hollywood garbage.

Li-An said...

Great hommage. I did not know his life and it’s quite interesting. You always need a little luck (or good fate?) to succeed.

Chris James said...

David, Cobb referred to himself as a frustrated engineer. Aliens producer Gale Ann Heard said Mead would make things look cool, Cobb would make things that could work. So I assume he was self educated in the relevant fields associated with the kind of designs he produced.

David Apatoff said...

Richard-- "the downfall of all that is good"???? That's a mighty sweeping indictment. I'm not even prepared to agree that everything good has fallen.

Li-An-- yes, luck, kismet, fate, karma... we should take anything we can get.

Chris James-- I've heard that about Cobb, but I was never quite sure what he meant. He said he wanted his space vehicles to be absolutely accurate but even the experts at NASA didn't know what was required at that point. Even if he read about rocket propulsion or the conditions for interplanetary travel after high school, I'm guessing most of his designs for Alien were fanciful.

Dale Stephanos said...

Great tribute, David. I often think about that sweet spot and wonder who among us might have been one of the greats in their interests if luck, preparation, and timing all lined up.

Anonymous said...

"The Downfall Of All That Is Good"

The documentary. Coming soon to Youtube.

1hr 45mins

Richard said...

> “ I'm not even prepared to agree that everything good has fallen.”

Nietzsche declared God dead long before faith had disappeared from the west. Still, I think he was right. With the core of religion eroded, we will now spend the next 150 years watching god’s decline into a fairy tale, like elves and fairies before him.

Similarly, I believe the core myths that made man noble are also dead. Now we will spend the next 300 years watching man decline into, to borrow from Nietzsche again, what is best described as The Last Man.

David Apatoff said...

Dale Stephanos-- yes, "man a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air."

Richard-- I'm not sure Nietzsche viewed "the core of religion" as anything more than a yoke for the masses. But whether he did or not, an ubermensch watching the uses to which religion is put today might wish to hasten god's decline in order restore goodness. One has only to watch evangelicals in the US dance around the bonfire of a grotesque antichrist to realize that something has gone horribly astray.

kev ferrara said...

“The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly selective, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. They become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.” — Robert J. Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: : A Study of “Brainwashing” in China, 1961.

Richard said...

“I'm not sure Nietzsche viewed "the core of religion" as anything more than a yoke for the masses.”

I’m not Nietzschean scholar, but I don’t think a “yoke for the masses” would be how he described Christianity, rather the opposite.

Nietzsche thought that Christianity was a yoke not for the masses, but for the Nobility/the Overman.

Monotheistic religion concocts a morally-concerned higher-power that outranks even the King, and so the King’s actions may now be litigated by the masses’s quibblers to the degree to which they measured up to God’s.

Absent Christianity, the King has no one to answer to but his own aesthetic sensibilities. (For what it’s worth, Nietzsche was not nearly so critical of Greek/Roman religion, which he thought was illustrative of what is good and bad/strong and weak/beautiful and ugly.)

“But whether he did or not, an ubermensch watching the uses to which religion is put today might wish to hasten god's decline in order restore goodness.”

Nietzsche was interested in what happens to man when he is let loose from that sort of Abrahamic goodness or moral obedience.

His hope was that man would thus able to focus on bigger things (namely, the creation of beauty, strength).

But he makes clear that his fear is more likely -- that with the death of traditional values and the explosion of Industry and Technology, man would come to perfectly embody Christian ethos – completely devoid of the Will to Power: small, ugly, comfortable, silly.

And he was right, all around us the Christians are closing in: from BLM to Antifa to Bernie to Harris. With their Christian-fundamentalist slogans of universal justice and strict anti-judgement, their puritanical moralism -- the new Children’s crusade is burning down a Tower of Babel near you. Christ is overjoyed, his new zealots are firmly against all judgement, unless that which they are judging is judgement itself, which they will judge firmly.

“I have to live for others and not for myself: that's middle class morality.”

Li-An said...

I’m quite surprised to see answers to Richard’s comment as such a hateful comment is a good proof that he is not a person interested in beauty (I mean real beauty coming from the heart, not beauty representation).

I always considered that "do not feed the troll" is the best advice on the Internet (and, yes, I just have thrown a bone to the troll, sorry for that).

David Apatoff said...

Richard-- I used to know a little bit about Nietzsche. Then I visited the cartoonist Leonard Starr in his home and he pulled a volume off his library shelf called "My Sister and I" by Friedrich Nietzsche. It was alleged to be the long lost autobiography of Nietzsche in which he confessed to his incestuous affair with his sister, his torrid affair with Wagner's wife, and other racy amusements. Apparently the book showed up in the 1950s (in English) with no pedigree and became a source of entertainment for randy young men of that era. Because Starr was no longer of the age where it could do him any good, Starr gave the book to me.

Unfortunately, now "My Sister and I" has become so commingled with Nietzsche's other books in my mind that I can no longer distinguish them.

kev ferrara said...

"My Sister and I, allegedly by Friedrich Nietzsche (Amok Books, $9.95 paper), first appeared in 1951 in English, the original German manuscript having ‘disappeared’. The translation was purportedly by the Nietzsche scholar Dr. Oscar Levy, who also wrote an introduction to the book, endorsing it as authentic. I say purportedly, because Levy had actually died four years before this; his daughter denounced the book and Levy’s involvement in it as a complete fabrication.

My Sister and I did manage to elicit an intrigued and favorable review by a librarian in the Saturday Review of Literature before the axe fell. Writing in the Partisan Review (May/June 1952), Walter Kaufmann pointed out mistakes in the introduction which no one with Oscar Levy’s command of Nietzsche would have made and uncovered discrepancies in the book which would render it the oddest of Nietzschean texts. Within a few years after Kaufmann’s review the book dropped from sight, though I note that its publisher, Seven Sirens Press of New York, was claiming it was in its ninth printing in 1953. (I’d like to know the size of those press runs.) Behind the book looms one Samuel Roth, the apparent owner of Seven Sirens. He seems to have been involved in several strange publishing schemes, to have spent time in jail, and to have been publicly denounced, for reasons not made clear here, by a committee of intellectuals that included Croce, Einstein, T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, Hamsun, Hofmannstal, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Maurois, Pirandello, Bertrand Russell, Valéry, and Yeats." - Denis Dutton

"A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest." - Paul Simon

Richard said...

It certainly appears that it was a forgery, particularly where Nietzsche reports Wagner making jokes that only work in English;
“ Wagner once told me he placed me in his heart between [his wife] Cosima and his dog, in other words between two bitches.”

Nonetheless, it was an amusing anecdote David.

chris bennett said...


Is the Paul Simon you refer to the Garfunkel one?

kev ferrara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chris bennett said...

I'm simply not up with what Paul Simon said...
Thanks for the confirmation.

kev ferrara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chris bennett said...

Yes, I should have tried that first. Sorry for wasting your time.