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Robert Crumb. «A Short History of America». CoEvolution Quarterly, nº 23, Sausalito (CA): Point. 21 September, 1979, 22-25.

[The following text has been excerpted from the article ‘A Short (Architectural) History of the 20th Century. Review, Celebration and Tribute to 40 Years of “A Short History of America” by Robert Crumb’ In: ARQ No. 103: Ecology, Winter 2019, 64-75.]

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[…] A Short History of America.

As a kid growing up in the 1950s I became acutely aware of the changes taking place in American culture and I must say I didn’t much like it. I witnessed the debasement of architecture, and I didn’t much like it [1].

This was the context in which “A Short History of America” ​​was bred, right on the verge of the 1980s. This interest in representing the evolution -and eventual decline- of the urban landscape is, as we have seen, something that can be dated back to Crumb’s teenage years, and he had already tackled it, in an oneiric -lysergic, perhaps- version in a previous story, “Mr Natural’s 719th meditation [2]” (1970). In it, Crumb appropriated a common trope of the European satirical vision of American developmentalism and showed, in three tight pages and a total of 34 panels, the creation and disappearance of a ‘boom town’ that blossomed around the titular character while he meditated peacefully in the desert. “A Short History …” lay somewhere between the absurd fiction of Mr Natural and the documentary vocation of the ‘sketchbook reports [3]‘ in Harlem or Bulgaria that Crumb had developed for Help! at the beginning of his career in the mid-1960s, drawing a fictional but surprisingly faithful chronicle of the evolution of America (understanding America as the United States) in a little over a century. The panels do not include a specific chronology, but the story works particularly well if we look at it as a chronicle from the 1850s to the 1960s, the decade in which Crumb started his career [4].

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Robert Crumb. «A Short History of America». Pages 1 and 2.

Thus, the first scene, which showed a natural landscape previous to human intervention, would place the appearance of the railway in the second panel around 1860, and that of the telegraph line, along with a settler’s farm, and a primitive road of rammed earth, in 1870. The 1880s, which would begin in the fourth panel, would witness the arrival of the first neighbors, who, in the following two decades would develop into an entire rural population: also, the original road would be progressively widened, and the railway lines would be duplicated by 1890. By this time, several levels had already been added to the utility posts holding the telegraph wire, as it should in a period in which the telephone appeared on the East Coast of the United States. By 1900, the scene’s foreground had become an intersection; on the corner, a simple post announced the names of the former roads, now promoted to the category of streets. Despite its still semi-rural look, this sixth vignette, which closed the second page, gave a glimpse of what was to come: in the background, warehouse-like buildings located behind the railway lines denote the flourishing of commerce. Its nature is suggested by Crumb with just a few light strokes, which the reader identifies as signs. But, more significantly behind the original farm, where until not far ago, some small agricultural structures stood, now we find a brick building, with its party wall rising above the -now- small wooden building.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Crumb’s ‘short history’ has been published in different formats since its first appearance, an adaptive ability favored by its narrative structure. Consisting of panoramic panels of the same size always presenting the same exact framing of the same place throughout time, the story does not seem, a priori, to depend on the page layout for its correct reading as most comics do. Working as a sequence of isolated (although related) images chronologically organized it lends itself particularly well to being translated into other formats. On one end we would find the simultaneity of the poster published by Kitchen Sink Press in 1981, which reorganized the complete sequence in a single, overwhelming page. On the opposite end, the film sequence with which Zwigoff closed his documentary presented the story as a series of slides. However, when one analyzes the original publication, it is possible to find narrative delicacies that are lost when the structure of the page is broken. It can be argued, for instance, that a traditional comic-book strategy is at work, making each page end with a sort of ‘cliffhanger’ which, in a certain way, announces the subsequent development of the story. The first two pages, which in the chronology suggested above end with the turn of the century, portrayed the emergence of urban life. The first one concluded with the construction of the first farm in a previously untouched landscape. The ending of the second, in which the farmhouse had been relegated to the status of a small single-family house located on a tiny corner plot, marked, on the other hand, a turning point in the story. The following two pages, even if plagued with continuous changes happening decade by decade, largely portrayed the world we know. Looking at them, the reader may have a feeling of stopped time: a casual look at this second half seems to show the stagnation of the previous development craze, occurring with the arrival of a 20th century historically associated with the dramatic acceleration of progress.

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Robert Crumb. «A Short History of America». Pages 3 and 4.

Surely, this is not accidental. When Whitechapel Gallery devoted a retrospective to Crumb in 2005, he recalled the sad depersonalization that the Californian town where his family had moved to had suffered in the 1950s and early 1960s: “I watched the tearing down of old pre-war downtown Oceanside and the putting up of a modern, inferior architecture. Even as a kid I felt this was all wrong. The old movie theatres, store fronts, nice streamlined Art Deco buildings from the 1920s and 1930s were replaced by squarish stucco boxes that had no character [5].” However, despite this ‘lack of character’, Crumb achieves a perfect characterization of every architectural element in ‘A Short Story…’, each one evidencing -and characterizing in turn- the period they were in. Crumb’s preference for a motley style, sometimes bordering on ‘uglyism’, and full of seeming improvisation, can fool a casual reader, who may not realize the overwhelming technical expertise in all areas – composition, handling of the human figure, shading, typography – of an author that Robert Hughes, the famed TIME critic, would qualify as “the Brueghel of last half of the 20th century [6].” Hughes had previously called him “the William Hogarth of his time”, and this is perhaps a more accurate characterization, for it speaks of the ability of Crumb’s eye to scrutinize and capture reality through its many details.

If, structurally, the urban scene portrayed in these two apparently inconsequential pages turns out to be deceptively similar, it is precisely in the apparently few changes that take place between its deceptively repetitive vignettes where Crumb concentrates his ability to reveal the history of these last decades. By 1910, power lines had multiplied, taking over the streets and never leaving the picture from this point onwards, while horse carriages coexisted with trams. In fact, the evolution of transport will be, until the very end, a fundamental element in the characterization of urban space: In 1920, it is the tram, already the size of a trolleybus, that coexists with the car, which begins to infest the streets, until the former’s final disappearance in 1950, ultimately replaced by bus transportation. In the last five panels, the changing design of cars helps inform the reader of the period he is looking at. It is, in fact, the lack of vehicles in the deserted streets of panel 9 that seems to confirm that it takes place in the 1930s, during the Great Depression -an extent underlined by the closed commercial businesses and the lack of smoke in the factory chimneys, which tell us of their lack of activity.

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Robert Crumb. «A Short History of America». Page 3, Panel 7. The tram enters the scene.

Many other details coexist with these, inserted by Crumb to benefit the reader’s historical location: traffic lights that appear and disappear, increasingly modern and abundant street lamps, electric boxes which are progressively attached to the utility posts… the  crossing sign that announced the railroad level crossing is replaced by a crossing light in 1940 -two, in the following decade-, along with its corresponding barrier, and the varied signage, posters, and notices, evolve and are replaced over time. A special mention must be made of the announced products -“El Ropo Cigars, 5c”, “Old Kentucky Bourbon”- the changing names of the stores -“Oswald’s Refreshments”, in 1910, which would become “Oswald’s Lunch” in the following decade before going out of business in 1930, “Myers Drug Store” in the 1920s, “Bippy’s Motors, used cars” in the 1950s- as well as some well-known brands: a poster urging to drink Coca Cola appears for the first time as early as 1920, taking up an entire façade of the old farmhouse now turned into a store [7]. Meanwhile, the panels corresponding to the 1940s and 1950s reflect the automobile market explosion during the second post-war period, with the scene dominated by the sign of the Texaco Oil Company, ultimately replaced by Esso in the 1960s [8].

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R. Crumb. «A Short History of America». Page 3, Panel 9. Deserted streets and closed businesses in the Depression era.

A particularly significant moment within this second half of the story has to do with the disappearance of the only non-man-made item. Once again, in his autobiographical text “Poor Clod” Crumb recalled how in the 1950s his parents […] got a house in a brand new suburb, one of hundreds of houses that went on and on. They were ticky-tacky boxes with no trees, just twigs planted in the front yard. I went back there in the 1990s to look at it and there had been some individualization done on the houses, but the trees never made it. There were no trees [9]. (Crumb, 2005). If the story had started with a view of a pristine forest with the silhouettes of some animals in the background, that very first page ended not only with the introduction of the first building, but also with a dramatic reduction in the wooded area. As a meagre compensation, a new tree had been planted next to the farm. The second page expanded on both processes, with new buildings and fewer trees, until only the one belonging to the old farm remained in its last panel, with its considerable size squeezed in the now tiny plot. After two more decades of brave resistance, the tree, and almost any trace of vegetation, would finally disappear in the last panel of page 3.

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Robert Crumb. «A Short History of America». Page 4. 

Once beyond this point, the remaining panels portray the gradual elimination of those elements that had characterized the scene in the beginning. The farm -then a mere single-family house, and finally a store- would be progressively cornered and swamped by an endless number of elements until it finally disappeared, giving way to a car park and, in the last panel, the service station’s ‘Stop’n Shop’. On the right end of the image, located on the other side of a highway plagued by automobiles, a new residential development stood on the grounds of the old railway line; ‘a new suburban neighborhood’, ironically baptized as ‘Oakwood Village’… made of ticky-tacky boxes that ‘go on and on’ all the way to the horizon.

Decades later, TIME magazine revealed that, in the late 1980s, Crumb persuaded a photographer friend to drive him through commercial streets and “bleak, just-built suburbs” of California and photograph “ordinary street corners… “methodically us[ing] the camera to capture what our increasingly inattentive eyes have been trained to ignore.”. For Crumb, “[this] material has not been created to be visually pleasing, and you are not able to remember exactly what it looks like. But this is the world we live in [10].” (Reznik, 2013) The article argued that these photographs would be indispensable in Crumb’s later work, and that their details would eventually permeate his drawings for Weirdo, the magazine he would go on to publish with his wife, Aline Kominsky, between 1981 and 1993. To illustrate this point, it featured a series of snapshots of intersections in Sacramento, taken around 1988, alongside the aforementioned Weirdo #12 cover, the two last pages of “A short History (…) [11], and other works by Crumb. Regardless of whether the photographs predated the scenes in Weirdo or not, the article was right in concluding that “his focus on such unsightly minutia in this anthology suggests… that as outlandish, garish, or other-worldly as Crumb’s cartoons get, their lasting affect comes from always being firmly grounded to the banal referents of our real world.” (Reznik, 2013) And it is his ability to capture the latter, we might add, which makes his Short History keep untouched its ability for unhealthily fascination intact, as a lucid counter-Venturian look at an urban reality whose existence is vindicated without an iota of romanticism.

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[1] Robert Crumb. “Poor Clod”. In: Peter Poplaski, Robert Crumb. The R. Crumb Handbook. London: MQ Publications, c2005, pp. 23-68, p.23.

[2] “Mr. Natural’s 719th meditation.” In: Mr Natural nº 1, San Francisco, CA: San Francisco Comic Book Company, August 1970. Significantly, this story, which uses a 3 x 4 grid with mostly square panels (only the title panel is bigger, taking up the entire first row) has also been re-arranged in poster format, which just underlines this parallelism. See: Alexander Wood. “Mr. Natural’s 719th Meditation Signed & Numbered Serigraph Print.” En: Crumb Newsletter. The Newsletter for the Official Robert Crumb Website R.Crumb.com, April 22, 2018.

[3] See Robert Crumb. Sketchbook Reports. Paris: Cornélius, 1999. Collection Blaise.

[4] Born in 1943, Crumb started drawing professionally for a greeting card company in 1962, when he was 19 years old. The basic structure of the chronology featured in this article can be found here.

[5] Robert Crumb. “Poor Clod”, 49.

[6] I think Crumb is, basically he’s the Bruegel of the last half of the twentieth century. I mean, there wasn’t a Bruegel of the first half but there is one of the last half, and that is Robert Crumb.Robert Hughes in Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1995).

[7] This is, perhaps, one of the few instances where Crumb, working before the advent of the Google Age, does not reflect the period strictly. Even though ‘Drink Coca-Cola’ was the official catchphrase of the company’s advertising in for two decades after it was founded in 1886, and would still be used long after that, from 1904 onwards slogans changed more frequently, sometimes on an annual basis. The 1920s was one of the decades where these changes happened more often, presenting a total of 9 different mottos that started with ‘Three Million a Day’, introduced in 1917, and ended with the nowadays iconic ‘The Pause that Refreshes’ (introduced in 1929).

[8] Alexander Wood points to another minuscule detail which he came across when coloring the images, which appears as one more strategy to underline this: Since the beginning of the ‘contemporary half’ of the story in 1910, a manhole on the road denoted the existence of some kind of sewerage system, even if the streets still seem to be made of rammed earth. The hatching used from the 1940s onwards suggests that the streets have been paved, and, accordingly some drains can be seen on the ditches. WOOD, Alexander. «R. Crumb’s 15 Panel Short History of America Giclee Edition.» In Crumb Newsletter. (27 April 2018).

[9] Robert Crumb. “Poor Clod”, 49-50.

[10] REZNIK, Eugene. «R. Crumb’s Snapshots: Source Material of the Legendary Comic Artist». TIME [online], (30 September 2013),

[11] In the recount of his conversation about ‘A Short History’ with Robert Crumb, Alexander Wood offers some alternative insight on this issue: While I was on the phone with RC, I pointed out one of the details in the image, and said, “I’ve often wondered if you took this image from multiple historical photographs, or if you drew this from your imagination. This detail is so realistic, I have to think you found some photographs and based these panels off of them.” Crumb answered, “I drew that image entirely from my imagination. I wish I had found some photos, it would have been more accurate. For example, one mistake I made was with the railroad crossing signs. The real signs have “crossing” on one board, and the “rail” and the “road” broken up on the sign behind. I mistakenly flip-flopped ’em and broke up the word “crossing.” WOOD, Alexander. “Price Correction: Short History of America Giclee Typo.” In Crumb Newsletter. The Newsletter for the Official Robert Crumb Website R.Crumb.com (27 April 2018).

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L.M. Lus-Arana: ‘A Short (Architectural) History of the 20th Century. Review, Celebration and Tribute to 40 Years of “A Short History of America” by Robert Crumb’ In: ARQ No. 103: Ecology, Winter 2019, 64-75.

[A downloadable version of the whole article will soon be available here]

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Klaus (2019). A Short (Architectural) History of the 20th Century. Click to enlarge.

As you’ll probably know, if you’ve been following my work in any capacity, one of the main reasons why I persist in my cartooning career is that it provides me with a vehicle to channel my need to draw. Or, putting it the other way around, my cartoons and occasional comic stories usually start as excuses to draw something I’m interested in at the moment. The things that make my fingertips tickle come from a wide variety of sources: comics, literature, scifi in its many faces, tv, cinema, and, generally speaking, anything I may have encountered at some point in my life and I’ve developed an obsession with, which typically makes it into my cartoons in the form of a flabbergasting constellation of details which are for the most part winks, nods, references to other works, or even plain private jokes. Being an architect and (under my secret identity) an architecture scholar, a frequent source is the very history of architecture, which has no shortage of inspiring buildings, projects, texts and illustrations, sometimes overlapping with these other fields.

Filed under this latter category falls possibly a story I’ve been obsessed with for quite a while now. I’m not alone in this fixation; Chris Ware once declared this is possibly the single comic story he’s been most influenced by. The difference is that, in my case, instead of using it as an inspiration to create something new and different I’ve just been waiting for an excuse to redraw it in my own style. The comic in question is Robert Crumb’s universally well-known 1979 4-page story ‘A Short History of America’. Originally published in the Autumn 1979 issue of Stewart Brand’s CoEvolution Quarterly, the spiritual heir to Brand’s own Whole Earth Catalogue which would run from 1974 to 1985. Crumb was a frequent contributor to the magazine from issue #13 (1977) through #44 (when it became The Whole Earth Review), in a period where he had otherwise abandoned the production of comics (or comix) for the most part. In fact, after his short Mr. Natural run for The Village Voice (February-November 1976), and until the creation of Weirdo in March 1981, CoEvolution Quarterly was pretty much the only place where his fans could find their Crumb comix fix. Out of all the varied stories he created for CEQ, ‘A Short History of America’ and its sequel, published in the back cover of The Whole Earth Review in 1988, stand out not only as the best known of the bunch, but rather as Crumb’s best known work in general, with the permission of Fritz the Cat.

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R. Crumb. ‘A Short History of America’. CoEvolution Quarterly, Fall 1979.

To this popularity certainly contributed its edition in the form of a poster by Kitchen Sink Press in 1981, reissued with the additional material from 1988 a few years later (a more recent version here, available for purchase here), or its inclusion as a musical coda in Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary Crumb. However, none of this would have happened if the story hadn’t had the wide appeal it did, appearing as a both accurate and melancholic commentary on mankind’s impact on the environment that surpassed the niche of the underground in which Crumb’s work usually rejoiced. As the title announced, the comic presented a silent chronicle of the evolution of a part of the American landscape, from its pristine state as a natural ecosystem until it became a generic corner of a suburban area. Consisting of 12 panoramic panels organized in 4 pages, the story showed not only Crumb’s skills to draw the environment (urban or otherwise) with both an abundance of details and a staggering legibility, but also his sharp eye when it comes to capturing the elements that characterize an era, making the collection of wordless snapshots a lucid and somewhat bitter commentary on the (sub)urban development of America and its parallel destruction of the landscape. The story, if we understand a gap of 10 years between consecutive panels, worked well as a portrait, decade by decade, of the evolution of the USA between 1850 and 1960, with some topical references falling in the right places. The ‘coda’ published almost a decade later, fell outside this attachment to historical reality, and toyed with three possible scenarios for the future of this scene: a post-apocalyptic one, consequence of ecological disaster, a ‘Fun Future’ with flying vehicles and curvy architectures, and a happy-hippie ‘Ecotopian Solution’ with bicycles, pedestrians, and cabins scattered throughout a gigantic forest.

With both the strip’s 40th anniversary and the very dystopian date of November 2019 looming in the horizon, I thought the time had definitely come. So, after pondering which way to go, I contacted Pancho Díaz, professor at the School of Architecture of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and editor-in-chief both of Ediciones ARQ and ARQ magazine, submitting him a proposal for a double-feature: On the one hand, it consisted of an essay, written but my usual partner in crime, which offered a close examination of the content of ‘A Short History…’ framed within the bigger context of Crumb’s work for the alternative, ecological scene of the 1960s-70s, and his many depictions of architecture and the built environment. After the article, however, the piece also included an addendum: a 4-page revision of Crumb’s story by yours truly that began with the sixth panel (corresponding to 1900, according to the above interpretation), and took a different route. The basic idea was answering to the question: what would the story have looked like if it had been told by an architect? -You know, this particular sub-species of humanity which sees history as a succession of architectural climaxes. Once this starting point had been set, all the pieces fell easily into place, and the story became the recount of the competition between two families, each living on one side of the street created by Crumb in 1979, who, decade after decade, keep retooling their houses to be more á-la-mode than that of their neighbor.

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Klaus. A Short History of the 20th Century. Page 1. Things hadn’t started going wild yet.

This gave me the opportunity not only to try drawing in a slightly bolder version of my own style, somewhat closer to Crumb’s thicker line and more organic hatching (if, of course, executed in a much less skilled way than his), or to play with architecture styles and make my own versions of some very well known houses of different periods of the XX Century. It also allowed me to introduce a thousand different referents and winks to architecture, History, popular culture (comics, cinema, tv). I even had to draw period-accurate vehicles, which, used as I am to drawing cars that look nothing like real cars, was an… interesting experience. Of course, in this case the strip had to end with a punchline, which appeared in the leap between the last two panels. If the first panel took place in 1900 the last one should have been 2010. Instead of that the last panel jumps from 2000 to 2019, showing a world shaped in the image LA 2019 in Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner.

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Klaus. A Short History of the 20th Century. Page 2. …and modernity unleashes chaos.

Of course (again), unlike Robert Crumb I am no genius, so whilst the panels in ‘A Short History of America’ look perfectly balanced, and can be clearly read from a 10-meter distance (provided you have good eyesight), their counterparts in ‘A Short History of the XX Century’ are characteristically overstuffed and wonkily composed. Also, given Crumb’s eponymous speed, it probably took him from breakfast to lunchtime to complete the four pages directly in ink in his sketchbook. In my case, it was a few weeks’ work, with a lot of preliminary drawing, penciling and careful inking (see pencils in this  future post). For that reason, we’re planning to release a fined-tuned edition, with my typical shading and, in a larger format and including all this extra material in the near future. Fingers crossed. In the meantime, enjoy finding all the easter-eggs if that’s your sort of thing.

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Klaus. A Short History of the 20th Century. Page 3. …postmodern explosion.

A big thank you to Pancho Díaz and ARQ for providing me with a venue for this project, and to R. Crumb for creating his masterpiece in the first place, and giving permission to reprint his story as part of the article.

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Klaus. A Short History of the 20th Century. Page 4. …This Dystopian Life.

 

 

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