A Short (Architectural) History of the 20th Century. Review, Celebration and Tribute to 40 Years of “A Short History of America” by Robert Crumb

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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.

 

 

Published by klaustoon

Klaus is a frustrated cartoonist that lives in an old castle in Europe. In his other life he is also a frustrated architect and scholar who...

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