An Analysis of “A Short History of America” by Robert Crumb.

ASHOA_01.1

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.]

………………………………………..

[…] 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].

ASHOA.1

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.

ASHOA.2

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.

ASHOA.2.1.1

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].

ASHOA.2.1.3

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.

ASHOA.2.2

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.

……………………………………………………………………

[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).

………………………………………..

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]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: