Among the few women making underground comics in 1970s San Francisco, the feminist infighting was fierce. Aline Kominsky (who would soon take the name of her famous and infamous boyfriend, Robert Crumb) was berated for drawing strips that female cartoonists in her collective thought were too crude and confessional, not uplifting enough, wallowing in the depths of self-loathing — about being too fat, too sexually voracious, too loud, too neurotic. This was not the work of an “evolved feminist consciousness,” she was told.
When she broke off and started her own comic book, Twisted Sisters, the first issue’s cover made it clear just how little she cared about anyone’s judgment: It was a drawing of her sitting on the toilet, underwear around her ankles, wondering, “How many calories in a cheese enchilada?”
“She specialized in outgrossing anyone who was going to call her gross,” said Diane Noomin, Ms. Kominsky-Crumb’s co-conspirator in Twisted Sister.
She didn’t care — and hasn’t for a long time now. For over four decades, Ms. Kominsky-Crumb has been shining an unabashedly unflattering light on her own life. It’s the theme that runs through “Love That Bunch,” a new book gathering her solo comics from her mid-20s until these past few years, as she turns 70 this summer.
With her previous collections long out of print, this publication offers a life’s retrospective. It’s a significant moment of recognition after a career spent mostly in the shadow of her husband. Even though she has collaborated with Mr. Crumb for The New Yorker over the last two decades, the pioneering quality of Ms. Kominsky-Crumb’s own work — nakedly self-revealing and self-obsessed years ahead of the rest of the culture — has largely been overlooked.
The vulnerability she exposes in “Love That Bunch” — every flaw, from her nose to her hypochondria, is chewed over — is very much a precursor to today’s dominant comedic mode. Way before “Girls,” “Broad City” and “Fleabag,” Ms. Kominsky-Crumb expressed herself in a scribbly hand (she calls it “homely”) about sex and her love-hate relationship with her body, about the trauma she endured at the hands of her “monster” of a mother and her desire to find lovers who would treat her like a “bad girl.”
“She has something in common with Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, women who are trying to grapple with their identities in a way that is not prettified,” said Art Spiegelman, the author of “Maus.” “They are just trying to live and breathe as women with all their contradictions. And it’s a liberated and liberating way of looking at oneself.”
One of the earlier pieces in the book, “The Young Bunch, an unromantic nonadventure story,” from 1976, describes her teen years and losing her virginity (an episode that would likely be called date rape today). She puts it out there in all its graphic ugliness and violence. Her scratchy black and white lines look like German expressionist woodcuts, something from Otto Dix. It makes one want to recoil — a typical reaction to her work, by her own account — at the same time that the extreme honesty demands empathy and even pity.
“I can see the rawness of that work, how out of control I was,” Ms. Kominsky-Crumb said on a recent visit to New York. “I was doing lots of drugs and drinking and smoking and eating tons of meat, having sex. I was totally degenerate.”
In person, Ms. Kominsky-Crumb, her wavy hair a bright magenta, wearing a necklace with a pendant to ward off the evil eye, is still the vibrant, loudmouth with a Long Island accent most people first encountered in Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary, “Crumb” — the warm, frenetic yin to Mr. Crumb’s reclusive, moody yang. Though she underwent treatment for colon cancer last year — she jokes that “yoga and cancer” are responsible for her now slim figure — the contented life she’s managed to find in the small medieval French village of Sauve, where she’s lived with Mr. Crumb for nearly three decades, shows. She’s no less brutal in her honesty, but she’s less likely to use the byline she adopted for one 1980 comic: “I Hate Myself Kominsky-Crumb.”
Growing up in the middle-class Jewish suburb of Long Island’s Five Towns and coming of age amid the conformity of the 1950s and early 60s, Ms. Kominsky-Crumb thought the quick and self-deprecating Jewish stand-up comedians of the era, like Alan King and Joey Bishop, had the right idea. Joan Rivers, she said, was her idol (“except she got a nose job and I was the only Jewish girl in my entire high school who didn’t”).