By M.H. Miller
Photographs by Thibault Montamat
- Sept. 15, 2022
THERE’S A COMIC by Robert Crumb from 1979 called “A Short History of America.” It’s 12 panels, all portraying a single spot of land. In the first, we see a bucolic field abutting a forest, birds flying overhead. In the second, there are fewer trees and a train rolling down a track, ejecting plumes of black smoke. Soon, there’s a log cabin, then telephone poles, then asphalt and cars. Then the trees disappear entirely and the house becomes a general store, the general store becomes a gas station, the gas station becomes a used-car lot and the sky, once so big, is almost completely obscured by crisscrossing electric wires. A small box in the final panel, containing the only text apart from the title, asks, “What next?!!”
This is the work of Crumb’s I keep thinking about on the summer afternoon I arrive in a medieval village in the Cévennes region of southern France. Crumb moved here in 1991 with his wife, the comics artist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and their daughter, Sophie, who was 10 at the time. They found a place that feels like it’s almost protected from the march of progress. Cars aren’t allowed in town; to get to the Crumbs’ house, I have to walk across a weathered bridge that traverses a murky canal. Affixed to the front door are what appear to be Catholic prayer cards though, on closer inspection, they depict Elvis Presley in a state of religious ecstasy. Inside, we go upstairs to a dimly lit office, with shelves of 78 r.p.m. records, mostly from the 1920s and ’30s (Crumb owns 8,000 of them; he’s been collecting “old music of all kinds from all over the world” since he was 16), a bulky metal drawing board, various instruments (he’s an accomplished musician), stacks of faded newspapers and books with titles like “Because Our Fathers Lied,” “UFOs and Nukes” and “Grey Aliens and the Harvesting of Souls.” (“I’m very interested in fringe things like that,” Crumb says.) I ask the couple, who have been together since 1971 and married in 1978, how they ended up here.
“Ask her,” Crumb tells me, gesturing to his wife. “It was all her doing. She comes from a long line of salespeople, and she just sold me on the idea of moving to France.”
In the ’80s, the couple lived in California’s Central Valley, in a small town called Winters nestled between Sacramento and San Francisco. “The fabulous ’80s,” Crumb says grimly. “Not a good decade in the United States.” (“It was like now,” says Kominsky-Crumb, “but not quite as bad.”) AIDS was killing their friends. A rising conservative Christian movement was accusing Crumb of being immoral. President Ronald Reagan had cut education funding, just as he’d done as governor, so there were no longer art or music classes at Sophie’s school. The Crumbs volunteered, teaching drawing, though at a certain point fewer students began showing up. A local preacher had been telling families that the Crumbs were “agents of the devil.”
“So we had to get out,” Kominsky-Crumb says. “And I guess I had some romantic idea about living in the south of France.”
“Some of that romance turned out to be true,” Crumb says. Then he adds, “Maybe you shouldn’t even mention the name of the town. I don’t want people showing up here.”
Crumb used to attend comic conventions and book signings, but now he makes very few public appearances. He never really picked up French (he relies on Kominsky-Crumb for that), and his social circle is small. Crumb’s followed in the long line of artists and writers who have exiled themselves from America, but his life abroad feels far more circumscribed than most. He doesn’t even have a cellphone. (At one point, he looks at his wife’s and says earnestly, “It’s listening to us right now.”) He uses email but “I worry about it,” he says. “Any email you write goes into the N.S.A. computer banks.” He’s only voted once in his life, for Barack Obama in 2008. Yet even living thousands of miles from America, disconnected from its culture by so many moats of his own making, he is, like many of his expatriate predecessors, a dedicated and unflinching observer of home. It was his ability to capture the id of America — in all its decadence, hypocrisy and lecherousness — that established him as an artist; that ability is unmatched nearly six decades later. He’s been called an “equal opportunity offender”: For his entire career, he’s angered the left, the right and everyone in between. It’s why his work remains, more than that of perhaps any other artist today, a litmus test for how much we’re willing to put up with for the sake of art.