Sophie Crumb, 'crazy artist' and daughter of R., has new book and exhibit

Sophie and Robert Crumb.
Sophie and Robert Crumb. (Tony Fitts)
Posted: November 21, 2010

NEW YORK - Sophie Crumb and her father, R., sit side-by-side in a Lower East Side art gallery, paging through self- and family portraits that Sophie began drawing when she was 2 years old.

R. is short for Robert, the given name of the thick-spectacled Philadelphia-born artist known more for giving birth to underground comics than for being the father of Sophie.

The elder Crumb, 67, with a scraggly beard, is admiring a tender rendering his 29-year-old daughter did last year of her husband, Simon, asleep with their son, Elie, in his arms, drawn the day she gave birth.

Sophie flips the page. She points to a sketch she did in 1992, two years after she moved to France with her father and mother, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, who is also a comics artist. It shows a blond 11-year-old munching a burrito while a Gallic friend wonders, "Vat is sis weird American thingue??"

Her father, the creator of such sprung-from-the-subconscious counterculture icons as Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat, points with pride to a pencil drawing his daughter did when she was barely 3: "Here's the first one with genitalia."

The pictures are included in Sophie's first book, Sophie Crumb: Evolution of a Crazy Artist, published in hardback by W.W. Norton this month.

The Crumbs live half an hour apart in the south of France. They moved to the Languedoc-Roussillon region, which is "like the Northern California of France," Sophie says, "because my mother was afraid I was going to turn into a Valley Girl."

Father and daughter have crossed the Atlantic to talk up Evolution, which contains 271 pages of drawings and comics. The sketchbook diary traces the life of the precocious offspring of encouraging, eccentric artist parents through her troubled adolescence and young adulthood.

Its release coincides with Sophie's Manhattan gallery show at the DCKT Contemporary, where her expressionistic self-portraits, lifelike ballpoint-pen drawings, and cartoons inspired by French celebrity tabloids will be hung through Dec. 30.

The book, Sophie says, "was me and my parents' idea." The cover shows four faces of Sophie, from ages 2½ to 27, and gives editing credit to S., A., & R. Crumb.

"Sophie was a prolific artist starting at a very early age," Aline writes in her foreword. "How much of this is genetic and how much is behavioral I have no idea. Robert and I were drawing comics more or less daily, so for Sophie drawing must have seemed the natural thing to do."

"We always wanted to do something with all this work," Sophie says. She quickly corrects herself: "It's not even work. It was done for pleasure. It's free and spontaneous and wacky and crazy. That's why the word crazy is in the title."

Robert says, "I had never seen a book that follows an artist from their earliest drawings through every stage in prime adulthood. And she did so much drawing that it was really easy to pick interesting stuff."

In his foreword, Robert - whose reputation is again ascendant since Norton's 2009 publication of his dazzlingly illustrated The Book of Genesis - writes that Evolution's idea is not so much to show the talents of "an exceptionally gifted artist." It's "a highly revealing visual record. One can look at this book as a sort of clinical study, a psychological textbook."

As a toddler, Sophie took to drawing "like a duck takes to water," her father says. Sophie adds, "He was into it, that's what made it so much fun. And because he's such a compulsive archivist, there was all this work. Just a huge pile of it."

At home, the daughter says, her famous father was "the mommy." That's partly because Crumb (who accidentally spills coffee on his daughter's book during the interview - "Sorry," he says, self-mockingly, "it goes with the genius.") is not well-equipped for the modern world.

"He doesn't drive, he can't swim, he doesn't know how to go on the computer," Sophie says, affectionately mocking. Her mother - with whom R. is collaborating on a new book of comics - handled practical matters. Her father was free to read his daughter Popeye and Little Lulu comics, and play Barbies with her, that is, when he wasn't obsessively cataloging his collection of 78 r.p.m. blues, jazz, and country records from the 1920s and '30s.

Sophie, who's dressed all in black and has a fresh tattoo of her son's name on her left forearm, next to one of Dorothy Parker's poem "Résumé," calls her parents "so neurotic and self-analytical." The Crumb family has always been a "little isolated unit of weirdness," Robert admits.

That was clear from Terry Zwigoff's 1994 documentary Crumb, which focused on a disturbed family history that began in South Philadelphia. There, Crumb and his brother Charles (who committed suicide in 1992) and their youngest brother Maxon created an alt-comics universe in response to life with a violently abusive father.

The Crumbs moved when Robert was 7, but he retained connections while living in San Francisco in the 1960s. "Brian Zahn at Yarrowstalks," a Philadelphia alternative paper, "was the first guy to actually offer me a total venue of my own stuff," Robert says.

When Crumb talks about the city of his birth, it is with nostalgia for what's been lost, even if it's a garbage dump near his house. "When I go back it's not the same city," he says. "It's not the Philadelphia I remember."

Sophie is seen sketching away in Crumb, and director Zwigoff employed her in his 2001 movie Ghost World, based on Daniel Clowes' comic. She did the drawings for Enid, the alienated teen played by Thora Birch.

The young artist's family name has opened doors. But following in the footsteps of "The Legend," as she refers to her father in Evolution, has also been a burden. As a teenager she sometimes signed her work Sophie "Miette," which means crumb in French.

Evolution makes obvious how well she can draw, but also shows her thrashing about for a style of her own.

She lived in Brooklyn in the mid-2000s, apprenticing in a tattoo shop and selling her Belly Button Comics on the street. These days, though, she concentrates on portraits and sketchbook renderings.

"Whenever I tried to do anything for anyone else," she says, "there was too much conflicting pressure. It was too hard. But when I drew for myself, it was always a pleasure."

"Dealing with being the daughter of 'The Genius,' " she says, "messed with me when I was a teenager, of course, when I was trying to create my identity."

"But I realize I don't want to be this so-called professional artist. . . . I don't want to become like him. I don't want to sacrifice my whole life to become a cartoonist genius. I just want to keep living my life and drawing."

Her father approves. "I like your attitude," he says. "I wouldn't want you to be like me, either."

Sophie gets up to help with the hanging of her show. Her father looks around the gallery. "I'm proud," he says. "I'm deeply impressed with her artwork. But I'm also uneasy.

"She says she feels most comfortable sitting in her room drawing in her sketchbook. But you can't make a living doing that. I was actually more entrepreneurial than she is. I had a little of that in me. I was lucky, too. It was the hippie times, the time was right.

"It's hard for artists. Real artists, not hustling artists. And she's not a hustling artist. She's the real thing. And you've got to use that talent and apply it somehow. The world is a rough place."

He pauses, and stops fretting. "But she's smart. She'll figure it out."


Contact staff writer and music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/inthemix/.

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