Robert Crumb is a great synthesizer, a great adopter of other people’s stylistic conventions which he cunningly redeploys for his own ends. Any in-depth analysis of Crumb has to come to terms with the way his art is not only great in itself but also serves as a veritable museum of 20th century cartooning. Most comics criticism tends to have a literary bias, so this visual aspect of Crumb has gone under-discussed. But I don’t think we can understand Crumb’s art without reference to his many allusions to earlier cartoonists (not to mention painters and illustrators).
Here are a few notes that might help future research:
1. Wolverton. Crumb has often talked about his debt to Basil Wolverton, going back to the sacred cover of Mad comics #11. Interestingly, Wolverton and Crumb both adapted the Bible. I’d like to know how familiar Crumb was with Wolverton’s religious art (now available in the great Fantagraphics book The Wolverton Bible).
Above is a scene from Wolverton’s rendition of the Noah story.
And here is a panel from Crumb’s The Book of Genesis Illustrated. Notice that in both Wolverton and Crumb, the choppy waves have an oddly static look, as if they were sand dunes rather than water.
2. Billy DeBeck. I’ve never heard Crumb talk about Billy DeBeck but Crumb’s big-nosed style, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s, had a strong touch of DeBeck’s bounciness.
Above are two excerpts from Billy DeBeck’s work, one showing the character Bunky (the very eloquent baby) and the other Lowzie, the bonnet-wearing hillbilly.
And here is Crumb’s Big Baby (from Big Ass #1, 1969).
3. E.C. Segar. The creator of Popeye is much loved by Crumb.
Here is a panel from a Segar Thimble Theatre page (July 19, 1931). Pay close attention to the crowd, a jumble of noses.
And here is Crumb’s cover for Weirdo #14, where he pays homage to Segar’s crowd of fools.