Doing Justice to Crumb
by Jeet Heer
Sunday, June 27, 2010
The response to Crumb’s Genesis got me thinking about how little good writing there is on Crumb, in part because his oeuvre is so challenging and complex. So I was happy to find a critic who could do justice to Crumb. Will Pritchard, a scholar of 17th and 18th English literature, wrote a superb piece called “New Light on Crumb’s Boswell,” which can be found in the journal Eighteenth-Century Studies (Volume 42, Number 2, Winter 2009, page 289-307). Pritchard’s essay examines Crumb’s adaptation of Boswell’s London Journal. What makes Pritchard’s essay worth reading is that he’s clearly grounded in both Crumb and Boswell (although I suspect he knew Boswell before he knew Crumb). The essay looks at how Crumb selected passages and scenes from the journal and re-shaped them in the classic Crumbian style while also borrowing from 18th century visual sources (Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds). In the course of the article, Pritchard draws some telling parallels between Crumb and Boswell (which makes Crumb’s story a form of disguised autobiography) and also comments on the larger tradition of comics adapting classic works (the unfashionable Classics Illustrated tradition that Crumb has repeatedly revisted).
Pritchard’s essay is a strong piece of work, and I regret that it’s not available online. Readers who have access to a university library should look it up. In the meantime, here is an excerpt:
Despite this severe abridgment, Crumb manages to adumbrate the London Journal’s two main plot lines: Boswell’s affair with the actress he calls “Louisa” and the beginnings of his friendship with Samuel Johnson. More importantly, as Boswell does in his great “Flemish picture” of Johnson, Crumb manages both to show his subject as he was and to remake him in his own image. For Crumb, Boswell is both a figure of fun and a mirror at which he cannot quite bear to look. He places Boswell at some distance, and then repeatedly collapses that distance; portrait continually verges on self-portrait.
The following discussion has three sections, each of which considers Crumb’s Boswell in relation to a different genre. The first is autobiography, the genre to which Boswell’s original text might be said to belong. The twist here is that Crumb’s Boswell comic is both an aspect of his own autobiography and a graphic adaptation of Boswell’s: a portrait of the artist as well as of his ostensible subject. Crumb was engaged at this time in what D. K. Holm has termed “confessionalism by other means”; Crumb, he writes, sought to “reveal facets of his changing personality . . . under the guise of creating objective accounts of other artists.” The elements of autobiographical self-disclosure in the Boswell comic, however, stand in an uncertain relation to a second genre: satire. While Crumb does not mock Boswell as overtly as Rowlandson does, his overall effect is decidedly satiric. He depicts Boswell (and, implicitly, himself) with an ironic distance and (self-)deprecation that Boswell mostly lacks. Crumb shows us a Boswell who is lecherous, buffoonish, and self-deceived. His comic resembles one of Hogarth’s “Progress” series: an unsparing, third-person rendering of a young man’s misadventures in London. Blending autobiography and satire, first- and third-person perspectives, Crumb’s comic complicates our view of Boswell. Boswell invites us to see him; Crumb invites us to see through him—”him” being both Boswell and Crumb himself.
I should add that before reading this essay I wasn’t familiar with Will Pritchard’s work, aside from an essay he wrote in a festschrift devoted to his father William H. Pritchard (whose own fine literary criticism has been a mainstay of The Hudson Review for decades). But after reading his Crumb piece I did find one little fact that might explain why Will Pritchard turned his attention to Crumb. Pritchard is the author of Outward Appearances: The Female Exterior In Restoration London (2008). Crumb’s been known for his own observations on female exteriors.