By David Sturm, Copyright 1996

Even if you're not already familiar with Robert Crumb's cartoon art, his crazy family, and his sweaty-palmed obsessions, the documentary "Crumb" will make your jaw drop.

This portrait of the artist, now out on video, is a film of astounding candor. In fact, the term documentary doesn't do it justice. Patho-biography, perhaps, would be more apt.

Filmmaker Terry Zwigoff, a personal friend of Crumb's, leaves nothing out in portraying how the development of Crumb as a cartoonist is an outgrowth of the miserable childhood and adolescence endured by he and his two brothers.

The film includes interviews with the brothers, characters so strange the term dysfunctional hardly seems adequate. Charles Crumb, a heavily medicated agoraphobic who does nothing but read Victorian fiction in the upstairs bedroom of his mother's house, is revealed as the cartooning prodigy who enlisted Robert in childhood to work out their demons in homemade comic books. The other brother, Maxon Crumb, is a self-punishing ascetic and street beggar who is seen relaxing on a bed of nails in his San Francisco apartment.

Others who pass before Zwigoff's camera include Crumb's mother, his current wife and fellow cartoonist Aline, his ex-wife Dana, his son Jesse, and daughter Sophie. Gasbag art critic Robert Hughes is trotted out to compare Crumb to Goya and Daumier and a feminist chides Crumb for the anti-woman content in his comics.

Plenty of Crumb's work is depicted, including trading cards and posters. It is the comic books, however, that have always commanded attention and Zwigoff shows a few stories almost panel by panel starring Devil Girl, Angelfood McSpade, Mr. Natural, and Flakey Foont.

Critics are shown deconstructing Crumb's most controversial single story, the gleefully perverse and much-busted satire of suburbia, "Joe Blow."

"It's a record of the seamier side of America's subconscious," Crumb remarks.

Indeed, Crumb exemplifies exactly what critic Manny Farber meant by the term "termite art." If the monuments of American sexual hypocrisy, puritanism, racism, and philistinism are tottering on their pedestals, it's because people like Crumb are down there in the dark, chewing madly away.

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