The 1994 documentary "Crumb", about cartoonist R. (Robert) Crumb, was made by his friend of twenty-five years, Terry Zwigoff. A good documentary is always a pleasure, but one as great as this is a real joy to watch.

Zwigoff spent six years filming interviews for this movie - centrally with Robert, but also with brothers Charles and Max, wife and fellow cartoonist Aline Kominsky, friends, former lovers, children, fellow cartoonists, and critics. The result is a painfully honest and strangely compelling portrait of a creative but deeply screwed up man.

Little Crumbs

The Crumb family - three boys, two girls - was headed by a disciplinarian World War II veteran who became a management trainer in an insurance company. His sons recall that he wanted them to be tough and hard, like little marines, but instead they were odd, artistic, and awkward, and all, apparently, obsessed with sex.

The eldest, Charles, handsome as a teen but an outcast at school, was the one who first began drawing comics, inspiring Robert, as well as the youngest, Max, to follow suit. The brothers sometimes drew cartoons together, invoking an attractive familial image of siblings working side by side; but it turns out that the drawings were more in the nature of a chore, Charles forcing his brothers to produce. The movie shows adult Charles and Robert sitting in Charles' fetid bedroom in the family home looking over old notebooks filled with their drawings. Even as a teen Charles descended into madness: Zwigoff films pages of Charles' drawings in which the dialogue balloons become larger and larger, finally filling up the panels completely. Eventually, Charles' output degenerated into eerie notebooks filled with page after page of senseless cursive scrawls.

This is scary, but even more frightening, perhaps, is the sight of the middle-aged brothers laughing together about such obvious signs of dysfunction and mental instability. The adult Charles admits with amazing candour that as a teen he felt homicidal jealousy towards Robert and had to restrain himself from stabbing him to death in his sleep. Indeed, amazing candour characterizes many of the interviews, as Robert and his family pour out idiosyncracies and perversions with bemused abandon.

As the family unravelled, the mother began to take copious amounts of tranquilizers, and she's apparently remained medicated ever since. By the time the movie was filmed the father has been dead for some time, and the drugged packrat mom and manic depressive eldest son live reclusively on in a squalid home with blankets taped to the windows and piles of junk everywhere. The younger brother Max was also a good cartoonist when younger, but he gave it up for painting; a convicted sexual molester who prides himself on never having actually raped, he pursues a yogic existence, meditating for hours on a bed of nails, swallowing linen ropes to clean out his intestines, and taking his begging bowl out each day to support himself.

Robert Gets Famous

Young Robert was fortunate to be able to escape this world, and he became the most successful of the three brothers by far. (I wonder about the sisters, but they declined to be interviewed for the movie.) He married Dana in the early sixties, and the two had a son, Jesse, in 1968. They settled in San Francisco, where Robert put out Zap Comix, at first drawn completely by himself. His cartoons provide a window into Robert's dark and twisted fantasy life, filled highly sexualized and racialized images of large-breasted, solid-thighed women and big-lipped blacks. He became famous as the creator of such sixties icons as Fritz the Cat (the comic, not the movie: he hates the movie), the Keep on Truckin' image, and Mr. Natural.

But Robert never fit in with the counterculture that embraced his outpourings, and in fact despises hippies and modern music. He looks the ultimate geek: pigeon-chested, buck-toothed, and coke-bottle-spectacled. He has short hair, rumpled mismatched suits, and a ratty old hat. He enjoys blues and jazz from the 1920s and 30s, and has shelves full of obsessively catalogued old 78s and LPs. He is a caustic snide misanthrope disgusted with American culture and horrified by consumerism. And he has, relates an old girlfriend, a fetishistic attraction to shoes, boots, butts, and piggyback rides.

Robert married Aline in 1978; in 1981 they had a daughter Sophie - the only woman Robert has ever loved, he declares. As the movie ends, the family is preparing to move to France; Robert was able to buy a house there by selling some of his old notebooks. Robert's largely estranged young adult son hangs around a bit and gets criticized by his dad for his drawings; Robert frets about his record collection being damaged in transit. A postscript to the film relates that, one year after filming ended, Charles finally succeeded in killing himself.

Robert and Terry

In part Robert gave Terry Zwigoff such untrammeled access to himself and his family because he knew that his old friend was depressed and suicidal. He later regretted some of his brutal honesty, and said that when he first saw the movie, he was so disturbed that he went for a walk and threw his favourite hat, which he'd been wearing for twenty-five years, off a cliff. The film brought media attention onto this man who has famously shunned it, turning down many lucrative offers in an attempt to avoid co-optation into the mainstream.

Zwigoff's masterful movie portrays Robert with even-handed sympathy, warts and all. It makes this weirdo who churns out horrifyingly misogynist and racist images look almost well-adjusted, which, in the context of his family, I suppose he is. Zwigoff's great film was, inexplicably, passed up for an Oscar nomination for best documentary - it's said the judges got bored and/or depressed halfway through and turned it off - but it did win him critical acclaim. Sophie, Robert's daughter, joined the circus in France; her comics were used in Zwigoff's next movie, "Ghost World".