Without R. Crumb, there'd be no ''Ghost World,'' either, says Ty Burr

By Ty Burr
Updated August 03, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Marge Simpson: Fox
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How ”The Simpsons” came from rebel art

If you’re stumbling onto Terry Zwigoff’s ”Ghost World” cold, you may think this little teen arthouse treat is a dyspeptic coming-of-age film, a ”Sorrows of Young Werther” for the Gap generation. And it is. It’s also one of the very few successful transplants from the world of alternative comics into the pop mainstream. The question is, why has it taken so long?

”Ghost World” is based on the comic-book series of the same name by Dan Clowes, who collaborated so closely with Zwigoff that he could fairly be credited as codirector. That’s the primary reason the movie retains the arch, smart, culturally wary tone of its source. But the comic is itself part of a decades-long tradition of underground comix that rails against the mainstream, mining beauty and despair and cosmic yuks from its viewpoint outside the fence.

It all starts with Robert Crumb, who was the subject of Zwigoff’s previous film, the brilliant, scary 1996 documentary ”Crumb.” When Crumb started peddling his ”Zap” comic out of a baby carriage in the Haight-Ashbury heyday of 1967, a new artform was born that was as American as jazz. It was an art of dissent, too: No matter how many truck mudflaps carry the ”Keep On Truckin”’ logo, a cursory look through Crumb’s work reveals a gorgeously crosshatched rage against the corrupted laziness of our popular culture (albeit with a fixation on women’s, ahem, derrieres).

Crumb was the vanguard of a new breed of underground illustrators, and the head shops of the ’60s and ’70s were full of their work. Gilbert Shelton, Justin Green, Kim Deitch, S. Clay Wilson, Spain, Jaxon — all broke taboos of sexuality, violence, and illicit substances in frightening and funny ways that can still give your parents a coronary. The scene quieted down in the mid-’70s but reappeared a decade later, with the arrival of a new generation of artists: the Hernandez Brothers with ”Love and Rockets,” Art Spiegelman’s ”Maus,” Peter Bagge’s ”Hate,” the work of Gary Panter and Charles Burns, the new comics of Clowes and Chester Brown and Chris Ware.

It’s all insanely rich stuff, vibrant and caustic and thought-provoking in ways that mainstream media can’t begin to digest. That said, there have been attempts and exceptions. Crumb’s own ”Fritz the Cat” was made into an animated film by Ralph Bakshi back in 1972, but it played into the happy-hippie clichés that the original comic satirized (Crumb hated it so much that he immediately wrote a ”Fritz” story in which a groupie murders our hero with an icepick).

Other original comix geniuses have surfaced above the waters too: Spiegelman parlayed ”Maus” into a semi-regular stint on the cover of ”The New Yorker.” Bill Griffith, bless him, somehow got ”Zippy the Pinhead” into daily newspaper syndication, where it continues to mystify readers across the country.

But it’s worth noting that the ”Zippy” movie that Griffith has tried for years to get made (he actually once got Randy Quaid to wear the polka-dot muumuu for an audition) will probably never see the light of the cineplex. And, not withstanding the dreamlike power of Clowes’ comic work, his most high-profile gig to date is probably the artwork for Coca-Cola’s much-reviled OK Cola brand back in the mid-’90s.

Inbred snobbery on the part of American audiences has a lot to do with this. Comic books are only for kids, right? And certainly such a viewpoint isn’t helped by a mainstream comics industry that continues to cater to adolescent power fantasies. But perhaps that’s the only way in. There IS one hugely successfully transplant from the underground comix mindset, and it’s the one that’s on TV every week. It’s ”The Simpsons,” 10 years old and running stronger than ever.

When the show debuted, it was widely scorned by the media as a cynical kiddie show, ”The Flintstones” for pre-literate mulletheads. It didn’t take long, though, before ”The Simpsons” began to be appreciated as an acid, encyclopedic, deeply subversive take on modern pop culture. All of its attributes are present in more than embryonic form in ”Life in Hell,” creator Matt Groening’s alternative newspaper strip of the 1980s. The line of influence is clear: Without Robert Crumb, there’d be no ”Simpsons.”

Without Crumb, too, there’d be no ”Ghost World,” and should we be surprised that this shot of bile is being marketed under teen comedy clothing? Whatever gets them into the theater, I guess. But listen: if you like the movie, do yourself a favor and buy the book — despite the pictures, it really is literature. And pray that someone, someday, gets the cojones to adapt Justin Green’s 1972 classic ”Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary” for the screen. Hell, Fellini liked it. Why shouldn’t you?


  • Movie
  • R
  • 119 minutes
  • Terry Zwigoff