Sunday, 28 February 2010

Ahead of his time: The Big Yum Yum Book by R.Crumb


Written and drawn when Crumb was 19 and still a virgin, this early graphic novel shows something about Crumb which I feel is often overlooked about him in favour of his more controversial and sexual material, that is, his own disillusion with and critical distance from the very counterculture that embraced him. In the R.Crumb handbook Crumb talks about Janis Joplin advising him to grow his hair long and wear bell bottoms in order to get more women but Crumb stuck to his suit and fedora, his old records, and even his first encounter with LSD (although inspiring some of his most memorable and strange comics and characters) left him feeling slightly uncomfortable(*). And it is the amazing perception, cynicism and wit that he displays towards the counterculture (in the case of The Big Yum Yum Book the 50's beat generation) academia, religion, and the world of big money that surprises me here. For Crumb to display such an individual opinion at the age of 19 shows an amazing level of maturity.

Stripped down to its basic elements The Big Yum Yum Book is a modern take on the Jack and the beanstalk fairytale with a down on his luck toad cast as Jack and a plump rosy-cheeked Guntra as the giant. Crumb met his first love and first wife Dana during the book's completion and therefore she saw it as their love story, and was given the rights to it as part of their divorce settlement. It is sweeter and gentler than his later work and you can tell the young Crumb put a lot of himself into his protagonist. Lonely, frustrated, trying to find his place in the world, the only difference between Crumb and Oggie the toad is intellect.

He is sent to university by his father in the hope that he will one day join the management of his Mud Works. In order to try and fit in at university, Oggie tries to get in with the intellectual crowd, listening as they pour out bad Allen Ginsberg type poetry in coffee houses, attending political rallies with them, listening to their stories of worldly experience, attempting to create art, enhance his intellect, and make love to women, all in order to carve an identity for himself. However none of this works, and in this sense Oggie could be seen as being naive, but to me he possesses a kind of wisdom (a wisdom he himself is unaware of) that is more real, more pure than the pontificating of pretentious intellectuals and artists. The fact that Oggie doesn't fit in does nothing to discredit Oggie and in fact shows up the other charecters and the flags they fly as being superficial, meaningless facades-just a fashion like the 60's love generation would eventually become. In the end, after Oggie turning to drink in frustration kills the ladybug crones that inhabit his room, a giant beanstalk grows from their buried remains, taking Oggie with it to a paradise in the sky. And here he is finally happy, no one to tell him who to be or how to think, he enjoys good food, nature, beauty and solitude, and meets his love/his obsession
Guntra (who continually tries to eat him). In the end he returns to the city to find it cut off by the beanstalk and he is dragged to court where they sentence him for the city's fate. His friend Lampe the cat (the token pipe smoking intellectual) comes to the prison to offer his advice and in a brilliant summery of everything that is pointless about academia tells Oggie of his plans to write a study of the beanstalks effects on the morals of the city, speaking as if this one book, and the actions of the artists and the intellectuals, will be enough to save the city, and keep culture alive. In the end Guntra climbs down the beanstalk, throws it into the city and eats the entire cities population save for Oggie who she kisses, turning him human, and they both live a happy blissful 50's suburbia life.

Although the artwork is charming and cute (it is coloured with pencils and the publishers have been true to the original deciding not to patch up any areas where the colour has faded with age) it is the simple yet poignant message of the book that really does it for me.

The Big Yum Yum Book is Crumb at his best, and if you have ever been to university, are at university now, or met any self-proclaimed 'artists' it's probably a book to which you can relate.

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