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R. Crumb: Literature, Autobiography, and the Quest for Self

The Great Debate is a weekly column examining books about the creators, craft, and history of comics. If you know of upcoming books you would like to see reviewed, please let us know in the comments!

Author: David Stephen Calonne

Publisher: University Press of Mississippi

Publication Year: 2021

Pages: 276

Calonne, David Stephen. R. Crumb: Literature, Autobiography, and the Quest for Self. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2021.
Calonne, David Stephen. R. Crumb: Literature, Autobiography, and the Quest for Self. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2021.


R. Crumb is an astonishingly wide-ranging exploration of the literature, music, and ideas that influenced the work of underground comix legend Robert Crumb.

Have you ever wanted to take a graduate-level philosophy class where the textbook is just a big stack of underground comix? If so, this is the book for you!


In R. Crumb: Literature, Autobiography, and the Quest for Self, author David Stephen Calonne weaves events and experiences from Crumb’s past into an analysis of his comics. Calonne spends significant time explaining the work and worldview of Crumb’s influences, then shows us how Crumb reacted to these ideas in ways both obvious and subtle within his comics.

Crumb is most famous for his sex-and-drug fueled underground comics from the 1960s, but Calonne takes a more expansive look at his work. R. Crumb traces threads from writers and performers that Crumb was inspired by, caroming wildly from the beat poets to the blues, from Philip K. Dick to Kafka and from Jean-Paul Sartre to the Bible. Through an analysis of Crumb’s later adaptations and his sketchbooks, Calonne shows that Crumb has continued to produce interesting and challenging work that explores authenticity, conformity, and spirituality. In the end, R. Crumb invites us to discover that there is far more to Robert Crumb than Fritz the Kat and “Keep on Truckin’” decals.


  • Each new chapter builds on the discoveries of earlier ones and, as he progresses, Calonne examines Crumb’s pages and panels with increasing confidence and in greater detail. Calonne deftly explains the often-difficult concepts and schools of thought that he is referencing, and loops back regularly to reinforce points or show linkages with earlier topics.

  • Calonne’s analysis of Crumb’s “Nausea” is spectacular. The book is an adaptation of a Jean-Paul Sartre novel of the same title, and Calonne selects a three-page scene and discusses each panel of it in loving detail. He carefully and effectively analyzes Crumb’s choice of page layout, panel design, art, and lettering. It is a beautiful and effective effort that shows how Crumb uses the comic form to make his own comments on and contributions to Sartre’s story, even as he is extremely faithful to and respectful of the work that he is adapting.

  • I found Calonne’s focus on Crumb’s lettering style to be fascinating, and his payoff of this topic in the Epilogue brilliantly challenges the very idea of what a comic is.

  • On a personal level, my favorite takeaway from this book was that Robert Crumb and Carl Barks were fans of each other’s work. Barks even saw similarities between them in their ability to show that “nothing is important enough to be taken seriously.” I love how two cartoonists whose output could hardly be more different saw past surface differences and recognized in each other’s work something valuable and kindred.


  • This is the most challenging comic studies book I have read in quite some time. Calonne has a broad base of knowledge on philosophy, religion, and 20th-century literature, and each chapter is packed with a new wave of influences and ideas. I really enjoyed R. Crumb, and it gave me a new appreciation for Crumb and his art. But it is dauntingly dense and unapologetically erudite, so just know what you are getting into.

  • There are a substantial number of illustrations, most of which are full pages from one of Crumb’s comics or sketchbooks. The illustrations are extremely useful, but they are concentrated in the last few chapters. I think that the early part of the book, including the chapter on the Beat poets, would have been stronger with more visual cues.


R. Crumb is a fascinating analysis. Calonne does an excellent job of constructing and supporting his thesis: that Robert Crumb was deeply influenced by certain artists and ideas and that it is possible to see those ideas reflected in his comics. Those interested in comic studies would be well served to consider how Calonne is able to deftly blend an analysis of Crumb’s art style and his influences.

Who it’s for: While I enjoyed it, I realize this is not a book for everyone. R.Crumb is a book for academics, or for dedicated fans of Crumb. If a scholarly review of the philosophical and literary underpinnings of underground comics sounds like a good time, this book is for you!


  • To check out a Crumb literary adaptation for yourself: Kafka by R. Crumb and David Zane Mairowitz

  • For a more general and accessible overview of this Crumb and his generation: Comix: The Underground Revolution by Dez Skinn (with a Denis Kitchen foreword)


David Stephen Calonne is a lecturer in the English Department of Eastern Michigan University. He has published numerous books on Beat Generation literature, most notably the life and work of Charles Bukowski. R. Crumb is his first book related to comics studies.


If you can, find a local independent bookstore, and buy there!

Next Week: Why Wakanda Matters edited by Sheena C. Howard, PhD
Next Week: Why Wakanda Matters edited by Sheena C. Howard, PhD

The copyright for image(s) used in this review are likely owned by either the publisher of the book, the writer(s) and/or artist(s) who produced the book. It is believed that the use of this image(s) qualifies as fair use under the United States copyright law. The image is used in a limited fashion in an educational manner to illustrate the points of the author and not for the purpose of entertainment or substituting the original work. It is believed the use of this image has had no impact on the market value of the original work.

This book is © 2021 University Press of Mississippi. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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