Robert Crumb is the world’s most famous underground cartoonist, with a career that spans decades. While all of his work has been self-referential, Drawn Together is an interesting subset, as it also features writing and illustration by his wife, Aline. As a result it’s less of an autobiography and more of a conversation – an ongoing analysis of a relationship in progress.
Much of the illustration is done by Robert, who draws himself, the backgrounds and any incidental characters. Aline draws herself but, despite Robert’s claims to the contrary, she isn’t such a gifted artist. Her gaudy, less-sophisticated style juxtaposes Robert’s considered draughtsmanship, but it’s an interesting conflict that adds much to the character of the book.
The text is mostly dialogue, and here Aline leads the way. She’s a chatterbox on the page, obsessed with her appearance, and riddled with insecurities. Constantly seeking Robert’s approval she dominates the work, then fusses about how she might be misrepresented in the outside world.
Robert also lays his life bare. We often see him obsessing over his record collection, which he accepts consists of more vinyl than anyone might ever be able to listen to. We see him salivating over the grooves in a record, for example, as interested in the object as the music it contains. When they move to the south of France, he seems more concerned about the fate of his records than anything else.
Sex is a big part of the Crumbs’ life. Aline admits to being something of a nymphomaniac and is essentially up for anything. This is handy for Robert, who turns into something of a domineering sadist when it comes to sex, literally climbing onto Aline’s back and forcing his fist into her mouth. Little is hidden from the reader and the book has some hardcore pornographic moments, clearly intended to shock.
However, despite initially taking centre stage, the sex is only a part of their wider relationship. The Crumbs come over as friends, companions, and like minds. Two subversive characters getting by (very successfully, as it turns out) in a world of mediocrity.
What’s most interesting is the thought balloons. The Crumbs show what they’re thinking as well as what they’re saying to each other, opening their thoughts to each other, as well as the reader. The Crumbs were often creating these comics as they were living the events in them, making the sharing of their thoughts a particularly intimate process, especially since they’re often the things they might not dare to say out loud.
It also gives the stories have a very liquid feel, like an illustrated improvisation. It’s fascinating to read but it doesn’t always work. However, Aline often saves the day, wrapping up a chapter with a pithy one-liner.
What’s lost in the book is much interaction with the outside world. While others are alluded to, they’re rarely seen. Aline often mentions Robert’s girlfriend, for example, though we never see her. This ghost of extra-marital sex seems to be a significant part of Robert’s life, and with Aline and Robert’s sexual antics revealed in so much graphic detail in the book, it seems strange to have these gaping holes in their lives dropped in and then swept away.
At other times, external characters do pop in. There’s a beautiful sequence where Art Spiegelman and Charles Burns drop in on their way to a comics festival, and draw themselves into the comic as cameo appearances. Their daughter Sophie also appears from time to time, at the point of her birth through to her adult encounters with her parents.
This is a lifetime’s work, a relationship laid bare for inspection, and a wonderful insight into the lives of the Crumbs. It’s a warts-and-all expose so sometimes doesn’t gel, and occasionally isn’t pleasant. But it’s brutally honest and deeply engrossing. It won’t appeal to those who aren’t interested in Crumb and his muse, as it has little else in it. But it’s rare to get such an open insight into two lives that spans so much personal history.