April 24, 1995 12:00 PM


Best known (to his professed disgust) as the creator of Fritz the Cat, underground-comics artist Robert Crumb is an important figure in the American counterculture. But, as this affectionate, unsettling documentary makes clear, he has burrowed down deep into a verminous layer all his own. You wouldn’t want to go in there without a flashlight.

Unlike Quentin Tarantino, Crumb doesn’t like the pop trash around him. Despite his association with the ’60s. he hates the Grateful Dead and psychedelic rock, preferring ragtime, jazz and blues from the ’20s. A spindly character with thick glasses and a small mustache, Crumb, 51, seems to be doing his best to loosen up and explain his hideous yet beautifully drafted art, with its mammoth women, clammy, strung-out men and perverse sexual acts. As a child, he tells us, he found cartoon characters (particular Bugs Bunny) arousing. Schwing! And, growing up in Philadelphia with an abusive father and amphetamine-addicted mother, he and his two talented brothers, Charles and Max, spent hours drawing strange comic-book adaptations of the 1950 Disney movie Treasure Island. Charles eventually slipped into depression and obsessive doodling, what Crumb describes as “graphomania.” His interviews here are very painful to sit through. He killed himself in 1992, the year after filming was completed.

The movie, directed by Crumb’s longtime friend Terry Zwigoff, is thorough and frank. One ex-lover, Dian Hanson, now a porn publisher, says that Crumb is turned on by piggyback rides—and in Crumb he does appear to relish every opportunity to be carried around by a woman. But there’s no explaining Crumb. At times he seems merely to be playing himself, a celebrity crank. And then he can be absolutely inscrutable. When Charles recalls how he tried to wean himself from antidepressants, only to feel suicidal, Crumb slaps his knee and rocks with laughter, as if he hadn’t heard that chestnut in a long time. (R)

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