By Peter Carlson
June 24, 1985 12:00 PM

Robert Crumb, the genius of the underground comic book, is wandering around the desert. His attire is not particularly appropriate to that activity. He saunters over the sun-blasted sand in a tweed sports jacket, cuffed trousers, argyle socks, sensible black shoes and a dark fedora. In one palm is his ever-present sketchbook. In the other is the hand of his 3-year-old daughter, Sophie. They step carefully, avoiding rocks, cracks and cacti until they come upon a stream. Sophie wants to wade. Crumb takes off her sneakers, and she steps into the water. He removes his shoes and argyles, rolls up his pants and follows. Obeying some strange muse, Sophie reaches underwater, picks up some mud, rolls it carefully into a ball and ceremoniously places it in her father’s upturned palm.

At that moment—as he stands amid the desolate landscape in urban attire, his pale toothpick legs stuck in the muck, a mud ball in his hand and a puzzled look on his face—R. Crumb looks as if he just stepped out of an R. Crumb cartoon. All he needs is a question mark floating in a balloon over his head and he’d be a typical Crumb character—a confused little man marooned in a ludicrous universe.

Robert Crumb, now 41, is the man who brought existential absurdity—along with sex and drugs—to the American comic book. When he hawked the first issues of Zap Comic from a baby carriage on the streets of Haight-Ashbury in 1968, he invented a new genre, the underground comic. Today, 17 years later, he remains the best known and most respected of the underground auteurs. One of his characters, Fritz the Cat, went on to star in the first full-length X-rated cartoon. Another character, Mr. Natural, the horny holy man, is now a part of Americana. So is Crumb’s phrase “Keep on truckin’,” which appears on checks, on the mud flaps of 18-wheelers and in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

Along the way Crumb has picked up a devoted following that includes druggies, porno freaks—and many of the country’s best cartoonists. Pulitzer Prize-winner Bill Mauldin has touted Crumb’s work as “the funniest thing you can buy.” Harvey Kurtzman, the founder of Mad magazine, compares him with Picasso: “Everything he does is good.” Crumb has even won some plaudits from art critics. TIME’S Robert Hughes termed him an “American Hogarth, a moralist with a blown mind.”

Of course, Crumb’s work is not universally beloved. In fact it’s not terribly popular within his own family. Crumb’s father refused to talk to him for several years after seeing some of his raunchier stuff. And one of his sisters once broke a banjo over his head to protest sexism in his work. Cops and judges have been only slightly kinder. They never assaulted the artist; they just banned his works. “To say this is art is ridiculous,” said a Maryland judge who ruled a Crumb cartoon obscene in 1970. “It is a piece of trash.”

Now, in the desert near Moab, Utah, Crumb is doing nothing more controversial than bouncing his daughter on his knee. Sophie points toward the huge stones that grow from the desert floor like mushrooms: “Daddy, can I climb these rocks?”

“Oh, no,” he says, kissing her head. “You might scrape your little knees.”

Although he rarely makes public appearances or gives interviews, Crumb traveled to Utah to promote his latest work, an illustrated 10th-anniversary edition of Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (Dream Garden Press, $17.95). The book, which has become a cult best-seller, recounts the comic adventures of four environmentalists who sabotage billboards, bulldozers and other machines that chew up the beauty of this part of Utah. Crumb agreed to illustrate the book because he shares the philosophy of its protagonists. “I’ve done some billboard destruction myself,” he says, grinning.

At bookstore appearances on his promo tour, Crumb attracted an odd mix of admirers—aging hippies, comic-book collectors with old copies of Zap carefully preserved in plastic, a psychiatrist who said she gives copies of a Crumb cartoon to all her patients. Despite the ego massage, Crumb hates these affairs, “lyiyiyiyi!” he groaned theatrically, sounding like one of his characters. “It’ll take me a week to recover from this.”

Some authors ease the pain of public appearances with booze or dope. Crumb—who swore off drugs a decade ago and rarely drinks—sketches. A shy man, he prefers drawing strangers to interacting with them. Perched in a corner with his drawing pad, he is transformed. The bashful, gawky, myopic nerd who seems perpetually perplexed becomes the artist who effortlessly captures the look and feel of any scene. His sketchbooks are astonishing. Cartoon characters coexist with realistic drawings, stray musings, bits of overheard conversation, and quotes from whatever he’s reading (lately it’s the Bible). The sketchbooks so impressed a West German company that it has published three volumes and plans to continue the series.

One morning in Moab, Crumb and his wife, Aline, took Sophie to a playground. While she scampered about, Crumb balanced on a swing and drew a nearby tree. It now appears in the sketchbook just below a bit of morose introspection that he’d jotted down earlier: “As I get older I get more twisted, convoluted, depraved, cynical, embittered, self-centered, jaded…. ” What will the Germans make of that juxtaposition?

Crumb has been sketching compulsively for as long as he can remember. Son of a career Marine, he moved a lot as a kid—from Philadelphia to Iowa to California to Delaware—and never really fit in anywhere. Bashful and bespectacled, he possessed little athletic ability and less sex appeal. Lonely, he spent his time drawing comics in notebooks. “I was very shy and scared of people and life,” he says, “and I just retreated into drawing.”

After high school Crumb did what every young artist yearns to do—travel to that mecca of high culture, the big city. In Crumb’s case the city was Cleveland. There in 1962 at the age of 19, he landed a job at the American Greetings Corporation. He did mundane production work until his superiors saw his sketchbooks and quickly set him free to draw funny cards. In the next half decade he turned out hundreds of them. “He was a special talent,” says Tom Wilson, who was Crumb’s boss there and who now draws the widely syndicated Ziggy cartoon. “Things just seemed to flow from his pen.”

In 1964 Crumb met Dana Morgan at a Cleveland folk music club and began to court her with cartoons. “I was a virgin when I met her,” he says. “We had sex and got married a month later. I was 21. She was 18. I was a fool.”

Despite landing a job and wooing a wife, Crumb was not really at home in the modern world. He never learned to drive a car and preferred wearing ’30s-style clothing (like his Utah desert attire) and collecting old 78 rpm records to the standard pastimes of the space age. “He was like a kid whose parents had locked him in an attic full of old records and old magazines,” says Wilson. “His taste in everything comes from a time when he did not exist.”

But one modern convenience did appeal to Crumb—LSD. He gulped down the first of many doses in 1965. “It knocked me for a loop,” he says. He soon got wind of San Francisco’s hippie scene, and he and Dana moved there in 1967, just in time for the Summer of Love. “I sat on Haight Street and got stoned with all the other hippies,” he recalls. Despite that, he never really fit into hippie culture. He kept his hair short and still preferred his ’30s clothes and his 78s to beads and acid rock. “I used to fall asleep at those light-show concerts in San Francisco,” he says.

In early 1968 he began turning out his comic books, populating them with characters inspired by LSD visions—Fritz the Cat; Mr. Natural and his dizzy disciple, Flakey Foont; Whiteman, the uptight executive; Angelfood McSpade, the sex queen of the jungle; Honeybunch Kaminski, the comely underage runaway, and many more. Sexy, satirical, sometimes surrealistic and very funny, Crumb’s comics became underground best-sellers, sold in head shops and passed around college dorms. Suddenly shy little Bobby Crumb was a cult hero, complete with fame, money and willing women. Soon the big companies wanted a piece of him. Ballantine Books put out two collections of his cartoons. Columbia Records hired him to draw an album cover for Janis Joplin. Animator Ralph Bakshi bought the film rights to Fritz the Cat.

It was heady stuff for a kid in his mid-205, perhaps a little too heady. Crumb was by his own account too stoned and too crazy to handle it. Seeking escape from the weirdness of Haight-Ashbury, he and Dana bought a rundown house in rural California and started a little commune. But Crumb found little peace there and fled frequently to other places and other women. “That period,” he says, “is just a haze of craziness in my mind.”

Part of the craziness was Crumb’s ambivalence about success. He harbored a hippie’s distrust of the establishment, and his dealings with big companies left him feeling that he’d been swindled by “smoothies and sharpies and fast-talking lawyers.” Bitter, he spurned deals that might have provided a little security. When his friend Harvey Kurtzman, who draws Little Annie Fanny for Playboy, tried to get him a contract at that magazine, Crumb backed off. “He was very antagonistic,” Kurtzman recalls. “Playboy was the establishment to Bob.” To Tom Wilson it seemed as if Crumb was deliberately sabotaging his success. When characters like Fritz and Mr. Natural became famous, he stopped drawing them. When Zap Comix became a familiar title, he called his stuff Uneeda Comix or Despair Comix—anything but Zap. “Bob was not uncommercial,” says Wilson. “He was anti-commercial.”

If Crumb was trying to reject success, he succeeded. The mid-’70s were terrible years for him. His marriage ended acrimoniously. The underground comic-book market—glutted with second-rate imitations and harassed by obscenity busts—all but collapsed. In court Crumb lost the copyright to his much reproduced Keep on Truckin’ cartoon. And then the IRS demanded $40,000 in back taxes. “I was high and dry with not a cent to pay it,” he says.

Somehow he struggled back to his feet, a miracle he attributes to his second wife: “Aline really helped me get my life together and extricate myself from the mess I’d gotten into.”

When they met in 1971, Aline Kominski, now 36, was a young underground cartoonist, and Crumb was the king of the genre. Since then they’ve survived high times and low. Very low: For a while in the mid-’70s they shared a migrant worker shack without plumbing. From that nadir they worked their way back. He sold his sketchbooks to the West Germans and his antique pop bottles and toys to collectors, and they published more comics, separately and as collaborators. Finally in 1978 they paid off the IRS. That year they got married and moved into a little farmhouse tucked away in the walnut orchards of Winters, Calif., a tiny town near Sacramento. They rented that house for four years, and then one day in 1982 an envelope arrived from the producers of Fritz the Cat. “I opened it up and there was a check for $31,000,” Crumb says. “I almost fell on the floor.” They used the windfall to buy the house they were renting and the surrounding three acres of land.

As a gentle mist fell from a sunny sky one recent morning, Crumb stood on that land, chopping the wood that heats the house. He split some logs, then put away his sledgehammer and stepped into the little barn room that serves as his studio. He picked a record from a wall full of old 78s and whistled along with the music. “Inspirational stuff,” he said. “When I hear that, I say, ‘I can play music like that.’ ” Indeed he can. He plays banjo and guitar with the Rural Sophisticates, a local band that gigs at weddings and parties. “We play Duke Ellington, stuff like that,” he says. “We fry to pull it off anyway.”

Here at home, Crumb is much more at ease than he was in Utah. This studio—with his 78s and his drawing table—is an oasis where a man who is out of step with the world creates his own parallel universe with paper and ink. He sits at his drawing table and doodles while he talks about his art. “I haven’t drawn Mr. Natural in 10 years. All those old characters are gone. I’ve just turned a corner, I guess.” Also gone from his work is most—though not all—of the raunchy sex. “When I was young, there was a desire to shock. I’m not interested in shocking people now. I got that out of my system.”

In the last decade Crumb’s work has gone in several directions. He has illustrated two books (The Monkey Wrench Gang and Texas Crude) and three series of boxed cards on American musicians (Heroes of the Blues, Early Jazz Greats and Pioneers of Country Music.) Recently he experimented with abstract painting and scored a considerable success: His show in a San Francisco gallery sold out on opening night. And of course he is still drawing comics, mostly for Weirdo (circulation: 10,000), a magazine he founded in 1981. His old characters are gone, but he has invented new ones—including Mode O’Day, a social-climbing yuppie, and Doggo, her low-life canine alter ego. He also draws hilarious memoirs such as I Remember the Sixties and My Troubles With Women. “I’m more interested in reality than in cartoon characters,” he says. Then he shrugs. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just taking myself too seriously.”

His new comics are more realistic and detailed than his old Zap-era work, a change he attributes to forsaking the drugs that he says corroded his technical abilities. The man who once drew comic ads for marijuana has sworn off all dope. “I don’t do any of that stuff,” he says. “I got sick of being stoned.”

By now it’s lunchtime and Crumb wanders into the house. Sophie is off with a babysitter, and Aline is sitting on the living room rug, putting the finishing touches on a painting that will appear in her one-woman show in a Sacramento gallery this spring. The house is decorated with Aline’s paintings, Sophie’s drawings and scores of the corny junk-store knickknacks that the Crumbs love to collect. Aline puts a pot of her homemade chicken soup on the stove. As gregarious as Crumb is quiet, she starts telling stories about her famous husband. “When I met Robert, he had a wife and a girlfriend. I met him at a party at the girlfriend’s house. It sounds weird now, but that was the early ’70s, and it wasn’t that weird then. He told me I had cute knees. Remember that, Robert?”

“Aline was a pretty popular gal when I first met her,” Crumb says. “She always dressed up in those micro-miniskirts and there would always be four guys hanging around her apartment, trying to out-wait each other to see who’d go home.”

“Those were the fun days,” Aline says with mock nostalgia. She ladles out the soup. “I call Robert ‘Gramps.’ He’s like a cantankerous old man. I like old men. I like their minds but their bodies are all used up. Robert’s still got some tread on him.”

Crumb smiles at that and then slurps up some chicken soup.