I wish I had discovered Aline Kominsky-Crumb when I was growing up alienated in WASPy Princeton, New Jersey in the 1970s and 1980s. Her violent, raunchy, expressionist-confessional comic strips, many published in underground magazines, might have consoled me, at least for a while. Those were, otherwise, largely depressing years, even today aggravated by my parents’ inability to consider my despair. “You were such a happy baby?” they say, apparently mystified when I even mention my teen-aged angst.
In other words, I am the ideal reader of Love That Bunch. The book, originally published in 1990, has been reissued by Drawn & Quarterly Press with new comics. It feels both prophetic—like discovering a Jewish female pictorial Goodbye, Columbus—and obscure, as if you were looking at an artifact from a vanished world, that of the brutal, materialistic post-war suburban Jewish family. I love this graphic memoir written from the sharp tormented satirical perspective of a horny, self-hating daughter. I wonder if our post-Jewish, #MeToo, Wonder Woman-infatuated age will embrace it.
In the smart foreword, the cultural critic Hillary Chute argues that Kominsky-Crumb is having her moment. Maybe so. But the reputation of the wife of R. Crumb, the comic legend who drew Fritz the Cat and created “Keep on Trucking,” has been rising since the original publication of Love That Bunch. It gained heft in 2007, after the publication of Need More Love, a sort of scrapbook of her solo comics and a glowing Roberta Smith review of a gallery show. Drawn Together, a collection of Dirty Laundry, the fantastic confessional series she co-drew with Crumb about their adventures, was published in 2012. Kominsky-Crumb has tackled plastic surgery and money in the New Yorker and Harper’s and appeared at a comics symposium sponsored by Critical Inquiry.
And yet, I worry that Kominsky-Crumb will be considered too forthright for this moment. By which I mean too Jewish. A caption in one panel in “My Very Own Dream House,” announcing “no matter what remote corner of the world you go to—you’ll always find a crazy Jewish woman there. Probably true and I’m proud to be one!” may be familiar to (as well as discomfiting to) women who came of age in the second half of the 20th century but I’m not sure it resonates in the tepid, politically correct, 21st.
I also worry about sexism. Even readers swooning over Art Spiegelman and Ben Katchor’s profound, dark works about Jewish identity may spurn Kominsky-Crumb, who names the feminist expressionist Alice Neel and the angry Jewish comedians Joey Bishop, Alan King, and Jackie Mason as influences. Who brags about her “independent Jewish monster temperament” and hates Jewish men. (They like shiksas.) I worry that while Kominsky-Crumb has inspired graphic novelists like Alison Bechdel and Phoebe Glockner and maybe even female performer-writers such as Sarah Silverman and Lena Dunham, she will be niche, this too Jewish elderly female comic artist drawing her neuroses, her Holocaust stories, her wacky polyandrous marriage, and her sexcapades.
At the same time, one of the best things about Kominsky-Crumb is that she is not only aware of the possibility of her readers’ discomfort—she exploits it. One of her most famous comics, “Of What Use is a Bunch?” (1980) stars The Bunch, her alter-ego, an ugly Jewish girl who, though having abandoned the conspicuous consumption of the Five Towns for the Bohemian strangeness of being Mrs. R. Crumb, cannot shake her childhood anomie. (She chose the nickname in the early 1970s because it sounded disgusting and it riffed on Honeybunch Kaminsky, a character Crumb drew before he met her.)
In “Of What Use is a Bunch?”, one panel after another lists reasons the Bunch should hate herself, (she’s a bad artist, she’s nasty…) until finally settling on two things she likes. But this, like many redemptive moments, is a trick designed to show how her efforts to transform her past could only partially succeed. Of the two positive qualities, one is shopping. The other is “her deep-seated masochism make her the perfect sex object for some boys!” The penultimate panel shows The Bunch in her underwear, ridden by a man pulling her hair. “Punish me good!” the caption reads. Other comics address her female Jewish self-loathing more directly. In the final panel of “Why The Bunch Can’t Draw,” the Bunch announces, “I’m the Bunch and I’ll never be any good.” She is wearing a star of David around her neck and one caption reads “SO!! NU??” as if she were blaming American Jewish anxiety for her condition.
“I still feel very Jewish [though] at the same time, I hate it,” Kominsky-Crumb told an interviewer in 2012. Like some kind of demented graphic novel procedural, Love That Bunch traces her tsuris back to her agonized childhood in Woodmere, L.I., (here Cedarhurst, the town next door, is Hebrewhurst) with her tyrannical, materialistic family. Along the way, she tackles many serious topics, such as her parents’ unstable finances and the tragedy of her younger brother, born with cancer. Love That Bunch meanders through Kominsky-Crumb’s escape, at 18, to Greenwich Village, her pregnancy (she gave up the baby), and then to Arizona, her first marriage, her MFA in fine arts, her divorce, her San Francisco days, her open marriage (complete with rough sex) to R. Crumb. As she moves forward in time, she digs deeper into her childhood.
One place Kominsky-Crumb locates her self-loathing is that iconic subject of Jewish postwar male novelists and Second Wave feminists: the Jewish mother. Kominsky-Crumb is less interested in humanizing mom than in making the reader feel what it is like to be the daughter of Blabette, (in real life Babette), who is even more oppressive and materialistic than Mrs. Patimkin. On the table of contents page, blown up and across the fold, is Blabette’s head, the final panel of the comic, “The Bunch, Her Baby, and Grammaw Blabette,” drawn in the 1980s. Blabette’s gigantic mouth is open, revealing jagged teeth, and she is screaming, “so relax … don’t get upset … don’t get nervous! Dahling deahr dordah!” In the full comic—also in this volume, drawn in the 1980s—Blabette throws her daughter back into her agonizing childhood, proving that no Jewish girl can escape her mother.
In part because of Blabette, Kominsky-Crumb has been labeled a pioneering underground autobiographical comic. And her work is from life, of course. But at the same time, it is often more mysterious than the word autobiography implies. It includes the fantastical character, Mr. Bunch, half father, half golem. And it includes plenty of scenes she could not have witnessed. One panel in “Babette ‘n Arnie” (1976) shows her father, Arnie, having violent sex with her mother, drawn as though the young Bunch were standing right next to the bed. Nonetheless, critics often focus on the autobiography part in strangely gendered ways. In interviews, a frequent question is what her mother thinks of Blabette, as if that were the most important thing about her work. (Kominsky-Crumb has said her comics ultimately improved their relationship.)
But Kominsky-Crumb’s best comics are less verité accounts of family unhappiness than phantasmagoric collages describing her Jewish story. The first page of “Nose Job” (not in the original Love That Bunch), an unsentimental investigation of the intersection between the Jewish female body and Jewish female identity, contains a song, a drawing of a nose, and some medical journal jargon (atypical for Kominsky-Crumb, typed) describing the surgery. Next comes a Jewish fairy tale: All Kominsky-Crumb’s high school friends get rhinoplasties and she has to run away to prevent her parents from dragging her to the plastic surgeon (is this autobiography?). In the last panel, beatniks come into vogue, transforming Kominsky-Crumb from pariah to exotic Jewess. “She looks like Joan Baez,” the caption reads. “Moo Goo Gai Pan” starts years later, in the California desert town she lives in with R. Crumb, and moves to a Proustian trip to the table of her vulgar female relatives, who are greedily devouring take out. The food is not as good as she remembers, and when she returns to California, she finds a rare, momentary sense of peace.
Many other great comics reflect Second Wave feminism’s interest in stories about women’s lives and the search for Jewish roots. But they also reflect Kominsky-Crumb’s flight, around 1976, from the movement’s militancy, puritanism, and triumphalism and her ambivalence about her Jewish past. Her first comics, published only a few years after Our Bodies, Ourselves (whose founders were mostly Jewish), portray Kominsky-Crumb’s Jewish body as grotesque (a word she likes), devouring, and devoured, reshaped by men’s desires, goyische norms of beauty, and herself. As she joked, she was a wild hippie slut.
One of Kominsky-Crumb’s most shocking investigations of her Jewish life, “Goldie: A Neurotic Woman” (1972), which shows her masturbating in one panel and wearing a Jewish Star in several others, is sadly not in this volume. But “Bunch Plays with Herself,” (1975) is. That comic shows the young Bunch masturbating, sun-tanning, scratching her butt, and pimple popping. “My body is an endless source of entertainment,” she concludes. Such drawings seemed to some feminist cartoonists misogynist and they shunned her. (Her romantic involvement with R. Crumb, also considered by some women comics to be misogynist, hastened her ouster.) But “Bunch Plays with Herself” is still shocking today.
This gorgeously produced volume, with its rich portrayals of Kominsky-Crumb’s young Jewish life, includes some scenes I have not seen elsewhere. “Oh Camp So Dear” (1976) starts in Jewish summer camp, then moves to a story she tells her campmates about how her father threatened to shoot Howard, a black man she dated when she was “secretly” working for Head Start in high school. From there, she jumps to a story about how, after trying to seduce someone in in San Francisco, she passes out and is raped. The comic ends with meticulously drawn panels of her summer camp color wars, where she is wearing a Jewish star.
Early on art teachers, other comic artists, and readers ridiculed Kominsky-Crumb’s primitive draftsmanship and the misspellings in her captions. But these stylistic tics seem now like assets, revealing her characters’ making themselves up, as when she draws herself differently from one panel to another to reflect her fluctuating identity. “I can’t stand myself,” she screams in a panel in “Up in the Air” (1980), a comic where she also plays her Jewishness for laughs. “I know there was another popular book about this written by another Jewish woman, but too bad…” she writes in a dialogue bubble. But a few panels later, her inner torment unspools. One panel, “Life of the Jewess,” shows her naked, wearing her Jewish star and lying under thought bubbles of guilt, food, caddilacs [sic], condos yelling fat death.”
About one third of the comics here did not appear in the original Love That Bunch. Some of the new ones are from her California years. Others were written after 1989, when the Kominsky-Crumb family moved to a small village in southwestern France with their daughter, Sophie, six years before Terry Zwigoff’s movie, Crumb, made R. Crumb a celebrity. Several are about Arnie, her father. In “Growing Up as Arnie’s Girl,” Arnie screams “ya can’t shine shit,” when he sees her putting on make-up. In what seems like abuse, he pinches her ass and extols it to a friend. He loses it and tries to choke her. “It’s easier to think kindly of him when he is not around to torture me,” is The Bunch’s thought balloon about the man who died when she was 19.
Other new comics, more stylistically sophisticated than the early ones, are often less satisfying. The old antagonisms and neuroses seem to have receded. A coda to “Of What Use is a Bunch?”, “Of What Use is an Old Bunch?” (2012), ends with her being ridden by her grandson. “Is this sick?” she asks in a thought bubble, forcing the reader back to the earlier comic where getting ridden had a different meaning. “My Very Own Dream House” wanders between Jewish Long Island and France, covering many years and incidents, including the attacks on the World Trade Center towers. Kominsky-Crumb manages to squeeze out new revelations about her life in France. Her village is “like the shtetl in Eastern Europe my family came from.”
Love That Bunch is a bitter, poignant, satisfying epic of how one Jewish woman survived her Jewish 20th-century family. If I had a daughter, I would make her read it.
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Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.