The Yoko Ono of Comics, on Her Own Terms

Posted May 14, 2018 6:46 p.m. EDT

Among the few women making underground comics in 1970s San Francisco, the feminist infighting was fierce. Aline Kominsky (who would soon take the name of her famous and infamous boyfriend, Robert Crumb) was berated for drawing strips that female cartoonists in her collective thought were too crude and confessional, not uplifting enough, wallowing in the depths of self-loathing — about being too fat, too sexually voracious, too loud, too neurotic. This was not the work of an “evolved feminist consciousness,” she was told.

When she broke off and started her own comic book, Twisted Sisters, the first issue’s cover made it clear just how little she cared about anyone’s judgment: It was a drawing of her sitting on the toilet, underwear around her ankles, wondering, “How many calories in a cheese enchilada?"

“She specialized in outgrossing anyone who was going to call her gross,” said Diane Noomin, Kominsky-Crumb’s co-conspirator in Twisted Sister.

She didn’t care — and hasn’t for a long time now. For more than four decades, Kominsky-Crumb has been shining an unabashedly unflattering light on her own life. It’s the theme that runs through “Love That Bunch,” a new book gathering her solo comics from her mid-20s until these past few years, as she turns 70 this summer.

With her previous collections long out of print, this publication offers a life’s retrospective. It’s a significant moment of recognition after a career spent mostly in the shadow of her husband. Even though she has collaborated with Crumb for The New Yorker over the past two decades, the pioneering quality of Kominsky-Crumb’s own work — nakedly self-revealing and self-obsessed years ahead of the rest of the culture — has largely been overlooked.

The vulnerability she exposes in “Love That Bunch” — every flaw, from her nose to her hypochondria, is chewed over — is very much a precursor to today’s dominant comedic mode. Way before “Girls,” “Broad City” and “Fleabag,” Kominsky-Crumb expressed herself in a scribbly hand (she calls it “homely”) about sex and her love-hate relationship with her body, about the trauma she endured at the hands of her “monster” of a mother and her desire to find lovers who would treat her like a “bad girl.”

“She has something in common with Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, women who are trying to grapple with their identities in a way that is not prettified,” said Art Spiegelman, the author of “Maus.” “They are just trying to live and breathe as women with all their contradictions. And it’s a liberated and liberating way of looking at oneself.” One of the earlier pieces in the book, “The Young Bunch, an unromantic nonadventure story,” from 1976, describes her teen years and losing her virginity (an episode that would likely be called date rape today). She puts it out there in all its graphic ugliness and violence. Her scratchy black and white lines look like German expressionist woodcuts, something from Otto Dix. It makes one want to recoil — a typical reaction to her work, by her own account — at the same time the extreme honesty demands empathy and even pity.

“I can see the rawness of that work, how out of control I was,” Kominsky-Crumb said on a recent visit to New York. “I was doing lots of drugs and drinking and smoking and eating tons of meat, having sex. I was totally degenerate.”

In person, Kominsky-Crumb, her wavy hair a bright magenta, wearing a necklace with a pendant to ward off the evil eye, is still the vibrant, loudmouth with a Long Island accent most people first encountered in Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary, “Crumb" — the warm, frenetic yin to Crumb’s reclusive, moody yang. Though she underwent treatment for colon cancer last year — she jokes that “yoga and cancer” are responsible for her now slim figure — the contented life she’s managed to find in the small medieval French village of Sauve, where she’s lived with Crumb for nearly three decades, shows. She’s no less brutal in her honesty, but she’s less likely to use the byline she adopted for one 1980 comic: “I Hate Myself Kominsky-Crumb.” Growing up in the middle-class Jewish suburb of Long Island’s Five Towns and coming of age amid the conformity of the 1950s and early 60s, Kominsky-Crumb thought the quick and self-deprecating Jewish stand-up comedians of the era, like Alan King and Joey Bishop, had the right idea. Joan Rivers, she said, was her idol (“except she got a nose job and I was the only Jewish girl in my entire high school who didn’t”).

Art offered an escape and after moving to the Lower East Side and then Tucson, Arizona, she eventually found herself, at 22, in San Francisco. Inspired by the work of Justin Green and his groundbreaking 1972 graphic novel “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary," in which he laid bare his intense Catholic guilt and obsessive compulsive disorder, she decided to follow suit, creating “Goldie: A Neurotic Woman,” which appeared that same year in the premier issue of Wimmen’s Comix. As Roberta Smith noted in a 2007 review of one of her gallery shows, it was this work that “helped establish” the “drawn-and-written confessional comic."

Soon after meeting Crumb in 1971, their lives and their careers became entwined. The couple lived for many years in Northern California, had a daughter, Sophie, in 1981, and in the early 1990s, with Kominsky-Crumb largely dragging her husband along, moved to France. They left just before the release of the film “Crumb” and its success, which brought Crumb heightened fame, a reality they were happy to escape.

For Kominsky-Crumb, the irony now, after being called the “Yoko Ono of comics” all these years, is that her husband’s work, though still respected for its craftsmanship, has not weathered well culturally, particularly in the eyes of younger women, while her messy self-examinations seem even more relevant today.

Crumb’s cartoonish, leering depictions of women’s bodies — all powerhouse legs and enormous behinds — have wrongly earned him the moniker of “male chauvinist pig,” she insisted. “Robert’s work was never understood by certain women, which I see because he’s drawn some on the surface very objectionable images. But they are a total satire. You have to be an idiot to think that’s who he is.”

It’s complicated, especially for a woman who is unabashed about sketching her own fantasies of submission. When she first met Crumb, he was drawing a character named “Honeybunch Kaminski” who happened to have the same last name and silhouette as Kominsky-Crumb. She embraced the character, even dressing like her in short skirts and knee socks. But she grew tired of people calling her by the nickname. “Inside I’m not a cute sex object,” she wrote in one comic. To rebel, she twisted the name Honeybunch into “The Bunch” and gave it to her alter ego.

“I was horrified and fascinated and must have read them a million times,” said Phoebe Gloeckner, the graphic novelist and author of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl," about discovering the sexual misadventures of “The Bunch” as a teenager.

These days, Kominsky-Crumb isn’t actively trying to provoke anyone. She’s instead spending time with her three young grandchildren, doing yoga and busying herself with the life of her little village.

In her work, she is still unrelenting in the way she exposes herself, like in the book’s last strip, from 2014, in which she lists all she has to do “to keep the attractive sexy thing going,” including “teeth implants,” “hair implants” and “two types of injectables.” But it’s gentler and more forgiving, and though the final panel has her on all fours, it’s because there’s a grandchild riding on her back.

In New York, she swiped through the pictures on her iPhone, showing off this idyllic, grandmotherly life. “That’s the old bridge from the 11th century,” she pointed out, the one just outside their house. Then the grandchildren, all blond curls, making a tea party for Mamie and Grandpa. She swiped again and then there was Crumb himself, with a white beard, laying on his couch, all three grandchildren piled on top of him. “That’s the kitchen. This is our local restaurant.”

And then something completely different but, also, unsurprising. Photo after photo of anonymous women shot from behind, all with noticeably large backsides, all in miniskirts or short shorts. Kominsky-Crumb kept swiping through them as if the shift from the domestic made total sense, explaining that these were from a recent trip to Miami to visit her mother. They were, of course, intended for Crumb.

“I’m enabling his big butt fixation,” she said, a smile spreading across her face as she admired the pictures. “Well, I don’t have a big butt anymore so I have to offer him something.”