R Crumb
Mr. Natural, which is on the southeast corner of Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue. Photo: John Storey

This painting of Mr. Natural on a trash can near the Cal campus reminds us that for several years Robert Crumb (better known as R. Crumb) was a central figure in Berkeley’s underground comix cultural scene. Crumb and other underground comix artists redefined the comic genre while bringing it back to its roots. Their work was a central element in the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Crumb spent his childhood in Philadelphia, Minnesota, Iowa, California, Delaware, and Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. His older brother, Charles, led Crumb and his younger brother to make comics as the foundation of his obsessive devotion to his art

An early Crumb comic. Courtesy of lambiek.net

Crumb wrote: “We drew those homemade comics throughout childhood and adolescence, from 1952 right up until I left home in 1962; ten years solid of drawing comics with no let-up.”

In the fall of 1962, Crumb moved to Cleveland. Harvey Pekar, a budding comic writer, lived a couple of blocks away. Pekar wrote: “I took a look at his stuff.  Crumb was doing stuff beyond what other writers and artists were doing.  It was a step beyond Mad.

Crumb went to work for the American Greetings Corporation as a color separator. He wrote in a letter in March 1963: “My job here is indescribably dismal.” He was promoted within a year to the Hi-Brow Department where he drew hundreds of cards over the next several years.

After using LSD for several years, Crumb left Cleveland for San Francisco when he met two guys in a bar who said they were driving west.

His wife Dana soon followed and they settled in Haight-Ashbury. There was a nascent comic book scene in San Francisco.

Crumb’s art appeared in Yarrowstalks on May 5, 1967. It combined poetry, spirituality and multicultural interests with psychedelic design.

The Print Mint on Telegraph Avenue played a role in Crumb’s career

His career during that era was intertwined with the Print Mint inside Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue, which was opened by Don and Alice Schenker in 1965. They framed and sold posters.

Alice Schenker. Photo: Courtesy of Alice Schenker
Don Schenker. Photo: Courtesy of Alice Schenker

One of Crumb’s major appearances was in Yellow Dog, first an underground comic newspaper and then a full-blown comic. The Print Mint published 22 issues of Yellow Dog, from 1968 to 1973, featuring many of the most famous underground cartoonists, including Crumb, Joel Beck, Robert Williams, Rick Griffin, Greg Irons and Trina Robbins. It was published “as weekly as possible.”

With issue 13/14 (July 1969), Yellow Dog changed the format to a traditional comic book look. Crumb drew the first cover in the new format.

Alice Schenker remembers their early dealings with Crumb: “Don had a couple of Crumb’s drawings and asked Crumb if he could use them in Yellow Dog. Crumb ran into Don on Telegraph and gave Don his entire sketchbook, telling Don he could use whatever he wanted to use and pay Crumb what seemed fair.”

Here are several pages from the sketchbook:

Courtesy of Alice Schenker
Pages from R. Crumb sketchbook. Courtesy of Alice Schenker

The Print Mint published Zap Comix

Zap Comix was the superstar of the underground comix. With issue #4 (August 1969), Zap moved publishing to the Print Mint. Crumb said: “The Print Mint paid the best… Zap really changed when the Print Mint took it over,” Crumb said, according to the R. Crumb Handbook. “It started really big time…  All of a sudden this little hippie enterprise became this big deal with the lawyer and the Print Mint drawing up this legal thing and making sure we don’t get ripped off.”

The Berkeley police arrested Don and Alice Schenker on Oct. 21, 1969, and charged them with publishing pornography — Zap 4.  The Tribe’s Oct. 31, 1969 edition reported: “Now we’re up to ZAP 4 and the pigs have intervened.  ZAP 4 is being suppressed because of the ‘Joe Blow’ story, the theme of which is the family that fucks together, father-daughter, mother-son fucking, which Arlington says ‘is so heavy that the world is not ready for it yet.’”

Courtesy of Doris Moskowitz

Moe’s Owner Moe Moskowitz was arrested at about the same time for selling obscene materials – R. Crumb’s Zap Comics and Snatch Comics,  the S.C.U.M. Manifesto by Valeria Solanas (who shot Andy Warhol in 1968), Horseshit Magazine (The Offensive Review), and Mah Fellow Americans, editorial cartoons by the Underground Press Syndicate’s Ron Cobb.

Charges against the Schenkers and Moskowitz were eventually dropped.

Simon Lowinsky, the owner of the Phoenix Gallery on College Avenue, was arrested for obscenity as a result of a show of underground comix art.

Janis Joplin and R. Crumb. Photo: Elihu Blotnik

Crumb had one year earlier designed the cover for the Cheap Thrills album by Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Joplin and Crumb attended the Phoenix Gallery opening and vamped for the camera.

Comic rack at Print Mint. Photo: Patrick Rosenkranz

The Print Mint was the first publisher to invest heavily in the underground comix movement and its distribution. Its contribution to the genre was epic. The group of early comix geniuses whose work screamed out of the Print Mint and other Bay Area underground comix publishers are shown in the photos below:

Top row: Andy Martin, Jack Jaxon, Victor Moscos, Frank Cilensek, R. Crumb, Spain Rodriguez. Bottom row: Gilbert Shelton, Don Schenker, Rory Hayes. Photo: Courtesy of Alice Schenker

The group photo below was taken behind the Print Mint’s production office on Folger Avenue.

R. Crumb stands in the back row, wearing a tie and hat. Sitting in front of him is Peggy Rita. Photo: Courtesy of Alice Schenker

In early 1972, the movie Fritz the Cat, based on a popular Crumb character, was released. It opened in Berkeley in May of that year.

R. Crumb (far left) and the Cheap Suit Serenaders. Photo: Berkeley Barb, Aug. 2, 1974

In the 1970s, Crumb formed a band eventually known as the Cheap Suit Serenaders. It played songs from the 1920s and in the style of the 1920s –  old-time music, ragtime, jazz standards, western swing, country blues, hokum, vaudeville and medicine show tunes.

In the late 1970s, Crumb filed a lawsuit against the new owner of the Print Mint, Robert Rita, for unauthorized use of his “Keep on Truckin’” art. Crumb lost the suit against Rita and told the Barb in its Aug. 4, 1978 edition that: “I lost the case because I wouldn’t testify against Bob Rita who had put a second mortgage on his house to finance Arcade magazine.”

R. Crumb and Edward Abbey. Photo: Clay Geerdes

In an entirely different vein, Crumb came to Berkeley in 1985 for a book signing at The Nature Company of The Monkey Wrench Gang. The book was written by Edward Abbey and illustrated by Crumb. It celebrates four wilderness defenders who join together to attack those who are wrecking the wild – by any means necessary.

And then there are the relationships between Crumb and the late Bruce Duncan and the still-here Ace Backwards, two absolute outsider genius cartoonists of the Berkeley streets.

Crumb used a striking photo taken by Ace Backwards as the basis for his drawing “Girls of the Street” in his Art and Beauty. This is the photograph made by Ace Backwards.

Photo: Ace Backwards

This is the drawing made by Crumb.

I have much more in my Quirky Berkeley post on Crumb, but even there I am sure that I have missed some of Crumb’s Berkeley connections. This gives the picture. Especially in the late 1960s and especially in the context of his relationship with Don and Alice Schenker, Berkeley was a safe and friendly place for Crumb. He may have never lived here, but he was, in his way, one of us.

Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,000 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-plus-year resident muses on what it all means. 

Freelancer Tom Dalzell has lived in Berkeley since 1984. After working for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers for 10 years as a legal worker and then lawyer, he went to work for another labor union...