In May Drawn and Quarterly will publish Love That Bunch, a new hardcover edition that collects, for the first time, all of Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s hilarious and grotesque short form solo comics over the course of nearly 30 years. These stories, which start in the 1960s, feature her alter ego, The Bunch, a human carnival of cravings, blunt opinions and shamelessly candid representations that relentlessly flout the taboos around female intimate life.
Throughout her long and still unfolding career, Kominsky-Crumb has brought an uncompromising honesty and fearlessness to the comics form. She has refused to be contained by anyone else's ideas about what is permissible to depict and to write about, and her work always surprises.
Love That Bunch collects 43 stories that survey the long arc of her character’s life, from her childhood in the 1950s with her dad and mom, whom she hears having sex at four in the morning in the story “Blabette and Arnie”. In the story she says to her young self, “I hafto keep being the smartest one in my class or else I’ll be like mother, I’ll be fat, ugly and I’ll have a disgusting husband.”
The rest of the stories collected in Love That Bunch take Bunch/Aline from her adolescence years in the 1960s when she lunges at George Harrison and nearly strangles him at JFK Airport, to years as a swinging, sexually adventurous young adult (in the story “The Young Bunch An Unromantic Non Adventure Story”), and to sex-crazed housewife fantasies, as told in “Mommy Dearest Bunch.” And finally, in “My Very Own Dream House,” the book's longest piece, completed over 15 years, Kominsky-Crumb summarizes the latest events in her life, living alongside R. Crumb in their home in France.
A pioneering female cartoonist during the years of the male dominated Underground Comics Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Kominsky-Crumb’s work is not for the faint of heart, or those afraid to confront the messiness of being human. Love That Bunch opens with a story about the Bunch’s clearly non-consensual deflowering by a high school classmate. After two silent panels of teenage underwear fumbling, a 14-year-old Bunch sees her first penis.
Her reaction? “Looks like gizzards.” But that comedic moment quickly veers into intense discomfort as it becomes clear that this backseat sex isn’t consensual. The interweaving of the vaudevillian and the traumatic is what makes Kominsky-Crumb’s work such a vital contribution and influence on successive generations of cartoonists.
In The Bunch, Kominsky-Crumb relentlessly documents the messiness of sex, gender relations, relationships with parents, children, homes, food, and American consumerism in the latter half of the 20th Century. She owns her stories, the best and the worst, and that ownership vests her work with a depth belied by its raucous humor. Kominsky-Crumb’s voice and her sense of comic timing are skills she honed beginning in childhood, when her grandfather would take her to see vaudeville performers and now-classic standup comedians.
“My grandfather was a great raconteur, and when I was a kid, he took me to see Jackie Mason and Joey Bishop and Henny Youngman and Don Rickles and everybody, and that's why I ended up being a cartoonist. I learned that sense of humor from them, and then from him. I was steeped in it, and I never realized what a gift it was until I sat down to try and tell my story, and all of that humor was in there.”
Kominsky-Crumb recently encountered one of her early inspirations, the veteran Jewish standup comedian Jackie Mason, on a Miami street. Starstruck, she summoned up the courage to approach him and express her appreciation of his career: “Jackie Mason, I can't believe you're just here standing here on Lincoln Road!” Mason's reply: “What, I should be lying down?
Since the earliest days of the underground comics movement, Kominsky-Crumb has been a force in comics. She met and married R. Crumb shortly after she moved to San Francisco in the 1970s. She began as a member of the seminal 1970’s feminist comics collective Wimmins Comix. The collective eventually parted ways in 1975, and Kominsky-Crumb cofounded Twisted Sisters, an iconic all-female anthology, with Diane Noomin, another pioneering female underground cartoonist. During the 1980s and into the 1990s, Kominsky-Crumb worked as an editor of (and contributor to) Weirdo, a noted comics magazine founded by R. Crumb.
In addition she has published The Complete Dirty Laundry Comics (Last Gasp, 1993), a collection of autobiographic comics created in collaboration with R. Crumb, Twisted Sisters: A Collection of Bad Girl Art (Penguin, 1991), and Twisted Sisters 2: Drawing the Line (Kitchen Sink Press, 1994). In 2007, with MQP, Kominsky-Crumb published Need More Love: A Graphic Memoir (currently out of print), a book combining her personal memoir as well as an extensive record of her art and commentary on her life. And in 2012, Norton published Drawn Together: The Collected Works of R. and A. Crumb, a comprehensive collection of the collaborative comics of Aline and Robert from their Dirty Laundry Comics of the 1990s to their New Yorker comics.
The 1975 debut issue of Twisted Sisters, famously featured The Bunch/Aline, seated on the toilet, while announcing: “I look like a 50-year old businessman! What if someone comes while I’m making? How many calories in a cheese enchilada?” It was an utterly new way for a female cartoonist to depict herself.
“When I did it,” she says, “it was not well received by the other women artists, except for a few. But in general, the women I was working with in the early 70s were very much into romanticizing themselves, as they had grown up on superheroes and these heroic female characters. I didn't blame them. The grotesqueness in my work was way too self-deprecating, and it was very poorly received at the time.” She explains.
“One of the hardest things for me to deal with was that I wasn’t in a supportive group of women artists. And I understood why. I just did what I absolutely had to do, what came pouring out of me like diarrhea. I couldn't even defend it on intellectual terms. I just started working with people that were of similar spirit and kindred souls, that's all.”
Self-deprecation and references to Jewish/Yiddish culture and language pervade Love That Bunch. And the titles clue you in: “Why The Bunch Can’t Draw,” “Of What Use is a Bunch?” and later, “Of What Use is an Old Bunch,” are typical stories. When asked about the deep Ashkenazi Jewish roots of this kind of humor, Kominsky-Crumb explains, “It's a deep tradition in our culture, that ability to colorfully express oneself. Yiddish is such a rich language.”
Kominsky-Crumb says, “I always peppered my work with Yiddish; there's nothing better for storytelling. Sometimes you cannot find another word that could possibly express what you're trying to say. To make other people feel comfortable, you make fun of yourself always. If you make yourself seem fabulous, it always makes other people feel intimidated. If you can say the worst thing about yourself, what can they say about you? When I saw Lena Dunham on the toilet, I almost had an orgasm!”
In the introduction to Love That Bunch, comics scholar Hillary Chute writes: “It was rare for a women to put herself—the good, the bad, and the ugly—at the center of stories the way Kominsky-Crumb did. Even within the world of underground comics, which values smashing taboos, Kominsky-Crumb broke barriers.”
Today, Kominsky-Crumb is almost 70, a grandmother of three, and a recent cancer survivor.
“Eventually, I became very involved in yoga and meditation, and I evolved very much in a different direction,” she says. “I'm in a very different place now than I was when I did a lot of my comic work. I had cancer last year, and I almost died. My yoga and meditation really got me through it. I'm healthy now, but I had a very scary close call with death.”
A lot of times when she’s doing yoga, she asks herself why. “It's so humorless, but I really get a lot out of it. I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into it. I still question why I do it. I can never just accept that I do something. I'm always in a dialectic about everything. And then when I was in a really hard position and I had to be a warrior, then I knew why.”
Leela Corman is a cartoonist and illustrator and the author of the 2012 graphic novel, Unterzakhn, published by Pantheon.