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Drawn Together: R. Crumb's Beloved Aline Kominsky

Reprinted with permission of Heeb.

Underground comix artist Aline Kominsky-Crumb and R. Crumb have lived and worked together for the past 35 years, collaborating on strips for Weirdo, The New Yorker and their own Dirty Laundry Comics, among others. But Aline, a prolific and widely published artist in her own right, has often taken a back seat to Robert's larger-than-life persona (many don't even realize that much of Robert's works are, in fact, collaborations). Now, at 58 years old, Aline is stepping into the spotlight and publishing her first solo book, Need More Love (MQ Publications, 2007), an autobiography chronicling her life--from an emotionally-anemic upbringing on Long Island with an abusive father and psychotic mother, to her countercultural 20s in a Greenwich Village feminist art collective, to her life today with Robert in the south of France. Ilana Arazie sat down with the artist (who just happens to be her cousin once-removed) to talk about Need More Love and Aline's need for more love.

Aline Kominsky-Crumb and her husband, Ralph Crumb, have collaborated on adult comics for years, although many people are unaware of Aline's contributions. Photo courtesy Aline Kominsky-Crumb

You thought Robert was Jewish when you first met him.

I had read Robert's work before I met him and I thought he was Jewish because he's just so whiny. He's such a kvetch. I grew up going to the Borscht Belt hotels in the Catskills and hearing famous Jewish comedians like Joey Bishop and Alan King and Jackie Mason--I was really familiar with that anecdotal, self-deprecating humor. So when I saw Robert's comics, I thought, here is Jewish humor at its best. I assumed that Crumb was a name he made up for comics and his real name was Crumberg or something. When my grandparents met him, he wore a white shirt, a sports coat and a hat so they thought he was a rabbinical student. When we finally told them the truth, they were really disappointed. My grandmother tried to get him to convert for years. Robert seems to be somewhat of a Jewophile because I'm his second Jewish wife. He actually comes from a big, Minnesota farm family and they're as white as can be. I think they came over on the Mayflower or something.

So being Jewish is different than being white?

I can't help it, you know? My best male friends are Jewish, but as far as attraction--forget it. Terry Zwigoff and I were really good friends. One time I was wearing a pair of leather pants and asked, 'Terry, how do I look in these pants?' He said, 'You look like a couch.' That's typical of how I felt growing up in high school when Jewish boys were real snotty. They were these short, skinny boys who wanted little blond girls. Those boys all grown up still make me feel like a Jewish monster. Whereas when I'm with a goy, I feel exotic and sexy and voluptuous. The most popular girl in my high school was Peggy Lipton, the actress who was on "The Mod Squad" and "Twin Peaks." She was Jewish, but she was tall with straight blond hair, and a thin, pug nose. I adored her. She had a brother who was my age. He was dumpy and curly-haired like the rest of us, and I would help him with his homework so I could go over to his house and see Peggy.

The way you draw yourself and other women sometimes borders on the grotesque.

I used to keep notebooks of drawings of people on the street--these disastrous looks, strange body shapes and disgusting makeup. I started doing that in the '50s and early '60s when people wore bubble hairdos and white lipstick and go-go boots. Then when the '60s came in, everything became natural, I stopped setting my hair on orange juice cans and putting Dippity-doo on my bangs and gluing them to my forehead with Scotch tape. I saw Joan Baez and Judy Collins and I realized there was a way for me to be myself. It was an incredible salvation for me. The natural Jewish thing became sort of okay and guys started finding me attractive, too.

I notice you are wearing a pendant of the Virgin Mary right now.

I am basically a pagan. I'm wearing the Virgin because to me, she is a benign, protecting image--the female goddess Mother Nature. In my house I have a shrine that has something from every single religion. But all that voodoo stuff--the evil eye, the mezuzah, the dripping Virgins--is so absurd. The Virgin pulling her chest open looks just like someone spreading her vagina apart--very obscene and vulnerable. When I was in Chicago for Robert's book tour a couple years ago, someone gave me these salt-and-pepper shakers that are called the 'vagina Virgins.' They look like Virgins from a distance but they're actually vaginas. In terms of organized religion, I'm basically completely against any narrow type of worship that encourages intolerance and imagines the world as a battle of 'them against us.' That includes Orthodox Judaism in its extreme form, Arab fundamentalists, born-again Christians--all of those people I fear very much.

Aline Kominsky-Crumb's first solo work, Need More Love, is an autobiography of her life growing up as a Jewish girl in a dysfunctional household in Long Island. Art reprinted with permission of author.

You and Robert moved to France in the late '80s. What prompted your decision to leave your home country?

There were many factors. Our daughter was in the public school system in rural California, which might as well be Kansas, to tell you the truth. Once you get into Central Valley in California, it has nothing to do with San Francisco. One day I had coffee with this teacher friend of mine. When she got back to school afterwards, the principal asked her, 'What were you doing having coffee with the wife of a child pornographer?' That was how Robert was referred to there. It was the Christian influence--there were 13 churches in our town by the time we left, and there had only been three when we first arrived. I decided we had to get out. Robert had an agent in Paris and his work is worth a lot in Europe. So I went to go visit friends who were living in a small town in the South of France to see what it was like, and I fell in love with the place. We went back for vacation and then we ended up buying this old house and fixing it up. Now, 15 years later, we're still there.

You and Robert have done a number of comic strips for The New Yorker, mostly about your life in France.

Robert and I have been working in what we call 'the dirty laundry style' for 30 years and it's really fun working together. He draws and writes his own stuff and I draw and write my own stuff, so it becomes a George Burns/Gracie Allen kind of comedy bit. As far as I know, we're the only couple that's done that in the history of comics. But a lot of people think Robert draws all of our New Yorker strips. I've had people come up to me and say, 'Why does your husband draw you so ugly in The New Yorker?' I say, 'No, actually… that was me drawing myself.' Some people can't even tell the difference. I can now claim that yes, I worked for The New Yorker and that impresses people. But, how much more acceptance can I get when a lot of people don't even realize I draw any of it? That's the price that I pay for being married to somebody working in the same field who's much more famous than I am. It's a very strange mixed bag. My experience in this respect was part of my motivation for writing my book, Need More Love. I decided that at my age, I'm ready to put my voice out there completely independently. I started writing this very long, detailed graphic memoir that tells it all from my point of view.

Tell me how you and Robert fell in love.

Robert had drawn a character called Honeybunch Kominsky and she had long wavy hair and big legs. My last name was Kominsky so a lot of people said to me, 'My God, this guy gave this character your name and she looks just like you!' When I moved to San Francisco in 1971, a friend took me to a party at Robert's then-girlfriend's house--he was married and he also had a girlfriend. We met and I have to say, I thought he was really cute. The first thing he said to me was, 'You have cute knees.' I always thought I had the ugliest knees so the fact that he said that completely blew my mind. Even though it was the early '70s and things were very… loose, I thought, 'no way' because of his other relationships. But we did have a clandestine affair. After a while I finally said, 'Look, if you want to get involved, get rid of the other relationships. I'm not gonna take somebody's boyfriend or husband away.' It was a mess in the beginning, but he did finally end them.

And the rest is history.

We started living together in 1972. We both are collectors and our collections went together so perfectly. He turned me on to old music and I turned him on to old dishes. We share a sense of humor and a very similar, alienated world view. Plus, we have a really hot sex thing, too. We've now been together for 35 years and things have never been better between us. We are definitely soul mates; we were lucky to find each other. I think we've really parented and nurtured each other. Robert has always been my biggest fan. He has always encouraged me as an artist and he laughs at my jokes harder than anybody. That's why I've continued to work all these years even though I've had very little public acceptance and I never make any money. He has never been monogamous, but because I've always felt that he'd never leave me and was ultimately completely loyal to me, I've been able to incorporate that into my life. In the beginning it was hard, but I eventually expanded and had other relationships as well. Our marriage is unique and very odd. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to other people, but it does work for us.

It must be a lot of hard work.

Neither one of us is terribly jealous or possessive. I've been with Robert since I was 23 years old, so if we hadn't had an open relationship I might've burned out. But because I was able to explore and grow and still stay in the relationship, it worked. We've been through hippie communes and drugs and all kinds of incredible scenes and we're still together. I do consider ours a true love story.

Hebrew for "doorpost," it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. Yiddish for "gentile," or someone who is not Jewish. Some use this term with affection, however it's still largely understood to have a derogatory connotation.
Ilana Arazie

Ilana Arazie (ilanadonna.com) is a regular contributor/conspirator for Heeb magazine. She's been writing, singing, producing and doing her "shtick" through Tel-Aviv, San Francisco, Miami and New York City.

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