"Girls wouldn't even let me draw them," recalls Robert Crumb of his early cartooning days. "Of course," he can't resist adding, "that all changed when I got famous."Crumb, the brilliant and biting documentary by Terry Zwigoff, is a masterpiece of neutral ambiguity. Crumb, who for three decades has been the unwilling godhead of underground cartoonists, uses his art to name and release the demons of modern life. He uglifies most of his subjects, especially himself, so those who know him only from his shrill, bug-eyed self-portraits may be surprised to meet him here as a presentable, soft-spoken family man. He embodies Flaubert's advice to be dull and bourgeois in one's life so as to be violent and original in one's art.
But Crumb's life wasn't always dull. Crumb introduces Robert's brothers -- Maxon, who meditates on a bed of nails, and Charles, a recluse who lives with their mother in a fog of medication. All three brothers were artists, but only Robert found popular recognition, an outlet that allowed him to connect, while Maxon and Charles withdrew into themselves. Critics who cluck over Robert's unstable brothers — "There but for the grace of God goes Robert" — miss the point of Crumb. The fickle finger of fame, which Crumb loathes, may have pointed him away from madness and obscurity. Yet we also see Maxon's and Charles' work, and it's far more striking than Robert's ferocious but relatively rational work; it has the purity of artists isolated from reality.
There's immense irony in this. Robert escaped, and he's still miserable: Success has its own agony. We watch him rebuffing a fan who asks for an autograph, or packing up his wife and daughter to move to France because America has become intolerable, or wearily answering the charges of misogyny levelled against his work, and if we listen carefully we may hear Terry Zwigoff saying, There but for the grace of God go Maxon and Charles.'Crumb' isn't only about the famous Crumb, and the soul of this odd and mesmerizing film is in its glimpses of the brothers Crumb laughing over shared memories of childhood terrors, seeking solace in gallows humor about their own lives.