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R. Crumb Means Some Offense

There's a comic by Robert Crumb from 1979 called “A Short History of America.” It’s 12 panels, all portraying a single spot of land. In the first, we see a bucolic field abutting a forest, birds flying overhead. In the second, there are fewer trees and a train rolling down a track, ejecting plumes of black smoke. Soon, there’s a log cabin, then telephone poles, then asphalt and cars. Then the trees disappear entirely and the house becomes a general store, the general store becomes a gas station, the gas station becomes a used-car lot and the sky, once so big, is almost completely obscured by crisscrossing electric wires. A small box in the final panel, containing the only text apart from the title, asks, “What next?!!”

This is the work of Crumb’s I keep thinking about on the summer afternoon I arrive in a medieval village in the Cévennes region of southern France. Crumb moved here in 1991 with his wife, the comics artist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and their daughter, Sophie, who was 10 at the time. They found a place that feels like it’s almost protected from the march of progress. Cars aren’t allowed in town; to get to the Crumbs’ house, I have to walk across a weathered bridge that traverses a murky canal. Affixed to the front door are what appear to be Catholic prayer cards though, on closer inspection, they depict Elvis Presley in a state of religious ecstasy. Inside, we go upstairs to a dimly lit office, with shelves of 78 r.p.m. records, mostly from the 1920s and ’30s (Crumb owns 8,000 of them; he’s been collecting “old music of all kinds from all over the world” since he was 16), a bulky metal drawing board, various instruments (he’s an accomplished musician), stacks of faded newspapers and books with titles like “Because Our Fathers Lied,” “UFOs and Nukes” and “Grey Aliens and the Harvesting of Souls.” (“I’m very interested in fringe things like that,” Crumb says.) I ask the couple, who have been together since 1971 and married in 1978, how they ended up here...

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