Robert Crumb is a regular name discussed in the Fierro household. We always keep our eyes open for an issue of Zap, Snatch, or Big Ass Comics, and we adore his illustrations for Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. Despite this admiration and respect for his work, over the holiday, we realized that we did not own the Big Yum Yum Book, and that was an enormous error in judgement.
In order to not wallow too much in the glory of the past (which happens, but more offline), I try to keep reviews here constrained to comics and graphic novels released in the present and no more than three years back. Occasionally, I have to make exceptions for works of the past that I feel have left our collective memory of comics, so this week, I could not pass up the opportunity to write about the Big Yum Yum Book.
When we think of Robert Crumb, most hardly would describe his work as sweet, endearing, or lovely because of the sexual audacity of his creations in San Francisco’s underground; however, the Big Yum Yum Book, started in 1962 but not published until 1975, presents a softer Crumb, one who was nineteen and had yet to fully understand his carnal desires and his artistic style, and while the book lacks the exaggerated visuals and sexuality of his comics made only a few years after the completion of Big Yum Yum, it reveals the early cleverness and awareness of Crumb that would eventually morph into extreme hyperbole in the figure we now consider as the elder statesman of underground comix. In his introduction to the 1975 original publication, Crumb notes that he finds this book “adolescent and immature” and that others will feel it is “too cute,” but as Harvey Pekar notes in the introduction to the SLG Books 1995 edition, do not let the vivid and exquisite colors and the adorable animal characters and drawing style fool you into believing that this is a naive love story; the Big Yum Yum Book is an exceptional accomplishment that sharply comments on the young of the 1960s and captures life as an aloof observer during that time.
Ogden, a toad and our protagonist, enters college and adulthood with open and cynical eyes. As the child of a prominent business toad who hopes his son will continue his legacy, Ogden immediately realizes that college life does not suit him. He cannot relate to the intellectuals, the open lovers, the beatniks, or the political activists, and after exhausting attempts to fit in, he has an outburst from frustration that changes his life. After crushing and burying the ladybugs in his shared dorm room during his surge of anger, a giant beanstalk erupts from the ground and holds on to Ogden, launching him into space and eventually onto another planet.
Here on this new planet, Ogden has escaped the concrete harshness of the city he had known and has arrived to a beautiful forest abundant with fruit, greenery, and trees. After spending a few days in the bliss of nature, he realizes that, despite all of the greatness of his new home, he is lonely, like Adam in the garden of Eden, and ventures on finding some company. Ogden quickly discovers Guntra, a portly teenage girl, and he instantaneously falls in love. Unfortunately, Guntra only sees Ogden (and every animal that once lived on the planet) as food, but his love will not subside.
The Big Yum Yum Book progresses into a love story, but one from the mind of Robert Crumb, so do not worry, nothing is sentimental here. In the course of Ogden’s pursuit of the ever hungry Guntra, we not only see how love transforms an individual but also how humanity can disintegrate in the surrounding world and how different members of society inadequately react to its downfall. To deliver its biting assessment of our world, the Big Yum Yum Book twists motifs and stories common in Western literature such as the frog prince, the witch hunt, and the fall of the Garden of Eden into its absurdity, making this book undoubtedly one of satire but one that never takes itself too seriously. In turn, the Big Yum Yum Book has a levity to it that balances the severity of Crumb’s own observations of the time, making this book an impressive work for any comicbook creator not to mention a nineteen year old one.
Crumb in the years immediately following the Big Yum Yum Book exponentially increased the absurdity and the perversity in his comics, which definitely heightened the controversy around him and made his work less approachable. For those of us who enjoy these more obscene works, we’ll distill the core essence behind his exaggerations, but for people who do not really comprehend Crumb’s perspective, please read the Big Yum Yum Book, and you’ll understand that much more lies underneath the lurid illustrations of large women in sexual positions; Crumb is a highly perceptive satirist who, like Ogden, does not quite fit in but can use his alienation to assess the world without looking and sounding like a misanthrope. He may lose some friends and completely embarrass himself along the route of self-discovery, but he knows himself, and this self-awareness is the ultimate signature of Crumb that already existed in his earliest works. This key feature would just take on a more extreme and vulgar shell as he progressed as an artist and began to pour out his own psyche onto panels, but you must admire his unrelenting honesty and boldness to admit his inner desires, even if the pages of Snatch make you blush or shudder in shock.
Big Yum Yum Book is available via SLG Books; it features photographs of the original artwork.