In April 2013, Claire Messud published The Woman Upstairs, a novel about an angry schoolteacher named Nora. In the lead-up to the book’s release, Publishers Weekly ran an interview with Messud, in which the interviewer asked her, rather offhandedly, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” Messud responded with appropriate wrath: “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet?” She continued listing characters before noting, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”
The exchange set off a miniature earthquake on the Internet. Writers weighed in on all sides: The New Yorker’s ”Page Turner” blog convened a “forum on ‘likability’”; Jennifer Weiner went to bat for likable female characters in Slate; months later, Roxane Gay published an essay about the value of unlikable female protagonists in BuzzFeed. The debate dismantled the double standard that women should be pleasant and agreeable, even when they’re fictional creations. Despite being outdated, the idea was clearly still present—an old wound whose scab was due to be picked once more.
It was maddening, but also comical, to watch the argument rage on, as if the work of some of the best female creators wasn’t a ready-made rebuttal to this myth. Aline Kominsky-Crumb, for one, has devoted her career to breaking down the expectation of women’s propriety, often with humor. In 1972, she contributed a story, “Goldie: A Neurotic Woman,” to the inaugural issue of the groundbreaking underground magazine Wimmen’s Comix. Her first published work, “Goldie” is these days considered the first autobiographical comic created by a woman. The five-page piece is a sort of dreamlike narration of how Goldie—a stand-in for the author, who draws herself with a big nose and even bigger hips—rediscovers her pride after puberty and an extended period of sleeping around have ruined her self-esteem. It’s a tale that Kominsky-Crumb would go on to retell many times in her work.
“A lot of women in the feminist art collective found me + my story distasteful!” Kominsky-Crumb recounts in a more recent comic titled “My Very Own Dream House.” Below that caption, a plain-faced woman wearing a flower necklace chides her: “Why are you so down on yourself? You should have a more positive self-image.” Kominsky-Crumb, who draws herself here wearing lipstick and with pronounced eyelashes, answers: “Sorree! I just don’t see myself in heroic terms..” The woman adds: “An’ you shouldn’t show yur legs…. They’re yuge!!”
Kominsky-Crumb has never exhibited much decorum in her work. From that very first comic, she’s made a point of showing what others don’t want to see, especially from a woman who makes art about herself: sexuality, insecurity, pettiness, anger, and bodily functions. Soon after the publication of “Goldie,” Kominsky-Crumb renamed her comics alter ego “the Bunch.” A story from 1975, “Bunch Plays With Herself,” is a quiet, expressionistic two-page ode to the wonders of the body. In it, the Bunch pops a pimple, picks her butt and nose, masturbates, then sunbathes and burns.
Such openness hasn’t garnered the artist a huge following. (It doesn’t help that her husband of 40 years, Robert Crumb, is one of the world’s most famous cartoonists.) Over the past couple of decades, however, a cultural shift has taken place, which seems to have opened up more space for her: Autobiographical comics have become mainstream, and, as others have noted, TV shows that feature complicated and “difficult” female characters, like Girls and Broad City, have come along. Still, somehow we aren’t yet past arguing about likability. And so Drawn & Quarterly’s recent publication of an anthology of Kominsky-Crumb’s comics, titled Love That Bunch, is both a belated acknowledgment and perfectly timed.
Love That Bunch opens with an episode that reads, by modern standards, like date rape. A teenage Kominsky-Crumb, her hair perfectly coiffed in waves, gets picked out at a high-school dance by a boy named Al. “A little while later,” according to the comic (which was first published in 1976), Al drives her to the middle of nowhere and has sex with her in his car while she says “don’t put it in!” and “no,” repeatedly. The black-and-white drawings of the scene are simple but striking, with thick, jagged lines in panels that explicitly show Al’s penis entering her vagina. Background patterns of dashes and dots seem to remove the pair from the car and drop them into an abstract psychosexual space. After it’s over, we see our heroine at home, admitting to her best friend Carol that she “went all the way.” She doesn’t cry; instead, a panel shows her recalling the image of Al’s penis with a slight smile on her face.
How could she treat this trauma so lightly? Where were the tears and anger? In a recent interview in The New Republic, Kominsky-Crumb explained that her actual relationship with Al lasted longer than a single night: He dated her for a year in the hopes of having sex with her, and once it happened, he broke up with her. Although Kominsky-Crumb called it “the most painful thing that I ever experienced emotionally,” adding that “my heart was broken,” she doesn’t see the incident as rape.
This is useful background, but it’s also, in a way, not important. The Al episode signals something surprising, given its content: Sex and relationships with men are not the central trauma of Kominsky-Crumb’s life—as we quickly learn, her parents are. It sets us up for a book full of complexities and apparent contradictions. Kominsky-Crumb finds validation through attention from men, but she is also a feminist. She has a husband as well as boyfriends. She went to art school but decided to make comics. She’s a devoted hippie who, later in life, gets plastic surgery. She moves to France but still talks like she lives on Long Island, where she grew up—in comics, she renders her husband’s name as “Rohbit.” Many of her comics stem from her seemingly endless reserve of self-loathing, yet she has ego enough to make them in the first place.
The Al story also captures Kominsky-Crumb’s ability, at her best, to treat trauma with restraint. This is unexpected for a book that’s visually loud: She crams her mostly black-and-white panels with crosshatching, shading, patterns, and text, sometimes to the point that the reader’s eye doesn’t know where to go. She’s also loud in her complaints and self-hatred. “Of What Use Is a Bunch?” (1980) lists 13 of her worst qualities. The panel accompanying No. 11—“She forces her personal neuroses on you… her readers”—shows the Bunch at work on a comic about her parents, which looks like one that appeared 30 pages earlier. She faces the reader and says, in three different speech balloons, “I can’t get along with my mother”; “I feel bedder tho after expressing it in my story!”; “I’m like Woody Allen + he’s a big star!!” A second caption tucked in at the bottom right asks: “Is this aht??”
This particular panel is a brilliant bit of self-conscious social satire that gives the lie to the comic in which it appears. On the surface, it seems like Kominsky-Crumb is simply making fun of herself for pouring out her feelings on the page. She is, but she’s also calling out a culture that lets Woody Allen do so with impunity while giving her grief. (Would you want to be friends with Isaac Mortimer Davis?) What’s more, she’s adopting humor and a naive posture—“playing dumb” is a tactic that women learn early—as a way of heading off a critique that’s been constantly directed at her over the years: that she can’t draw (the first of the 13 items in this very comic). Is this art? The insecurity behind the question may be real, but the answer is obvious.
The strongest pieces in Love That Bunch are the longer ones, which move through a series of episodes to tell a larger story. These showcase Kominsky-Crumb’s incredible ability to distill the tragedy and humor of life down to brief but meaningful moments. For example, “More of the Bunch” (1976) narrates, in nine pages, the Bunch’s transition from a bored, unhealthily thin housewife in Tucson, Arizona, into a newly single art-school student seduced by her professor, and finally into a woman who, sitting down to make a comic, stumbles upon an unexpected medium for her self-expression. An expanded version of this story appears in “My Very Own Dream House” (2000/14), the longest (at 32 pages) and one of the most complex pieces in the book, and offers an account of Kominsky-Crumb’s life by way of the houses she’s inhabited. “A house is the physical manifestation of the ego…..” reads the title panel. Parts of that narrative also appear in the 17-page “Blabette ‘n’ Arnie” (1976), which chronicles her parents’ relationship—“Blabette” is her name for her mother—and ends with her father’s premature death.
In these comics, Kominsky-Crumb constantly reworks the raw material of her life. Despite the repetition, the episodes feel fresh each time because of the way she emphasizes different details. “More of the Bunch” reads like a cautionary tale about the dangers of men; “My Very Own Dream House” is a meditation on how our physical environments shape us; “Blabette ‘n’ Arnie” is a treatise on the pitfalls of turning to materialism to mask one’s unhappiness. Each time Kominsky-Crumb retells her stories, she refashions them as well. And their compilation in a single volume feels like a confirmation of Joan Didion’s maxim that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Many of the comics in Love That Bunch contain significant events: separation, finding one’s calling, the birth of a sibling, the death of a parent, meeting a husband, having a baby, moving to another country. Yet their treatment is never overwrought, even though the people who experience them often are: Blabette and Arnie fight loudly, and the Bunch inherits her parents’ flair for drama (as well as for using coercive, male-dominated sex as a way to end fights). While everyone’s busy yelling, however, life quietly happens, almost in the background. The Bunch’s father dies on the last page of “Blabette ‘n’ Arnie” in the span of a single panel, a swiftness that seems to reflect the real circumstances. At the end, in a rare sympathetic portrayal, the 39-year-old Blabette is left alone at a desk with a bright void behind her.
If her comics are any indication, the most contentious relationship in Kominsky-Crumb’s life has been the one with her mother. Blabette gets the cruelest treatment in the book: In one drawing, which takes up half a page in “The Bunch, Her Baby, and Grammaw Blabette” (1982) and is blown up even larger to accompany the table of contents, the Bunch’s mother appears as a hybrid of an Expressionist woodcut and the villain Ursula from The Little Mermaid. Her face is shaped like an hourglass, with eyelashes that look like worms and a gaping void of a mouth, inside of which triangles take the place of teeth, while her tongue evokes a mountain. In big, bold letters, Blabette yells, as if on cue, “So relax.. don’t get upset.. don’t get nervous!”
There were, admittedly, moments when I became tired of Kominsky-Crumb’s anger with her mother—after all, most of us have mom issues—much as, about two-thirds of the way through, her own self-hatred started to wear me down. (Love That Bunch is probably best read in sections, one comic at a time, rather than plowing straight through.) But then something happened: In “Mommie Dearest Bunch,” the Bunch’s mouth grows large and her teeth turn into triangles while she’s yelling at her own daughter. She becomes her mother. And in the panels that immediately follow, she flashes back to an episode from her childhood, writing: “Now I realize my mother was frustrated, bored, compulsive + angry…” What starts as many a woman’s nightmare (at least for me and Kominsky-Crumb) is transformed into a moment of sympathy.
This is the kind of hard-won insight that makes Love That Bunch so invaluable. The book paints a 50-year portrait of a woman who has necessarily evolved and grown and gotten to know herself better. How often does any cultural creation offer such breadth? How many of us are willing (or able) to be so publicly honest about our past and present selves?
I think the medium of comics is partly to thank here, for lending itself so easily to serialization. But it’s to Kominsky-Crumb’s credit that she had the foresight, along with several of her more successful peers, to make them autobiographical, and to keep making them even when she didn’t have a big readership. As she revisits the same stories over and over again in the book, you get the feeling that you’re watching her do on the page what we all do in one way or another: create a mythology of the self.
That self is always multifold—in Kominsky-Crumb’s case, there’s the insecure teenager, the hairy hippie, the exhausted mother, the sex-crazed housewife, the doting grandmother. There’s Mr. Bunch, a man who lives inside the Bunch and is a cross between the patriarchy, her ego, and her biting, caustic edge. (In one of the book’s more deliciously grotesque panels, Mr. Bunch gets cum in his eyes when the Bunch has sex.) Kominsky-Crumb is well aware that the many parts of her self don’t always get along: A terrific panel from “Up in the Air” (1980) shows numerous Bunches in profile, yelling insults at each other. The central speech balloon confides: “I can’t stand myselves!”
This is a model of personhood that women aren’t allowed often enough: messy, contradictory, and highly imperfect. After all, buried in that seemingly unthreatening (if antiquated) idea of likability is the expectation that women should be comprehensible and thus manageable. Love That Bunch demonstrates how dangerous this is: The Bunch’s attempts to force herself to fit conventional standards threaten her health. It’s her introspection—which at times veers into self-absorption—that saves her, by giving her a kind of freedom to do what she wants and needs. That freedom, paired with a radical honesty, is the book’s greatest takeaway. The specifics of the Bunch’s story and personality matter far less than her way of being alive.