University of the Arts London
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Andrew Perry - Encrumbed by the Signifying Monkey: Con Men, Cackling Clowns and the Exigencies of Desire in the Comics of Robert Crumb (presentation)

posted on 2020-06-29, 15:54 authored by Andrew Perry

I argue that recent high-profile condemnations of Robert Crumb’s influential underground comics are purposeful attempts to discourage dialogue about uncomfortable realities of human sexuality. Avoiding the extremes of adoration and denunciation, I explore the complicated middle ground between these fixed positions through the trickster imagination, a contradictory “dual awareness” that occupies the unstable space between exalted culture-hero and debased fool. Seen as an expression of trickster consciousness, Crumb’s art resists the comfortable distinctions between the sacred and the profane, the dirty and the clean, the elevated and the excremental. Crumb’s comics deliberately disrupt the orderly binaries of “shame culture” which seek to silence the uncertainty of contrary positions. It is this ambiguous tension as sexual “dirt worker” that trickster consciousness (and Crumb’s art) seek to re-envision bodily shame by resisting our highly regulated cultural arrangements. I situate myself in relation to the recently heated debate over the offensive nature of Crumb’s images, particularly the social justice re-evaluation of his work as a result of the #MeToo movement, by taking the position that recent angry rejections of Crumb’s images deny trickster’s necessary dirt-attacks upon established ideas. Through the lens of the trickster figure, Crumb’s troubling cartoon representations of misogyny and “deviant” sexuality can be viewed as a desire to deliberately dispute, disrupt, and deconstruct the socially-constructed conventions and power dynamics of gender and sexuality, at the same time shifting the established boundaries of comics.



Andrew Perry is a Senior Lecturer in the University Writing Program at Rochester Institute of Technology where he is actively engaged in research and scholarship in the fields of Comics Studies, Visual Literacy, and Multimodal approaches to Composition. In addition to “Encrumbed by the Signifying Monkey: Con Men, Cackling Clowns and the Exigencies of Desire in the Comics of Robert Crumb,” another of his publications includes a children’s middle grade novel entitled Gargle the Goose ( He has given multiple lectures on Comics Studies, including a Rochester TEDx Talk on visual literacy entitled, “Reinventions: Visual Literacy and Graphic Narratives” and a featured lecture at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival (TCAF).