Aline Kominsky-Crumb might be best described as one of the pioneers of the autobiographical comic form and co-founder of the women’s underground comics movement. Within the underground scene she became famous for her personal comics drawn in a particular expressionist style that American underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar once labelled as “loaded with ugliness.” Her expressionist autobiographical comics, which document experiences and anecdotes from the artist's life and reproduce them in an exaggerated graphic form, do not shy away from taboo-breaking and provocative topics such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug use, menstruation, or sexual practices. In her work, some of which she co-produced with her husband Robert Crumb, the cartoonist makes also repeated references to her Jewish identity using the media of comics and its specific modes of (visual) representation to reflect gendered codes of “Jewishness” and to set to the fore normative ideals of beauty, female physicality, and sexuality.
Aline Kominsky-Crumb might best be described as one of the pioneers of the autobiographical comic form and co-founder of the women’s underground comics movement. Within the underground scene she became famous for her personal comics drawn in a particular expressionist style that American underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar once labelled as “loaded with ugliness” (1990, III). Her expressionist post-war autobiographical comics, which document experiences and anecdotes from the artist's life and reproduce them in an exaggerated graphic form, do not shy away from taboo-breaking and provocative topics such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug use, menstruation, or sexual practices. In her work, some of which she co-produced with her husband Robert Crumb, the cartoonist also makes repeated references to her Jewish identity, using the medium of comics and its specific modes of (visual) representation to reflect gendered codes of “Jewishness” and to interrogate normative ideals of beauty, female physicality, and sexuality.
Family and Education
August 1, 1948, Aline Kominsky-Crumb was born Aline Ricki Goldsmith into a middle-class Jewish family in the Five Towns area of Long Island, New York. Kominsky-Crumb’s mother, Annette Goldsmith, came from a wealthy family, and her father Arnold (called Arnie) had been a photographer for the American military newspaper Stars and Stripes during the Second World War. Although he had planned to stay in Paris after the war, he went back to the United States when his wife became pregnant with Aline. In 1953, Kominsky-Crumb’s younger brother Alex was born. In her graphic memoir Need More Love (2007), the comics artist recounts how she and her brother grew up in an upward-striving, affluent Jewish neighborhood, spending most of their time at her grandparents’ house. Even though Kominsky-Crumb mentions having happy memories of her early childhood in her memoir, her relationship with her parents was problematic, marked by verbal and physical abuse. Not only has she dealt with these traumatic experiences in many of her autobiographical comics, but they also pushed her towards artistry and creative expression at a young age.
After graduating from high school, Kominsky-Crumb moved in 1966 to the Lower East Side of New York, where she studied art at Cooper Union College. In New York she became part of an alternative and diverse hippy community. In her autobiographical comic “My Very Own Dream House,” first published in 2018, Kominsky-Crumb addresses this “vibrant” and liberating period and confesses that she took many drugs, had a lot of boyfriends, and got pregnant at the age of 18 (2018, 177-209). She gave birth to a baby boy in June 1967 and placed him for adoption. Six months after her son was born, Kominsky-Crumb’s father died of pancreatic cancer. At that time, Kominsky-Crumb was already in a relationship with Carl Kominsky, whom she married on Long Island, New York, in 1968. They moved to Tucson, Arizona, together but the marriage did not last; they divorced only a few years later. Before leaving Tucson for San Francisco, the epicenter of the hippy and underground movements, with her friend and neighbor Betsy Sandlin (née Klein) in the fall of 1971, Kominsky-Crumb graduated from the University of Arizona with a Bachelor’s degree in fine arts. Although she later made a name for herself as an underground comics artist and was often criticized for her apparently “untutored” drawing style, she focused on contemporary paintings during her fine arts studies and continued painting passionately later on.
Entering the Comics World
During her stay in Tucson, Kominsky-Crumb was introduced to the two cartoonists Spain Rodriguez and Kim Deitch, who showed her various underground comics, including some works by Robert Crumb and Justin Green. As stated in her memoir, Kominsky-Crumb perceived the comics as a “new, daring, outrageous art form” (2007, 126) that would change the course of her life. The heyday of the underground movement started in the late 1960s and lasted until the mid-1970s. The primary goal of the underground comics, which were mostly aimed at an adult readership, was the breaking of taboos, in terms of both content and style. Hence, the so-called comix (written with an x in order to distinguish them from mainstream productions) were dominated by experimental, graphic aesthetics and socially critical themes such as sex and drugs. A prime example are the comics by Robert Crumb, Kominsky-Crumb’s second husband. One of the graphic characters invented by Crumb is Honeybunch Kaminiski, a character whose outer appearance and name, coincidentally, bear a striking resemblance to Kominsky-Crumb. The story goes that due to this resemblance, Aline was called “Honeybunch” by her friends even before she had met her future husband Robert Crumb. As she explained in an interview with the Comics Journal in 1990, she was flattered by this nickname at first, but it started to bother her as she considered the Honeybunch comic character to be “a cute, cuddly little victim, dumb and passive and compliant” (quoted in Bagge 1990). Therefore, she decided to shorten the name “Honeybunch” to create “The Bunch,” one of her alter egos that is frequently featured in Kominsky-Crumb’s autobiographical work.
Kominsky-Crumb’s first comic, which was based on her personal life, was published in 1972 in the first issue of Wimmen's Comix, a feminist underground magazine that printed stories exclusively by female artists and that was founded and edited by the Wimmen’s Comix drawing collective around Jewish-American artist Trina Robbins. In her debut work, the five-page short story Goldie: A Neurotic Woman, Kominsky-Crumb portrays the unhappy teenage years of a Jewish girl seeking love, appraisal, and autonomy. With her confessional autobiographic works such as Goldie and the many stories that followed, Kominsky-Crumb was one of the first women in comics to address topics such as masturbation, unquenched female desire, early pregnancy, and placing a child for adoption—themes she had experienced herself (Gehring 2016). For Jewish-American comics scholar Jared Gardner, Kominsky-Crumb’s Goldie is the first comic, made by a female cartoonist, to focus “on the much more mundane, messy neuroses of an ordinary life” (2008, 14). In fact, “the open, even prideful honesty” (ibid.) of Kominsky-Crumb’s work became an inspiration for a whole new generation of feminist comics artists focusing on personal aspects and the everyday life. By having her alter ego Goldie wear a Star of David pendant in the first panel of the comic strip, Kominsky-Crumb's debut work also deals specifically with questions of Jewish identity and their representation in the medium of comics (Oksman 2016; Sina 2019, 2020a).
After moving to San Francisco, Kominsky-Crumb quickly joined the Wimmen’s Comix team of editors and comics artists, but she left the collective in 1976 due to artistic differences. Together with Jewish-American artist Diane Noomin, creator of the comic character Didi Glitz, she started to publish her own feminist comics magazine Twisted Sisters. The front cover of the first edition, published in 1976, showed Kominsky-Crumb’s graphic alter ego The Bunch sitting half-naked with unshaven legs in an “unflattering” pose on the toilet, doing her business and looking at herself in a hand mirror. The cover sets the tone for the frank and honest material that could be found within the magazine (Deman 2016). With this blunt, de-idealized representation of a female protagonist from a woman’s perspective, Aline Kominsky-Crumb provided an alternative image of the female body that clearly stood out from glorifying representations of femininity and established standards of beauty (Chute 2010, 2018; Sina 2020b).
Collaboration with Robert Crumb
Three years earlier, in 1973 Kominsky-Crumb had started to create joint comics with Robert Crumb, whom she met at a party in San Francisco in 1971 and whom she married in 1978. She had already moved to Potter Valley, California, in 1973, to live next door to her future husband, and one day after a fight, Kominsky-Crumb slipped and broke her foot. To keep her from getting too bored during her recovery, they started to work on “a two-man comic story, something Robert had done with his brother Charles when they were kids” (Kominsky-Crumb 2007, 176). They each drew themselves, creating collaborative comic strips and short stories based on their life together. The joint comics appeared from 1974 on in booklets, magazines, and newspapers; were collected in the anthologies Dirty Laundry Comics (1993) and Drawn Together (2012); and began appearing in Self Loathing Comics in 1994 and The New Yorker in 1995. When they started to publish their collaborative comics, Robert Crumb was already a distinguished comics artist, whereas Aline Kominsky-Crumb was largely unknown. Many critics and Crumb fans resented their collaboration and Kominsky-Crumb was met with hostility, as her drawings were perceived to be too crude and ugly compared to Crumb’s more elaborated naturalistic style (cf. Chute 2010).
Besides her co-authorship with Robert Crumb, Kominsky-Crumb authored, published, and (co-)edited several books and magazines, including the anthology Love That Bunch (1990), a collection of Kominsky-Crumb’s comics starring her graphic alter ego The Bunch, and her graphic memoir Need More Love (2007), which contains not only her autobiographical writings and comics but also photographs and a collection of her paintings. A new expanded edition of the comics-anthology Love That Bunch was released in 2018 by Drawn and Quarterly, with new comics and a detailed foreword by American literary scholar Hillary Chute. Her autobiographical comics were published in various underground magazines, including Arcade: The Comics Revue, El Perfecto, Manhunt, the already mentioned Wimmen’s Comix, and of course Twisted Sisters as well as Weirdo. The latter was also co-edited by Kominsky-Crumb for seven years. In 1981, she founded her own solo comic book that went by the name of Power Pak Comics (cf. Chute 2018; Gehring 2016).
Today, Kominsky-Crumb has practically retired from making comics and devotes herself again to painting. In April 1990, the entire Crumb family—Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and their daughter Sophia Violet Crumb (called Sophie), who was born in 1981 and who became a cartoonist herself—left the United States and moved to the south of France, where they still live. Despite the fact that Kominsky-Crumb’s work has been unknown to a larger audience, and although she has been repeatedly criticized for her provocative and “ugly” drawings, leading to her being misjudged and excluded from “canonical” comics history, academic research has increasingly dealt with her person and her feminist comics (cf. Chute 2010; Clemeti 2012; Kupczynska and Sina 2020; Oksman 2016; Precup 2015). As British-Jewish artist and comics scholar Sarah Lightman noted in a 2016 interview, Kominsky-Crumb’s pioneer work as a female underground artist, was a driving force for the flourishing fields of feminist comics and the increased development of comics by and about Jewish women (cf. Lightman 2016). Moreover, over the last few years, several international exhibitions have focused on her solo artistic oeuvre as well as on her collaborative work. Her artwork was exhibited at DCKT Contemporary, New York, in 2014, and at Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery, Los Angeles, in 2020 among others. The exhibition Drawn Together, showing for the first time the joint work of Kominsky-Crumb and her husband, was held at the Cartoonmuseum Basel, Switzerland, in 2016, as well as at David Zwirner Gallery, New York, in 2017. Meanwhile, Kominsky-Crumb owns her own gallery in the south of France and helps to promote the local art scene in her new European home (cf. Lightman 2020).
Selected Works by Aline Kominsky-Crumb
With Diane Noomin. Twisted Sisters. No. 1. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1976.
“Goldie. A Neurotic Woman .” In Need More Love. A Graphic Memoir, 140–144. London: MQ Publications, 2007.
Need More Love. A Graphic Memoir. London: MQ Publications, 2007.
Love That Bunch. Montréal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2018.
“My Very Own Dream House.” In Love That Bunch, 177–209. Montréal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2018.
With Sarah Lightman. “Aline Kominsky-Crumb in conversation with Sarah Lightman.” Closure. Kieler e-Journal für Comicforschung 6, no. 5 (2020): 66–84. https://www.closure.uni-kiel.de/closure6.5/kominsky-crumb_lightman.
With Robert Crumb and Sophie Crumb. The Complete Dirty Laundry Comics. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1993.
With Robert Crumb. Drawn Together. London: Knockabout Ltd, 2012.
Bagge, Peter.“The Aline Kominsky-Crumb Interview.” The Comics Journal 139 (December 1990). http://www.tcj.com/the-aline-kominsky-crumb-interview/.
Chute, Hillary. Graphic Women. Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
Chute, Hillary. “Foreword.” In Love That Bunch, edited by Aline Kominsky-Crumb, 4–9. Montréal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2018.
Clementi, F. K. “The JAP, the Yenta and the mame in Aline Kominsky Crumb’s graphic imagination.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 4 (2012): 309–331.
Deman, J. Andrew.“‘Oh Well’. My New York Diary, Autographics, and the Depiction of Female Sexuality in Comics.” In Canadian Graphic. Picturing Life Narratives, edited by Candida Rifkin, 75–98. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016.
Gardner, Jared. 2008. “Autography‘s Biography, 1972–2007.” Biography 31, no.1 (2008): 1–26.
Gehring, Anette. “Aline Kominsky-Crumb. Wegbereiterin des autobiografischen Comics.” In Aline Kominsky-Crumb / Robert Crumb: Drawn Together, edited by Anette Gehring, 49–55. Basel: Christoph Merian, 2016.
Kupczynska, Kalina and Véronique Sina, eds. “The Crumbs – Obszönität und Tabubruch.” CLOSURE. Kieler e-Journal für Comicforschung, Special Edition 6, no. 5 (July 2020). https://www.closure.uni-kiel.de/closure6.5/start.
Lightman, Sarah. “Drawing the pathetic parent creature. Aline Kominsky-Crumb in conversation with Sarah Lightman.” Studies in Comics 7, no. 2 (2016): 301–324.
Oksman, Tahneer. “How come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.
Pekar, Harvey. “Introduction.” In Love That Bunch, edited by Aline Kominsky‐Crumb, III–IV. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 1990.
Precup, Mihaela. “‘That Medieval Eastern-European Shtetl Family of Yours’: Negotiating Jewishness in Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s Need More Love (2007).” Studies in Comics 6, no. 2 (2015): 313–327.
Sina, Véronique. “Constructing the Gendered Jewish Self – Geschlecht und Identität in den autobiografischen Comics von Aline Kominsky Crumb.” In Autobiografie intermedial. Fallstudien zur Literatur und zum Comic, edited by Kalina Kupczynska and Jadwiga Kita-Huber, 441–455. Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2019.
Sina, Véronique. “‘If only I’d had a nose job’. Representations of the Gendered Jewish Body in the Works of Aline Kominsky-Crumb.” In Spaces Between. Gender, Diversity and Identity in Comics, edited by Nina Eckhoff-Heindl and Véronique Sina, 161–174. Wiesbaden: Springer, 2020.
Sina, Véronique. “‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ – Obszönität und Tabubruch in den Comics von Aline Kominsky-Crumb.” In “The Crumbs – Obszönität und Tabubruch.” CLOSURE. Kieler e-Journal für Comicforschung, Special Edition 6, no. 5 (July 2020), edited by Kalina Kupczynska and Véronique Sina, 99–122. https://www.closure.uni-kiel.de/closure6.5/sina.