It’s entirely possible that I have brain damage. In the main, I see virtually everything abstract in terms of geometry and/or symbolic logic. Listening to a baseball game on the radio, I’m rarely visualize anything more than a standard scorecard diamond. Any hit to right or left field only travels along the foul line.

Storytelling, I make some pretense at imagination, but I usually over-engineer stories to make them “airtight,” to ensure they fit unobtrusively in the world at large. I spend so much time considering the implausibilities and details that the stories themselves end up lifeless. Maybe that’s why I’ve gained some interest in photography; at least there I’m capturing something that already exists.

(Maybe I’m also still guiding myself through depression and denigrating myself a bit much.)

In my Salinger post two weeks ago, I included a video excerpt from Crumb, the documentary by Terry Zwigoff about Robert Crumb and his brothers. If you haven’t seen it, go check it out, even if you’re not into cartooning. It’s one of my favorite movies, exploring notions of art and sex via unforgettably and entertainingly messed-up characters. (There’s also a cringe-worthy segment with Trina Robbins complaining about Crumb’s cartoons’ meanness toward women, but it was 1994, so hey.)

This recent post by Frank Santoro put me in mind of one of the best scenes in Crumb. Santoro writes about a 1992 NYC in-store appearance by the great French cartoonist Moebius. At first, he was amazed at how perfect and quick Moebius’ sketches were as he illustrated the front pages of fans’ books. But then he noticed some of Moebius’ sketchpad pages:

The loose pages were finished pages for a new Major Grubert story. I knew he drew “automatically” out of his head, with no pencils, but I wasn’t prepared to see how precise and loose his originals were. They were made without ANY discernible hesitation.

There was one page and one panel in particular that really stayed with me. It was a canyon rock wall that curled away in the distance. Floating along in it was a boat with a shadowed figure in the front. I remember it so distinctly because the marks that comprised the boat were like an intricate latticework, like a wicker chair. The sheer number of lines made the boat dark and it stood in relief of the canyon. It didn’t look drawn and shaded, it looked etched into the paper. Did he lightbox those lines? There were no pencil lines at all. Even the handwriting was eyeballed in straight pen. The page was perfect. I was in awe.

Read the rest of it, which includes Santoro’s encounter with that very page when he picked up a Moebius book on a recent trip to France. (Oh, and here’s my pic of Frank from the 2009 Toronto Comic Arts Festival. Hey! You all should come to this year’s TCAF! Amy & I will be wandering through!)

Which brings me back to Crumb. I hesitate to call this segment the centerpiece of the movie, but it is one of the more illuminating examples of what art is, and how it differs from whatever it is I do. In the scene, Crumb looks through the sketchbook of his son Jesse and the two of them compare drawings they’ve made from an old photograph.

Clip copyright 1994 Superior Pictures, “Crumb“, until they make me take it down.

At the end, we get the following exchange:

Jesse: YOU didn’t go to art school and look, you’re rich and famous!

Robert: [laughs] We’re not talking about rich and famous; we’re talking about learning to draw.

Unspoken — or just barely hinted at in Robert’s “heh” preceding that comment — is, “Well, son, I’m a genius and you’re not.”

“Genius” isn’t a shorthand way of describing Crumb’s art is naive or unschooled. He possesses a virtuosity that comes from countless hours of labor (instigated by his brother Charles, shown in that clip I used for the Salinger post), but his genius, as displayed in that clip, comes in knowing what to exaggerate, in knowing how to see.

How does the eye then see inward? How do artists like Crumb and Moebius reach the point where the imagined is evoked so surely and beautifully?

Sometimes, I think they’ll examine my brain after I die and discover that I was missing some important piece, like the way Pete Maravich turned out to be missing a chamber of his heart.

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