How to Write Copy Like R. Crumb

By Ray Schultz

R. Crumb opens his comic, “The Fight,” with this line: “Uh oh, this oughta’ be good.”

Don’t ask what happens next, or the name of the comic book it was in—Crumb had not yet taken to illustrating the Bible. But what a setup: It’s a classic use of what I call the anonymous editorial voice.

It’s the voice you find in decks, captions and other unsigned copy in magazines. It’s the voice you see in old-time mail order ads, the kind Crumb read in comic books as a kid.

It’s Crumb’s voice, but he’s not using it as Crumb. Rather, he’s acting as an omnipresent narrator or huckster.

In one memorable piece, the cartoonist starts by saying, “You people better get hip to the fact that we’re livin’ in the—LAP O’ LUXURY.”

In another, he mimics a public service ad to make a satiric point:

“Cliffy the Clown says:

“‘You can help solve the OVERPOPULATION PROBLEM this quick, easy way! This year, why not COMMIT SUICIDE?”

Note that Crumb  is speaking right to the reader. He may dislike advertising, but he has learned from the great copywriters of old.

Now we’ve come full circle. The anonymous voice of which Crumb is a master is uniquely suited to content marketing.

Let’s say you’re doing a B2B white paper. Even without a byline, it has to sound like it came from a human being, preferably one you know: Think of Dick Cavett doing anonymous ad voiceovers

‘The Line, the Line’

An R. Crumb white paper wouldn’t be boring: He would take complex material and make it so vivid that anyone could understand it. And he would display two of his other great qualities: Pacing, and what one Crumb admirer has called “the line, the line.”

These are on full view in the 1975 rant, “Let’s Talk Sense About This Here Modern America!” by “that cranky old fuddy duddy R. Crumb.” As it opens, an agonized America says, “Love me or leave me,” and Crumb adds: “This is not a happy comic strip.” He then runs through some rapid-fire visual bullet points:

  • America the Cruel Bully
  • America the Glutton
  • America the Greedy
  • America the UGLY!

Moving on, Crumb denounces motorcycles, calls for the return of trolley cars, depicts jet setters working in the fields (“Tsk! I just hate this ensemble I have to wear for this work!”), insults several ethnic groups and concludes by deploring aerosol sprays. Then, as easily as he gets you into it, you’re out. It’s a breathtaking performance even for someone who disagrees with the sentiments (and it would be hard to pinpoint Crumb’s politics).

“With comics, you’ve got to develop some kind of shorthand,” Crumb told the Paris Review when discussing his illustrated Book of Genesis last year. “You can’t make every drawing look like a detailed etching. The average reader actually doesn’t want all that detail, it interferes with the flow of the reading process.”

Here’s another lesson from Crumb. He told the Comics Journal that he’s an “entertaining cartoonist,” and not much else (“Bruegel, I ain’t,” he once said). His authority lies “almost in a satiric reflection of cartooning in some way. And maybe in telling a story.” That last phrase says it all.

Finally, Crumb makes every word count. “When you write slowly you have more time to think about how to word things,” he told the Paris Review. “I don’t type, I just handwrite everything in block letters. I take the time to think out how to articulate things.”

Not bad for a guy who admits he had trouble reading as a child.

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