CompPanels: Images from the annals of composition


Crumb's Boswell

Panels 5 and 8 of Robert Crumb’s comic-book version of Sir James Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763. Boswell exchanges literary civilities with Sheridan and, five days later, carries on a less refined conversation with “Louisa.” Crumb’s sequence, entitled “Excerpts from Boswell’s London Journal” and dubbed “A Klassic Komic,” appeared in Crumb’s magazine Weirdo #3 (Fall 1981).

Walter Pape provides an insightful semiotic analysis, in “The Battle of the Signs: Robert Crumb’s Visual Reading of James Boswell’s ‘London Journal.’” Pape argues that in the competition between the sister arts, the graphic overpowers the textual.

Maybe so. But Crumb is emphasizing the juxtaposition of high literary sentiments and low street morals—a juxtaposition that 18th-century intellectuals often displayed and one of which Boswell himself was not entirely unaware—and the satire would not play without the language. I would add that Crumb is also satirizing his own cartoonist profession, in this case the prolific enterprise of comic-book classics. One expects Moby Dick as a “Klassic Komic,” but Boswell’s London Journal? To use Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s convenient term (Remediation: Understanding New Media, MIT Press, 1999), Crumb is melding two conflicting traditions of cartoon“remediation” of classic literary works, the genteel and the underground—a contradiction that finds its 18th-century British counterpart in Boswell’s enthusiasm for both literary criticism and parlor bawdry.

Pape’s essay is printed in Peter Wagner (Ed.), Icons—Texts—Iconotexts—Essays on Ekphrasis and Intermediality; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter (1996), pp. 324-345. Pape reproduces all 27 panels of Crumb’s “Excerpts from Boswell’s London Journal,” but Crumb’s extensive text is barely readable, at least to my tired eyes. I’ve relied on Volume 14 of The Complete Crumb Comics (Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2000).

RH, November 2003