When cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb first started drawing her alter ego, “The Bunch,” she kind of hated her.
“Eventually, I grew fonder and fonder of that part of myself,” she says, “and as a result, grew and accepted my whole self a lot more.” That hatred takes the form of frequent unsavory assessments about her body. A typical example in a Bunch’s thought bubble reads, “A Peek at a recent fling. … The Bunch is now 28, most of her pimples and some fat are now gone again…”
The character appeared in underground comics like Twisted Sisters and Weirdo (which Kominsky-Crumb also edited from 1986-93). Her first book, Love That Bunch, originally published in 1990, has just been reissued and expanded to include her work from the 1970s through 2016.
In 1981, Kominsky-Crumb, along with her husband, revered comics artist Robert Crumb, and with several other contributors decided to put Weirdo comics out “so that there’d be some vehicle for a young underground upstart cartoonist group.
“In the 1970s, everything kind of died down,” she says, “so a lot of people started their careers with Weirdo.”
At the time, and apart from her husband and friends, Kominsky-Crumb didn’t receive any positive reinforcement or encouragement.
“It all came way later,” she says. “I did those comics almost 50 years ago, and now I’m this revered older pioneer of comics. You have people — they teach my work at Harvard and stuff like that, which is totally ridiculous. But at the time when I was doing them, I started teaching exercise and yoga years ago to make money.
“That character, The Bunch, was really formed during adolescence,” she explained. “And since my adolescence lasted until I was about 50, that was a very important part of my identity. Now that I’m 70, that character exists much less for me. The Bunch has changed and evolved. I’m not a big, fat thing anymore. I’m like a skinny, muscular yogi now. So I’m completely different looking than I was then. And I feel differently about myself, too.”
You can see that difference immediately in the new self-portrait illustration on the cover. Indecision and worry are now absent from Kominsky-Crumb’s dark-eyed gaze, fixed upon her readers. Her untamed, reddish-brown hair cascades to her shoulders in waves. She includes wrinkles, rouged cheeks, and cheerful, dangling earrings. Compare this image to the young woman on page 4 with pursed lips and a fretting brow, and you can see the evolution of her psyche rendered graphically in time.
Kominsky-Crumb’s current life looks nothing like the “harsh suburb of New York” where she grew up. She communicates a sense of gratitude for her long-term relationship with “Rob,” their daughter Sophie, and the contentment they’ve found since settling into a house in the south of France.
“But I think everyone, especially when they’re younger, and especially when you’re an adolescent, you have very mixed and divided feelings about yourself,” she says. “Especially coming from a neurotic, Jewish family, and being an overweight teenager with a big nose. That was not easy to deal with. And I did not have compassionate, understanding parents.”
The culture in which she grew up encouraged the Jewish girls she knew to have nose jobs, go on diets, and straighten their hair, all to look not-Jewish. When Kominsky-Crumb looks back at photos of her younger self, she now sees a woman in her 20s who “was really beautiful.” Things began to change for her in the 1960s.
“You were allowed to have long, curly, frizzy hair,” she says. “I started to hate myself a little bit less — but yeah, having that challenge as a teenager definitely formed me. It was grist for my mill.”
Those negative parental voices come back to haunt The Bunch through a character named Mr. Bunch.
“He was like a cigar-smoking stand-up comedian who always commented and made fun of The Bunch, who he thought was too soft and too pathetic,” she says,
Kominsky-Crumb believes that we all have some kind of inferiority complex because of the mainstream culture, and then what the standards of being popular are. Most people don’t do anything with the angst that can fuel an artist’s response to feeling inferior, but she was lucky.
“I had that background of a very strong storytelling tradition in my family from my grandfather’s side,” she says. “And that really made me see things in a narrative way all the time, I always was a little bit outside myself.”
Her father died when she was 19, but Kominsky-Crumb’s 90-year-old mother is still alive. And their relationship has changed for the better. On page 13, there’s an enlarged, full-page image of her mother taken from a strip entitled “Yur Goin’ on a Relaxing Vacation with The Bunch, Her Baby and ‘Grammaw’ Blabette.” Kominsky-Crumb endows her mother with razor-sharp shark’s teeth and the face of a Gorgon.
“I actually really like my mother now,” she says. “I get along with her. As an old lady, she’s become really nice, and she really admires me.”
And she doesn’t draw her anymore, either.
“If I did draw her, I wouldn’t be as cruel,” she says. “I don’t have that anger towards her anymore that I did when I was younger. She’s not the same, and I don’t feel that anger, and I’m not subject to her anger in any way. I’m more in control. I’m the parent now.”
That sense of compassion has developed with age, from doing years of yoga and living through cancer, having grandchildren. “But that character, the rawness of The Bunch when I was younger, was a good thing because I think it gave a lot of other women the ability to accept that part of themselves. And with that acceptance, eventually you do end up feeling better about yourself, and you can come to love that part of yourself.”
Aline Kominsky-Crumb: A Life in Comics, Sunday, April 29, 11:45 a.m. – 1 p.m., at the Veterans Memorial Building, Auditorium, 1931 Center St., Berkeley, $10; baybookfest.org
Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Hillary Chute, Friday, May 4, 7:30 p.m., at Green Apple Books, 1231 Ninth Ave., Free, 415-742-5833 or greenapplebooks.com