Today's influential artist is Robert Crumb!
Why Is He Influential?
Sometimes, a comic book creator is given a nickname that reflects his contribution to comics. Stan Lee is "The Man." Alan Moore is sometimes called "The Bard." Jack Kirby, of course, is "The King of Comics."
Robert Crumb has two nicknames, both of which reflect his far-reaching influence. The first is "The father of underground comics." The second is "The grandfather of alternative comics." Whereas Neal Adams had a realistic style that he exaggerated to make it look like the action was really happening in front of you, Robert Crumb had a style rooted in realism but exaggerated in such a way that it took you inside his mind. (It is fascinating to think that two disparate artists could peak at the same time.)
Crumb took what Harvey Kurtzman started with EC Comics and took it to the moon. Crumb's style was, in a word, neurotic. It was daring; it was different, and, in many ways, it was offensive. Looking at his art can at times be uncomfortable, because he challenged so much.
One of his main staples was the hippie figurehead, Mr. Natural, who always seemed to either try to get away from hippies, or con them out of money. Considering that Crumb's Zap Comix were sold in just about every head shop in the States, it seems that the more he insulted the hippies, the more he got popular with them.
Crumb's work could also be read as racist and sexist, and again, apparently, it simply didn't matter - he broke new ground, getting more and more popular each time. Enough, even, to land cover duty for Janis Joplin. Note the black woman in the upper right quadrant.
It's incredible to think that in a time of social upheaval, of women's lib and civil rights, that Crumb got away with so much art that could have, would have, or should have been considered offensive. And he pushed the limits - a horny cartoon character was practically unheard of at the time.
Maybe Crumb got away with all of it because he let no one off the hook, least of all himself. He was quick to display (I am hesitant to say parody) his own idiosyncrasies, such as his fetishes for feet and riding hunchback on a woman. (I've seen the Crumb documentary; this is all true... and tame in comparison.) And his style made it so internal. For those few pages, those few lines, you knew exactly what it was like to be Robert Crumb.
If you're ever annoyed at the proliferation of depressing neurotic comics, Crumb is to blame. And if you're ever thankful for the proliferation of personal works, you should express gratitude to Crumb, because he made it okay to get personal. As personal as you want.
What Works of His Should I Read?
Fantagraphics has recently started releasing volumes of the Complete Crumb, which I do believe is the first collection of Crumb's work. I don't think a well-edited anthology actually exists.
Beyond that, Crumb actually shows great diversity. I recommend looking up his Short History of America. And for those who like his drawing style and want to see him tackle longer narratives, I recommend Kafka:
And The Book of Genesis. Yes, it's actually the book of Genesis. (Diversity is a good thing.)
Where Can I See His Influence?
You can spot the influence of Crumb in popular culture, such as the Janis Joplin cover above, or this particular strip, Keep on Truckin', which became a catchphrase of the 60s and the basis of a Grateful Dead song.
Beyond that, the influence of Robert Crumb is the reason there's such a big proliferation of personal comics out, all with these cartooning styles that are meant to draw you into the internal world of the characters. You can see it (just to name a few) in Peter Bagge's Hate:
Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth:
Alan Moore's Dodgem Logic:
and Dan Clowes's Ghost World:
Where Can He Officially Be Found Online?
R. Crumb's official Web site is right here.