The Gayest Story Ever Told

Why Did the ‘New Yorker’ Reject This R. Crumb Cover?

By Nadja Sayej

Portrait by Johnny Ryan

We asked Johnny Ryan to draw a portrait of R. Crumb because he is one of Johnny’s heroes.

Can you clarify the genders of the people on the cover, or is that giving away some sort of secret?
The verdict isn’t in; that’s the whole point. Banning gay marriage is ridiculous because how are you supposed to tell what fucking gender anybody is if they’re bending it around? It could be anything—a she-male marrying a transsexual, or what the hell. People are capable of any sexual thing. To ban their marriage because someone doesn’t like the idea of them both being the same sex, that’s ridiculous. That was the whole point of the cover; here is this official from the marriage-license bureau, and he can’t tell if he’s seeing a man and a woman or two women. What the hell are they? You can’t tell what they are! I had the idea of making them both look unisex, no gender at all. On TV once I saw this person who is crusading against sexual definition, and you could not tell if this person was male or female—completely asexual. I was originally going to do the cover that way, but when I drew that it just looked uninteresting so I decided it should be more lurid somehow.

A drag queen and a drag king getting married.
Whatever they are.

Do you think the New Yorker is homophobic?
I think it’s the opposite. The New Yorker is majorly politically correct, terrified of offending some gay person. I asked this gay friend of mine, Paul Morris, “If you saw this cover on the New Yorker, would you be offended?” He said, “I’d wanna hang it on my wall!”

Do you know if they commissioned another artist for that particular idea—gay marriage?
On that subject? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think they ended up having a cover about gay marriage at all. And once the topic is no longer hot, they pass on it. I don’t expect an apology but just to be treated like an equal, you know? The majority of artists will bend over backward to cater to editors, but I’m spoiled. I had total freedom to draw what I wanted, starting in the hippie era. You could print anything in those underground papers. Anything.

That was a type of freedom few experienced.
There was no money in it, but the freedom was incredible. You didn’t have to answer to any kind of editorial policy. Even after my stuff became popular, I continued to work completely uncensored. Then the New Yorker called, and when the New Yorker calls it’s a big thrill. It’s big-time: 2 million circulation, blah blah blah, and they pay really well. I expect certain limitations from the New Yorker; I can’t show explicit sex, foul language, or at least not too foul language. You expect these things in a mainstream publication—I can live with that. The New Yorker has a usual policy of having artists send in rough drafts of what you want to do, and the editor can then suggest changes, and I told them right from the start: “I don’t do that, I can’t work that way. I will send you finished pieces, and you can take it or leave it, accept it as is or reject it.” They replied that they were OK with that.

Good for you.
This was the first time they rejected something of mine. I could live with it if they gave me a reason. If not, I’m second-guessing the editor, and…

And it’s a waste of your time.
Well, you know, I just don’t need the work bad enough to have to worry about what makes David Remnick like or dislike something.

Let’s move on to a more pleasant topic. You’re releasing a ten-volume Taschen book project next year?
Actually it’s all sketchbook material. Taschen thinks on a grandiose level. They wanted to do a giant book containing all of my work, like a fucking 100-pound book with everything I ever did in it, and I thought, “No, we’re not going to do that, forget it.”

Why not?
Why? For one thing, have you ever seen these Taschen big books? They’re ridiculous. You can’t even read it. You have to sit the book on a podium, turning the pages like a giant Bible in a church. That’s ridiculous, I don’t want anything like that. But I did agree to do this sketchbook project. Basically, it’s sketchbook material from the 1960s until 2011. It’s probably going to end up being 12 books instead of ten because I’m too egotistical to reject my own stuff. I don’t know when it’s going to come out.

OK, one last thing: I heard somewhere that you don’t do on-camera interviews anymore. Why?
It’s just a big fucking production, you know? Actually, if I’m going to be somewhere in New York and someone says, “Can I come interview you [with a camera] while you’re there giving a talk,” then OK. But I don’t want people coming to my house. I don’t like the way I look on TV. It’s torture having these fucking cameras in my face; I hate having my picture taken. I refuse to have professional photographers take pictures of me. They can be very aggressive. I hate them.

I’ll have you know that I’m doing this interview in my lingerie and you’re missing out. We could’ve conducted this via video chat.
Gee, yeah. Maybe we should get Skype or something.

I have really, really big breasts and resemble the women you like to draw.
How is your butt? Is it big too?

No, it’s quite small. I have been told that it’s cute, but I have double-Ds. People notice my boobs before they see my face.
Especially if you’re tall because the big tits are right in your face.

Exactly. I’m 5'10". I’m going to have to mail you sexy pictures of myself.
Oh, please do. Do you have my address? I’ll give it to you. Are you ready to write it down? Don’t mention anything of where I live. I don’t want anyone showing up at my door.

Especially video people!
Yeah, especially them.

This text, written by R. Crumb, appears on the backside of the bookmark that was tucked inside the exhibition catalogue for the Danish Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale: “It was suggested to me by the cover editor of the New Yorker that I make a cover for an issue to come out in June 2009. As it was a hot issue at the time, it was suggested that perhaps I could do a cover about gay marriage, which I then proceeded to do. Later, the cover editor explained to me that the chief editor, David Remnick, went back and forth, first accepting my cover design, then rejecting it, then accepting it, then rejecting it. This went on for many months. I heard nothing for a long time. Finally, the artwork was returned to me without explanation, nor was an explanation ever forthcoming. Remnick would not give the reason for rejecting the cover, either to the cover editor, or to me. For this reason I refuse to do any more work for the New Yorker. I felt insulted, not so much by the rejection as for the lack of any reason given. I can’t work for a publication that won’t give you any guidelines or criterion for accepting or rejecting a work submitted. Does the editor want to keep you guessing or what? I think part of the problem is the enormous power vested in the position of chief editor of the New Yorker. He has been ‘spoiled’ by the power that he wields. So many artists are so eager to do covers for the New Yorker that they are devalued in the eyes of David Remnick. They are mere pawns. He is not compelled to take pains to show them any respect. Any artist is easily replaced by another. Fortunately for me, I do not feel that I need the New Yorker badly enough to put up with such brusque treatment at the hands of its editor-in-chief. The heck with him!”