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The Gayest Story Ever Told

The cardboard placeholder featured a color comic by R. Crumb depicting a drag queen and king holding hands in front of a marriage-license clerk.

Illustration by R. Crumb 

R. Crumb, Rejected New Yorker Cover, 2009, watercolor, ink, and graphite on paper, 14 1/2 x 10 5/8 inches. Courtesy the artist, Paul Morris, and David Zwirner, New York, Copyright ©Robert Crumb, 2009.

In June, I attended the opening week of the Venice Biennale with the intention of interviewing the biggest and brightest art stars for an online show I host and produce. Sadly, none of them would talk to me at length. Or at least their handlers didn’t deem me worthy of their time.

At one point, I elbowed my way into a group of journalists surrounding the red carpet and attempted to corner the acclaimed artist Christian Marclay. All he talked about was how he didn’t know how he would manage to get his Golden Lion (the Biennale’s award for the best artist featured in its main exhibition) back home. I kept my suggestion of maybe checking an extra bag to myself. Later I saw Swiss fancy-pants artist Thomas “Hershey Highway” Hirschhorn, who is truly a great talent, but a rather disappointing conversationalist. He literally had nothing to say. The closest I got to a true score was a fleeting moment with John Waters, whose PR mafia had been profusely apologizing all day for cockblocking me. But when I finally confronted him, the most he could muster was “Hurry, before they see us!” as he posed for a quick picture with me.

On the flight home to Berlin, I was digging through my bag when I noticed a red book I had forgotten I’d acquired. It was the exhibition catalogue from the Biennale’s famed Danish Pavilion, which seemed like a shitty consolation prize, until I flipped to the bookmark stuck between its pages.

The cardboard placeholder featured a color comic by R. Crumb depicting a drag queen and king holding hands in front of a marriage-license clerk. On its flip side was a blurb from Crumb explaining that the image was intended to be the cover of a 2009 issue of the New Yorker but was rejected for reasons unknown. Although I was excited to obtain such a rare and odd artifact, things didn’t quite add up.

Besides this obscure bookmark, the would-be New Yorker cover—like Crumb—was nowhere to be found at the Venice Biennale. Instead, his incendiary “When the Niggers Take Over America!” (which first appeared in a 1993 issue of Weirdo) was on display. Was someone or something trying to keep the New Yorker controversy under wraps? I imagined Sy Hersh appearing out of thin air, with his hand stuffed deep in his trench-coat pocket: “Stick these in a book no one’s going to read—or else…”

Before further developing my conspiracy theory, I decided to get in touch with Crumb to inquire about the rejected-cover debacle. If there’s one universal constant that we can all count on, it’s that R. Crumb is incapable of feeding anyone bullshit.

VICE: I was very impressed by a bookmark that features one of your illustrations—one I had never seen before. I got it at the Venice Biennale.
R. Crumb:
Bookmark? I don’t know anything about this bookmark.

At the Danish Pavilion they were handing out a book called Speech Matters, which shared the title of the exhibition. Inside there’s a bunch of boring stuff about the exhibiting artists, but my copy also contained a bookmark featuring what appears to be a gay or transgendered couple registering for a marriage certificate.
They sent me the book.

But they didn’t send you the bookmark?
No.

Did the rejection offend you?
I’m in a privileged position because I don’t need the money. When you go to the cover editor’s office, you notice that the walls are covered with rejected New Yorker covers. Sometimes there are two rejected covers for each issue. I don’t know what the usual policy is, but I was given no explanation from David Remnick, the editor in chief, who makes the final decisions.

Has the New Yorker attempted to commission work from you since this cover?
Yeah, Françoise [Mouly, the art editor] keeps mailing me these form letters, which they send to various artists they like to use. It says something like, “OK, so here are the topics for upcoming covers.” They send it out a couple of times a year or something. But it’s a form letter, not a personal letter.

Did you receive an apology?
An apology? I don’t expect an apology. But if I’m going to work for them I need to know the criteria for why they accept or reject work. The art I made, it only really works as a New Yorker cover. There’s really no other place for it. But they did pay me beforehand—decent money. I have no complaint there. I asked Françoise what was going on with it and she said, “Oh, Remnick hasn’t decided yet…” and he changed his mind several times about it. I asked why and she didn’t know. Several months passed. Then one day, I got the art back in the mail, no letter, no nothing.

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!”