Monsters inhabit the visual world created by R. (he never signed his work "Robert") Crumb, the subject of Terry Zwigoff's superb documentary "Crumb." It's about the misanthrope whose randy, drug-crazed Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural and Angelfood McSpade once lived on the pages of Zap Comix and are now found on the walls of such places as the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Crumb's world is peopled by grotesques -- demonic women (as often without heads as with those of animals), Charles Manson-like murderers and nerds strained past breaking by unbelievable anxieties. Zwigoff -- who had almost total cooperation from Crumb himself, his wife, Aline, his brothers, his friends and his (largely feminist) enemies -- shows us why.
The best parts of "Crumb" show the artist with his brothers, Charles and Maxon, whose responses to life in late 20th-century America are as disturbed as Robert Crumb's are disaffected. What makes these sequences so gripping is the way Zwigoff -- who structures "Crumb" like a superb piece of detective fiction -- reveals the past piece by dreadful piece.
Of Crumb's younger brother, Maxon, an artist in San Francisco, we learn, over the course of the movie, that he suffers from severe epilepsy, that he meditates on a bed of nails, that he plays with live bullets as he talks and, finally, that he has a long history of molesting girls and women.
His case is not as disturbing (or as interesting), however, as that of Robert's older brother, Charles, a polymath as conversant with the philosophy of Kant as he is with comic books. Charles, who is as endearing as he is pathetic, never leaves the house in Philadelphia he shares with his demented mother.
"Could you give me one good reason for leaving the house?" he asks.
Although painfully shy ("I'm never constipated -- that's about all I can say for myself," he says initially), Charles blossoms under HTC Zwigoff's cameras, and the viewer begins to understand why Robert says he would never have been an artist without Charles' influence.
From Charles we learn of the domestic horrors in which Crumb, his two brothers and two sisters (neither woman cooperated with Zwigoff) grew up. Their alcoholic father, an ex-Marine, enforced a reign of terror with his fists, and their amphetamine-crazed mother was too zonked out to protect them. We learn of the boys' teen-age years -- adolescences spent in isolation from other children, in which their only avenues of self-expression were the comic books they worked on together and the daydreams they indulged in privately.
Though it seems a miracle that Robert did not end up like his brothers, in "Crumb," Zwigoff makes the case that it is Robert's seemingly demented art that enabled him to exorcise the demons that conquered and defeated his brothers. But Zwigoff also visits critics of the artist who argue that Crumb is rather like the fantasy-entrapped Charles and even more like Maxon, a registered sex offender.
"He's still looking for adolescent hormonal thrills," says Deirdre English, a former editor of Mother Jones magazine, who -- like a number of other feminists -- insists that Crumb is a pornographer and a racist as well.
Unlike the counterculture hippies who adored him, Crumb is clearly -- most satirists are -- deeply conservative. A father who dotes on his 11-year-old daughter, Sophie, his sentiments about what children should be exposed to are not unlike those sometimes expressed on the political right.
"Not everything is meant for everyone," he says, responding to criticism of his work. "Some things are not appropriate for children. But you've got to protect your kids yourself."
But what "Crumb" is best at is showing us how effectively Crumb has protected himself. While he is very good at exposing the demons from the id that drive human behavior, he is almost equally adept at escaping his own feelings.
When Charles bares his ruined life, Robert laughs and makes wisecracks. When an ex-girlfriend recalls how cruelly he mistreated her 20 years earlier, Crumb aggressively puts his hands on her face, pushing it out of the camera's way. Toward the end of the film, as he and his family prepare to leave their home in Southern California for a new life in the South of France, Zwigoff asks him how he feels, leaving his brothers and mother forever.
"I don't feel one way or the other about it," Crumb says.
The almost notoriously withdrawn artist recently revealed in a New Yorker cartoon how he felt about revealing himself in "Crumb." Lying in his bed, with his head on a pillow, Crumb tells the juggernaut of a camera obtrusively poised above him, "I'm nauseous."
As Crumb surely knows, "nauseous," in proper usage, refers to something sickening or disgusting enough to cause nausea.
The biggest monster in "Crumb" is Crumb himself.
Directed by Terry Zwigoff
Starring Robert Crumb, Maxon Crumb and Charles Crumb
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
Unrated (language, sexual content)