If you look up "unruly" in a thesaurus, there are about two dozen synonyms. You've got disorderly, rebellious, impulsive and recalcitrant; then there's turbulent, unmanageable, restive and riotous. Aline Kominsky-Crumb is eager to claim all of them. Since the '70s, when she started publishing her works in various fringe comics magazines, she's specialized in assaulting readers with overly intimate personal revelations done in a hasty, messy style. She's been fractious, she's been lawless, she's been rowdy and wayward — thoroughly unruly from her head to her nib.
The one thing she's desperately tried not to be is a plain old Jewish girl from Long Island who grew up well-off, went to art school and became a housewife and mother. Throughout Love That Bunch, her hefty new retrospective, she wrestles grimly with normalcy. She points out that even though her mother came from money, her father didn't, and they couldn't really afford the big suburban house in which her parents subjected her to emotional and physical abuse. She insists her artistic background is a sham, calling herself "a good little copier" in "Why the Bunch Can't Draw." ("The Bunch," her name for herself, is from Honey Bunch Kaminski, a character created by Kominsky-Crumb's husband Robert.)
Kominsky-Crumb describes herself as an experienced druggie and borderline alcoholic, but mostly just tipples on "cheap California wine." (She does accidentally drink someone's herbal douche at a party, but it doesn't have any psychoactive effects.) Walking around her old neighborhood in a (painstakingly rendered and described) thrift-store outfit, she sneers at rich Jewish girls. One, she's sure, "just came back from kosher diet camp."
Her denunciations of nose jobs, aerobics, pretension, the 1970s California lifestyle and (mostly) her own foibles are diverting, but repetitive. Kominsky-Crumb's main weapon against banality is her distinctive style. Married to one of the 20th century's greatest draftsmen, she doesn't even try to compete. Instead, she makes each panel a brutal, torturous act of rebellion against the very idea of artistic standards. Her compositions are haphazard, her figures follow no consistent anatomical rules and her word balloons are blobby and crowded. The constant chaos gives the eye a grueling workout.
Every now and then, though, Kominsky-Crumb slips up and reveals her solid (and thus, she seems to think, boring) talent. One frame may have an elegant hatched pattern in the background; another, a haunting face or intriguing layout. Her natural register seems to be static, almost enameled drawings heavy with detail. To watch her constantly shaking off her mannered inclinations in favor of ferocious, childlike scrawling is exhausting. The overall effect is of an ululating yawp of forced barbarity.
This yawp is intermittently haunting, but it goes on too long. The book covers work from the 1970s through the 1990s, with a coda drawn in 2014. In the later years Kominsky-Crumb's drawings become less urgent, settling into a standard cartoony style. And all along, her attention stays fixed too firmly on her own body, family and problems. Her preoccupations, fresh though they may have been at the time, have become standard: Self-loathing, sexual inhibition, adolescent angst, creeping suburbia. Some of her most interesting commentary comes when a group of feminists ask her to contribute to their new creation, Wimmen's Comix. But though she wonders whether that makes her a feminist too, she abandons the question without digging into it.
Ironically, Kominsky-Crumb's publisher has decided to make this volume as portentous as possible. The introduction is by Hillary Chute, author of several books about comics and a professor at Northeastern University. Even Chute feels she's got to bring in the big guns to make a case for Kominsky-Crumb's place in comics history. "An art critic as powerful and exacting as The New York Times' Roberta Smith understands the value of Kominsky-Crumb's style," Chute writes.
But the value of Kominsky-Crumb's style is precisely that it confounds the expectations of highbrow critics. Love That Bunch may be comprehensive, but it would have been more fun if it had felt less significant. Like the stiff self-portrait on the front, this book's bulkiness and erudite intro belie the very qualities that make its contents — however flawed — fascinating.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at @EtelkaL.