The Queen of Candor: Aline Kominsky-Crumb 1948–2022

Until she enrolled in the State University of New York at New Platz in 1966, Aline Ricki Goldsmith had lived a dual life: At home in Long Island, she was the thwarted daughter of a bickering, materialistic, and precariously middle-class couple who stifled, she felt, her creative urges. But starting as an early teen, she’d make her way to Greenwich village to partake of the bohemian pleasures, in the form of folk music, boyfriends, and drugs. These experiments in liberation were curtailed by a curfew—and by the iron hand of her father. The one time she brought a Black boyfriend home to Long Island, her father, whom she described as aspiring to the life of gangster without ever making it, pulled out a gun. But moving to New Platz gave the young Goldsmith a chance to plunge headlong into the counterculture.

“I took as many drugs as I could, and I spent days staring into space and getting lost in my head,” she would recall in an autobiographical comic book story, created after she had gone through two marriages and took the name Aline Kominsky-Crumb. “I had so many boyfriends for the first time in my life.… I made love a lot and I had orgasms.”

Within weeks of this embrace of liberation, she ran into an immediate hurdle: She was pregnant. Abortion was still illegal, so she ran away from college and started living in the Lower East Side, without telling her family about the pregnancy. Her father tracked her down and agreed that her plan, to give the child up for adoption, was best. He also agreed that Aline’s mother should never know about the child.

In recounting this episode in comic book form in 1989, Aline Kominsky-Crumb included a curious footnote: “She still doesn’t know & won’t unless she reads this… or you tell her!” That footnote, to me, contains the essence of Kominsky-Crumb’s achievement: She was a cartoonist who would share stories with her audience that she wouldn’t even tell her family—even her mother. It also suggests the contract of trust that Kominsky-Crumb created with her readers: She would be utterly fearless in writing about her life, knowing readers were grown-up enough to handle the truth and wouldn’t tattle on her.

Kominsky-Crumb, who died last Wednesday at age 74 of pancreatic cancer, was one of the most important and influential American cartoonists of the past century. Tributes to Kominsky-Crumb and samples of her work can be found here, here, here, and here. A key member in the generation of underground cartoonists who in the late 1960s and early ’70s brought subversive and transgressive countercultural values to the hitherto restricted world of comics, Kominsky-Crumb managed to be even more shocking than almost any other member of her cohort. The big names of underground cartoonists, including Robert Crumb or S. Clay Wilson, outraged readers with lurid phantasmic and psychedelic images of sex and violence, using a stylized visual vocabulary of traditional comics. Kominsky-Crumb respected these artists (and in 1978 would in fact marry Crumb). But she did work that challenged readers without the fireworks of fantasy.