In addition to followers of his comic strips, the so-called Dean of Underground Cartoonists, Robert Crumb, will be familiar to anyone who has seen Ghost World, director Terry Zwigoff's Crumb documentary, or American Splendor, the biopic of fellow autobiographical cartoonist Harvey Pekar, in which Crumb is played by actor James Urbaniak.

There have previously been countless other books about Crumb, including The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book by The R. Crumb Handbook co-author, Peter Poplaski, so the big question, as he writes in the foreword, is: "Does the world need another one? Was there anything the world at large didn't know about Crumb's life and loves? Was there any artwork out there that hadn't seen print in some collection? How could anyone get a fresh perspective?"

Poplaski, who is also a cartoonist, might not provide too many fresh angles on his close friend but The R. Crumb Handbook is certainly a comprehensive look at one of America's most important and controversial cartoonists.

Poplaski's long-time relationship with Crumb means the biography reads more like a conversation between two old buddies. The R. Crumb Handbook provides a more personal, authentic picture of the cartoonist, as least as far as the co-authors are concerned, with Crumb declaring that his wife Aline Kominisky said, after watching American Splendor, that if he really was like he was portrayed by Urbaniak, "she would never have married me".

The R. Crumb Handbook is also lavishly illustrated with more than half of its 436 pages taken up with spot pictures, comic strips and photographs. Unfortunately, its compact size means that many of the stories are hard to read and more justice would have been done to the densely-lettered comic strips if they had been printed in a larger, albeit more expensive, format.

And be warned, Robert Crumb is not for the prudish and his declaration on the cover that "I'm not here to be polite!" is something of an understatement. The depiction of sexual acts is usually very graphic and in the case of stories like The Family That Lays Together Stays Together arguably in very poor taste.

But if you can stomach his frequent misogynism, The R. Crumb Handbook will provide an excellent introduction to one of America's most significant alternative artists. 

* Stephen Jewell is an Auckland writer.

* MQP, $47.95