Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat by R. Crumb

I didn't start reading Crumb until I was old and grumpy and embittered -- which does match Crumb himself these days, so it's appropriate. But his biggest fans, I think, found his work when they were young and impressionable and enthusiastic, the way Crumb was as a young cartoonist in the '60s. So I've looked at a bunch of Crumb books over the past few years -- his interesting Book of Genesis, the mostly illustrative Sweeter Side, the aptly named Odds & Ends, and the very '60s Mr. Natural -- but not really clicked with any of it -- he's an interesting cartoonist of historical importance, but there's nothing that I really loved.

The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat is one of Crumb's central suites of stories, with the indomitably self-obsessed title character at their heart. Crumb's early work was all about screwing ever deeper into his own psyche -- which, luckily for him, both fit the mood of the age and featured a psyche very much in vogue -- and so each of the stories here sees some version of Fritz, a young man on the make in a world of anthropomorphics, haring off in a million directions at once (college student, rock star, CIA agent, revolutionary, etc.) to fit the fever dreams of a generation that didn't know what it wanted but was sure it wanted that right now.

The stories don't fit together in any coherent way; they're barely about the same character. Fritz is just one side of Crumb's desires, the semi-controlled id, always wanting to run off and do something more interesting than whatever's already in front of him. The stories also span nearly a decade, from the very scratchy, barely intelligible art of "R. Crumb's Comics and Stories" in 1964 to the mature full Crumb look of "Fritz the Cat 'Superstar'" from 1972 -- there's nothing at all consistent about this book.

I suspect that Crumb is highly regarded mostly for his work ethic -- he's produced vastly more work than his peers of the early underground scene, consistently for forty-plus years -- for the sensuousness of his mature art, and for the fact that he's been so willing to push boundaries his entire career. He wrote and drew stories about sex and drugs and angst and alienation, in immediate and obvious terms, and the Baby Boomers both knew just what he meant and felt he was talking right to them. That doesn't mean, unfortunately, that those stories work all that well for a different audience forty years later -- if you're my age or younger, I wouldn't expect you to ever love Crumb.

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