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R. Crumb always keeps on truckin’ his way into your head – Mr. Natural #1

July 27, 2012

Robert Crumb. R. Crumb. Crumb. There has never been an artist in the comic book industry — under or above ground — who has had such a capacity to simultaneously inspire and repulse. To know his work is to at once marvel at the all-encompassing expression of his talent, while at the same time lamenting his art’s degradation of women and minorities — hell, anything with a pulse. As you sit in awe of a deft hand that could turn cross-hatching, because of the fetishistic intensity with which it was wrought, into something more than just the illusion of shadow, you stifle the gag reflex when confronted with sexual perversion that looks like what would happen if Escher were a sex fiend and had a thing for the funny pages. There’s a vicious yin and yang to the work.

R. Crumb. The man, the myth, the legend.

Like many people not of the counter-culture generation, or who grew up in the sticks and wouldn’t know an underground comic if it bit them on the ass, my first sampling of his world came in the unspeakably compelling 1994 documentary Crumb. (I’m sure I spotted a Keep on Truckin’ mudflap or two during any of the interminable family car rides of my youth, but we won’t count that.) Crumb has the distinction — along with Schindler’s List — of being a film from which I quite literally could not tear myself away. I first saw it on cable in the ’90s, back in the days before DVRs that let you pause what you were watching, and it didn’t matter how bad I had to piss or who thirsty I was, there was no chance in hell that I was getting up and missing a second. If you’ve seen it, you know of what I speak. You start delving into the world of this small, strange, shy, but disarmingly sweet man (with glasses so thick it’s like he’s looking at you through an aquarium), you start thinking he’s the weirdest goddamn son of a bitch you’ve ever come across in all your born days, and then you meet his family. The brother that sleeps on a bed of nails and the other one that never leaves the house and talks openly about his suppressed pedophilic inclinations. And the mother. And then your head feels like it’s going to explode. It’s the very definition of engrossing.

A sequence in the film always stuck in my head. It was a simple, non-sexual part that burrowed in there — yes, even more than that one brother who swallowed a string bit by bit so he could pass it bit by bit. And I’m probably not alone. The dark cloud that hung over the movie’s runtime was Crumb’s dissatisfaction with American culture, and his impending move, wife and child in tow, to the south of France. There are any number of times where he talks about the bankruptcy of modernity, the sameness of everything, the hideousness of the urban landscape’s power lines and fast food joints. And then, in one charming minute, some of his old art drives the point home, as we witness the concomitant decay that comes with progress in “A Short History of America”:

You know, I have a hard time understanding or getting behind women with no heads being gang-banged. But this, this I understand. And admire. It’s not overly complex. It’s a simple conceit. But it’s powerful. (Maybe the piano helps a little, too.)

And this brings me to this post’s comic. Mr. Natural #1 is the oft-reprinted (the one I have is the 10th reprinting or later — the Grand Comics Database tapped out of listing them after the 9th) first solo book of one of Crumb’s most venerable creations. The book has a number of the short-form strips that Crumb did oh so well (including one where the philosophy-spouting Mr. Natural drives fellow Crumb character Shuman the Human to distraction), but also has some deliciously different content. An illustrated text feature written by Crumb chronicles the fictional biography of the not-so-great sage, and he also cooks up some fake fan-art submissions in a phony “draw Mr. Natural” contest. It’s a fun read.

Of course, the last story has Mr. Natural fellated (twice) by a huge, large-breasted baby…

Now, to tie this all back in with the “Short History” sequence. “Mr. Natural’s 719th Meditation” is the first multi-page strip in the book, and it’s an earlier and slightly different view of the march of progress that we watched above. It opens with Mr. Natural picking out a stretch of desert ground and having a road built in front of him:

Then a city (complete with a Denny’s) springs up all around him, until a policeman appears and triggers an Earth-shattering yoga chant:

The last page has a post-apocalyptic waste swirling around him, and then, once things are back to where they were in the beginning, Mr. Natural whistles his way back from whence he came:

Is this deep? Shallow? Is Crumb wishing he was Mr. Natural? Would he want to tear it all down? Is it a comment on the transitoriness of human existence? Does the police officer, with his threatening phallic club, symbolize the oppression and the sanitized savagery that inevitably come with modernity? Is Mr. Natural, with the robe and big beard, God?

I don’t know. I don’t care. I just like it. A lot. It’s a companion piece to the later “Short History.” Maybe it’s not the objective peak of Crumb’s oeuvre, but it is for me. And it made this old underground book all worthwhile. More than worthwhile.

I realize I haven’t exactly furthered Crumb scholarship in any way with this post. I just wanted to put my two cents of homage in.

An addendum: One of the most endearing things about Crumb is how his comics career started in his youth, as he and his brothers drew lessons from the funny books they read (including the Carl Barks Donald Duck comics) and ported them over to their own homemade books. (Even his infamous X-rated creation Fritz the Cat was based on a family feline that was the subject of inter-house storytelling.) If the back cover proves anything, it’s that you can never get very far from your roots. Here’s Crumb, giving us an update on the latter days of Terrytoons veterans Sourpuss and Gandy Goose:

The man has always had his charm. The good thing about Crumb nowadays is that, if you like his stuff, there’s no shortage of collections to delve into. The Book of Mr. Natural contains this comic’s material as well as a whole lot else, and in 2010 it had a new printing. You might have to look at some pages through your fingers, but that’s the price you pay. Because it’s worth a look.

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