What I’m Reading: The Complete Crumb, Vol. 5

So it’s been awhile since I’ve written in here about what I’ve read.  I was out of town last week on a family vacation (Disneyworld!) and spent this week getting caught up.  I might write up another of these later this week, but I’ll start with the Complete Crumb, Volume 5.  This collects underground comic artist R. Crumb’s work from December 1967 to April 1969.

Wow, is this one ever not for kids.  Drug use, extremely uncensored sexuality, and all sorts of adult situations and scatology, all done in the cute, “big-foot” style of art Crumb is best known for.  This is what most would consider his classic period, and includes the Janis Joplin album covers, as well as multiple episodes of his best-known characters taken from underground comix and alternative newspapers of the period.

Fritz the Cat, the motivationally-challenged cat who stumbles, smokes (not tobacco), and sleeps his way through San Francisco’s hippie underworld, receives the book’s longest section.  It’s a fairly episodic story culminating in Fritz’s almost accidental involvement in a Marxist cell’s plot to bomb San Francisco’s bridges.  Fortunately, the cell is utterly incompetent, many of its members more interested in free dope than revolution, and the plot fails.   Fritz himself is dopey and affable, and it’s hard not to like him even when he’s involved in terrorism–after all, he doesn’t really mean it, he’s just going along with what his friends are up to.  I do have to wonder what Crumb really thought of his friends and acquaintances, if the bumblers, psychotics, and druggies depicted in this story were typical of his own circle.

Mr. Natural, the white-bearded philosoper who instructs his “clients” in overcoming their hang-ups to achieve sexual liberation and spiritual fulfillment, appears in several one- or two-page strips.  In one series of strips, he even goes to heaven and meets God, only to decide the scene is too boring and he wants to go back to Earth.  Mr. Natural is the opposite of Fritz, perhaps something of Crumb’s ideal man: funny, wise, able to see through the various falsehoods the world presents to discern what’s really important in life.

Another recurring character is Angel McSpade, a sort of hyper-sexual Aunt Jemima who’s used in several pieces satirizing white men’s attitudes towards black women.  I found these strips to be the most uncomfortable to read, although I can see the point Crumb was making.  In fact, they are probably the most pointedly political strips in the book. 

Much of the remaining material is little more than humorous scatological skits, fairly juvenile but funny if read with the the right attitude.  As a whole, I would recommend this book only to a fairly narrow segment of people.  If you have an interest in comics history or the 60s counterculture, and a high tolerance for raw language and graphic (though cartoon) sexuality, this is an important document of the era not to be overlooked.  For anybody else, this should be avoided.

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