Mar 16, 2015

The 40 Years of Comics Project - Day 20: The Complete Fritz the Cat, 1978

I had this collection added to my American Literature reading list for my second go at the candidacy exam. Crumb's Fritz speaks to a very specific time and place in American history, but adds Crumb's skewed, and occasionally extremely problematic, ironic perspective, one not always represented in mainstream canonical works. You can see some of the optimism that the love generation is famous for, but more of the pessimism at the failings and hypocrisy inherent in the counter-cultural movement. It's probably a good thing Fritz was killed when he was. I'm not sure he would have handled the 21st century very well.

But what to say about the book? Crumb's a talented artist. I think it would be difficult to dispute this. He has a style that is so distinctive that, like Kafka and Shakespeare before him, he's well on his way to having his name become an adjective. As I just said, the stories themselves are small amounts of optimism, large amounts of pessimism, lots of racism, sexism. The anti-police sentiment might be a revolutionary moment in the book if the depiction of those in opposition to the system where not so similar. Everyone, basically, sucks in this book. The only innocents seem to be the naive women who are, eventually, corrupted or taken advantage of by the more erudite male figures in the stories. Only Winston, Fritz's long-lost(?) love seems to have the gumption and tenacity to play the same game the men do, and to sometimes come out ahead.

Crumb is weird. I know that's really pretty self-evident, but I'm not sure how to take his work. Is he skirting very close to that edge of irony, is everything he's writing tongue-in-cheek, or is he really a pretty scummy individual saying some really troubling things through his art? As a certified eccentric of not only comics, but American culture, he's forgiven a good deal of the racism and misogyny that continues to inform his work, and perhaps the genius of it is that he does get really close to being quite hateful. Is it because of his style that we inject into something  troubling humour that we hope is actually there? What would the reaction to Crumb's work be if he drew more photo-realistically? There's a few scenes in Fritz that would be remarkably disturbing in that case. Or more disturbing, I should probably say.

I read Crumb's adaptation of the Book of Genesis a few years back when it came out, and it's a brilliant piece of graphic literature, though perhaps not something that's going to appeal to the general reader. In the introduction he talks about noticing shades of a matriarchal society in the pages of the Bible, something he sees as having been suppressed, and which he tries to address while remaining faithful to the source material. This cleaving to a female-centric society gives me hope that the irony of his earlier works is pointing to the inherent stupidity of the men of the counter culture. Whether or not this is true, I have no idea. It could simply be that Crumb in the 21st century is far less troubling than Crumb in the 1960s. We can't expect an artist to remain static, which is a good thing, but we also can't read works in a vacuum. He may, tangentially, support a more egalitarian sexual dynamic now, but in Fritz it's hard to see the seeds of that.

I'm glad I read it, as my only real exposure to FTC was the Ralph Bakshi film. Crumb's work is more raw than the movie, refuses to pull punches, which I think puts him in an interesting lineage to American writers like Cormac McCarthy and his stark take on another period of revolutionary thought in American history in Blood Meridian. But what does it say about the culture when some of its more famous historical meditations are such violent and unpleasant writings?

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