Waiting for the TPB: The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat by Robert Crumb

PCA reviews the latest graphic novels, for people who wait for the TPB.

Some classic comics age well like vintage wine.  Others, like Robert Crumb’s classic comic strip Fritz the Cat, don’t.  However, while the content of Crumb’s “funny animal masterpiece” is easy to criticize under the scrupulation of modern sensitivities, when looked at through a historical point of view, Fritz the Cat becomes a daring and risqué look at America, satirizing sex, politics, education, celebrity culture, race, the cold war and hipster culture.  Furthermore, despite its many flaws, it is still an interesting look into the underground comic industry of the 1960’s.  Although the Fritz the Cat strips from 1965 to 1972 have been reprinted many times over the decades, Fantgraphics Books has just re-released their 1993 Fritz the Cat collection, The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat in a new, low priced hard covered edition.  Collecting nine of Crumb’s essential Fritz the Cat stories, The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat is a solid over view of Crumb’s most famous character.  However, readers should beware of what they are getting into.  Those familiar with the world of Fritz via his successful 1971 animated feature (the world’s first X-rated cartoon) may not be prepared for the comic strips, which include jokes about rape, violence, misogyny and incest.  Those sensitive to these issues should proceed with caution.

Robert Crumb (depicted in this slef portrait) explored a series of taboo topics via comics when the art form was still considered a medium for children. As a result, his material was, and continues, to be controversial and is not for every reader.

During an era where the comic industry was still ruled by the Comic Code Authority, and believed to be strictly for children, Robert Crumb became the superstar of the underground comic movement, changing the way that comics were read forever.  Inspired by Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Robert and his brother Charles began to draw their own funny animal strips filled with adult themes such as sex and politics.  Eventually Fritz the Cat would easily become Crumbs’ most recognizable creation.  Fritz made his earliest appearances in homemade comics by the Crumb Brothers around 1959.  Based on their family cat Fred, the earliest Fritz stories were tales about what they thought Fred did when he didn’t come home at night.  A horny hedonistic drifter, totally void of ethics and morals, like real life cats Fritz’s primary concern is his own survival.  Despite a keen intellect, Fritz lacks the common sense of the other animals around him, but due to his chrasima, seems to trick others into believing that he knows what he is doing.  Possibly the most curious thing about Fritz the Cat is that the character is a total asshole, but via charm and a bit of pathos, Fritz wins over the reader no matter how badly behaved he is.

Hedonistic, horny, arrogant and self centered, Fritz the Cat was comics first likeable douche bag.

None of the early homemade Fritz the Cat strips appear in The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat, which instead begins with Crumb’s first published full Fritz story from 1964 which portrays Fritz as a down and out “Jack Kerouac” type who returns home to his mother after years on the road, but spends the visit trying to have sex with his sister.  Although crudely drawn, the strip holds a certain nostalgic charm despite the subtext of incest.  Crumb would take liberties with Fritz’s position in life depending on his needs, making Fritz into a college student, a magician, a rock idol, a secret agent, a drifter and a movie star throughout the various strips.

Fritz the Cat's discussion with a black crow about race relations is one of the highlights of "The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat."

The highlight of The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat is definitely the third story (second full length chapter) which depicts Fritz as a heartbroken college student caught between exams and revolution.  Rooming with Fuzzy Bunny and Heinz the Swine, Fritz begins the story mooning over his ex-girlfriend Winston (a brainy liberated fox).  Fuzzy wants to get laid, while Heinz just wants beer, leading Fritz on a series of misadventures as he tries to discover his path in life.  Highlights of the story includes Fritz deliberately burning down the dorm, talking race relations with a crow (which represents African Americans), going to a crow party and discovering marijuana, and his eventual reconciliation and disastrous road trip with Winston.  The third Fritz story is easily Crumb’s funniest and most charming, filled with suedo-intellectual discussion on political topics which seem to often cross between a grey area of satire and sincerity.  Furthermore, his rendition of his characters are at their cleanest, and as a result most charming.

Fritz and Winston reunite in one of the rare sweet moments in "Fritz the No Good," the most disturbing and violent of all the "Fritz the Cat" stories.

But as Crumb’s success rose in the underground comic scene, Fritz the Cat seems to take a darker turn, as evident in the seventh Fritz the Cat story, Fritz the No Good.  Down and out and unemployed, Fritz, now married to Charlene, the folk singing hippie cat he has a one night stand with in a previous strip, Fritz and Fuzzy are seen joining a terrorist organization that plans to blow up a bridge.  Although Crumb’s art is at its most interesting caliber by this point, Fritz the No Good strips Fritz the Cat of any potential charm he had earlier by presenting Fritz as a directionless loser, Heinz as a blind and homeless drunk, and Fuzzy as an angry radical who beats up his hippopotamus girlfriend before sitting on her face while Fritz tortures and rapes her, which caps off with a gang bang punch line.  Although Crumb may have been shooting for some sort of satire, the entire sequence is violent, misogynistic and depressing.

Unhappy with the "Fritz the Cat" film, Robert Crumb notarizes Hollywood and celebrity culture in the final Fritz the Cat story, "Fritz the Cat, Superstar."

Thankfully Crumb finally pulled the plug on Fritz in his next strip, 1972’s Fritz the Cat “Superstar.”  Unhappy by the Fritz the Cat film, and angry of his lack of control over the sequel which was currently being produced, Crumb drew what would be the final Fritz the Cat story ever.  Living off of the success of the film, Fritz is now a Hollywood megalomaniac living on a diet of liquor, drugs and sex.  With his ego finally hitting its peak, the always arrogant and thoughtless Fritz uses and abuses everyone around him, until he scorns an obsessive ex-lover who gets the final upper-hand on him.  In a shocking ending, Crumb makes a bold statement on the film industry, Hollywood sub-culture as well as stardom, sex, drugs, death and obsession.  Despite the success of Fritz’s pair of films at the time Crumb published Fritz the Cat “Superstar,” Crumb never drew another Fritz the Cat feature again.  Although Fritz lacks any sort of charm within his final strip and is nothing but a hateful and angry character, the social commentary in the subtext ends Fritz the Cat on a high note.

Charlene serenades Fritz, who just wants to get laid.

The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat is a decent reprint collection, but what it lacks are any notes on the material within the book.  Perhaps an introduction to the collection was not included in order to keep the cost low, but Fritz the Cat reads far better when framed in a historical context.  For the casual reader, The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat may not be your best selection and you might be better off getting a hold of the animated film which seems to hold up just a bit better.  The comics can be embarrassingly dated and the overwhelming misogyny and violence against women is disturbing.  However, for someone interested in the works of Robert Crumb, the history of underground comics, or is studying the history of comics in general, The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat, for better or for worse, is essential to your comic library.  .The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat isn’t for everyone (including myself to be quite honest), but the imagination and innovative style of Robert Crumb is undeniable, and his methods of exploring taboo subjects via cartoon animals continues to be extremely groundbreaking.

To order your own copy of The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat click here.

In one of Crumb's most exciting sequences, Fritz the Cat discovers marijuana at a crow party. Robert Crumb at his best.

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