I was writing about the late writer Harvey Pekar and it got me thinking about another artist/writer, R. Crumb also known in the “comic book” world but who also wrote some serious graphic books.
Robert Dennis Crumb, better known as just R. Crumb, is the American artist and illustrator recognized for the distinctive style of his drawings and his critical, satirical, subversive view of the American mainstream. He is considered one of the founders of the underground “comix” movement.
Though he is a celebrated comic book artist, Crumb’s entire comic book career is really outside the mainstream “comic book” publishing industry.
If you think you don’t know him, you may be familiar with his Keep on Truckin’ comic, which was a huge pop culture phrase and icon of the 1970s. You may also know (maybe via films) his highly sexualized Fritz the Cat and hippie Mr. Natural characters.
The films of Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic were quite controversial when they were released. Fritz the Cat came out in 1972 as an animated film written (drected by Ralph Bakshi as his feature film debut) and was the first animated feature film to receive an X rating in the United States.
Fritz is a very human feline in mid-1960s New York City who get into many sexual and hedonistic situations and also has a sociopolitical consciousness. When I saw it in college, its takes on American college life, race relations, free love and politics were all hitting resonant notes with me. It was the most successful independent animated feature of all time, grossing over $100 million worldwide.
Crumb had issues with the film. He claimed his first wife signed over the film rights to the characters, and that he did not approve the production’s approach to his material. (A sequel, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, was made without Crumb’s or Bakshi’s involvement.)
One book by Crumb that is brief but interesting and unusual is a biography of Franz Kafka, simply called Kafka. It’s an interesting way to get into Kafka and his writing. It has summaries and is illustrated by Crumb.
Even if you never read Kafka, more people know the often-misused term “Kafkaesque” and have at least heard of his story “The Metamorphosis” which is regularly anthologized and assigned in school and even has its own book-length critical edition.
Although Kafka said “What do I have in common with the Jews? I don’t even have anything in common with myself,” his style is often said to be in the tradition of the Yiddish storytellers who used a bizarre fantasy mixed with humor and self-loathing.
Kafka brings to that a high level of consciousness, alienation and paranoia. Kafka, who I have wanted to write about for awhile, was alienated from his family, his “friends” and his surroundings. If you read his stories as autobiographical, then he is the one turned into a cockroach, an ape, a dog, a mole or a circus artist who starves himself to death in front of admiring crowds.
Crumb’s book is a good introduction to Kafka and will give you a pretty concise biography and the plots of many of his works, all illustrated, and will hopefully get you to want to explore Kafka’s writing in the original.