Tuesday, May 12, 2009

R. Crumb grouping readies for May 21 Comics Auction: Only the adventurous need apply

May 12, 2009
Posted by Noah

There are few American illustrators as iconoclastic as R. Crumb. His characters are alternately loathsome and endearing, and Crumb himself never met a boundary he didn’t want to cross. If you know his work, then you know what I mean. If you’ve never seen any of his comics, or had the guilty pleasure of reading them, then I suggest you do a gut check before picking up an issue or compilation. If you are easily offended, then don’t even start.

The Comics auction at Heritage on May 21 is already filled with truly spectacular stuff – see The Chicorel Collection, Showcase #4 from the Motor City Run, or a Gem 10.0 Mint Wolverine #1 – but, as with so many of the cool auctions here, there are jewels sprinkled throughout the auction, not the least of which is a small grouping of lots from the pen, pencil, markers and crayons of dear Mr. Crumb, always a popular subject when he turns up in Heritage Auctions. They are all great examples of his inimitable style, though only one – a complete eight-page story from Hup!, which depicts Crumb as a full grown man, slobbering and shaking, dressed as a baby, being pushed around in an oversize pram by a buxom nursemaid, who is of course the object of his obsession – is truly salacious in the disturbing manner that only Crumb could embody.

Two of the lots feature, separately, the master’s two most famous characters: An early transitional period cover drawing for a never-realized comic called Inkling, featuring none other than Mr. Natural, and a very rare latter period drawing of Fritz The Cat for a 1993 for a collection of Fritz stories.

The Fritz drawing is one of the last times that Crumb drew Fritz, minus another notable 1996 drawing, and is a pretty classic representation of the haggard feline hounding one of his lady friends for a little “attention.” If you know anything about 1970s illustration and – in particular – animation, then Fritz The Cat is immediately recognizable as much for the comic books as for the Ralph Bakshi cartoon movie of the character, and for the massive firestorm of controversy that surrounded it. FYI, Bakshi was and is one of the greatest animators of the 20th century for a variety of reasons too numerous to mention here. Just watch the cartoon and you’ll see what I mean. There was so much attention paid to the movie and the comics, and Crumb was so pursued by the press that he actually killed the character in the pages of The People’s Comics in 1972.

You can check out the grouping here. In the realm of high-priced material, these are pretty affordable, ranging between about $1,000 to more than $5,000. Who knows what they will really bring, as the collectors dedicated to crumb – and in particular to Mr. Natural and Fritz The Cat – are indeed very serious in their pursuit.

When I was a boy in the mid-1970s, Bakshi’s Fritz The Cat was still quite a controversial cartoon. I remember it playing late one night on Dallas’s first pay-per-view station, Vue – a precursor to cable and DTV and all of that, you know you remember it – and my brother Matt told me he was going to watch it, as he somehow knew something about it already.

It turns out that he chickened out, or fell asleep, and I was left to my own devices. Sometime around midnight I crept into the TV room, closed the door, flipped that sucker on and turned down the sound. Needless to say it was quite and eye-opener, and an eyeful, for an eight-year-old, but I could still see the inherent humor in the story and the quality in the characters and animation. It led me to a full-blown Bakshi obsession in later years, where I watched movies like Wizards, Hey Good Lookin’!, American Pop, Heavy Traffic, Street Fight and – many times again – Fritz The Cat. If you are a discriminating fan of truly cool underground animation, then I heartily recommend Bakshi’s movies.

Here’s another look at the Crumb grouping if you’re curious.

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-Noah Fleisher

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