There's nothing adorable about Fritz the Cat. Although to some he is the mascot of the underground comix movement that began in the 1960s, Fritz isn't likable. Fantagraphics is giving us another opportunity to revisit R. Crumb's iconic character in a hardcover edition of his collected adventures, called The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat. Perhaps what will be most striking to readers who have not already perused the chronological totality of Fritz's fictional existence (which runs only 92 pages) is his centerless moral corruption, and Crumb's larger attribution of that quality to the prevailing counterculture of the late '60s.
Most of the Fritz stories were drawn and published while Crumb was a San Franciscan (he moved here in 1967), and Crumb's well-known discomfort with the counterculture has always seemed incredible when contrasted with the timing of his move to the city. The last two Fritz tales are set in San Francisco, and they are laden with local references and images.
Crumb's characteristic irony juxtaposes classically "cute" anthropomorphic cartoon imagery and the anxiety, hypocrisy, and rapacious gluttony of Fritz and his animal pals. In his first few stories, Fritz is more or less a silly but sex-obsessed charlatan. Soon, he turns into a symbol of '60s counterculture, unable to maintain any one consistent set of principles. By the last of these stories, Fritz has become a brutal parody of the counterculture-as-corporation -- a hipster celebrity who uses his power to do exactly as he pleases, without regard to consequences.
That final story, "Fritz the Cat, Superstar," was Crumb's response to Ralph Bakshi's X-rated animated feature film adaptation, which he felt did not capture the spirit of the comics. In "Superstar," Fritz is a disgusting sexual criminal, demonic in his heedless debasement of women. The story was controversial not only because of Fritz's horrific behavior (he initiates a gang rape, for example), but also because he is ultimately killed by an ex-girlfriend, who stabs him in the back with an ice pick. Here, Crumb accomplished two things: He rid himself of a character who was becoming too closely identified with the artist, and he rendered him so unappealing as to be commercially nonviable for the likes of Bakshi. (This didn't stop producer Steve Krantz, who went on to make the entirely unsuccessful sequel film, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat.)
Despite Fritz's demise 40 years ago, these stories maintain their wit, satirical edge, and their ability to offend and shock. The earlier stories are funny and bizarre (Fritz has sex with his own sister in the first one), and the later ones are funny and angry (as a "liberated" hippie, Fritz uses his image to corral as many women as possible into the same room). Even the final story can be viewed as funny in an extraordinarily dark context, although it helps to be aware of Crumb's intentions. To read "Fritz the Cat, Superstar" first, or without knowledge of Crumb, would feel a lot like confronting a knife-wielding lunatic in a dark alley.
Readers new to the Fritz material will be surprised by the roughness of Crumb's style in the earlier stories. The artist's signature look, with its cross-hatched details and thick outlines, does not show up until the final story, which was published in 1972. Fantagraphics' new hardcover edition of the Fritz portfolio is unburdened by editorial commentary or contextual material of any kind. This encourages readers to experience the comics as if for the first time -- and find that the acid in Crumb's humor still stings.