Robert Crumb
The Book of Mr. Natural
Medium: comic
Year: 1967
Writer/artist: Robert Crumb
Format: 126 pages in this anthology
Website category: Comics
Review date: 16 June 2021
Mr Natural is an odd read because it's not a series, even though Crumb drew him for 35 years. It's just lots of off-the-wall bits and pieces. There isn't a plot, or indeed arguably a point. Mr Natural is a guru, spiritual leader and generally laid-back dude, except when he isn't. Is he a con man? Is he a horn dog? Sometimes he appears to be giving life lessons in how to relax and take life as it comes, but at other times he just seems like a short bald bloke with a big beard and a lot of brass neck.
The Fantagraphics collection I bought doesn't include everything, but it's a good sample. Its stories include:
(a) Mr Natural "does the dishes", in which he does the dishes.
(b) Mr Natural's 719th Meditation, in which he sits cross-legged saying "mmmmm" as civilisation rises from the desert, falls and turns back to desert again.
(c) Sunny Side Up with Mr Natural, in which he sings the title song from the 1929 musical film. Robert Crumb loves the 1920s and 1930s, but hates almost everything created since he was born (1943).
Another of his adventures shows him as the leader of a cult of "Mr Naturalists" that goes to war with the rival cult of "Snoidians". Their leader is the Snoid, another of Robert Crumb's regular characters and a sex-obsessed arsehole. (Crumb's brother Maxon called the Snoid an alter ego for Robert.) Mr Natural and the Snoid flee and abandon their cultists to battle it out.
He winds up other space cadets, which leads to odd dialogue. When Mr Natural threatens to hit Shuman the Human... "Go on! I'd just smile! It's your karma, man! So go ahead..." He has sex with girls. Also, he evolves. In the 1960s strips, he does actually resemble a guru, with lots of surreal homilies and weird zen conversations that I bet were inspired by real gurus. I got the impression of a whimsical, somewhat LSD-inspired satire of something that passed its heyday before I was born. In the 1980s, though, he becomes more of a support character to Devil Girl, a probably-sexy-to-Robert-Crumb girl who does Exorcist dancing and can survive having her head pushed inside her body. Meanwhile, his acolyte (Flakey Foont) gets a job, a wife and two children.
It's less shocking than Fritz the Cat, but still likely to offend. The racial stereotypes in "Om Sweet Om" are... yow. Crumb says they're imitating 1920s and 1930s comics and advertisements and that he was satirising racism, not promulgating it. (And my collection doesn't even include the stories where Mr Natural meets Angelfood McSpade. Do a Google image search. Unbelievable.)
Crumb also often gets accused of sexism (and he's admitted that he drew comics because he couldn't get pornography), but the book's last story ("A Bitchin' Bod'!") has a metaphor for male sexism that had me picking my jaw off the floor.
That was an experience. I prefer the 1967-76 stories, which are more bizarre and more guru-like, but the character's 1980s revival is distinctive too. There's something a bit wrong with Crumb, but he definitely has a sense of humour and he's capable of charming bits of oddness like Mr Natural's take-copter landing in "Uh Oh! He's Back! Who's Back? You'll Find Out!" BOOP BOOP BOODLE DEE-OOP! If nothing else, Mr Natural is unique in being a Robert Crumb character who's likeable.