Robert CrumbFritz the Cat
The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat
Medium: comic
Year: 1964
Writer/artist: Robert Crumb
Keywords: Fritz the Cat
Format: 92 pages in this anthology
Website category: Comics
Review date: 14 June 2021
Wow. That was an experience. I don't know if I'd call it good, in any conventional sense, but it's shocking, weird and a pure journey through the id. (That's "pure" in the sense of being untroubled by ethics or morals.) It's like someone ate the 1960s whole and then put it on the page with no filters.
Fritz the Cat is a cartoon animal. Of drawing animals, Crumb said:
"I can express something that is different from what I put into my work about humans... I can put more nonsense, more satire and fantasy into the animals... they're also easier to do than people... With people I try more for realism, which is probably why I'm generally better with animals."
Fritz is both disturbing and disturbingly readable. He's a crude, swindling, self-obsessed son-of-a-bitch who'd probably register on a scale of psychopathy. It's not just that he treats women like shit. The possibility of him behaving any other way doesn't even exist. He has sex and sex and sex. He's a 1960s hippie idealist who believes in the revolution and being a poet and... well, whatever happens to have lodged in his brain most recently. What's more, he believes it. He's a bullshit merchant who believes it all, at least for half an hour. The girls believe him. He gets married to one and has a child, which is horrifying but you know it's not going to change him.
Reading Fritz isn't like reading an ordinary comic. I wouldn't be capable of creating these stories or this character. It's too alien. It's too underground, too pointless and random, too obviously straight from the writer's hindbrain. Fritz isn't Crumb, but there's a very clear mapping from one to the other. A childhood friend of Crumb's, Marty Pahls, has described Fritz as (to a considerable extent) Crumb's wish-fulfillment. Fritz let Crumb "do great deeds, have wild adventures, and undergo a variety of sex experiences, which he himself felt he couldn't. Fritz was bold, poised, had a way with the ladies - all attributes which Robert coveted, but felt he lacked."
There is no story in which Fritz isn't appalling. The first story in this collection has him coming home to find his little sister unexpectedly attractive, so he has sex with her. The second story shows him picking up a groupie and taking her back to his hotel room. She's a pigeon. He eats her. Jesus. There are portrayals of US race relations that would be unacceptable if he'd drawn the characters as humans (of which there are examples in Crumb's Mr Natural), but as cats and crows it's arguable that Crumb gets away with it. There's a 007-like strip where Fritz is a CIA agent in China, which is so many levels of offensive that you'll be dazed. "Gleetings, paper tiger Amelican! Terr us, what has blought you to Peking?" says Captain Stin-ki Chin-ki, Head of Seclet Porice Folce. The Chinese people are rats. Billions of rats. But Fritz trumps it all by being... well, Fritz, and still the worst thing even in those pages. After drawing our attention to his own racism in flashing lights and neon, he starts shooting rats' heads off and impaling them on knives. It's like Team America: World Police, forty years early.
The sex is never sexy. Crumb can't draw women.
The ending is perfect. Crumb hated Ralph Bakshi's animated film so much that he had a girl stab Fritz in the head with an ice pick. End of series. Dead cat. Regardless of the wisdom of Crumb's reasoning, this feels like the only possible way to end Fritz's story (and if a girl hadn't done it, you'd have been queuing up to do the job yourself).
It's amazing. That's not the same as "good", but you can see why it was influential. (You couldn't write it today.) Fritz is an extraordinary creation, at once innocent, naive and every kind of self-obsessed 1960s monster. He believes in revolution and can rant about the spiked boot of capitalism on the heads of the proletariat, but then in China meets real actual communists and becomes a staunch true blue American. If he falls in with radical hippy revolutionaries, though, he'll happily try to blow up a bridge and even look forward to it. It's playful about pretentious hippy language.
Crumbs, I hated Fritz.