Monday , June 24 2024

R. Crumb’s Mystic Funnies

The cover to Mystic Funnies #3 (Fantagraphics) is reassuringly familiar to anyone who’s followed underground comix guru Robert Crumb all these years: a car-choked urban setting where Flakey Foont – Crumb’s whiney everyshlub – is being lectured by a typically statuesque femme. “Out of the pain comes the pleasure, out of the pleasure comes the pain! Okay?” she states, pointing an assertive finger with one hand, holding a shopping bag for “The Fru Fru Frippery” in the other. Another day in the dirty ol’ city for expatriate Crumb.
Reading a new R. Crumb comic is like playing a newly released disc by some randy blues geezer: you pretty much know what you’re getting – the interest lies in the artist’s ability to find small bursts of expressiveness within a rigidly predictable structure. Crumb’s newest has all the elements we’ve come to expect: big butt babes & brandished dicks, whining misanthropy & images of urban sprawl at its ugliest, elegant cross-hatching & base human behavior – all the things that make Crumb the comix artist so lovable and irritating at once.
May seem odd to use “lovable” re: an artist who came across so obsessively creepy in Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb documentary. But for all his milquetoast’s rage & misogyny, there remains something endearing about Crumb’s work. Perhaps it’s his ability to look at his own appalling impulses and render ’em with such kid-like clarity. This is the guy who once accurately named one of his underground titles after Freud’s Id, after all.
Mystic #3 has a few short strips devoted to familiar Crumb cast members: Foont, Mr. Natural, Stan Shnooter (the oily mainstream comics spokesman). But the book’s prime feature is a nineteen-page meander featuring “The Hipman,” a middle-aged trend slave who pursues and struggles to impress one of Crumb’s towering, capricious thick-legged goddesses. We’ve seen variations on Hipman before (in the 60’s & 70’s, he would’ve been an arrogant hippie cocksman): Crumb loves taking preening alpha males and humiliating ’em almost as much as he digs visually assaulting big asses. The tale itself ends on a typically ambiguous note: our hero embracing his steatopygic conquest and thinking to himself, “Somehow I’ll pay for it later, I know.” Right he is, the cartoonist agrees.
The “plot” of “Hipman” is repetitive and rather aimless. We get that his hero is a shallow boob pages before Crumb stops belaboring the point. But with the exception of two panels that look like the artist has momentarily channeled the neo-primitive talents of wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb, the whole thing is wonderfully rendered. Few graphic artists can capture urban seediness as recognizably as Crumb.
The rest of Mystic is a trace more focused. “Don’t Tempt Fate” is an autobiographical excursion; in it, the cartoonist ruefully describes an incident from childhood that led to his getting whomped in the mouth by a large chunk of cinder block: one of those all-too-typical childhood incidents that remind us it’s a miracle that any of us survive into adulthood. A whole generation of autobiographical cartoonists has taken from Crumb, and this six-page piece shows why. His images of boyish thoughtfulness and vandalism can’t help but conjure up similar childhood memories.
Third and final full story is a smutty goof: the artist resurrecting a third-tier funnybook character from his youth (in this case, Archie Comics’ Super Duck) and fashioning a sex comic around him. The conceit’s amusing – particularly when you consider that this character has his origins in the most hypocritically squeakyclean comics line extant – but not much more that that. The big (literal) climax concerns our hero’s disastrous attempts at spicing up his relationship w./ his girlfriend Uwanna by overdoing it on a Viagra-like drug. The results are as visually dirty as you imagine they’d be.
For a book entitled Mystic Funnies, we sure spend a lot of time wallowing in the profane. But that, for Crumb, is one of the central contradictions of human existence. For all that we may yearn to experience something profound, if given a choice, most of us’ll pick quick-&-dirty gratification every time. “I don’t go with this ‘Mystic’ bullshit,” comics guy Shnooter tells Crumb in an introductory one-pager – just before holding a gun up to the artist’s head to get him to produce. (“Don’t get upset,” he tells the reader. “It wuz only a metaphauh!”) The strip ends with Shnooter singing 60’s Sinatra’s strutting Statement of Purpose, “That’s Life.” As funny as it seems, that’s the closest most of us Americans get to mystic crystal revelations, anyway. . .
Mystic Funnies is probably not the book for someone wanting a good intro to this curmudgeonly underground legend. For that, I’d recommend one of the volumes in Fantagraphics’ ongoing reprint series, The Complete Crumb Comics, starting with Volume Four which offers the man’s early Zapwork up to the most recent book in the series, Volume Sixteen, which presents his more nuanced mid-80’s material (“The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick,” for instance.) But those of us who’ve faithfully followed the man when he was up & down (& over & out) will be happy to see him putting out another comix book – even if it was produced with a “metaphauhical” gun to his head.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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