Alex: This comic book, Mr. Natural #3, is really a compilation of the single page strips you did for The Village Voice in 1976. Each week you submitted a page to The Village Voice for some 40 straight weeks. When you stopped doing the strip, Kitchen Sink proposed to create a comic of the collected strips. So you supplied the front and back cover and the inside covers, and the comic book was published in 1977. Let's review what you were going through in the mid-70's when you produced the Mr. Natural strip for The Voice.
Crumb: Well, by the mid-Seventies I was feeling kind of lost. The hippie thing was falling apart. The whole optimism of the Sixties was getting ground down. I had left Potter Valley in '74, where I had lived since 1970. Aline and I moved to the Central Valley of California and we were living rather isolated and I felt directionless and lost. When I look back, I'm impressed with myself that I persisted and kept drawing comics in spite of all that. I just kept plowing ahead. I worked my way through it. Finally, by the early '80's, I felt like I had kind of gotten back on track more or less. But it was a different track. Times changed very drastically from the late ’60s to the early ’80s. There was a big, big change in the whole culture in America. What I had done in the late Sixties, early Seventies, was part of that whole hippie cultural revolution. Taking LSD and all the back-to-Eden idealism, the almost religious revelations of LSD, about society and how to live, and all that. It all kind of fell apart, and a lot of it just got lost.
Mr. Natural #3 is a bit painful for me to read actually. The humor seems kind of forced. I was looking for some kind of secure gig at the time, I needed to make a living, and then The Village Voice offered me this regular, weekly strip. So I thought, "Wow, $200 bucks a week," which was okay money at the time. Back then, I was living on a fucking shoestring. It was around that time that the whole IRS tax nightmare came up, and I was feeling disillusioned and disgusted with America. They were just forging ahead with the same old shit. They just bulldozed over the whole hippie idealist optimism, the idea of a leftist revolution just evaporated. And the corporations and the banks and the conservative politicians and the developers, they were all back on track and back in force. Especially after Carter was out and Reagan got in, then they just went whole hog. But in the mid-Seventies, they were just getting back on track.
I remember reading this thing in 1973, an analysis by some think-tank called The Rand Corporation which really shocked me when I read it. Some left wing magazine had gotten hold of it and exposed it. It said that the whole problem with the Sixties was that the expectations of the common people were raised much too high. Those expectations were going to have to be lowered. There would have to be some suffering in the lower economic classes, they would have to be pushed back down and there would probably be more crime, etc.. It was incredible. They just laid it all out, what the big game plan was. And they succeeded in doing that. And you could see it happening, you could witness this. Sometimes I actually felt a dizzying sense of falling…like an elevator dropping rapidly. I didn't know what to do.
In my diaries at the time I was doing this Mr. Natural strip, I questioned and agonised over whether I should continue to draw comics at all, or seek some other way to get by. I felt demoralized and discouraged by the general state of things. The wave on which I had been riding on the crest had crashed on the beach. What do we do now? Go back to Corporate America? Back to all that crap? It was a confusing time. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I needed to make a living, and I didn’t know how to do anything else. I mean, people liked Mr.Natural, and they liked my comics although there was very little money coming from those comics at the time, and meanwhile I had to pay my first wife $400 bucks a month in child support. Aline and I lived very marginally, very frugally at that time. I'm not complaining, it was okay. Our modest material circumstances were the least of our worries.
Alex: Well, that’s your perspective because of what you were going through. Maybe you’re the last person who can be objective about your own work. I remember the first time I read that comic book.
Crumb: Yeah, you told me you liked it.
Alex: Well, when I first read the comic book, I didn't pick up on that negative, gloomy stuff you were going through. I thought, as a comic book, it was much more coherent and entertaining. Maybe one reason being that it was one complete story, unlike all your other comic books, which were a series of strips and shorter stories. But this was forty pages of one story. It was kind of like the first time I heard Sergeant Peppers and the first song went into the next. That was a new and exciting idea, and that comic book kind of had that same coherence. This book had a continuity that ran all the way through it, there was more than 32 pages, and it was more like a long novel.
Crumb: Yeah, it’s a 40 page story, basically. But I didn't plan it. When I started I had no idea where I was going to go with it.
Alex: Another thing I really liked about it is how your drawing had gotten better. I mean look at Flakey – he's aged. He's aged six or seven years, and so has Ruth. It just seemed to me there was more detail, your drawing had improved. Now there's a whole bunch of other stuff that I could bring up but I just wanted to let you know that for someone not aware of all the problems and hardships, the writing seemed clear, and the illustration was better. Maybe because you’re not smoking pot by now? You could have had your personal demons, you could have been going through a lot of trouble, but guess what? The writing is clear, the motivations are coherent. You sit down, you still have the ability to concentrate and go to that special place. You may not have wanted to go there, but when you sat down and did it, you got there. Even if you were disgusted with the strip, you still got to that place. And that's a special place, that’s why people love those characters.
Crumb: I hope it works for people, but you know, when I read it, just like I said, the humor seems forced to me because I didn't know what I wanted to do. I was directionless. I was no longer being guided by mystic revelations. My favorite parts of the book are the cover, the inside covers, and the back cover. I like that better than the contents, the Mr. Natural strips.
Alex: You did those pages later, right?
Crumb: Actually, not much later, a year maybe.
Alex: Let’s talk about the guts of the comic book before we go on to those four pages. Do you remember at what point in this series of strips you decided you didn't want to do it anymore? In the middle of the series, or towards the end?
Crumb: Towards the end. It lasted about a year in The Village Voice, or almost a whole year now that I remember. Because it was coming out weekly, one per week.
Alex: Let’s talk about Ruth Schwartz and how she was depicted. I think it’s kind of interesting that she’s depicted as sort of a liberated woman. Her legs are unshaven, she’s down to earth, she takes control of the reporters when Flakey can’t. She’s level headed, she’s competent and there’s nothing misogynistic about how you depict her. Did you do that consciously, or did you think that you had a new audience, a new platform and you were limited as to certain subject matters?
Crumb: I’m sure that I internalized certain limitations based on working for a newspaper like The Village Voice, which was not an underground paper; it had attained a certain respectability. I had to keep that in mind. But I didn’t think of Ruth Schwartz as a feminist statement. I was probably somewhat inspired by living with Aline. I think that I established a kind of stability with Aline. We were in it together. We lived in the Central Valley in somewhat isolated circumstances, just the two of us and she was very competent at taking care of things. The Ruth Schwartz character was based on her a little bit. Aline was much bigger then than she is now. She was big, she weighed a lot (laughing). And she had hairy legs.
At this point I portrayed Flakey Foont and Ruth Schwartz as a stable couple that’s settled in and are no longer crazy hippies. And Mr. Natural just seems crazy to them. They’ve come to accept institutions. They think of institutions as something they can trust, so they have become somewhat square even: law-abiding, tax-paying citizens with left-liberal political sympathies, like a lot of old hippies, myself and Aline included.
Alex: I want to discuss the development of Flakey now. Before, when he was younger, he seemed to need Mr. Natural. But in this comic, he doesn’t really seem to need Mr. Natural. He’s grown and matured, sort of the same way you did. Maybe Flakey grew up and got tired of the idea of needing a guru or someone to look up to. Maybe you were going through the same thing too? You got tired of the idea of Mr. Natural, which is why you wanted to commit him and get him out of your life? Do you see any similarities there?
Crumb: Well, that might be a subconscious thing. I don’t know. Consciously, I just felt that what Mr. Natural represented was this thing that was over. The hippie thing was over so he was just this alienated, crazy guy in a small town. He’s walking around in this American town and he’s naked and he’s wearing a fruit box or something. He no longer has a place in things. Earlier, in the hippie times, he was very popular: people were coming to him looking for answers, for revelations. That kind of guru was held in high esteem by a lot of people. But by the mid-70’s, things were looking bleak. People had become disillusioned with gurus and cults.
Alex: That all makes sense, but do you think Flakey more closely resembles what you were going through at the time in this strip compared to other Mr. Natural strips?
Crumb: I don’t know. I didn’t feel any more mature. It’s true I stopped doing drugs. I stopped smoking pot. The hippie scene kind of fractured and fragmented in the Seventies. I ended up mostly hanging out with the guys in The Cheap Suit Serenaders — Robert Armstrong, Terry Zwigoff and Al Dodge mostly. We were out playing gigs a lot of the time, too. I was quite active in the band from 1972 to ‘78. I think the band was probably more fun for me at that point than drawing comics. But I had to make a living and I couldn’t make it from that band.
Alex: After you got rid of Mr. Natural, the professor sort of becomes your mouthpiece, really. All your personal feelings, your disgust, you let the professor step up there. Is that correct?
Crumb: It kind of looks that way, doesn’t it? But then I didn’t continue to use him as a character much. He’s just a cranky professor who’s very critical of everything- just a curmudgeon who hates the modern world — Yeah, kind of like me I guess.
Alex: Yeah. Mr. Natural refers to him as a “fussy sort of person,” which I think is great. When you look at the actual artwork, would you term it as loose and easy, get it done already? Were you working on new techniques? Were you still using the same kind of pen nib and everything?
Crumb: There’s no new techniques whatsoever. Once I stopped smoking pot in 1974, I got back into more detailed drawing. So the drawing in this is somewhat more detailed than the earlier stuff from say, ’68 through ’73. If you look at some of those comics from that earlier period, the drawing is generally simpler. I began taking more time around ‘74. And by the Weirdo era I was taking yet even more time in the planning and the penciling, as well as in the inking.
Alex: Did you pencil the strip?
Crumb: Yes, absolutely. Everything I did for print was penciled.
Alex: Let’s talk about Kit ‘n Kaboodle, which I really enjoy. I think it’s funny and poignant at the same time. I really like the second panel, if you look at his arm that’s holding the bow, how it’s round like that. Very stylized and of course it works.
Crumb: Well, the 4th panel that shows the house out baking in the sun? That’s based on reality. The Central Valley was going through a drought at that time. We were living in this little bungalow with one half-dead tree in the front yard. Everything was drying up. It was bleak out there in the Central Valley. I kind of liked the bleakness, it was very flat and it was redneck, and the whole valley was basically a duchy of the big agra business corporations and they just ran it ruthlessly. And all the small towns at that time were just there to serve these agra business corporations which were huge operations that planted 40,000 acres of sugar beets. You know, industrial farming.
Alex: But when you look at that artwork, do you like the artwork?
Crumb: Well, I like the covers, front, back and insides are better than the contents of the guts of the book. For me, the humor and everything is more spontaneous and less forced. By this time, I was just beginning to sort of get back on track. Like the back cover still kind of expresses a certain lostness, you know? I don’t fit in, I don’t want to fit in, I’m very alienated and disgusted with America.
Alex: But I love that back cover, I always have. But you know Robert, I worked hard scanning and cleaning up this comic book. It took me a long time. And another part of my job is to help you sell this comic book. I think it’s a great comic book. It’s not going to help us sell the comic book with you saying that you…
Crumb: … don’t like the contents? (laughing)
Alex: Yeah, that’s not going to help us. I don’t mind you saying that it was difficult looking back because it brought up a lot of memories of a difficult period in your life. I don’t mind you saying that, but I honestly believe that if we got people to read it, they would enjoy it.
Crumb: It was a difficult period. I’m telling you I felt so lost and questioned whether or not to continue drawing comics at all.
Alex: Ok, well, we’re getting to the end of my questions. Because you’re basically a socialist, you believe in the power of the people. But at the same time you obviously see that many of them are ignorant. Like Kit and Kaboodle sell their house and they’re going to spend the money on booze and lose the rest gambling. And then on the back inside cover you have “mindless consumerism.” So I’m starting to see that you’re removing yourself from identifying with “the people.” And of course you always, even as a teenager, felt alienated and you would think, “those fools.”
Crumb: Those ignorant fools (laughing).
Alex: So, it’s a continuation of the same old theme for you. But were you then in the process of trying to draw that and communicate your disdain for the ignorance of the people? Were you just starting to express that in your comics?
Crumb: I don’t know. I’d have to think about that. At the time I was doing those comics, I was writing a lot in my journals and diaries and sketchbooks about the social situation and trying to sort it out. And part of it was that living in the world of average people there in the Central Valley, I witnessed the fairly obvious reality of the corporate takeover as it advanced day by day. And the painful, vexatious way that this was just accepted — embraced even by most people. One feels contempt on one hand and compassion on the other, at the same time. It’s complicated. They're complicated feelings. I was still a very strong believer in socialism at that time. That belief has eroded over the years. Now I don’t know that any “ism” is going to solve our problems. But at that time, it was very disillusioning to see America moving away from socialism rather than towards it. It was alienating and depressing. But, you know, that’s the kind of guy I am.
Alex: Let’s talk about the blond character in Modern World Funnies on the back cover. Why didn’t you draw his fingers? You just wanted to make him angular and modern looking? More robotic and less human?
Crumb: (laughing) I’ve got the comic right here in front of me. That guy is barely human. It’s questionable whether he’s a human being or not. He might just be some kind of a robot or hologram or something. He’s got a slick kind of pitch. He sounds like a reasonable person, but he’s just trying to lure you back into the herd. (laughing) And at the end, the yellow guy says, “I’m afraid I really can’t help you.” (laughing). I’m just resisting too much. I don’t want their so-called “help.”