Cat in tune with times

Comix with a deranged Disney look

Published: Oct 29 2014, 01:01:am

Monday, August 13, 1973
FRITZ THE CAT. Animated cartoon feature based on the characters created by Robert Crumb. Music by Ed Bogas and Ray Shanklin. Written and directed by Ralph Bakshl. Running time: 78 minutes. Restricted entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: very crude suggestive scenes and dialogue.
"HEY, WOW," SAYS A VOICE at the beginning of Fritz the Cat. "The 1960s. Happy times, heavy times."
    Add to that list "faraway times." Twice banned here in B.C., America's first R-rated cartoon is arriving a year later than expected. As the lead feature in this year's [1973] Varsity Festival of International Films, it manages to make a most respectable entrance.
    Despite its raunchy irreverence and slapstick comic style, it is a work of film art, an unflinching reflection of the decade it so effectively probes.
    The 1960s were years filled with more questions than answers. They produced a flowering of artistic interest, and approaches to the graphic arts that were sometimes remarkable, often eccentric and occasionally iconoclastic. The result, in one corner of the world, was the street comix movement.
    Locally, attention has been focused on the street (or, as they are move commonly known, the underground) comix by the recent seizure of great bundles of them from the Georgia Straight [Vancouver's underground newspaper]. The attention seems somewhat belated, inasmuch as comix have been around for more than five years now.
    Originally, they were created by groups of graphic artists who wanted to give expression to ideas and themes that gave heart failure to the publishers of commercially-produced comic books. Rather than suppress their art, the artists became their own publishers.
    Foremost among the early comix creators was Robert Crumb, a Cleveland greeting-card illustrator, who dropped out and headed West. Crumb was of his era. He was also a keen observer and commentator.
    On his own, he wrote and drew a comic book, had it printed and personally sold it on the streets of San Francisco. That 1968 comic, called Zap, is generally considered the first of the underground comix.
    As it developed, the street press of the 1960s look two forms: the underground newspaper and the the underground comic books. The newspapers, emulating the form of "serious" journals, were often polemical and dogmatic (as well as amateurish).
 Comix, on the other hand, were naturally whimsical. While the papers were relentlessly anti-establishment, the comix often levelled their sharpest barbs at the counter-culture itself.
    Crumb's Fritz the Cat was a parody of a certain kind of 60s youth. Fritz was interested in just one thing: sex. In his continuing quest for it, he puts on the many guises of his time — student, drop out, radical and revolutionary. He is, in the words of film director Ralph Bakshi, "a phony."
    To a large extent, the comix were —and are —  an expression of the desire to create something directly. They are an example of hand-crafted art. Similarly, Fritz the film represents a return to cinematic hand craftsmanship.
    Since television began demanding cartoons by the mile, the art of animation has fallen on hard times. The arch villains of our story are a pair of former M.G.M. cartoonists, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera.
    These were the entrepreneurial geniuses who saw the potential profits in providing cheap formulaic fare for the tube, and they perfected the technique of limited animation, a mechanical process that removes any possibility of art creeping into the final product.
    Fritz director Bakshi is a rebel against artless animation. His film, some two years in the making, represents a return to the loving-care principles that were once the hallmark of the Disney organization.
    In their halcyon days, a period that-lasted roughly from 1937's Snow White to Lady and the Tramp (1955), the Disney animators were intoxicated by form. Their greatest films — 1941's Fantasia  and The Three Caballeros (1944) — were wild, often overwhelming experiments in the abstract possibilities of cartoon art.
    Bakshi, making the most significant single contribution to the the art since those days, has turned his attention to content. Fritz is a social satire in the comix arts style. Its visual experiments, while often effective, are derivative.
    Like another recent cartoon feature, 1968's Yellow Submarine, Fritz breaks no new ground in technique. Unlike the British-made musical, Bakshi's film does have an originality of purpose that gives its derivations more depth and meaning.
    Bakshi's style is deranged Disney. Homages to the master appear throughout. His film's opening scene has a pair of hard-hatted construction workers taking a lunch break on the high-steel skeleton of a building.
    As they talk, one of the workers stands and relieves himself on a hippy walking on the street far below. The stream of urine, as it falls, sparkles with a cascade of bright flashes known to generations of cartoon fans as "Disney dust."
    Later, when military fighter-bombers are called in to quell a ghetto riot precipitated by Fritz, the aircraft streak over a suburban neighbourhood where they are cheered on by the "good" citizens. Seen in silhouette among them are the unmistakable profiles of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
    Despite the disavowals by artist Crumb, this is just the sort of thing that goes on in comix. Uninhibited by restrictions on language or situation, the satire is often crude and direct but, like Archie Bunker, usually manages to strike a responsive chord.
    The clever satirist is the one who is able to see into the dark recesses of the popular mind,  draw out the excesses and put them on display.  If people call policemen "pigs," the satirist draws a pair of pigs in police uniforms.
    If some people favour "Jim Crow" laws, he draws his black characters as crows (as Disney's artists did 32 years ago in Dumbo).
    For an audience willing to accept its style and endure the sting of its barbs, Fritz the Cat is an incomparable entertainment experience.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1973. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: An American original, artist and mandolin player Robert Crumb is an example of an iconoclast who became iconic, the most famous exemplar of underground art's "happy times, heavy times." In the introduction to 1978's The Complete Fritz the Cat (Belier Press), he describes the origins of the character, and his reaction to the motion picture.
    "The first cartoon strip of my own making that I ever published was a Fritz strip that I'd sent to Help! in 1964. Help! was a little humor magazine edited by Harvey Kurtzman, the creator of Mad and my main source of artistic inspiration, not to mention hold on reality during high school. He had a little section in Help! in which he published work by amateur cartoonists. He liked the Fritz strip and sent me an encouraging little note which read: 'We think the little pussycat drawings you sent us were just great. Question is, how do we print them without going to jail?' He did print it, but I had to change one panel. It wasn't that dirty really . . . only slightly risque by today's [1978] standards.
    "By 1969 I'd had the first big Fritz book published. I was famous by this time, at least in the 'hip' sub-culture and was already being overwhelmed by armies of fast-talking conmen, entrepreneurs, hustlers, all manner of media sharks. I couldn't cope with them. I was a sheep among wolves. Much to my eternal bewilderment, people saw big potential for profit in Fritz, and so he became the star of a bad-taste full length animated cartoon feature film. I tried to fight them, but they rolled right on over me like a freight train.
    "Fritz became nationally famous . .  . that is a bastardized, ersatz Fritz became famous. It has always astonished and amazed me that such a thing could have happened to this silly and unambitious creation of my adolescence."  In 1972, Crumb published his own final word on the character. The 15-page story called "Fritz the Cat Superstar" features appearances by film producer "Stevie" (a pig wearing sunglasses) and director "Ralphy" (a gregarious parrot). It ends with Fritz being murdered by an abused girlfriend. "He's definitely better off dead," Crumb wrote in 1978. "Another casualty of the 'Sixties . . . . ."
    Unlike self-promoting sixties artifact Art Spiegelman, Crumb shuns the spotlight, preferring to pursue his own interests from the artistic margins. His fascinating life and times were the subject of the award-winning documentary feature Crumb (1994), a film that took its director Terry Zwigoff nine years to assemble.

See also: For more on the life and work of adult animation pioneer Ralph Bakshi, check out my 1978 interview with him. The Reeling Back archive also contains reviews of most of his films, including Heavy Traffic (1974); Wizards (1977); The Lord of the Rings (1978); American Pop (1981); Fire and Ice (1983) and Cool World (1992).