Friday, December 2, 2011

Fritz the Cat

Fritz the Cat
seen online via YouTube

I remember when Vija took me to see the documentary Crumb, about comics legend Robert Crumb. At the time, I wasn't that interested in seeing it, believe it or not. I had never heard of him, for one thing. For another, this was a few years before I met Jenny and she got me interested in underground comics. While Vija's probably best described as a casual comics fan (mostly through my intervention), I suspect a big reason why she wanted to see it was because Crumb was a major cultural touchstone of her generation. I'll return to that point in a bit.

When it comes to Crumb the artist, the element that stands out in my mind the most is his hatching style; i.e., those small lines that he uses to indicate shadow and dimension. I remember when I was a freshman in high school, I had an art teacher who everyone absolutely loathed. He was strict, humorless and uptight and he was always hard on his students. We hated him with a passion and couldn't wait to get out of his class. Me, though, I'll forever be grateful for him because he broke me of a habit I wasn't even aware of.

In his class, I did a still life in pencil, and for some reason, I rendered the whole picture, which must have been 18" x 24", with this little vertical strokes perhaps an inch and a half in length. The picture was recognizable as a still life, and I knew enough to render light and shadow, but the entire thing was done in hatch lines, all in one direction. My teacher pointed it out to the class and to me, and made me realize that I wasn't doing it as a stylistic choice. I was doing it because I didn't know any other way. He enabled me to use broader strokes, in different directions, to shade in the shape of the object I was drawing, and that freed me up artistically. I became a better, more complete artist as a result.

In art college, we were taught how to work with fewer lines instead of more, particularly in figure drawing. "An economy of lines" was how one of my teachers put it - and as a result, my drawings began to have a cleaner look to them. So when I see a style like Crumb's, the art school side of me recoils slightly because it's not as economical as I might prefer (though this doesn't necessarily make it bad, of course).

Ralph Bakshi does a good job of preserving Crumb's style in the animated film version of Fritz the Cat. You can see the hatch lines in places, even if they seem really superfluous in an animated cartoon. I've never read the original comic strip, but the familiar Crumb elements are there: the counter-culture sensibility, the jazz music, the fat chicks.

Vija and I have often talked about the 60s. She was a Midwestern teenage girl at the time, so she was definitely part of the zeitgeist, so to speak, especially when she went on to college. It's hard for someone like me to believe that talk of revolution and consciousness was so prevalent, but the 60s is stereotyped that way for a reason! Fritz has quite a bit of that as well, although substituting anthropomorphized animals for humans comes across a bit incongruous at times, such as in one scene where Fritz talks about race relations with a crow, crows being the stand-ins for blacks. Shouldn't that be species relations instead?

I have to admit, all the animal sex made me think of furries for a moment or two. I've met plenty of animal lovers, but I can't recall ever meeting any open furries. I don't doubt the stereotypes are true to a degree, but I'd just as soon not have them confirmed for me... (This from a cartoonist whose best known characters are talking rodents.)

Finally, given the current talk about how to sell the NC-17 film Shame to the masses, the poster for the X-rated Fritz comes as a bit of cold water to the face, as you can see. But then, it was a much different time in 1972, and the X rating didn't have quite the same connotations as it does now. We could use some of that perspective today.

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