The Book of Mr. Natural (Profane Tales of that Old Mystic Madcap)

By Robert Crumb (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-352-1

Robert Crumb is a unique force in the world of comics and cartooning with as many foes as fans, but his idiosyncratic, unflinching, controversial but always enchanting work is impossible to ignore. This beautiful black and white hardback collects a varied and impressive selection of strips starring his most famous character produced between 1967 and 1995 and as always touches on the creator’s most intimate and disturbing idiosyncrasies regarding sex and women, both in the unsettling Abstract and the painful, side-splitting, lustful, painful and loving Concrete.

Therefore if harsh language, mild blasphemy, artfully grotesque cartoon nudity and comedic fornication are liable to upset you, stop reading this review and don’t buy the book.

For the rest of us; here’s a quick rundown of what’s in store…

Mr. Natural is a short, balding, bewhiskered, be-robed guru and engagingly vulgar huckster who began selling enlightenment and simple living in the May 5th 1967 issue of counter-culture paper Yarrowstalks. His assaults on the vapidity and venality of the modern world were reproduced and absorbed by an astoundingly broad variety of truth-seekers and laugh lovers who followed the succession of strips in an incomprehensible number of places.

The little wise guy had genuine insight and even greater powers, but peddled his wisdom for crass, material cash or other, less transferable favours. Obviously, and lucky for us all, he’s the only Holy Man or preacher ever to do such a reprehensible, unspiritual thing…

Of the twenty-seven tales gathered here, ranging from single-page strips to the epic 40 page ‘Mr. Natural and Devil Girl’ there are a number of classic yarns that seemingly everyone has seen or heard of but also one or two genuinely rare experiences -  particularly the wonderfully dense and informative ‘Origins of Mr. Natural’.

A less charitable reviewer might suspect that this book has been padded out with older material simply to give the legendary Devil Girl saga – originally serialised in Hup and never before collected into book form – a more accessible and commercially appetising home… and if so I applaud the move as that 1991 tale is one of the most wonderfully jolly and unsettling pieces of work Crumb has yet produced.

Flakey Foont was the foil of many of the earlier strips and a handy barometer of Everyman America. Over the decades the ex-disciple who was beguiled, reviled and defiled by “The Natch” eventually Turned Off, Tuned Out and Dropped back “In”, but found himself losing all self-control when confronted in his happily middle-class suburban family paradise by the returned Sage and the raw, lustful female animal that was both antithetical enemy and willing slave…

Other notable gems include Mr. Natural in Death Valley’, Mr. Natural Visits the City’, ‘It’s Workaday World’, Mr. Natural Goes to a Meeting of the Minds’, ‘Sunny Side Up’ ‘Om Sweet Om’, ‘Mr. Natural Stops Talking’, ‘A Girl in Hotpants, ‘The Girlfriend’ and the utterly perfect and fully zeitgeisted Mr. Natural’s 719th Meditation’, a plethora of revelation and confrontation that still provides merriment and queasy shock in equal proportion.

Crumb’s subtle mastery of his art-form and compulsive, uncompromising need to reveal his most hidden depths and perceived defects – in himself and the world around him – has always been a unquenchable wellspring of challenging comedy and riotous rumination. This magical, mystical tome is an ideal dipping book for occasional slices of his raucous wit and the perfect vehicle to introduce any (definitively over 18) newcomers of your acquaintance to the world of grown up comics.

© 1967, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1995, 2010 R. Crumb. All Rights Reserved. Edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books, Inc.