Reprinted from Funnyworld No. 14, Spring 1972.
When Ralph Bakshi talks about his pre-Fritz work in animation now, there is a thread of conflict between Bakshithe blunt, impatient native of Brownsvilleand the prevailing styles of the cartoons being made by the studios he worked for, whether they were the UPA-derived films of Gene Deitch, the crass junk of William Weiss, or the clanking TV cartoons of Steve Krantz. Bakshi expresses admiration for the" Ashcan School," the naturalistic American painters of the early twentieth century, and says, "Basically, I want to get down to street level." Bakshi remembers being unhappy with the emphasis on design at Terrytoons under Gene Deitch:
"I don't want to get involved in doing something that makes a point obliquely. If I'm going to say 'screw you' and it's important to say it, and it's rightin the middle of a gang fightthen I can't do it with four abstract characters who say something else. So I had massive fights with these guys, on this level. They were doing beautiful-looking pictures, and they were getting all involved in the storyboardsthis means that, and that means this, and this really means thatand I said it means shit. Why not come out and say it?"
It's doubtful that Bakshi's dissatisfaction was that well articulated at that time, and in fact, the first cartoon Bakshi directed, Gadmouse the Apprentice Good Fairy, has been described by one cartoon buff as "probably about the best-designed Terrytoon since Gene Deitch left." (Bakshi was his own designer, as well as his own layout man and animator; he remembers trying to improve the cartoon by using such devices as colored gels lit from below.)
But by the end of his tenure at Terrytoons, Bakshi says, his discontent was taking on concrete form:
"I would go home and do what I thought were underground comicsand I've got tons of thembecause they were so gross. At that point, I was embarrassed or intellectually snowballed by other people, because I was drawing queers and lesbians and Mafia leaders at home, and I thought, goddam, I must be a sick guy. It wasn't done then. The image of UPA was still in everybody's minds. So I would put this stuff aside. I didn't realize it could have been turned into animated cartoons, but of course, who would have let me then?"
When Bakshi made Marvin Digs at Paramount, it was his first step away from the calculated unreality of the Terrytoons cartoons, and that no doubt accounts for his bittersweet attitude toward that excruciatingly bad cartoon. Something of this attitudea delight in shedding even a few of the conventions that have imprisoned animation in recent yearsturns up when he talks about Spiderman:
"I was starting to sneak lines in Spiderman like 'New York's a dirty town, man, but I dig it.' Some of the lines were more than anyone else had allowed me in television. Some of the pieces of dialogue were realistic; it's a small point, but when you realize all the things we had been doing weren't anything like that. . . this turned me on. Spider was a character who had certain hang-ups that allowed me to do that."
With this frustration bubbling under the surface of his cartoons, Bakshi's response when he first saw underground comic books is understandable: "I said, oh wow, you're finally doing it. I got very aggravated with myself for not quitting the business. I thought to myself, I copped out, I should be doing what those guys are doing, what am I doing television stuff for?"
Underground comic books are "underground" in two respects: they are produced and sold outside the usual channels for commercial comic books, and they violate or simply disregard all the restrictionssex, violence, language, body functionsthat have been imposed on commercial comic books and newspaper comic strips. The underground comic books began to appear in substantial numbers in 1968 (around the time Bakshi and Krantz were starting their studio), after their artists had spent several years cutting their teeth in the fledgling underground newspapers and in Harvey Kurtzman's Help.
The great attraction of underground comics for artists has always been the incredible freedom they offer (to the point that in some underground comics, no editorial handin the selective sensecan be discerned at all) and this freedom has spawned a number of comic strips that invite discussion in medical rather than literary terms. More recently, the field has been swamped with mediocrities who have taken advantage of the relaxed or nonexistent standards against which most underground comics are measured; and from the beginning, many strips have been marred by their self-conscious violation of the old taboos.
But in their first couple of years, in particular, underground comic books were an intriguing amalgam. It was possible to see a number of traditions being pulled together in the work of the best cartoonists. There was the comic anarchism of the Marx Brothers and Kurtzman's early Mad, and there were many of the elements of scatological literature, but usually without the ugly neurotic overtones. There had been something like the same union of forces in the "eight-pagers," the notorious little comic books of the thirties in which public figures and comics characters engaged in uninhibited sexual activity, but the eight-pagers were significantly different from underground comic books in tone: they pandered to their readers' sexual fantasies, whereas the underground comic books expressed their artists' fantasies.
The difference lay in the "counter-culture" of the late sixties; underground comics were an expression of the counter-culture, but it also provided ingredients for their brew. Some underground cartoonists became mired in the quicksands of radical politics or drugs, just as the underground newspapers did, but the better artists avoided such traps, taking what they could use, but nothing more.
The result was a number of comics stories that have the vitality and even the appearance of the great comic strips of the first few decades of the century, before the feature syndicates and realistically drawn adventure strips like Flash Gordon squashed the life out of them. Sometimes, this "old-timey" look is the product of deliberate imitation, but more often, what is involved is a relearning of the art of the comic strip; the resemblance to earlier comics is simply a by-product of this process.
This is nowhere more true than in the work of Robert Crumb, the best known of the underground cartoonists. It was Crumb's early comic booksZap, Snatch, etc.that gave underground comics the lift they needed, and any new comic book of his is certain of sales in the tens of thousands, despite the vagaries of underground distribution. Crumb's work is probably more "archaic" than any other underground cartoonist'she has identified a score of cartoonists as influences, and his strips constantly suggest associations with this or that artistbut his drawings are always immediately recognizable as his own, even when separated by a number of years and by several superficial changes in his style. To a degree unmatched today by any other cartoonist, underground or "establishment," his characters are simple but solid, moving in a universe that has its own physical and emotional rea!ity, subtle but easily grasped in its basic outlines. Crumb at his best combines extraordinarily acute observation of what is going on around him (some of the conversations between his characters are spooky in their accuracy) with a basically sympathetic attitude; when anger does surface in his work (as in a mordant little story about Charles Manson), it has a cold, lucid quality that is far more impressive than the rage that is commonplace in other cartoonists' work.
Crumb is a whole artist; even when he is sloppy or merely noodling, his vision of life is complete in his work. When he writes and draws a poor stripand he draws a lot of themthe substance of his work doesn't change; it's as if we were looking at it through a smeared windowpane, not in a distorting mirror. Crumb's vision is a comic one, of course. He discerns the comic possibilities in every situation, and in every person, including himself. Carl Barks, who is as good at this as Crumb, but whose comic vision has often had a darker cast, has commented on the similarities in his and Crumb's stories: "I noticed that Crumb's underlying message. . . is that nothing is important enough to be taken seriously. This was a message I often sneaked into my duck stories."
In a way, it's curious that Crumb should have attained his eminence, since his attitude toward life was at odds with the deadly seriousness of the self-absorbed young radicals who set the tone for the counter-culture in the late sixties. Crumb has mocked revolutionaries in his stories (although he took issue with Ralph Bakshi over Bakshi's insertion of a condemnation of the radical left in Fritz), and his work has been out of favor among political activists of various kinds, particularly those involved in women's liberation.
The answer probably is that most of Crumb's readers aren't performing a "political act" when they read his stories. Crumb's comic books are simply the most entertaining of any available today, with the possible exception of Gilbert Shelton's. Shelton has a gift for observation that rivals Crumb's, his timing is even sharper, and his stories are put together with a fine carpenter's hand that makes Crumb often seem all thumbs by comparison. But Shelton hasn't yet mastered what for Crumb is as natural as breathing: writing and drawing stories about characters who are simple caricatures and yet also infinitely complex. We know just about all there is to know about Shelton's Furry Freak Brothers after reading a few of their adventures, but Mister Natural, Crumb's materialistic guru, is a bottomless well. So is Fritz the Cat.
Fritz must have seemed a natural for animation. Crumb's stories about him are not "cinematic," unlike many comic strips of the last forty yearsCrumb's "camera" remains in a fixed position, with no unusual angles or close-ups or other such movie techniquesbut Fritz is a rounded, three-dimensional character, like those in the animated cartoons of the thirties and early forties. The Fritz stories combine "old" characters with "new" subject matter, and thus were perfect for Bakshi's purposes. As a bonus, Fritz is the most famous creation of the most famous underground cartoonistand that's a little odd, since Fritz has never appeared in a story drawn for an underground comic book. That was the heart of the problem.
As Steve Krantz tells it, he and Bakshi "had had very serious conversations running over a number of months, with an eye toward doing something in the adult animation field." Krantz says they "thought of a great many projects, none of which seemed right." (One that did seem right was an Annie Fanny cartoon, but Hugh Hefner rejected the idea.) Evidently, Bakshi and Krantz did not turn right away to the underground cartoonists for possible feature material, even though Bakshi lived in New York City's East Villagecenter for "underground" activity in those daysfrom the time he returned from Canada until the Krantz studio moved west, and had a passing acquaintance with a few of the cartoonists.
It was Krantz, not Bakshi, who had the idea of putting Fritz on film. In October 1969, Ballantine published a large paperback book containing three of Crumb's Fritz stories, and Krantz remembers, "I discovered Fritz the Cat, and I said, 'My God, this is it.'" Sometime in the fall of 1969everyone involved says that they're not sure of the date, but November is a good guessKrantz and Bakshi got in touch with Crumb and paid his way from his home north of San Francisco to New York, in order to talk with him about getting the screen rights to the Fritz stories. That was to lead to complications not normally associated with such deals, and those problems had a great deal to do with the kind of artist Robert Crumb is, and his special relationship with his character Fritz.
Crumb is almost five years Ralph Bakshi's juniorhe was born on August 30, 1943and is his opposite in almost every way. Most descriptions of Crumb use words like "gangling," "skinny," "bespectacled," and the like. If Ralph Bakshi was a typical high school extrovert of the fifties, then Crumb was the familiar high school introvert, whose world was inside his headuntil it escaped onto paper. Crumb was raised as one of five children in a Roman Catholic family in Philadelphia; his mother has recalled that he started drawing when he was two or three ("He never liked coloring books").
By the early fifties, Crumb and his older brother Charles were turning their backs on schoolwork by reading and drawing comic books in great quantities. Their own comicsimitations of the Dell "funny-animal" line, with such titles as Funny Friends and Brombo the Pandaexisted in only one copy each; they were drawn in pencil in hard-cover composition notebooks, and passed around to family and friends. The brothers temporarily abandoned their home-made comics in 1958, when they published three issues of Foo (subtitled "lampoons and parody"), an imitation of Harvey Kurtzman's Humbug and the Kurtzman issues of the Mad comic book. Foo was printed by offset, but even it was plainly drawn more for the brothers' own enjoyment than for anyone else's.
Funny Friends and Brombo both died in 1958, victims of Foo, but other single-copy books took their place after Foo itself died. Such titles as Crumb Brothers Almanac and then Arcade were mixtures of comic strips, sketches, and text material; Charles and Robert drew many strips together, each contributing his special characters. The old funny-animal fixation was gone (they worked on a "Treasure Island" series for about three years, using human characters), but the brothers remained their own best audience. They were also their own best teachers, and Robert's skills matured rapidly.
Fritz made his debut in a Crumb comic around 1959, but he was a real kitten before that. Crumb has always loved cats, and he began drawing stories about Fritz to amuse his younger sister, Sandy. Crumb depicted Fritz as a real cat at first, in the company of other real cats, doing things that real cats do, but he very quickly raised Fritz up on his hind legs, gave him some clothes and made him a member of the Crumb brothers' little stock company of talking animals, many of them survivors of the early days of Funny Friends. (Some of them survIved even longer than that; Fuzzy the Bunny, who appeared as a motorcycle hood in Crumb's last Fritz story in 1969, was originated by Charles in 1949.)
Fritz very quickly acquired a distinct personality; he was glib, smooth and self-assured, characteristics that have considerable significance insofar as Crumb's own personality is concerned. Marty Pahls, a longtime friend who is married to Sandy Crumb, puts it this way: "I don't think the difference between Robert, back in 1960-1965, and his characterization of Fritz is all that mysterious. To a great extent, Fritz was his wish-fulfillment. Through Fritz, Robert could do great deeds, have wild adventures, and undergo a variety of sex experiences, which he himself felt he couldn't. Fritz was bold, poised, had a way with the ladiesall attributes which Robert coveted, but felt he lacked."
Crumb himself balks at questions about his relationship with his comic-strip cat"I just got into drawing him. ... I liked to draw Fritz, he was fun to draw "but the correlation between the changes in Crumb and the changes in Fritz is striking, Most of Crumb's early storiesdrawn in pencilhave been lost or scattered, and only his later (1964-1965) Fritz stories, drawn in ink with a Rapidograph pen, have had wide circulation; however, one transitional pen-and-ink story, drawn in 1964, was published as R. Crumb's Comics and Stories in 1969, with a caricature of Crumb's wife Dana on the cover.
One of the later Fritz stories was published by Viking Press in Crumb's Head Comix in 1968; two others were published in the Ballantine book in 1969, along with a third story, drawn in 1968-1969 especially for the book. Like the earlier pencil stories, the pen-and-ink stories were never meant to be published; Crumb drew them for his own amusement. At least two of these storiesthe one in Head Comix and "Special Agent for the CIA" in Fritz the Catwere drawn in a large, thick book, bound in black and filled with blank pages. The book (a bookbinder's sample, Crumb says) was given to Crumb in 1964, at the time when he was leaving for Europe on his honeymoon, by some of his colleagues at American Greetings' Hi Brow Studios in Cleveland. Crumb had moved to Cleveland in 1962, a year after graduating from high school, and, after a year spent doing color separations for American Greetings, he began drawing cards for the Hi Brow series. After his marriage, Crumb and his wife lived in Switzerland and Copenhagen and traveled through much of Europe before settling briefly in New York and then Cleveland again.
Obviously, Crumb's life was different; it had opened up as it never had before. "The whole pattern of Robert's life changed," Marty Pahls says. "For years, he had few friends and no sex life; he was forced to spend many hours at school or on the job, and when he came home he 'escaped' by drawing home-made comics. When he suddenly found a group of friends that would accept him for himself, as he did in Cleveland in 1964, the 'compensation' factor went out of his drawing, and this was pretty much the end of Fritz's impetus."
Crumb's marriage marked the decisive break with his past, and so it was appropriate that it was the occasion for the gift of the bookbinder's sample. In the Fritz stories that Crumb drew from then until sometime late in 1965 or early in 1966, his perspective on Fritz has changed; there is a new irony and detachment in Crumb's treatment of the character, as if he were making one final assessment of Fritz before discarding him.
The secret-agent storyundoubtedly spawned by the James Bond craze of the timeis pretty much in the old mold, but in "Fritz the Cat" (in Head Comix) and "Fritz Bugs Out" (which was published first. in Cavalier in 1968, and then in Fritz the Cat), Fritz is very much a part of what was to become, in a year or two, the highly publicized "hippie scene." Fritz is a college student, and a con man, and he exploits the apparatus of the budding counter-culturefolk music, sexual freedom, racial consciousness, radical politics, the worksfor his own ends. Fritz is so good at seeming sensitive and poetic that he even fools himself. "Fritz is a phony,"' Ralph Bakshi has said, and that's crude but not inaccurate. The important point is that Robert Crumb's attitude toward his character had changed, so that he could depict him as a phony.
By the time Crumb drew "Fritz the No-Good" late in 1968 and early in 1969, about three years after he had drawn his last previous Fritz story, Fritz's armor had grown so thick that he could survive welfare and even a stint with some urban guerrillas and still emerge with his ego intact. It's a good storyFritz himself is funnier than ever beforebut Crumb didn't want to draw it ("1 like forced myself") and did it only to fill out the Ballantine book.
Crumb had already left Fritz far behind when he moved to San Francisco early in 1967 and fell in with the "flower people" who were then drawing national attention to the Haight-Ashbury district. He attributes Fritz's demise to LSD: "I always liked to draw funny animals, up until about '66 or so [actually, the fall of 1965], when I started taking acid. . . Acid changed my view of everything. It changed my whole attitude toward cartooning; .I stopped taking it quite so seriously. After a while, I became a lot less story-oriented, and started drawing for its own sake. Then gradually I got to taking it seriously again. ... If you take it seriously, you can get hung up good. When I got famous, that made me start taking it seriously again. Now I'm trying to loosen up without having to take acid. I haven't taken any for a long time."
The new, looser Crumb adopted a sort of stream-of-consciousness technique, drawing shorter stories with new, human characters; as Les Daniels has said, these human characters don't behave as "normally" as Crumb's animal characters did. Many members of Crumb's new troupe were born in the fall of 1965, during a week's stay by Crumb at Marty Pahls' apartment in Chicago; Pahls has recalled going with Crumb one Saturday to a store "that had a huge pile of old junky [funny-animal] comics from the forties and early fiftiesthe real nowhere crud, you know. ... Robert really flipped out over this stuff. It was done in a hurry by a bunch of careless, cynical hacks, and as such is closer to the mainstream of what we're living in (is dis a system?) than comics by good artists."
From then on, Crumb began to use more of the ephemera of American life in his stripsnot in an ordered, critical way, as in his last few Fritz stories, but playfully. The explicit sexual content of Crumb's storieswhich had been rising for yearsshot up in the late sixties, a development that Crumb credits to S. Clay Wilson, another underground cartoonist.
Whether all these changes have produced comics that are preferable to Crumb's pre-acid work is debatable. With his new casual, free-association approach, he sometimes plumbs new depths in strips that are troubling and mysterious, even when they're funny, but he does so erratically, and most of these strips lack the sustained impact of the handful of long stories he has drawn since 1966. In any event, Crumb has changed, drastically, and Fritz is now firmly locked in his past. He may use Fritz again, but it will not be the same Fritz as before, and it won't be in the same kind of story as before.
Predictably, Crumb was not too happy about the idea of the old Fritz's being resurrected on a movie screen. Ralph Bakshi remembers Crumb protesting, at the Krantz studio in New York, that Fritz was in his past: "He's one hundred per cent right. But it's not animation's past; this is what I kept telling him. To animation, it's revolutionary. Robert kept getting so upset'That's my oldest thing, I'm doing things different now'and I kept saying, 'But that's your medium. In our medium, it's as new as it was the first day you did it, Robert.'It's newer for us, because there have been other things done occasionally in strip work that have gone that way. In animation it's unbelievablecommercially. We all have done stuff on our desks during lunchtime."
Bakshi remembers thatapart from his reservations about using Fritz at allCrumb was enthusiastic about the drawings Bakshi had prepared to show Crumb what kind of movie he had in mind: "He did say, 'I'm not sure,'' and I did say, let me try some more. But he told me he loved the drawings. So I met him a couple of nights after, and he said he'd been wandering around New York because the drawings were so great he hated to disappoint me. I stressed how important it was for me to do this filmwhich was honest, it's been a labor of love ever since I started. ... The first visit he said, 'let me think about it,' then there was a firm yes somewhere along the line."
Crumb's account is different. Of Bakshi's presentation, he says: "I didn't really love [Bakshi's drawings]; they were okay. They flew me to New York, and I went and looked at them. I was real distressed; I walked around New York for a couple of days, wondering what the hell I was going to do. They had all this work done, they had gone ahead and done all this work before they even contacted me. ... Ralph Bakshi had done all this what looked like stills, and mockups and everything. ... Then he asked me if it was okay with me if they did it. I said to let me think about it, because it looked to me like it would be a really big disappointment to Ralph Bakshi if I said no. I thought about it, and I guess I did tell him no, but he said, 'Don't say no, let us work on it a little more before you say no, and show you some more stuff,' blah blah blah, just leading me on and leading me on. I never gave him a firm no . . . don't use my characters or I'll get my lawyers on youor said anything like that."
Crumb says. that he left New York without giving his approval to the film, and never signed a contract; Steve Krantz says that he received a contract, signed by Crumb, in the mail, and that in return Crumb received twelve thousand five hundred dollars, which will be supplemented by a percentage of the film's gross proceeds.
These are murky waters, and the two people who could shed the most light are not of much help. Steve Krantz is reluctant to say much more than that his dealings with Crumb were legally correct, and Crumb's San Francisco attorney, Michael Stepanian, won't talk to people who want to ask him questions about Fritz. It's possible to get from Bakshi's and Crumb's accounts a reasonably good idea of what happened between them on the personal level, but neither is a very reliable guide to the legal realities of the situation. However, it's difficult to believe that Krantz would have gone hunting for a distributor and financing for Fritz without believing he had a firm legal foundation for his claim to hold the rights to Crumb's character.
By Krantz's account, the reception he got from distributors could hardly have been any chillier if he had had no claim to the rights at all. "When I say that every major distributor turned it down, this is not an exaggeration," he said late last year. The break came sometime during the spring of 1970, when Warner Bros. agreed to distribute Fritz and to provide money for making the picture. Although little preliminary work for Fritz had been done at the time, Bakshi discharged some of the people who had been working on the studio's limited-animation cartoons, and hired animators who were alumni of the old New York full-animation studios. Animation on Fritz began early in June 1970.
Throughout 1970, Bakshi and Crumb talked on the phone occasionally. Crumb remembers their conversations this way: "He called me up a couple of times and said they were working on it some more, and one time he called me I said no, I don't want you to do it, and he talked to me and pleaded and said let us work on it some more before you say that; let us work on it and show it to you before you say no, you can decide then, when you see that. So I said, well, okay."
Bakshi remembers Crumb's changing his mind and attempting to stop production over the phone: "He said no over the phone, and Steve went through the roof: At that point he had spent a lot of money."
Late in November 1970, Bakshi and Krantz flew to San Francisco and saw Crumb and Stepanian; Krantz says, "This was way after the contract, and a courtesy only." They took with them a short reel of film containing a few minutes of finished animation, pencil tests, and shots of some of Bakshi's storyboards. The reel had not been made to show to Crumb, but rather to Warner Bros. "They wanted to see what the level of animation would be," Bakshi says, "and I thought I'd show them a little more. They wanted heavy control, so Steve pulled out." Specifically, he says, Warner Bros. wanted movie stars' voices for the characters (none of the voices for the picture are well known; Bakshi did one voice himself, and Phil Seuling, a Brooklyn comic-book dealer, did another) and also wanted him to tone down the material, removing the explicit sex in a scene with Fritz and Big Bertha, an uninhibited crow.
"I don't know what they thought they bought," Bakshi says. "They knew Crumb, they flipped over him, they flipped over the drawings, they flipped for my screenplaythen I showed them what I was doing, and they loved the style, but it was so strong. They wanted me to tone it down. We didn't want to tone it down. So we all shook hands, and we said, 'Great,' and we left." Shortly before Thanksgiving, with the Warner money gone, the studio was reduced to a skeleton crew of one animator, two assistants, a layout man, and a background artist.
(For its part, Warner Bros. won't even admit that there ever was a distribution agreement. Relations with Warner Bros. were evidently not as cordial as Bakshi now suggests, since a special screening of Fritz by the American Film Institute at Los Angeles was canceled in March after it was learned that a Warner executive would be present.)
Shortly before the layoffs, Bakshi called his crew together to tell them that he was going to the West Coast to seek financial backing for Fritz; and then he and Krantz left for San Francisco. Krantz says, "We went to San Francisco to get money from Fantasy Records, and because we were there we said we'd show the material to Crumb." Krantz met with Stepanian, Bakshi says, while he talked with Crumb. Bakshi recalls: "Steve had said that Robert or somebody had said no again, that I should go to San Francisco and tell him we've got the contract and everything, and everyone wants it... Whenever there was something they wanted me to clear up with Robert, I cleared it up . . . I was the contact with Crumb, on the artistic level. I had nothing to do with negotiations, nothing to do with contracts."
Bakshi and Crumb watched the presentation reel for Fritz in a San Francisco screening room. The finished animation in the presentation reel was of Fritz and Big Bertha, a busty prostitute, in the throes of passion, and Crumb wasn't impressed by it: "It wasn't bad . . That fragment was better than Yogi Bear, but it wasn't Walt Disney." Bakshi, on the other hand, remembers that "Crumb flipped. ... He loved it, except for one thinghe wasn't sure about the voices, that's all."
"I was treated very nicely," Bakshi says. "We spent the whole day together, and I told him the film was on, and that he had said yes, and he agreed that he had said yes. . . " Bakshi says he told Crumb that it would create havoc if production. were stopped, because so much money had already been spent at that point. "Part of my saying, please Robert, hang in thereeven though he had signed the paper, because I had always wanted to please Robertwas the unbearable pressure on me [because of the money already spent] . . . I told him the picture's moving, things are going great, what are you saying no for if we've got a contract. I explained to him what the realities were. It wasn't one guy sitting at a board drawing a picture, there were forty people working."
Bakshi remembers that Crumb departed with some friends, leaving his wife and Bakshi together (Crumb says that he met Bakshi for lunch, then "stuck him with my lawyer and ran away with some friends of mine," but Bakshi says he never saw Stepanian). Bakshi says he stated his case again to Dana Crumb and left for home.
As Crumb tells it, he in effect surrendered the decision on the film to his wife and his lawyer; he says that his wife signed a contract during Krantz's and Bakshi's visit to San Francisco, although Krantz disputes this vigorously. Crumb recalls:
"My lawyer was really hot for this, because he went to all this trouble to write up this hot-shit contract that was supposed to be real good for me. He had some Hollywood lawyer friend of his help him, you know, some guy that was used to writing movie contracts. . . My wife was hot to do it to get some money, you know. Immediately, when I signed the contract, I got ten thousand dollars [ Krantz says the figure is twelve thousand five hundred], so that was kind of enticingto her. All these people were telling me what a great thing it would be to have this movie of Fritz the Cat. I just knew the whole thing would be a hassle. Everybody wanted it more than I didn't want it."
In any event, Bakshi's visit to San Francisco closed the book on Crumb's role in the production of Fritz.Crumb did not see or talk to Bakshi again for more than a year, until Bakshi showed the completed film to him in February.
The distribution and financing problems were also cleared up late in 1970, when Krantz found new backers and a distributor for the film. Cinemation Industries, a small, aggressive New York distributor that has established a good record recently for picking unlikely winners (both Johnny Got His Gun and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song were Cinemation releases) and Fantasy Records (another small company that has enjoyed success, from its Creedence Clearwater Revival albums) put some money behind it. Krantz has recalled that Cinemation, unlike other distributors, reacted to Fritz with "tremendous enthusiasm"; that may not be too surprising when Fritz is measured against some of the films Cinemation has handled in the last few yearsGirl on a Chain Gang, Teenage Mother, The Female Animal, The Seducers, I Drink Your Blood, and I Eat Your Skin.
The question of Crumb's relationship to Fritz will continue to hang over the movie, and not simply because Crumb is anxious to make clear that he had nothing to do with its production. Crumb was disillusioned by his dealings with a few large corporations (including those that published Fritz the Cat and Head Comix), and since then he has hoed his own row, sticking to underground comic books. He has become so well known in the process that a magazine like The National Lampoon can parody Crumb without fear of puzzling too many of its readers. Crumb is a cartoonist who has made itwho has financial success constantly available to himwithout making any compromises.
Crumb relishes his independence; he remembers the time, not long ago, when Hugh Hefner of Playboy "sent his cartoon editor to make me an offer. A strip for them every month, and they'd give me five hundred dollars a page. I had the pleasure of telling him to stick it; one of the great satisfactions I've had. Five years ago, I would have jumped on that, hook, line and sinker. I don't need any of that shit; I can do exactly what I want and get paid for it."
Of course, there are plenty of underground cartoonists who aren't in the same position; probably only Gilbert Shelton and one or two other artists have comparable freedom. The fear among some of Crumb's admirers has been that Fritz signals the end of Crumb's independence, and so the hope of independence for less successful cartoonists. If Crumb, the most famous and popular and influential of the underground cartoonists, has been bowed by the exploiters' yoke, what hope can there be for artists who are struggling to make their way? Without Crumb's example, won't they be more likely to succumb to sweet temptations?
Crumb lends some support to the notion that he has been plucked by greedy entrepreneurs; in his more benign moods, he refers to Steve Krantz as a "fat cat," and is much more caustic at other times. Krantz himself told a Wall Street Journal reporter last year, "I think Crumb is afraid the movie is going to be a hit and he'll be corrupted by a lot of money. He'll find, as we all do, that it's very easy to live with that kind of corruption."
"New York capitalist" (Crumb's phrase) though he may be, Krantz positively shines when compared with most other animation producersespecially in New Yorkand he seems to have given Bakshi a free hand in the actual production of the film. In any event, it seems obvious from what Crumb has said about Krantz that he would never have said even "let me think about it" to Krantz alone; it was Bakshi's eagerness to make the movie that gave Crumb pause. Crumb's indecisionhowever it was expressedled to a movie that will not bring him anything he wants. It will bring him more money and more famesuperfluities so far as Crumb is concernedand it will focus attention on a part of his past that he wishes dead and buried. Since Bakshi is responsible for all of this, what really matters in determining whether Crumb has been "exploited" is what happened between Crumb and Bakshi.
Crumb has had kind words for Bakshi, at least as compared with his comments about Krantz ("Ralph's an okay guy," Crumb said last year. "I mean, he really wants to make a good film, I guess, although I'm not so certain of how much taste he has"). Crumb evidently responded to Bakshi as to a fellow artist, and that response was justified. Even though it was Krantz who "discovered" Fritz the Cat, it is obvious that Bakshi saw in Fritz a vehicle for achieving some of the freedom enjoyed by the underground cartoonists. Bakshi says of Crumb, "Robert's one of the greatest cartoonists in the country. He revived cartooning, it was dying before he came up, and I want to do the same for the animation industry," and he says of Fritz: "It's an underground cartoon, not a big-ass media thing."
Fritz is not an "underground" film, by any stretch of the imaginationno movie that was made and distributed within the normal channels qualifies for that labelbut Bakshi's meaning is clear, and his sincerity was plain to Crumb. However, it seems doubtful that even that would have been enough to sway Crumb when he had so many good reasons for not wanting the picture made at all. Something more must have been involved.
"Robert's real trouble is that he has never learned to say no to anybody," Marty Pahls says, and Crumb himself admits as much. last summer, Krantz sent Crumb a thousand dollars as an advance on a second Krantz-Bakshi feature; at that point, it was to have been Head Comix, a rock fantasia with Mister Natural as master of ceremonies. "I wrote them a letter telling them not to use any more of my characters in their films," Crumb says. "I can do that in a letter, but when I'm face to face with somebody, and like they're a person, I have to be mister nice guy or something."
Steve Krantz says that Crumb didn't, write a letter, but only returned the check; still, the substance of the gesture was the same. Despite this sample of Crumb's firmness, Ralph Bakshi remembers Crumb as "mister nice guy," and professes to be mystified by Crumb's hostility to Fritz. "With Robert," he says, "I guess you don't know what he's thinking. He's a shy guy, and I guess he's telling you things because he doesn't want to hurt your feelings. In his head, he's got a whole other world going."
Some of Bakshi's other comments are more revealing: "I'm sure that at some points I was asking very hard to do it when I first met him in New Yorkthat's okay. ... Yes, I was enthusiastic about Crumb, and yes, I would have climbed five walls to have Fritz done in animation."
What emerges most strongly when Bakshi talks about his meetings with Crumb is Bakshi's own strong desire to make the picture, and his efforts to impress that desire upon Crumb. Crumb's reluctance was an obstacle to be overcome, and Bakshi evidently thought that he had overcome it. Instead, he had simply run over it. That's not to say that he intimidated Crumb; there is no suggestion of that in what either man says. At worst, Bakshi failedin his understandable eagerness to make the pictureto take Crumb's own feelings about the project into account. It may not even have been possible for Bakshi to do that. Steve Krantz says that Crumb's attitude changed "from day to day," and Bakshi remembers that Crumb "said yes and no I guess a million times." Introverts like Crumb always retreat into themselves most hastily when confronted by overpowering extroverts, and Bakshiwith his intensity, his thick Brooklyn accent and his strong physical presenceprobably seemed to Crumb to fit into that category. There may have been no way for Bakshi to have reached that "whole other world" inside Crumb's head.
What we have, finally, is not the cynical, ruthless exploitation that so easily could have been involved in the production of Fritz, but rather two artists whose radically different personalities all but guaranteed that confusion would follow in the wake of their conversations. At bottom, the "exploitation" of Robert Crumb may be simply a matter of a cartoonist who was reluctant to say "no" and an animator who was eager to hear "yes."
[Click here to continue to the next section of "The Filming of Fritz the Cat."]
[Original article © 1972 Michael Barrier]