It was the Bicentennial year. What could be more appropriate than to bring an avatar of the counterculture to the pages of the Village Voice? The country was still floundering after Watergate and almost two years of bumbling from the appointed caretaker in the Oval Office, Jerry Ford. Many years later, speaking to an interviewer about a collected edition of the Voice’s Mr. Natural strips, Crumb said, “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.” Then he added matter-of-factly, “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 OK 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.”
Crumb can never be accused of viewing the world through rose-colored glasses, and the backgrounds behind Mr. Natural’s ruminations are chockablock with junked cars, smoke stacks, discarded tires, and other blots on the American arcadia. We get classic Mr. Natural: Sage or crackpot or charlatan? Along with overzealous fanboys, pontificating atheists, gibbering demons, “Bruce Sharpsteen,” and Mr. Natural’s old pal Flakey Foont, there’s a trip to the nut-house, which engenders an investigation from none other publication than that crusading weekly tabloid, the Village Voice. Or are the Voice reporters nothing more than yellow journalists seeking sensationalist gossip? Come week 39 — the strip has disappeared! Outraged letters to the editor question both the paper’s and the cartoonist’s motives. Will Crumb return?
Stay tuned. You may find out the secret of life.
We are now on week six of Crumb’s exclusive 1976 run in the Voice. The Mr. Natural strip generally appeared underneath the Letters section, and readers were beginning to weigh in. Along with James Wolcott discussing the agitations of Lou Reed and a heated letter about pay disparities between men and women (plus ça change!), a missive has arrived from the Rev. Dr. Vern Barnet, in Shawnee Mission, Kansas — a man of the cloth who truly understands Crumb.
In which we are invited to “listen to this Bruce Sharpsteen, man! This guy’s th’ heaviest rock-poet-genius of th’ Sevendeez!”