It was the Bicentennial year. What could be more appropriate than to give an avatar of the counterculture free rein across 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, smokestacks, 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 nuthouse, which engenders an investigation from none other 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!”
It’s late August, 1976, and things are really starting to get wiggy — in the Crumb-iverse, reporters from the Village Voice are pursuing a story about Mr. Natural being shipped off to a mental hospital. Meanwhile, in the real world, a disgruntled reader has sent a cake-o-gram to the Voice’s offices at 80 University Place. Strange days indeed. When we have some slack time here in Archives Central, we’ll look up the exact reason that cake was sent. And we’ll check out the Donald Duck controversy, too …
We’re at Day 38, and Mr. Natural is nowhere in sight. Crumb has also kicked the Village Voice, in the persons of reporter Ricky Bernstein and photographer Mike Manville, right out of the strip. And the cantankerous cartoonist is set to pull his own disappearing act, too. All we can say is that everything will be settled by Sunday.
Nobody ever said that working for the Village Voice was easy. Just ask Ricky Bernstein and Mike Manville, who yesterday got the boot from Mr. Natural’s old friend Professor Wanowsky. But in real life, Robert Crumb was also having problems with his Voice gig, although the editors hadn’t reined in the underground cartoonist’s id or his jaundiced view of journalism. But come October 25, there was no Crumb strip in the paper. Voice staffer Gil Eisner, whose witty illustrations and cartoons appeared in a number of major publications, contributed a gag panel on the Letters page, hinting that the Voice had even offered more money: “I tried the friendly approach, still nada. What can you do when it’s NOT dollars? Downright un-American!”
The following week, a letter arrives from a concerned reader who thinks the ejected reporter, Ricky Bernstein, has put the fix in. Eisner sets the record straight.
The next week, silence.
Then, on November 15, the letters come pouring in, accusing the paper of “yellow journalism,” assuming the Voice has too thin a skin to put up with Crumb’s less than flattering opinion of the paper’s reporters. One reader takes that most American of stances: “Restore Crumb or you lose my 75 cents a week.” Another warns, “People will be reading Crumb’s work long after the Voice folds.”
Eisner, frustrated, again tells it like it is: “Crumb opted out himself!”
So what gives?
Well, tomorrow, we’ll reveal the reason, and the final farewell.
November 15, 1976
What can we say? Even for iconoclasts, the truth hurts.
The Letters page in the November 22, 1976, edition of the Voice included an illustrated missive from Robert Romagnoli, one of the founding artists of the then very new Punk magazine. (He was apparently dropping the “g” in his signature in those days.) Seems it was a case of “read it and weep” — at least as far as the father of Mr. Natural was concerned.
And so, the following week, Crumb came clean. It was his decision to quit the weekly gig, he explained directly to the Voice‘s readers. And then, a bit like one of the characters in those Sunday newspaper strips he loved as a kid in the 1940s and ’50s, he rode off into the sunset.
Of course, the sunset had changed a bit by the time of the Bicentennial.