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Fritz the Cat is a comic strip created by Robert Crumb. Set in a "supercity" of anthropomorphic animals, the strip focuses on Fritz. A smooth feline con artist, he frequently finds himself in wild adventures, often involving a variety of sexual experiences. The character originated from home made comic books Crumb drew when he was a child, and became the most famous character created by him. Originally appearing in Help! and Cavalier, it subsequently appeared in publications associated with the underground comix scene between 1965 and 1972, where it became one of the most well known features of the scene.

Fritz the Cat was the basis for the 1972 animated film of the same name. A worldwide success, it was the directorial debut of animator Ralph Bakshi, the first animated feature film to receive an X rating in the United States, and the most successful independent animated feature of all time. Because of disagreements with the filmmakers during the production of the film, Crumb ended the strip in 1972 by publishing a story in which Fritz was murdered by an ex-girlfriend. A second animated film, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, was produced in 1974 without the involvement of Bakshi or Crumb.

Overview

Fritz the Cat originated from a story drawn by Robert Crumb as a child; along with his brother and sisters, he created homemade comic books influenced by the childrens' comics of the era. Fritz made appearances in early 1960s Animal Town strips drawn by Charles and Robert Crumb, sometimes alongside Fuzzy the Bunny, who served as an alter ego of his creator, Charles.

Marty Pahls, a childhood friend of Crumb, describes Fritz as "a poseur" whose posturing was taken seriously by everyone around him. Fritz is self-centered and hedonistic, lacking morals and ethics. Thomas Albright describes Fritz as "a kind of updated Felix with overtones of Charlie Chaplin, Candide and Don Quixote." Fritz's personality is "glib, smooth and self-assured", characteristics Crumb himself felt he lacked. According to Pahls:

"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 ladies—all attributes which Robert coveted, but felt he lacked."


Crumb himself denied any personal relationship with the character, stating "I just got into drawing him [...] He was fun to draw." As Crumb's personal life changed, so did the character. According to Pahls, "For years, [Crumb] 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." Robert Crumb stated of his anthropomorphic work:

"I can express something [with animals] that is different from what I put into my work about humans [...] I can put more nonsense, more satire and fantasy into the animals [...] they're also easier to do than people [...] With people I try more for realism, which is probably why I'm generally better with animals."


Crumb's sense of fantasy led Fritz to play many roles over the years, including a pop music star, a hip poet, a college dropout, a secret agent and a militant revolutionary. The comic takes place in a "modern 'supercity' of millions of animals." Typically, stories begin simply, only to become increasingly chaotic and complex due to uncontrollable forces. The strip "Fritz Bugs Out" uses anthropomorphic characters to comment on race relations, with crows representing African Americans. Fritz is portrayed as a self-conscious hypocrite, obsessed with his racism and guilt over his racism, while crows are portrayed as "hip innocents". In his New York magazine review of R. Crumb's Head Comix, John Canaday describes the punch line of the Fritz the Cat strip "Fred, the Teen-Age Girl Pigeon" as "outrageous brilliance [that] is rivaled only by Evelyn Waugh's last lines in The Loved One."

History

Fritz made his first appearance in the 1959 story "Cat Life", as a house cat named Fred. The strip was based upon the Crumb family cat, and was drawn to amuse Crumb's sister and younger brother. With the character's next appearance in the 1960 story "Robin Hood", it had become anthropomorphic and obtained the name Fritz, which had been the name of a minor unrelated character that had appeared briefly in "Cat Life".

In 1964, Crumb drew many Fritz the Cat strips for his own amusement when not working at the American Greetings Corporation. In January 1965, Help! published the first public appearance of the character, "Fritz Comes on Strong". In it, Fritz brings a young cat girl home, and strips all of her clothes off before getting on top of her to pick fleas off of her body. Preceding the publication of the story, the magazine sent Crumb a letter which read "Dear R. Crumb, we think the little pussycat drawings you sent us were just great. Question is, how do we print them without going to jail?" In May 1965, Help! published a second Fritz story, "Fred, the Teen-Age Girl Pigeon".

Following experiences with LSD in 1967, Crumb began to create other characters, and focused his attention on humans rather than anthropomorphic characters. "Fritz Bugs Out" was serialized in Cavalier from February to October 1968. In the summer of 1968, Viking Press printed Head Comix, a compilation of comics by Crumb, including stories featuring Fritz. In 1969, Ballantine Books published R. Crumb's Fritz the Cat, paying Crumb a $5,000 advance for the publication rights, which he used to purchase three acres of land. These publications brought Crumb and his character larger attention, leading to an interest in the production of a film. Crumb abandoned the character that year.

Animated adaptations

In 1969, New York animator Ralph Bakshi wanted to begin producing films that would deviate from the conventional storytelling of the Walt Disney Company to comment on political and social issues. Bakshi pitched the concept for Heavy Traffic to producer Steve Krantz, who felt that it would be difficult to finance because of its content and Bakshi's lack of directorial experience. While browsing the East Side Book Store on St. Mark's Place, Bakshi came across a copy of R. Crumb's Fritz the Cat. Impressed by Crumb's sharp satire, Bakshi purchased the book and suggested to Krantz that it would work as a film. Krantz arranged a meeting with Crumb, during which Bakshi showed Crumb drawings that had been created as the result of Bakshi attempting to learn Crumb's distinctive style to prove that he could translate the look of Crumb's artwork to animation. Impressed by Bakshi's tenacity, Crumb lent him one of his sketchbooks as a reference.

As Krantz began to prepare the paperwork, preparation began on a pitch presentation for potential studios, including a poster-sized painted cel setup featuring the strip's cast against a traced photo background, as Bakshi intended the film to appear. However, in spite of Crumb's enthusiasm, he was unsure about the film's production, and refused to sign the contract. Artist Vaughn Bodé warned Bakshi against working with Crumb, describing him as "slick". Bakshi later agreed with Bodé's assessment, calling Crumb "one of the slickest hustlers you'll ever see in your life". Krantz sent Bakshi to San Franciscomarker, where Bakshi stayed with Crumb and his wife, Dana, in an attempt to persuade Crumb to sign the contract. After a week, Crumb left, leaving the film's production status uncertain. Two weeks after Bakshi returned to New York, Krantz entered his office and told Bakshi that he had acquired the film rights because Dana had power of attorney and signed the contract. Crumb received US$50,000, which was delivered throughout different phases of the production, in addition to ten percent of Krantz's take.

Robert Crumb first saw the film in February 1972, during a visit to Los Angeles in the company of fellow underground cartoonists Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, and Rick Griffin. Crumb disliked the film, saying that he felt that the film was "really a reflection of Ralph Bakshi's confusion, you know. There's something real repressed about it. In a way, it's more twisted than my stuff. It's really twisted in some kind of weird, unfunny way. [...] I didn't like that sex attitude in it very much. It's like real repressed horniness; he's kind of letting it out compulsively." Crumb also took issue with the film's condemnation of the radical left, denouncing Fritz's dialogue in the final sequences of the film as "red-neck and fascistic" and stating that "They put words into his mouth that I never would have had him say."

Fritz the Cat was the first animated feature to receive an X rating from the MPAA. The film's distributor capitalized on the rating in the film's advertising material, which touted the film as being "X rated and animated!" According to Ralph Bakshi, "We almost didn't deliver the picture, because of the exploitation of it." Steve Krantz stated that the film lost playdates due to the rating, and 30 American newspapers rejected display ads for the film or refused to give it editorial publicity.

The film was released on April 12, 1972, opening in Hollywoodmarker and Washington, D.C.marker It went on to become a worldwide hit, grossing over $100 million worldwide, and was the most successful independent animated feature of all time. The film is credited for expanding Crumb's fame outside of the underground comix scene. Following the film's release, The People's Comics published the story "Fritz the Cat 'Superstar'", in which Crumb satirized Bakshi and Krantz, drawing Fritz in a script conference for the fictional sequel Fritz Goes to India. The strip ended with Fritz being killed by a neurotic ex-girlfriend, who stabbed him in the back of the head with an ice pick, an occurrence brought on by Fritz's overt sexism. In 1974, Krantz produced a sequel, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, without the participation of Bakshi or Crumb.

Crumb stated that the making of the 1972 film adaptation is "one of those experiences I sort of block out. The last time I saw it was when I was making an appearance at a German art school in the mid-1980s, and I was forced to watch it with the students. It was an excruciating ordeal, a humiliating embarrassment. I recall Victor Moscoso was the only one who warned me, 'if you don't stop this film from being made, you are going to regret it for the rest of your life'—and he was right." Bakshi states that "Crumb is a great artist — a great cartoonist. But I don't like him as a person."

Legacy

Fritz the Cat is one of the most well-known features of the underground comix scene, and Crumb's most famous creation. According to Dez Skinn, the strip served as one of the inspirations for Omaha the Cat Dancer. In April 1993, Fantagraphics Books published The Life & Death of Fritz the Cat, compiling nine major strips featuring the character. Fritz the Cat strips also appear in The Complete Crumb Comics series.

In Graphic Novels: A Bibliographic Guide to Book-Length Comics, D. Aviva Rothschild described the stories printed in The Life & Death of Fritz the Cat as being misogynist, racist and violent, and that "They also tend to ramble, as if Crumb were making them up as he went along". Rothschild concluded that "Even though Fritz the Cat is a classic, there are better, more coherent Crumb books around". The 1972 film adaptation of Fritz the Cat was ranked at number 51 on the Online Film Critics Society's list of the top 100 greatest animated films of all time, and was placed at number 56 on Channel 4's list of the 100 Greatest Cartoons.

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