Kitchen Sink (1970-77)
Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural is one of the most popular and enduring characters to emerge from underground comics, definitively surpassed only by Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Mr. Natural appeared in all manner of publications in the ’60s prior to starring in his own comic book and while his popularity today is a tiny fraction of what it was 40 years ago, his likeness can still be found on t-shirts, posters and various collectibles. The Fantagraphics book compilation of his comics was reprinted in a hardcover edition as recently as 2010.
Crumb created the cantankerous, white-bearded pseudo-guru in the mid 1960s after he began taking L.S.D., which he said “made me stop taking cartooning so seriously.” Though concocted in the realm of Crumb’s acid-tripping brain, Mr. Natural’s persona (if not his appearance) seemed fully developed the moment he hit paper. The self-proclaimed sage is condescending yet benevolent, perplexing yet plain spoken, impatient yet serene, a peculiar composite of hustler and prophet. He rejects materialism, slanders the modern world, and ridicules his own followers yet believes his arcane advice should be carved onto stone tablets.
This deeply flawed swami may have been created on acid, but he was not born on a whim. One of Crumb’s pet peeves in the counterculture of the ’60s was the proliferation of spiritual gurus and pundits, who he believed were nothing more than frauds and con artists. Mr. Natural is Crumb’s caustic response to that phenomenom. The absurdity of Mr. Natural’s pearls of wisdom and his sometimes heartless indifference to obsequious followers like Flakey Floont reflect Crumb’s perception of countercultural spiritual masters and their devoted disciples. Despite Crumb’s skewering of hocus-pocus chicanery, Mr. Natural does possess certain mystical powers and connection to cosmic truths, despite how convoluted those virtues may materialize. Which may be why Mr. Natural turned into one of Crumb’s most likeable characters.
Mr. Natural first appeared in the underground tabloid Yarrowstalks in 1967 and Crumb chose to put him on the front cover of the trailblazing Zap Comix #1 in 1968. He was featured in stories in all the early issues of Zap before Mr. Natural #1 was published in the summer of 1970 and became an instant hit, selling 70,000 copies within a year. The second issue also sold well when it arrived in the fall of 1971, but the third issue did not come out until 1977, after the golden era of undergrounds had long passed. It still had ten printings. Mr. Natural resurfaced in the ’80s and ’90s, primarily for a series of unseemly adventures with another one of Crumb’s signature characters, Devil Girl.
Over the course of time, Mr. Natural exponentially evolved into an alter ego for Crumb. They both rant about society’s obsession with pop culture crapola, have obscure sexual fixations that seem perfectly normal to them, and above all implore everyone to see through the world’s bullshit and end our self-deceptions. In Mr. Natural, Crumb provides an everyday guru who rolls with the punches while delivering plenty of the same, laughs at inappropriate moments that are most appropriate, and reminds us all that if we take anything or anyone too seriously, we only have ourselves to blame for the consequences.