Mr. Natural (comics)
|First appearance||1967 in Yarrowstalks|
|Created by||Robert Crumb|
Mr. Natural (Fred Natural) is a comic book character created and drawn by 1960s counterculture and underground comix artist Robert Crumb. The character first appeared in the premiere issue of Yarrowstalks (the May 5, 1967 issue).
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At first appearance, Mr. Natural is a mystic guru who spouts aphorisms on the evils of the modern world and the salvation to be found in mysticism and natural living. He has renounced the material world and lives off anything he can get in exchange for his nuggets of wisdom. Usually depicted as slightly overweight (although his size varies), he is bald with a long white beard, and wears a gown which makes him resemble the Old Testament God or a prophet.
Barry Miles writes that Mr. Natural is a lampoon of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In the film Comic Book Confidential, Crumb says that he was inspired to draw the character when he heard then radio DJ David Rubenstein, jokingly calling himself "Mr. Natural".
Crumb's bearded guru is too unapologetic to be called a con man. Despite his renunciation of the material world, he's an unrepentant sybarite. His straight talk, while refreshing, can get him into trouble, as when he was kicked out of heaven for telling God it's "a little corny" in "Mr. Natural Meets God". But he may be the only Crumb creation who is genuinely likable. Mr. Natural's aphorisms such as "Keep on Truckin'" are seemingly at odds with his image as a sage, and his inventions are at once brilliant and crackpot.
Part wise man, part conman, Mr. Natural has strange, magical powers and possesses cosmic insight; but he is also moody, cynical, self-pitying, and suffers from various strange sexual obsessions. He is endlessly being accosted by would-be disciples seeking the truth (among them such long-running Crumb characters as Flakey Foont and Shuman the Human). He typically regards them with amused condescension and a certain grudging affection, although his patience often wears thin and he takes sadistic pleasure in making them feel like idiots. While he is typically very cool and in control, he sometimes ends up in humiliating predicaments like languishing for years in a mental institution. In recent years he has entered into a tempestuous relationship with Devil Girl, another popular Crumb character. Enormously popular during the underground comics fad of the 1960s and 1970s and still enjoying a cult following today, Mr. Natural has been endlessly merchandised as a decorative plastic statue and on bumper stickers, posters, T-shirts, etc.
According to a biography drawn and illustrated by Crumb, "Fred Natural" had been a jazz musician and then faith healer in the 1920s, which would mean that he was "born" in the early years of the 20th century, and by the time of his first encounters (set in the San Francisco area) in the 1960s, was a 60-year-old man. However, in Crumb's illustration of the 1920s faith healer, Fred Natural looks approximately fifty, which would make him one hundred years old in the earliest Flakey Foont encounters.
In the "biography", "Fred Natural" leaves America and travels for many years in Asia, which is where he picks up his unique combination of wisdom and chicanery. For a time he worked as a taxicab driver in Afghanistan. He returns to the U.S during the Beat era of the 1960s, and is drawn to the San Francisco Bay area by nubile girls and people willing to listen and pay for his improvisational spirituality. He exhorts his disciples to eat only his own line of "Mr. Natural Brand Foods", and to listen to his broadcasts on WZAP Radio.
A conscious model for Mr. Natural would be various louche and disreputable Depression survivors who'd gone through the Second World War in various capacities such as war correspondent, and who'd volunteered for service in the Spanish Civil War, only to discover, in the McCarthy era of the 1950s, that their background made them unemployable and who developed various sorts of scams to prey upon the postwar Baby Boomers' search for enlightenment.
A theme in Mr. Natural is the inability of generations in the United States to connect, with each generation rejecting the one before it. Mr. Natural is a "grandfather", and not a "father", to the clueless Foont. In one strip, Natural teams with Foont's grandfather — who resembles Snoopy's father in Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts cartoon — but Foont's grandfather, a rugged frontier type, finds Foont so decadent that he attacks him.
Perhaps Mr. Natural's most famous aphorism was, "Mr. Natural sez, Use the right tool for the job" — spoken on seeing Flakey Foont unloading a truck full of bowling balls with a pitchfork. Asked, "What does it all mean?", he responds, "Don't mean sheeit..."
Crumb has acknowledged that one inspiration for Mr. Natural was a character called The Little Hitchhiker from a comic strip called "The Squirrel Cage" by Gene Ahern, which ran from 1936-1953. An homage is sometimes read into this (see external link, below). Mr. Natural also somewhat resembles an E. C. Segar character, Dr. O.G. Wotasnozzle. Mr. Natural's one-piece yellow outfit bears a resemblance to Richard F. Outcault's early comic strip The Yellow Kid. There is also a real "Mr. Natural" who claims he was part of the inspiration for Crumb's comic character, possessing permission to use R. Crumb's image of Mr. Natural to represent himself on his published materials, and has lived in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco since the 1960s teaching his own music learning system.
In popular culture
In 1973 a pornographic film called Up in Flames was made, featuring Mr. Natural and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. The film was made without the knowledge or permission of Robert Crumb or the Freak Brothers' creator, Gilbert Shelton.
The character appeared, unauthorized, stamped on the blotter paper of a popular form of LSD in the 1970s.
- Miles, Barry, Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now, Macmillan, 1998 ISBN 978-0-8050-5249-7 p.401
- Burgess, Steve, "R. Crumb", Salon (May 2, 2000)
- Varnum, Robin and Gibbons, Christina, The Language of Comics Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2001 ISBN 978-1-57806-414-4 p111
- Crumb, R. The Book of Mr. Natural, Fantagraphics Books (December 27, 1995) ISBN 978-1-56097-194-8 p.5
- Music Theory Decoded, by Mr. Natural & Lynne Vanne. Published by Mr. Natural's Electric Classroom (March 7th, 2001) ISBN 978-1-257-01983-0
- LSD Tablet and Blotter Contents, 1968-1974 - Erowid
- The night Karadzic rocked the MadhouseMartin Rowson The Guardian, Thursday July 24 2008