R. C. Harvey on R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis

Posted by on February 16th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

WW Norton; 212 pp.; $24.95; B&W, Hardcover; ISBN: 978-0-393-06102-4

“It was hard to draw God,” said R. Crumb, speaking to David Colton at USA Today about his latest oeuvre. “Should God just be a bright light? Should I use word balloons? Should God be a woman?” Crumb says the answer came to him in a dream. “I ended up with the old stereotypical Charlton Heston kind of God, long beard, very masculine. I used a lot of white-out, a lot of corrections when I tried to draw God.”

It took a four-year, monastic-like effort to adapt every word of the first book of the Bible in distinctive pen and ink, but Crumb did it and produced what has been described as a “relentlessly faithful rendition of the first 50 chapters of the Bible by an apostle of the 1960s and sometimes profane progenitor of underground comics.”

At The Washington Post, Henry Allen quotes art critic Robert Hughes, an avowed Crumb enthusiast, talking about “Crumb’s mean, grubby vision of human beings trapped in their meshes of hysterical frustration and lust.” Allen also quotes Crumb’s wife, Aline: “Well, he is a sexist, racist, antisemitic misogynist.” (As for antisemitic, Allen goes on, Crumb flirts with big-nosed Jewish stereotypes — the demanding female; the wily, voracious male.) Allen is ostensibly reviewing the Genesis book, but he rambles afield entertainingly:

Since the ’60s, Crumb has shown a world that fits his vision. There’s the prankster-pederast guru, Mr. Natural, revealing the meaning of life (as I recall from long memory): “Don’t mean diddy-wah-diddy.” Lenore Goldberg and her Girl Commandos are nightmare feminists avenging themselves on men. Angelfood McSpade is a thick-lipped black stereotype; uptight Whiteman can find sexual satisfaction only with a yeti. Little Mr. Snoid climbs up the backs of Crumb’s amazons to work out his id-rage and perversities. Chuck the Duck is hip to the sweat of one’s brow: he says, “Life is mostly hard work.” Crumb himself has written: “I am constantly disgusted by reality, horrified and afraid. I cling desperately to the few things that give me some solace, that make me feel good. For me to be human is, for the most part, to hate what I am. When I suddenly realize I am one of them, I want to scream in horror.” Not unlike the God of Genesis beholding the depravity of his children, even his greatest servants.

Allen goes on, getting to the review part:

Abraham pimps his wife, Sarah, Jacob cheats his brother, Esau. How very Old Testament. Faults are very few in the heroes of the New Testament. And an angry, smiting Jehovah is transformed by the Christians into a god of love. There are times when Genesis reads like a tell-all, one of those enraged bits of revisionist history that tell us George Washington was actually a drug-addict or Emily Dickinson was into sadomasochism. Except nobody revised Jewish history to make it the way it is in Genesis. And it has remained not as a guide to transcendence into heavenly realms, but as a description of life as we see it every day in our neighborhoods and newspapers.

And in Crumb’s remarkable Book of Genesis. “All 50 chapters,” the cover proclaims in comic book capitals. “The first book of the Bible graphically depicted! Nothing left out!” Pure Crumb.

*****

MOST REVIEWS OF GENESIS express mild astonishment that Crumb, “the Albrecht Dürer of the urban demimonde,” produced such a “surprisingly faithful” tome. “In theory,” wrote Reed Jenkins at the Los Angeles Times, “the project may strike some as perverse, like having Charles Bukowski pen the script for a remake of It’s a Wonderful Life.” But, as every reviewer has learned, Crumb thought of his task as a “straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes.”

Speaking by phone from France, where he has lived for two decades, Crumb suggested to Jenkins that his source material needed no embellishment. “The original is so strong and strange in its own right,” Crumb said. “There’s so much in there that’s lucid and lent itself to comic-book adaptation.”

Typical Crumb comix, too. Just thumbing the pages of his Genesis, we see plenty of naked people, occasionally — some of them — copulating unabashedly in the deserts of Mesopotamia. I can imagine Crumb on the cusp of deciding to illustrate the Bible, exclaiming, as he read chapter after chapter, “Hey — this is my sort of story!”

Old Testament sex with its heavy-duty people, often nude, fits right into the typical Crumb milieu. So in Chapter 19, we have Abraham pictured in carnal cavort with his daughters; silhouettes would have served the narrative purpose, but Crumb, as always, prefers to render nudity in all its anatomical detail. Depicting human sacrifice at the time of Noah — one of the sins that so upset the Almighty that he flooded the Earth — Crumb could have drawn a naked male sacrifice, but instead, he chose to draw a naked woman in profile, her ample breast thrusting up from her chest as she lies prone on her back, awaiting the plunging dagger that will send her off into another world. (Play with Freudian symbolism all you want here.)

And if not nudity, then titillation: Since the brassiere had not been invented in time for Genesis, we can detect on the chests of most of Crumb’s biblical women the bulge of a healthy nipple through the flimsy cloth of their desert garb (unless they happen to be wearing animal skins, in which case, their nipples do not protrude against the furry hide).

So Crumb may be doing “straight” illustration, but it’s straight Crumb, lacking only the depiction of genitals. And a good thing, too: No one can leave his Book of Genesis believing that human procreation is accomplished by budding or flights of storks. Crumb’s Genesis may not be holy, but it’s healthy: It’s comforting to learn from the Bible that we are what we are.

The earthiness of Crumb’s women reminds me of Mark Twain’s startling insight pronounced during a visit to London in 1872. Asked at a banquet to respond to the customary toast “To the Ladies,” Twain said he thought “women” preferable to “ladies.” He explained: “It is certainly the older and therefore the more entitled to reverence. I have noticed that the Bible, with that plain, blunt honesty which is such a conspicuous characteristic of the Scriptures, is always particular to never refer to even the illustrious mother of all mankind herself as a ‘lady,’ but speaks of her as a woman.” Indeed.

Before Crumb started drawing, Jenkins notes, the cartoonist did a lot of research. In addition to the King James Version of the Bible, he consulted The Five Books of Moses, Robert Alter’s highly praised 2004 translation of the Pentateuch wherein “he embarked on a close reading of Genesis and found as many ambiguities and contradictions as revealed truths.” Said Crumb: “What’s hard to know is what’s happened in the huge passage of time. It’s really a shame that the original intent can’t be carried over from the old Hebrew.”

Crumb also consulted visual material, images from Hollywood biblical epics. Scarcely surprising, then, that his rendering of God looks a lot like Charlton Heston’s Moses in The Ten Commandments. (Crumb told one interviewer that the figure was influenced by Crumb’s own father, an authoritarian former Marine Corps sergeant.)

Jenkins continued: “One of his discoveries in doing the project, Crumb said, was that Genesis can be read as a sort of Bronze Age primer on male-female relations. He credits Savina Teubal’s 1984 book Sarah the Priestess with helping him grasp the ancient matriarchal storytelling and spiritual traditions that overlap with the patriarchal leanings of Genesis. But Teubal is seriously outdated said Eric Herschthal at The Jewish Week, who added that she ‘never had much credibility to begin with according to many prominent scholars today.’”

“I’m not sure that Teubal’s book ever had any sway in the academy,” said Alice Bach, a professor of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University, and a widely cited feminist Bible scholar. And Herschthal also quotes Esther Fuchs, another prominent feminist scholar, who said that by relying on a limited amount of archaeological evidence, scholars like Teubal undermined their argument. “To the extent that they can claim themselves to be scientific, this posturing is questionable.”

Nonetheless, Herschthal continues, “Crumb depicts these questionable theories as fact. ‘The historical record shows that in the earlier millennia … there existed a powerful matriarchal order alongside the patriarchy,’ Crumb writes in the book’s back pages.” Herschthal acknowledges that Crumb is not producing a scholarly text, but “by citing the work of scholars to buttress his claims of textual accuracy, Crumb invites questions about his own credibility. And many feminist scholars hold Crumb’s sources at a critical distance: ‘My own view is that the Teubal book is admirable in attempting to recover positive aspects of women’s lives in biblical antiquity but flawed in its assumptions about the historicity of the ancestors,’ said Carol Meyers, a leading feminist biblical scholar at Duke University, in an e-mail response.

Crumb’s Talmudic-like commentary at the back of his book shows, Jenkins says, that he wrestled with Genesis’ encrypted meanings. “For example, Crumb speculates in his footnotes, was the story in Chapters 29 and 30, in which ‘two wives compete for Jacob’s sexual services,’ intended as ‘bedroom-comedy relief’? Why does Abraham attempt to pass off his wife as his sister to the Egyptians?” Jenkins finishes by quoting Crumb again: “The basic original memory of the story has been altered over time. That’s why I think it’s absurd for anyone to take the Bible literally, either as history or as a guide.”

Ultimately, despite his claims to the contrary, Crumb “interpreted” Genesis. “If Crumb isn’t drawing the Bible for laughs,” writes Herschthal, “he is nonetheless providing commentary. … Any reading begs for interpretation, and certainly Crumb’s drawings are just an alternative form of [interpretation].”

Jenkins agrees, I think, saying:

“What’s perhaps most striking about the book is how well Crumb’s illustrative style matches his subject matter. The brawny, big-boned women he’s been drawing for decades are re-purposed here as pneumatic, iron-willed Old Testament matriarchs. Variants of the wild-eyed furry freaks who populated Crumb’s semi-true tales of Detroit and the Haight have been retrofitted with goatskins and tunics, and seem to fit their new roles perfectly. Although he avoids editorializing, Crumb granted himself poetic license to flesh out certain passages. Among his most powerful series of images are three large panels showing the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, with the inhabitants flailing in agony. The Bible dispatches with this chillingly dramatic episode in a single sentence. And Crumb’s representation of Adam and Eve romping together before the Fall is as innocent and exuberant a drawing as this artist ever has produced. ‘That was one of the great things to show,’ he said. ‘They’re frolicking like pups, they’ve got nothing to worry about. They’re in the Garden of Eden!’”

Sounds to me like the  “Albrecht Dürer of the urban demimonde” is back — probably never was actually absent.

Calvin Reid at Publishers Weekly talked with Robert Weil, executive editor at W.W. Norton, publisher of Crumb’s Genesis, about editing Crumb and about the process of editing a graphic book as opposed to straight prose works. Here are some excerpts:

With a figure like Crumb I can’t really presume to tell him how to work. He knows what he’s doing. We have a great relationship — I call him Mr. Crumb; he calls me Mr. Weil. His father was a Marine and a very proud man and there’s a great deal of civility to R. Crumb despite his reputation. I listened to him and what he wanted to do. … But it’s no different for me editing prose or a graphic book. They’re both symphonic units and must be approached as a whole. Both the language and the artwork have the same effect on readers. I’ve edited Will Eisner [whose literary works, including his classic Contract with God, are published by Norton], but I’m not really a graphics editor and I really haven’t done anything different working with this book. I’m not even looking for graphic books.

I did get a chance to go over the first 50 pages and told him that I thought the language needed to be smoother and he kept that in mind. We got a lot of technical assistance from Francoise Mouly, Art Speigelman and Chris Ware. In early January, we got the manuscript and I went over it with Francoise. … [Crumb’s Genesis] is not a send-up or even satirical. Years ago he might have thought to do a comic send-up of the text. But you know, Crumb is capaciously well-read in a wide range of subjects, which I think is one reason why he was attracted to publishing with Norton. He’s a very deep reader and he felt he couldn’t do a send-up. We never challenged that. We weren’t concerned about him being funny. He’s very pleased to be taken seriously. And the reviews — from USA Today, the L.A. Times, The New York Times, Beliefnet, have been terrific.”

When Reid observed that “some evangelicals are upset over the sexual depictions,” Weil dodged: “Well, no doubt, but most reviewers are loving this book.” And then he betrayed the odd, for a Norton honcho these days, belief that comics are still just for youngsters: “And if you’re a teenager,” he said, “— what better way to read the Bible?! You know, even the adult supervision label [a cover warning to parents about the book’s sexual depictions] was Crumb’s idea—although that will likely do more to attract teenagers than anything else.”

Right. Canny of Crumb, eh?

Asked to list the projects he’s done with Crumb at Norton and those still in the hopper, Weil said: “We’ve published a collection of Crumb drawings called The Sweeter Side of Crumb; we’re publishing [his wife] Aline’s new book in 2012, as well as a collection of Robert and Aline’s collaborative comics, including some that were published in The New Yorker as well as other collaborative comics they’ve done. That will be published in the fall of 2011. Aline is really his muse,” Weil concluded, “— he shows everything he does to her and I’m sure Robert is Aline’s first editor. I think its one of the best marriages I’ve ever seen. People who’ve seen the Crumb film think they’re going to be strange, but they’re not. They’re both very comfortable with each other.”

Otherwise, as expected, it didn’t take long for a certain barnacle of evangelical Christian to object to the pictures:  in Fon du Lac (Wisconsin), Heather Stanek reported in the Reporter that members of that community “fear that the Bible in a comic format — depending on the artist’s motives — may belittle God, mock Scripture or promote the sexuality and violence often seen in graphic novels. The full-frontal nudity in the book shocked Kathy Heinzelman, a mother and children’s ministry teacher at Community Church. She said she wouldn’t expose her youngsters to graphic material. Eve’s cleavage and measurements also concern her. … Of greater concern is the artistic rendering of God. Crumb drew God as a stern, wizened man with flowing white hair and a bright robe. He means business, focusing intense eyes on His creation and doling out commands to all creatures. … Depicting God in this form is ‘dangerous,’ said Jennifer C.M. Dawson, co-pastor at Church of Peace. She said showing God as a human, who has numerous flaws, diminishes His presence as the ultimate power.”

I expected objection to cleavage and nudity — naked people in the Bible! Sex that people are enjoying! Surely such attitudes as Crumb reveals in his Genesis are sacrilegious, blasphemous to a fare-thee-well, disrespectful, and wrong, outright wrong! Sinful. He should be taken out and shot!

I expected all of that, but I thought most people accepted the convention of depicting God in human form as a white-bearded old man. Live and learn, don’t we all? I doubt that there is any way to draw God that would be acceptable to various factions in the religion. It’s almost as irksome a matter to some Christians as drawing the Prophet Muhammad is for Muslims.

All Images ©2009 R. Crumb

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2 Responses to “R. C. Harvey on R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis

  1. Michael Grabowski says:

    As a Christian, I take issue with that last paragraph. I get the fun-poking you’re trying to do there, but take a look at that last sentence. “almost as irksome?” No one is declaring a fatwa on Crumb for depicting God; certainly no one will be breaking into his house to kill him with an ice-pick over this.

    Believe it or not, placing God in a rightful position in our minds is in fact more important than the depiction of sex. The Bible is replete with stories and images of sexuality. (If every book could be illustrated by an underground cartoonist, S. Clay Wilson would be perfect for Ezekiel 22-25.) Any decent church will encourage the reading and preaching from those portions as appropriate, though certainly not before a young audience. But in all cases, the view of God as simply some kind of super-human (despite the “in our likeness” bit which Crumb uses as his justification) is generally taught as a very limited view of who God is and the reverence we should have for him.

    Frankly, if what you quote in the 3rd-last paragraph is the greatest Christian outcry against Crumb’s book, then it seems to be practically accepted or at least tolerated by the Christian community. I don’t expect to see it on cbd.com, but I don’t expect to see it at any book-burnings either.

  2. [...] a post at The Comics Journal appeared in my feed reader promising “R.C. Harvey on R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis“ I was excited to see what he had to say, especially since (as I mentioned in my review) I think the [...]