Bulletpoint Review: The Book of Genesis Illustrated

Posted by on January 25th, 2010 at 5:56 AM

A few quick thoughts on one of the major releases of 2009, R.Crumb’s THE BOOK OF GENESIS ILLUSTRATED (W.W. Norton).

*  What Crumb brought to this project above all else was the sheer griminess of the time.  Everything is suffused with dirt and sand.  Beards and hair are long and scraggly.  These are not the blonde-haired and fair-skinned depictions that one usually sees in a Biblical adaptation, but the sort of fleshy, earthy  and dusky folk who inhabited the region.  Most slyly, as I believe Jeet Heer (by way of Paul Karasik) pointed out, he drew the three sons of Noah as Moe, Larry and Shemp.

* That gave a grounding for the hijinks that ensued in Genesis.  As Crumb and others would argue, the early parts of Genesis were most likely cribbed from a variety of sources.  There are huge swaths of Genesis, up til about chapter 12 or so (the introduction of Abram), that are incoherent, contradictory or clearly heavily edited.  Crumb makes the case that when Genesis was finally compiled as part of the Torah, it was in part a victory for the patriarchal aspects of the culture.  Crumb’s interpretation of Genesis is one where the prominence of women was heavily edited out.

* While not altering the text (though he did heavily rely on a modern translation by Robert Alter), Crumb gets this point across through looks, body language and what he chose to depict graphically.  In particular, he used a number of facial expressions not specifically indicated by the text like sneering, scowling, desire and steely-eyed determination.  The bit with Lot’s daughters is a good example.  Though nameless, they nonetheless used him to gain progeny.  The scene where we see them stoutly teaching their sons to shoot a bow & arrow while Lot himself is slumped against a rock was just one instance where Crumb’s graphic depiction of a scene created a different meaning for the original text.

* Adapting Genesis clearly posed a number of challenges for Crumb.  Much of the text is less a story than a set of genealogical connections or business deals.    He got around that pitfall by using smaller panels to push the reader through the page quickly, but also made sure to draw in the reader’s eye with genuinely varied character design.

* Some people were baffled by his depiction of god as the stereotypical long-haired man with a beard.  Given the metaphorical nature of the first 11 chapters of Genesis, I thought this made a great deal of sense.  It’s clear that the whole “Let us make man in our image” line worked both ways, and so a depiction of the creation myth by a culture would naturally feature a creator that looked like them.  The further in time we move on, the fewer instances of god that we actually see in the book.

* One of the problems with Genesis is that its chapters are so episodic that there’s not much for a reader to grab on to in terms of narrative.  As noted earlier, a number of the stories felt more like accounts of business transactions than a real story.  That changed in the last 12 chapters, when we get to the story of Joseph and his brothers.  This classic story of betrayal, retribution and redemption was vividly brought to life by Crumb, with fights, plagues, and the splendor of Egypt.  I especially liked the sequences where Joseph “speaks” in hieroglyphics to his brothers in an effort to fool them into thinking he was an Egyptian.

* I’m not so sure this is a career-defining work by a master cartoonist.  It feels more like a cartoonist who had nothing left to prove who chose to indulge a particular storytelling obsession to interesting effect.  The reality of THE BOOK OF GENESIS ILLUSTRATED is that it wasn’t the long-form work we had always been waiting for from R.Crumb, but rather a big book of the kind of shorter stories that Crumb’s been doing all along.

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One Response to “Bulletpoint Review: The Book of Genesis Illustrated

  1. Jeet Heer1 says:

    Lots of insightful comments here. But for the record, the first person to point out the Stooges/Sons of Noah connection (or the Shem/Shemp factor as I call it) was the eagle-eyed Paul Karasik, an unreformed Nancy-boy. See here: http://comicscomicsmag.blogspot.com/2009/10/noah-curly.html