Friday, November 26, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 296 (11/26) -- The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb

The ideal reviewer of this book would be both a biblical scholar and an expert deeply versed in the works of R. Crumb, able equally to explain the importance of the lineage of the house of Israel and explicate the image of the girl with the big butt. And perhaps that review exists out in the world somewhere, not just in the realm of Platonic images. In either case, this review will come nowhere near that -- I may have won the Bible Olympics two years running, but that was as a boy, against weak competition, and in a very liberal '70s Sunday school, and my knowledge of Crumb has many vast holes in it.

The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb is exactly what the title promises: not an "adaptation," not a "reenvisioning," not anything that could be described with a fancy postmodern term. Crumb took the text of the Biblical book of Genesis -- mostly from Robert Alter's recent translation The Five Books of Moses -- slightly reorganized it so that it worked as dialogue in and captions around comics panels, and then drew that same story. It's both a Crumb comic of Genesis and the full text -- unlike most comics versions of a prose work, all of the words are still there.

That makes Crumb's Book of Genesis very wordy, of course, but Genesis was never a book that went into great depths of physical description, so Crumb's art does fill an existing gap (though not, I'd say, a necessary one, as the old saying goes). Genesis is not the very most boring book of the Old Testament -- Leviticus descends quickly into an intricate description of everything a Temple priest could and had to do and say, and some others rival even that -- but it covers several generations of Abraham's family, plus all of the preliminary creating-the-world (and destroying it, or parts of it) stuff, which inevitably leads to the long strings of begats and names, just in case you might forget that the sons of Levi are Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.

Crumb's people are lumpy and rough-featured; he's never been an artist to beautify his subjects, and Genesis has freed him to create a thousand scowling Semitic faces. Only a few of those faces are actually ugly, but none are beautiful; even the most comely women are sturdy and strong in the traditional Crumb style, and well in keeping with the Biblical virtues of fecundity and endurance. And, after reading Crumb's Genesis, if I never see another big hairy beard, it will be fine -- there are a least a dozen runners-up to Alan Moore here for the Best Beard in Comics award. They do look like the half-wild desert nomads of three and four thousand years ago, though, which no other Biblical illustrations and comics I've seen have done. Crumb's Abraham and Isaac, Noah and Joseph, Adam and Lot look like the "real" men may have, like actual men living in a harsh land during difficult times, and that's something to hold up on the other side of the scale from the begats and the random violence of the Biblical Lord.

Crumb's Book of Genesis is the very definition of a vanity project: odd and quirky, speaking to the artist's passions and obsessions rather than to any thought of the mass of readers. And yet it has found its readership, from Crumb fans and those seriously interested in the Pentateuch. Would that all vanity projects did that well, and would that all artists had the drive and resources to do as well by their own obsessions as Crumb did. This isn't a book that I expect I'll go back to much (if at all), but there are many readers who are not me, and Crumb's Book of Genesis is an impressive marker for one of the many directions that serious comics can go.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index


redhead said...

I've been interested in this one for a while. I'm no biblical scholar or R Crumb expert of anykind, but Genesis is probably the book of the bible I know the best. Abraham, Noah, that kind of stuff. and my Sunday school kids would probably get a kick out of it as well.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Redhead: You'll want to take a look at it before sharing it with those kids, I think -- depending on how old they are -- since Crumb is earthy as always, and there's a fair bit to be earthy about in Genesis. (I'm sure there are plenty of churches that would be offended by the nudity to begin with, not to mention the demands from the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah!)

Anonymous said...

"And yet it has found its readership, from Crumb fans and those seriously interested in the Pentateuch."

I think it sold a bit better than that...

Andrew Wheeler said...

Anonymous: It would be very difficult to sell much better than that; approximately 100 million Americans read the Bible at least weekly -- Crumb might not have quite as many fans as that, but the Old Testament definitely does.

Anonymous said...

I assumed you meant Biblical scholars... but then, it's not really a niche book, is it? I don't think it's the Left Behind crowd buying it. A lot of people are interested in seeing the Bible explored in a non-tendentious way.

Post a Comment