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The Word Made Full-Figured

By (November 1, 2009) No Comment

The Book of Genesis

Illustrated by R. Crumb
W.W. Norton & Company, 2009

The Book of Genesis is the first book in all versions of the Bible, the first part of the Pentateuch, from the Greek meaning “five-volumed.” This term denotes the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, which form part of what is called the Torah, of which the most commonly held meaning is to “teach.” These books present a narrative from the Creation through the ancestors of Israel, the Exodus, and the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses. The transmission of Genesis itself is a matter of dispute; three different earlier sources are cited by many scholars. The book progresses from the famous stories –Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, the Tower of Babel – to tales that are less symbolic and more historical.

To see R. Crumb’s name affixed to this venerable document stirs up a pot of images. Would the artist of Zap and Fritz the Cat merely pour the Genesis cast of characters into a blender of ‘full-figured’ women, and ‘Mr. Natural’-type men that would “keep on truckin’” all the way to the Euphrates?

Seeing a copy of the book seemed to verify these preconceptions. A yellow-of-all-yellows cover features a white bubble containing the warning : “adult supervision recommended for minors”. The bottom left sports an orange scroll announcing: “ THE FIRST BOOK OF THE BIBLE GRAPHICALLY DEPICTED! NOTHING LEFT OUT!” The overall effect is completed by a half page full color rendering of a fur skin clad Adam and Eve banished from Eden by a wrathful white robed , white-bearded God. This wonderfully Crumbian (if read aloud, please sound the’b’ ) cover is matched , maybe even exceeded by the back cover: a full panel of a radiant Almighty bordered by ten cameos of featured characters from Noah through Joseph, including an alienesque “serpent.” Eye-catching among the listed chapters is the one labeled simply as THE “BEGOTS,” alluding not only to Chapter 5, where the lineage of Adam is detailed, but to several other chapters where descendents are listed in detail.

All this gives the reader the feeling that he’s due for a romp through some biblical violence, mixed with some compelling female footgear. This idea gets skewered in the Introduction. This one page, hand-lettered document clearly states the artist’s intentions:

I.R. Crumb, the illustrator of this book, have, to the best of my ability , faithfully reproduced every word of the original text, which I derived from several sources, including the King James Version, but mostly from Robert Alter’s recent translation, The Five Books of Moses (2004).

Crumb goes on to criticize other comic book approaches to scripture for inventing dialog and narrative in attempting to streamline or “modernize” the text. He emphatically states his belief that the Bible is not “ the word of God “ but “ the word of man” and conveys his passion for stories that have survived many generations before reaching their final form. Crumb then goes on to make his core statement:

If my visual, literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis offends or outrages some readers , which seems inevitable considering the text is revered by many people, all I can say in my defense is that I approached this as a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule , or make visual jokes. That said, I know you can’t please everybody.

As a “straight illustration job,” R. Crumb’s effort has evoked the written text with a simplicity and power that is arresting and entirely focused on the translation he has chosen. His work on Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor series proved he could interpret the words of another writer – the visual style obviously Crumb while still at the complete service of Pekar. In telling the stories of Genesis, his fidelity to period dress and manners constantly pulls the attention to the power of the words In many instances, he blocks the text off to the side, to give full impact to the accompanying panel. You can see the effectiveness of this approach in the one panel devoted to the flood of Noah’s time.

Any text in that panel would have diluted the terror and claustrophobia of the human and animal victims of the rising waters. For me this approach carries far more weight than a Hollywood style panorama shot of buildings being swept away; the Almighty’s purpose was, after all, to get rid of all the living things.

Crumb has given much thought to the print font used in each section, varying print size while retaining a strictly upper-case lettering with larger capitals for places and names. This gives an authoritative look without being overtly or stereotypically “biblical.”

There is also an avoidance of the current comic book craze for full page renderings, or splash panels staged at ‘cinematic’ angles. Even the modest panoramas of battles look like period engravings rather than big budget battle scenes. The fast-edit, quick-cut tools of the superhero trade usually serve to remind their audience how movies steal from comics ( and of course, vice-versa). The only full page illustration in Crumb’s Book of Genesis opens Chapter One with the image of God beginning to mold the black void that becomes the earth .

I think it’s worth noting that there are only two other large compositions, neither in the Cecil B. DeMille category. One depicts the ramp to the heavens permitting God’s messengers to descend to interrupt Jacob’s sleep in Chapter 28, when God blesses Jacob’s progeny and offers His protection. The other indicates the scope of the transgression that caused Adam and Eve to be banished from the Garden of Eden: the simply inked magnificence of Crumb’s Tree of Life.

Crumb’s talents as an illustrator emerge most effectively in the various sections depicting “The Begots.” These passages occur at several points in the text of Genesis, and no translation seems to able to keep these listings of parents, their ages, and their offspring, from breaking the flow of the narration. It is in these sometimes lengthy passages that Crumb creates sequences that are unique in his oeuvre.

The most important of these sections occurs in Chapter 11, after the dramatic passage in which God creates many languages to confound the construction of the Tower of Babel. Without segue, we are introduced to Shem, and the begetting begins, but Crumb energizes it all with scenes that offer a full range of mid-Asiatic life and culture. Beginning with family gatherings, journeys and dances, he brings his various groups into the city where the illustrations grow in size and detail until we are fully prepared for the major introduction of Abraham (initially called Abram) in Chapter 12.

This is masterful, almost documentarian type work, and when faced with similar passages later in the book, he varies his approach, turning one “begotting” into a ‘family album’ of cameos that display a wide variety of male faces that are varied , while still showing them to be members of the same lineage.

Crum’s style in rendering the human figure feels accurate for this material. Aside from a less than original portrayal of the Almighty, his men and women are not as exaggerated as his typical figures. The physiques of the men depict them as being solid, active people, not overly muscular. The many elders possess a virility that makes their coupling at very advanced ages a bit more believable. Crumb’s women are the solid, substantial figures he normally portrays, although in these circumstances they (usually) do not dwarf their male partners. And there is not a boot (or anything more than a sandal) in sight, a major departure from the Crumb physical lexicon. There’s an overall sameness on display here – no tall or short; no fat or slender. If his research led him to this choice, he doesn’t tell us about it.

Of course, the major focus of some readers will be the controversial sections, and for some these will run the gamut from God raising the first man from the earth with an open-mouthed kiss, to the various instances of love making,(for the most part in natural outdoor surroundings) to the graphic violence of Simeon and Levi’s murderous rampage in Chapter 34. I will not attempt to enter the fray. What I will say is that each action is accompanied by the appropriate text. No activity lasts longer than the panel(s) needed to convey that text. The depiction of younger women consorting with older men may be seen by some as pure Crumb wish fulfillment, but once again, the participants in these couplings were cast by the many authors and editors of Genesis and not by the illustrator.

These concerns are addressed most tellingly in Crumb’s Commentary. In these eight pages, Crumb deals with the challenges and questions raised in the creation of his illustrations. In his thoughts on Chapter 12, he confronts one of his main challenges:

But right away, there’s a knotty problem having to do with the women. There’s a lot of trouble with the women and the production of sons to carry on the lineage and God’s great mission. Many odd tales and curious tales are told that don’t add up somehow. Why does Abraham tell his wife, Sarah, to tell the Egyptians that she is his sister? What is the point of this story? These puzzles and mysteries were cleared up for me by a book called Sarah the Priestess by Savina Teubal (1984). She exposes the underlying, buried, hidden, distorted sense of these stories about the women – Sarah, Rebekah, (Isaac’s wife), Rachel and Leah (Jacob’s wives)—in a powerfully cogent manner. Suddenly layers of cobwebs are removed, centuries of dust, and some of the earlier lost sense of them is revealed.

Crumb’s main purpose in passages like this is apparently to ward off any feminist criticism of what appears to be a male-dominated narrative, but the Commentary also addresses questions that any reader might have, engaging these stories for the first time. What is the purpose of the story of Lot and his two daughters, for example? After Lot’s wife gets turned to salt for looking back at the destruction of Gomorrah, the two daughters, despairing of starting their own families in a manless environment, take turns getting their father drunk and trick him into sleeping with them. Crumb’s research indicates that in those matriarchal times, the mother’s lineage took precedence over the father’s, thus reducing some of the shock of the story.

In Chapter 32, Crumb deals with a text that tersely states “And Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” Again, Crumb’s depiction of this text will provoke some murmurings, but he’s interested in the identity of this nameless individual who ultimately discloses “You have struggled with divine beings and won out.” Crumb’s research imparts the information that in folklore from many cultures, a person on a spirit quest engages in an all night, life-or-death struggle with a presence that leaves them with a special power, skill, or awareness. Crumb draws on his substantial knowledge of American blues music to cite a tale of a man who emerged from such an encounter having learned how to play the guitar!

Reading this entire book made me wonder if it isn’t in part a legacy to Crumb’s wife and children. I can feel Crumb’s devotion to the text of the complex tales of Genesis as an effort to show his family: hey, your dad went through his trials and fetishes in print for the world to see and share, but here is a document that deals with much larger issues, a document that has survived kings and priests and suppressions and still exists in a form that can teach and inspire.

After the inevitable critic/fanboy furor has subsided, perhaps this work can take its valid place alongside the more traditional renderings of this ancient and venerable text. Could Crumb stay with us long enough to give us an entire Old Testament? I, for one would line up for my copy.

Brad Jones uses his retail job to fund his career as an obscure jazz saxophonist. He’s performed over 1,000 improv shows as a member of the Proposition Theatre in Inman Square and was a founding member of Boston’s Next Move Theatre.

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