R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis

I’m a second-wave Crumb fan, not being old enough to have appreciated his work when it was first causing a stir in the early underground comix scene. My first exposure to R. Crumb was through his contributions to American Splendor. Then last year I read an extended commentary on his work by Crumb himself in Todd Hignite’s In the Studio. This is where I first learned of the illustrated Book of Genesis, which at the time of the interview was a work in progress. Not long afterwards, there it was, sitting on the shelf in a local bookshop after five years in the making.

I remember vaguely being introduced to the Book of Job in high school by my grade 12 English teacher, who incidentally made a very powerful impression on me during those formative years—though the Book of Job did not. Our teacher felt that even though we were not in an English Literature class, the importance of the Bible was too great to not acknowledge as part of our course of study. But other than that brief segue into the Bible on the basis of its literary merit, I haven’t touched the Old Testament up until now.

I did not grow up in a religious household (Dad is a former altar boy, now long-lapsed Catholic and self-proclaimed atheist, and Mom is a Jungian feminist), to my mind I had no reason to read the Bible. But now, in a “graphic novel” format, there was strong incentive to read the great book. After all, I felt assured that Crumb was not trying to convert me.

Crumb’s version of the Book of Genesis felt completely readable—with the exception of the genealogies, although that said I’ve come to appreciate how much variety one can produce in “headshots” of Middle Eastern men sporting moustaches and beards.

Since I don’t have a strong background in Biblical studies, I can’t really speak to how Crumb has chosen to depict certain passages, versus how they may have traditionally been interpreted. And my goal in writing this post is not to present some scholary review, anyway.  Crumb’s notes to the volume suggest that Crumb has paid careful attention to honouring the nuances found in various translations of the work.

What I want to communicate in this post first and foremost is that Crumb’s Book of Genesis made these stories accessible to me. For anyone who intuits that there may be value in reading the Book of Genesis, but who has never found the will to do so to date, perhaps this is a chance to grapple with the book through a new, less intimidating lens.

I recently watched the Crumb documentary directed by Terry Zwigoff, and felt a strong affinity with the man. His family makes my own look surprisingly mundane; and his quirkiness makes me feel less quirky. Criticisms have been levelled against Crumb that his representations of women are misogynistic. Whether or not this is true, I at least admire the frankness with which he has communicated his sexual appetite in the past. By conservative standards, Crumb’s treatment of sexual content in the Book of Genesis may be considered racy and mildly explicit, though anyone familiar with Crumb’s early work would suggest that he has mellowed with age.

This aside, Crumb’s illustrative vision is an inspiration. His drawings bring the Book of Genesis to life–and his lettering is exquisite–acute and ornate. No wonder that last week, the National Post published a three part series of full page reproductions from this fine volume in its print-based format. The New York Times has also included an excerpt from the book. What better way to appreciate it than to experience it directly?

Links:

Information about the UCLA Hammer Museum exhibition of the Book of Genesis here.

R. Crumb in Conversation with Francoise Mouly.

Instuds podcast of Jeet Heer and Dr. Paul Stanwood discussing Genesis

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