by R. Crumb
New York: Norton, 2009, 224 pp.
Reviewed by Leonard J. Greenspoon
Famed illustrator R. Crumb and the even more famous first book of the Bible: Is this a match made in heaven or in a location far more terrestrial?
No BAR reader is unfamiliar with the Book of Genesis, at least in its broad contours. For those not acquainted with R. Crumb, it is worth noting that he is well known as an “underground” artist, whose works (of which “Fritz the Cat” is probably the most widely recognized) feature satire and sexuality with a distinctive artistic style. How do these features figure in the present work?
The cover for his illustrated Book of Genesis consists primarily of a color illustration of God exiling Adam and Eve from the Garden. (Interestingly, the illustration of this action, narrated in Genesis 3, differs inside the book itself from this cover picture.) God, robed in white, with long white hair and a long beard, points an accusatory finger at the human couple as they walk, downtrodden, hand-in-hand from the verdure of the Garden to a forbiddingly desolate and uncertain future. Adam has a farm implement over his left shoulder, and Eve, casting a look back toward the Lord, is shedding tears. God looks pretty much the same throughout Crumb’s Genesis, and all of the human characters, male and female, bear more than a passing resemblance to their forebears, Adam and Eve respectively. All of this is in keeping with Crumb’s artistic reputation and, it might be argued, with the Biblical text itself.
Another part of Crumb’s reputation is apparently being highlighted by two notices also on the cover: “Adult supervision recommended for minors” and “The first book of the Bible graphically depicted! Nothing left out!” This is especially the case for those, like me, for whom the expression “graphically depicted” means, or at least used to mean, explicit presentation of sexual acts. Today, of course, almost anything and anyone can be given a graphic depiction; hence, the popularity of the term and genre graphic novel.
However we parse these warnings, we have been put on notice: Some scenes may not be suitable for the faint of heart. But, is it the fault (if it is indeed a fault) of Crumb or is it a feature of the Biblical text itself? Take, for example, the conniving of Lot’s daughters, who on successive nights get their father drunk and sleep with him (Genesis 19). Or Shechem’s sexual attack on Jacob’s daughter, Dinah (Genesis 34). These are raw acts when narrated verbally and, in Crumb’s vision, when portrayed graphically. In these and in similar cases, I find Crumb’s illustrations compelling; in addition, they force me as a viewer to confront these realities more viscerally than as a reader.
And let’s give credit to Crumb: As advertised, he illustrates every verse of every chapter of the Book of Genesis. Along with exciting scenes of destruction (think Sodom and Gomorrah) and battle (as Abraham’s wars against the chieftains in chapter 14), there are the genealogies (chapters 5, 10 and elsewhere) with literally dozens of individuals mentioned about whom we hear little or nothing elsewhere. Through his illustrations, Crumb manages to provide a personality for each of these people, and his artistic vigor (it is said that he worked for about five years on this project) doesn’t flag as we move from Creation to Joseph’s death.
I was drawn most to some of the telling details that Crumb presents that add an element of emotion to descriptions that might otherwise come across as rather flat. For example, I notice the tears of Eve (at least as portrayed on the front cover, shown at left), of the child Isaac (as his father binds him on Mt. Moriah in Genesis 22, at top), of Esau (when he begins to grasp the implications of Jacob’s deception and begs his father Isaac for a blessing also in Genesis 27, above), and of Joseph, who may come across as a bit too weepy even for me.
Crumb’s illustrations for the Joseph story also point to another facet that I appreciate. We as readers are explicitly told (in Genesis 42:23) that, before Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, an interpreter translated Joseph’s words for them. This is a nice touch, since a high official like Joseph would hardly have deigned to speak a Canaanite dialect even if he knew it. On several occasions, Crumb has Joseph speaking with what appear to be hieroglyphs in his bubble (comics generally use bubble to transmit dialogue), with the interpreter conveying his master’s thoughts to us, and to his brothers. When Pharaoh speaks to Jacob, the same device is used. I am not sure why I find this usage so fascinating; perhaps because it conveys so graphically (there’s that word again!) the sense of foreignness and power that Joseph’s foreign and powerless brothers would have experienced.
In his relatively brief introduction, Crumb tells us that, for his text, he made liberal use of the version by Robert Alter.1 In addition to Alter’s text, which supplements (or perhaps complements) the King James Version, Crumb also draws from Alter’s notes, which Crumb periodically sprinkles through his book.
Let us return to my opening paragraph: Is Crumb’s version more celestial or terrestrial? In my view, the latter. I don’t say this because of Crumb’s faith or lack thereof, but rather because, for me at least, his mastery of the material is most in evidence when he portrays humans, very fallible, very violent, very caring. I don’t find his portrayals of God and of divine-human interactions to be at all irreverent or distasteful, but (again, in my view) they are simply less evocative.
Or, to put it in other terms, through his illustrations, Crumb has decidedly and positively enriched the way that I read the Book of Genesis when humans and their world are the subject. But for God, the creator, the destroyer, the covenant partner, Crumb has not appreciably enhanced my vision. I invite all BAR readers to look through this volume and decide for themselves whether Crumb’s graphics go too far—or perhaps not far enough.
1. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004).
Leonard J. Greenspoon holds the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and he writes BAR’s “The Bible in the News.”