Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Book Review- R. Crumb's Book of Genesis Illustrated

"Noah was a drinker. Abraham was a liar. Sarah was a manipulator. Lot was a compromiser. Jacob was a deceiver. Job was arrogant. Moses was hot-tempered. Joshua was undiscerning. Gideon was idolatrous. Sampson was lustful. Eli was passive. Saul was insecure. David was violent. Solomon was a hedonist. Elijah was given to self-centeredness. Jonah was given to racism. Isaiah was given to evil speaking. Jeremiah was given to complaining."
- Arturo G. Azurdia III
(as a pure parenthetical, having nothing to do with the rest of this review, to point others toward another thing I've been excited about recently, some of the better sermon series I've heard in the past year are Azurdia's series on Revelation and Steve Brown's series on radical grace. Both of which I would recommend to anyone.)

The above quote serves to illustrate the vast imperfections of the Fathers of the Faith. They were gritty and flawed like all flesh, like all of us. They failed in ways that all of us fail (which also points to the need for a Savior.) In a church culture that favors the pastel-colored, soft-edged nursery wall version of Noah's Ark, rather than a devastating image of God's wrath, it is not difficult to see why it's easy to lose track of the earthiness of the core text. It's also easy in such a climate to lose a personal, visceral connection with the text. Enter Robert Crumb.

The book I'm reviewing, for those of you who don't know, is an illustrated version of the book of Genesis, in the fashion of a graphic novel, by a very well known underground comics artist who made his career in the 1960s and '70s. His famous characters include Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, also the "Keep on Truckin'" guy. He's one of those anti-establishment artists who has stuck around long enough to become an establishment artist through time and no effort of his own. Once his work got banned, now his work gets national awards. Some of his more well known works include themes of sex and drugs. Also his earlier work was marked by a zany sense of humor. The marketing push of this particular volume might have surprised some old fans who hadn't been following his career very closely.
Which unfortunately leads me right off the bat to one of my criticisms of the book. My two main criticisms are the introduction and the commentary which serves as the afterward. The introduction read a bit to me like Crumb taking great pains to assure his audience that this is not his "Slow Train Coming" album. He looked at the project as a straight illustration job and in that I think he mainly succeeded. He also points out that other illustrated Bible texts, largely put out by religious artists funded by religious institutions, tend to add or remove parts for clarity or doctrinal agendas by people who would otherwise claim the text to be divinely inspired. Crumb does not believe this text to be divinely inspired, yet he has not deviated from the text at all as far as he knows (Crumb also wasn't commissioned by a church. He chose the material himself.) I found Crumb's introduction a little frustrating, first of all with what I thought was a craven need to explain himself to his fans; but more to the point, the work should be able to stand if no one knew who R. Crumb was. The art speaks for itself. I found the introduction superfluous.

Since I've hit the criticism portion of my review, let's get the other one out of the way and then I can get on to the praise. The commentary in the back I found embarrassing. Crumb reveals himself to be anything but an expert on the material, he cites pop-vaguely-spiritualized books on biblical figures that would be laughed out of even the most liberal archeology departments of universities. He writes, in my assessment, like a man who was turned on to Steinem era feminism 40 years ago, has stuck to that point of view without the slightest change ever since, and may even be trying to impress a particular audience. I mean at this point in history calling God in scripture "patriarchal" is a fusty old statement borne from a gross misunderstanding of the character revealed in the text. He also does the now age old bait and switch of siting "many scholars" and stating the these stories are an amalgam of several early Sumerian texts without providing a lick of evidence. The mentions of the struggle between the matriarchal and patriarchal seem like he was referring to the different book than the one I just read.

Having said that, I don't think Crumb is seeking to offend anyone, and it's his book. He can say whatever he wants in his commentary and, as far as biblical criticism goes, it's pretty tame by today's standards. Again, even to the point where I personally found it unnecessary.

He approached the project as a serious work of art; and I think he absolutely succeeds magnificently. I think he approached the text with reverence and an attempt at accuracy and even says as much in the commentary. There are no visual jokes and nothing I found disrespectful to the narrative. I don't think the sex and violence is meant to rub believers' nose in what actually is written in their sacred text. If a believer reacts in that way, as some seem to already have, I would suggest that they may want to seek a fuller knowledge on what Genesis actually says. There is nudity, lust and sex, there is gruesome murder and war, there is death, drowning and famine. Crumb illustrates exactly what is written in the text and Adam and Eve do not magically find themselves behind bushes until they discover the necessity of fig leaves. Personally I applaud Crumb for it, not out of any love for the darker sides of life, but for his honesty in his art. I'm not sure what it says about the church that we would never allow such honesty in our own illustrations (although I get that there are usually children present in churches and that has a lot to do with it.)

Crumb's theological ignorance very rarely comes through. There are a few moments, for example when God says right after the Fall "Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, he might reach out and take as well from The Tree of Life and live forever," God has an expression like it's a terrible epiphany for Him, complete with hand over mouth. As though God were surprised. But really that's one of the very few examples I can come up with.

Another thing I would point out to my fellow believers out there if any still remain skeptical, I would remind you that if we relied solely on believers for religious art, we would have little and the bulk of it of poor, toothless quality. Compare Thomas Kinkade, that horrid mass producer of mediocrities, to Michelangelo or Da Vinci. Now look up some biographical information on Michelangelo or Da Vinci. Which gives me the opportunity to once again make one of my favorite arguments that a great work of art should continue to be as great (or even greater) a work of art if you remove the artist's signature.

The book itself is a masterpiece.
He used a strange mixture of Robert Alter's Five Books of Moses Translation and the King James Version of the Bible. The former being a modern, slightly loose translation and the latter being what I imagine Crumb would see as an appeal to an authoritative text. It works and it works well for his purposes. I think Crumb does better with an external script. In his own work, his writing can be a bit awkward, in my opinion, but he shines when he has Moses or Harvey Pekar writing his script.

The art is stunning. The detail is gorgeous and the expressions are compelling, often even heartbreaking. I think Alan Moore is the only other comic medium artist that has brought tears to my eyes. Crumb even takes the time to draw a portrait of each name in the genealogical lists, making even those sections engaging.

Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, Jacob's ladder, the flood, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the destruction of Sodom especially stick out to me as staggering. This is an artist in the fullness of his craft and genius. When God tells Noah of the coming flood, when Israel comes to Joseph, the heartbreak of Hagar, the wicked men of Sodom, the dread of the baker and cup bearer in prison with Joseph and so much more are marked with such subtle and so very real emotions in the faces of the characters. Even God is made awesome even while retaining the archetypal anthropomorphism of an old man with a flowing beard.

I would recommend this book to anyone. Heartily in fact, I would urge you to have a copy in your library. As I've said, this is bound to be one of Crumb's masterpieces. It is a wonderful book. It captures the humanity and the very raw nerve emotional content of the text. It strives to be honest and the very few bits I personally felt were mis-steps still served as rich conversation starters in my house.

In his winter years, Crumb has produced a fresh and masterful piece of religious art. Crumb continues in his anti-establishment career because who else in the art establishment is making fresh and masterful religious art in 2009?


  1. Who knew you were such a gifted critic? Move over Tim Challies, here comes Paulus Torchus.

    I thought this was very well written, unafraid to confront the behavior/works oriented in the Christian crowd, and willing to admit/acknowledge the stain/filth that is from cover to cover in Genesis.

    When I saw you recommend this book, a while back, I immediately ordered it, and have it in my stack to read.

    I have glanced through the book, and look forward to enjoying another cruise through our world's beginnings, and seeing it through the eyes of the wild, and wooley Mr. Crumb.

    One wonders, now that he has at least read this text, in spite of his written comments, if there might be a seed planted in this man.

    Only time will tell.

  2. Wow, thanks, Dave.

    I wonder that too, especially since, according to what he says (and doesn't say) in the introduction, the story comes through almost in spite of his perspective.

  3. Hmmmm...never having heard of Mr. Crumb (I was raised in a corn field) it wouldn't be my first pick off the shelf, but you have struck a chord of interest. And I like the illustrations you've included...sooo, maybe!

  4. I actually think you might be better off not knowing Crumb before reading this. I hope you do check it out and enjoy it. Although, as I said, do be aware that the earthy parts are also illustrated in this version.