The National Catholic Review
Jon M. Sweeney
The Book of Genesis according to R. Crumb
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If you are above a certain age, you probably haven’t looked at a comic book since the days of Superman and Archie. (Archie’s getting married, by the way.) And if you are below that same certain age, chances are that you haven’t read the Bible much. The infamous Robert Dennis Crumb is about to change all that.

R. Crumb, as he styles himself, was born in 1943. By the late 1960s he was at the center of the countercultural arts movement in San Francisco, creating the first issue of Zap Comix in 1968. No one had ever seen a comic book like it. Crumb called it “psychedelic,” and in keeping with the spirit of the times, he credited his use of LSD for the vivid style he created. Kids raised on Archie and Veronica were in for something new.

Crumb has always upset people; in fact, he likes doing so. He belongs to the modern—more than the postmodern—tradition that believes art is more successful when it unsettles us. Still, Crumb leaves people with the feeling that he is just messing around rather than trying to offend. Since the 1960s, for instance, his illustrations of African-Americans have been exaggerated in the direction of physical stereotypes. Likewise, he has often characterized women in overly sexualized ways: they are often huge, Amazon-like figures. At the same time, Crumb’s imposing women are sometimes shown in physical subservience to equally “buff” men. But again, Crumb says that he is just having fun.

For these reasons, Crumb’s illustrated version of the Book of Genesis has been widely anticipated, even dreaded, since the first announcement of the project. What would the notorious illustrator do with this material? Those who take the Bible seriously are not interested in someone casually poking fun at it. Aficionados know that the first issue of Zap Comix included on the front cover: “Fair Warning: For Adult Intellectuals Only.” R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis, just published by W. W. Norton, includes this legend on its cover: “Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors” and scrawled onto an image of a scroll: “The first book of the Bible graphically depicted! Nothing left out!” Oy vey.

A depiction of God—that is, the Torah’s YHWH—also appears on the front cover of this new Genesis, so Crumb clearly is not aiming to please Jews with his artistic efforts. Anthro-pomorphic representations of the deity are offensive to many and so may render Crumb’s book unusable to a great many believers. Still, his new Genesis is receiving notice from Christians, Jews and people who would never otherwise buy or read the Bible.

In a recent interview with Comic Art Magazine, Crumb talked about the earnest comic-book presentations of the Bible produced decades ago and distributed in Sunday schools: “The drawing’s not very good, sloppily done. And they also just make [stuff] up to gloss over and fill in whole passages. They have Eve saying, ‘Mmm, this apple tastes really good.’”

Crumb’s illustration does not gloss over anything. It’s all here in graphic detail: God creating Adam from dirt, Cain’s bloody slaughtering of Abel, Lot’s incest with his daughters, and plenty of drunkenness, prostitution, pillaging, drowning, other murders, including human sacrifice—all in honest and salacious detail. That’s the Bible, after all. (The artist uses the fine translation of Genesis by Robert Alter, a professor at the University of California, with an occasional nod to the King James Version.)

The familiar characters of Genesis are shown doing some unfamiliar things. Most memorable is the panel that illustrates, “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh…. And the two of them were naked, the man and the woman, and they were not ashamed.” Not ashamed, indeed. They are depicted expressing joy as well as a ravenous physical appetite for each other.

Crumb’s God is not a domesticated one, nor a benign or fatherly figure. He physically breathes into Adam to create him; he snarls when talking about destroying the world by the flood. In his illustration of the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, Crumb includes three large panels for the verse, “And the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord from out of the heavens.” The second and third panels show a vivid depiction of the most painful sorts of deaths, framed only by the words “from the Lord” and “from out of the heavens.”

Even the serpent who deceives Adam and Eve is a creature far different from what many might imagine. Before God pronounces the curse upon him, “On your belly shall you crawl,” the serpent is ominously human and reptilian—with a bit of alien thrown in.

My copy of Crumb’s Genesis was sitting on my coffee table last week when the 8-year-old son of a friend stopped by with his mother and older sister. The boy studies short portions of the Torah each week in Hebrew school. He couldn’t take his eyes off my Crumb. His mother finally took it away from him, not sure if the boy’s interest would be well rewarded or not. I believe it would be.

At the same time, I thought to myself: Thank God Crumb didn’t decide to illustrate the Koran.

Jon M. Sweeney is the author of several books including Almost Catholic (Jossey-Bass) and Cloister Talks: Learning from My Friends the Monks (Brazos Press).

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