Robert Crumb’s new, long-form comics adaptation of the Book of Genesis may be more immediately accessible to casual graphic novel readers than to devotees of the celebrated cartoonist’s satirical, psychedelic, sexual, and endlessly self-excavating short-form comics of the past forty-two years. But this fascinating project, though vastly different from Crumb’s best-known work in tenor and form, is impelled by many of the same confrontational strategies and ethical preoccupations that mark his singular career: one that has—until now—resisted the fast-drying conventions of the graphic novel format.
Indeed, The Book of Genesis Illustrated is a bookstore-ready graphic novel debut with a killer high concept: Countercultural antihero R. Crumb, iconic as comics’ greatest iconoclast, has, at 65, taken on the Word of God. There is no more notoriously recalcitrant American cartoonist, and one can truly say that the source text is bigger than Jesus. The book’s quick pitch suggests a blasphemous bestseller, guaranteed to supply throaty laughs to its secular readers—if it doesn’t inspire violent protests among the faithful.
But since Crumb first announced this project in 2005, he has repeatedly insisted that his treatment of Genesis would be respectful and literal. And he has kept his word. In fact, Crumb has kept all the words. Massaging together various translations, Crumb’s elaborately hand-drawn and hand-lettered adaptation incorporates every single word of its prose source. This literalist strategy is distinct from most approaches to adaptation, including Crumb’s own less extensive, earlier treatments of works by Kafka, Krafft-Ebing, Boswell, and Sartre. If the Biblical Genesis is not sacred to Robert Crumb as divine writing (and, he confesses in his introduction, it isn’t), its text remains functionally sacred as source material for an auteur who has chosen, for this project, to produce his adaptation as a self-described “straight illustration job.”
Throughout, Crumb’s fine but unfussy pen drawings stand alongside their prose source, revealing his choices without obscuring their origins. This largest self-contained piece of work by Crumb to date showcases his virtuoso ability to incorporate densely crosshatched detail into functionally narrative cartoon drawing. But compositionally—and therefore dramatically—Crumb keeps his images fairly neutral, even deadpan. He generally avoids outsized panels and oblique points of view, hallmarks of burlesque and melodrama, to keep this story as grounded as possible in basic human terms. The world of Crumb’s Genesis is a modest one of herds and huts, in which both sustenance and status are measured in hard-won material dimensions.
Characters literally proliferate within Crumb’s well-realized environments. His Biblical people are frequently scruffy, sometimes surly, sometimes shabby, and the book’s genealogical accounts teem with countless invented faces in a variety of attitudes. Crumb invests this cast of thousands with cultivated observation of both physiognomy and character, and his characters, even when only briefly glimpsed, resonate authentically as flawed strugglers. More august Biblical figures project recognizable human motivations, even in the book’s most heightened circumstances. Crumb’s aged Abraham, submerging grief into duty, is rigidly stoic as he prepares to sacrifice his only son.
But for the most part, Crumb is as disciplined, methodical, and restrained as his source text permits. The book gains some verve when the stentorian character of God periodically appears. Radiating energy and brooding over his creation, he is most vividly made of the visual stuff of cartooning. Many of Crumb’s most dramatically presented visuals depict the book’s horrific miracles: the great flood drowning all humanity, fire and brimstone raining upon Sodom and Gomorrah. Revealingly, the book’s most conventionally “comic book”-like passages illustrate events that most directly require and engender the faith that continues to privilege this text as something more than literature.
Crumb, raised on comic books and other post-war mass media, is famously a dedicated collector (and sometimes performer) of old roots and blues music. In his comics, he repeatedly takes as his subject the evolution of modern, Western culture, from folk tradition to merchandised pop and back again. His more overt cultural commentaries pointedly recall, re-enliven, and mourn the pre-industrial folk culture of what Greil Marcus once called “the Old, Weird America.” The title of one Crumb story asks, “Where Has It Gone, the Beautiful Music of Our Grandparents?” Crumb immediately answers: “It died with them, that’s where it went.” His deeply sensitive body of work reverberates with his acid-tinged vision of modern life as a vain and futile demonic dance toward oblivion.