R. Crumb Re-Presents the Old, Weird Western Civilization

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By: Bill Kartalopoulos | October 13, 2009

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.”

Genesis details a clear narrative arc: God’s creation of the world and its inhabitants, humankind’s subsequent offenses and exile, and the covenant God establishes with a chosen lineage over succeeding centuries. And yet, the original prose often presents narrative discontinuities, lists, redundancies, and ambiguities, particularly in its earlier chapters. Crumb suggests in his introduction and endnotes that these point to Genesis’s own sources, incompletely edited to conceal evidence of an earlier, displaced matriarchy. Dutifully suppressing his own narrative voice, Crumb matches the book’s peculiar cadences with carefully drawn cartoon visualizations. His discontinuous panels sometimes highlight the text’s elisions and staccato rhythms, but embroider dry recitations of names and places with vivid details of setting and character. As the book progresses to dwell more minutely on events in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, the text’s increasingly episodic narrative pace permits a fuller deployment of Crumb’s traditional storytelling techniques.

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.

The human events of Genesis, though frequently tumultuous, sometimes permit image-making that recalls Crumb’s better known work: Adam joyously jumping Eve in the Garden of Eden, Noah drunk and naked in his tent, Pharoah’s lustful wife, scorned and shrieking after Joseph. In Crumb’s depiction, the Sodomite mob’s confrontation with Lot seethes with hostile, barely repressed lust. These moments of recognition suggest that what some might regard as Crumb’s “element” is nothing less than elemental. And if Genesis would speak to primal human questions, then the book must earn its own cover content advisory (“Adult supervision recommended for minors”) as surely as did Crumb’s first issue of Zap Comix (“For adult intellectuals only!”). These resonant, career-spanning labels imply a strange relationship between the counterculture Crumb represents and the American cultural forces that find in Crumb’s source justification for the suppression of work like his.

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.

In Genesis Illustrated, Crumb seems intent on exposing our old, weird Western Civilization by truthfully (if not Faithfully) illuminating its foundational document. Originally assembled to assert a blessed lineage and destiny for struggling people millennia ago, this text, convulsed by its own constructed history, is still, today, roiling the Middle East and being utilized to bar science from American classrooms. In a popular format, Crumb re-presents Genesis’s dynastic stories of human drama, violence, scandal and effort— as well as its regularly occurring fantastic, miraculous events—to force a contemporary consideration of this ancient, institutionalized text. Crumb’s literal comic book adaptat
ion of Western civilization’s original story becomes both a humanely rendered visual exegesis and an implicit cultural critique by an artist who has made a career of depicting repressed, unwelcome truths.