Thursday, October 22, 2009

WFJ Book Club #2: The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb

This book marks my first substantial introduction to the work of R. Crumb, one of the most brazen and controversial, yet venerable, artists in the world of comics. I know him solely by reputation, and his is perhaps the definition of colorful (though he prefers, to all appearances, the look of black and white in his own work). A product of 60s counterculture and LSD, Crumb has accumulated a high charge of of shock value over his career; he is after all the creator of Fritz the Cat, a strip later adapted into the first X-rated animated film in American history. Let it be said, there are a great many people who no doubt find the presence of Crumb's mark on holy scripture to be blasphemy in and of itself. Surely Crumb knows this, and his illustrations he could never be accused of prudery; however, the end product is a surprisingly modest and thoroughly serious adaptation.

The text of the book is Genesis, down to the very last verse, melded together from several versions. The introduction especially cites Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses as a source, but others, including the King James Version, were used. It also contains footnotes to help explain some of the book's more obscure puns and linguistic tricks, though not anywhere near the scholarly depth found in most conventional versions. The text is rendered in an unmistakeably comic book style, all-caps and with dramatic punctuation - never before has a Bible seen so many exclamation points! Chapter divisions remain in place, but the individual verses are no longer marked in the text (they would only get in the way). Dialog goes in word balloons, where it belongs, but never drops out of its proper place in any given verse, a testament to expert scripting.

The art is where most of the interpretive work is done. Crumb mostly plays it straight, showing literal depictions of what is described in the text. This is where the controversy is born: when the text describes sex, violence, or both, the artist supplies the imagery. Chapter 19, wherein Lot and his daughters commit incest, contains easily the most censorship-baiting imagery in the whole book; but while graphic, in context the pictures are not quite pornographic, and they are not dwelt upon, with only two panels devoted to the sex acts themselves. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah on the previous page, meanwhile, is a full page of charred bodies writhing in agony, as fire rains down upon a horrifying cityscape of destruction.

Crumb's style is devoted to detail, with both background and foreground objects treated to a nearly equal avalanche of tiny pen strokes, all bounded by chaotic, almost squiggly outlines. There are pervasive elements of cartoon style, like emotive backgrounds and surprise lines (because Biblical characters are often surprised), but the book is also obsessively realistic. Extensive research shows in the detailed accuracy of clothing, equipment, and architecture. The end of Chapter 3 even includes realistic Cherubim; not the fat babies of Valentines day cards, but winged lions straight from the mythology of the ancient Near East.

Genesis includes a number of genealogies and "nation tables," exceedingly long lists of people begotten by other people which most readers, myself included, tend to skip. Crumb, however, seizes the opportunity to show off the fruits of his research, with scenes from family and working life, presenting visually what is ultimately the point of these genealogies; the miraculous proliferation of human life. Most of the names listed belong to characters who don't have very much to do in the story, but the pictures bring them to life anyway, providing an important visual bridge from the time of Adam to the time of Noah, and so on to the time of the Patriarchs.

Though the text is not altered, the pictures add a new emotional subtext that reveal the author's interpretation. Facial expressions do an incredible amount of leg work; when Adam blames Eve for feeding him the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, she gives him a subtle, dirty look that speaks volumes about gender politics. When Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him the blessing meant for Esau, the latter's desperate reaction is beautifully enhanced by his wild eyes and tears. Actions are backed up by emotions, which words alone often fail to convey thoroughly.

These pieces never add up to a ham-handed counter-argument against the text, but they do confirm the author's position. When the Bible describes God creating humans twice, it's easy for a true believer to fuse the two events into one in his mind. When Crumb draws the event twice, it becomes an affirmation of the scholarly view that they are, in fact, two separate stories, stitched together by priests into a roughly coherent whole. As Crumb admits in the introduction, he does not believe in Genesis, or any other part of the Bible, as an infallible account of real happenings. For him, Genesis is among the foundational myths of western civilization, and he wants to do the story justice in the modern age.

If Crumb's work has a fault, I must say that its scope is too small. The book ends with the death of Joseph, and the stage clearly set for the events of the book of Exodus. Putting together an entire Bible in this manner would have taken many years of painstaking research (Crumb spent four years alone on this one), but separating Genesis from the rest of the Bible, especially its four companions in the Torah, gives a necessarily incomplete picture of the whole of the Judeo-Christian traditional stories. Exodus especially is among the most dramatic, and well-known, of Biblical books, and so it seems a shame to leave it out.

Like Crumb, I do not accept a literal interpretation of Genesis, but I readily perceive the value of a literal visual representation of it. If the words themselves have value for us today, then the pictures must serve to emphasize the words. This is the real strength of Crumb's work, and the strength of the medium of comics, allowing the artist to cut in both directions at once; to revel in the visual splendor of myth, while supporting a sober and thoughtful subtext.

The last few pages of the book feature commentaries by Crumb on various chapters, including some illuminating examples of how his research influenced his depictions, and his theories on the significance of certain obscure passages. It's a nice bit of amateur scholarship, worth reading for a better understanding of the story proper.

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