For anyone picking up The Book of Genesis Illustrated not already familiar with R. Crumb’s recent work, it might seem like the 1960s comic book artist’s transformation from cult figure to mainstream graphic novelist happened overnight. In fact, Crumb’s creative output across the last forty years has actually been substantial and ever evolving, including a dizzying array of blues and jazz record covers, sketchbooks, a coffee table book, a collaboration with Charles Bukowski in the ’80s, an illustrated biography of Franz Kafka in the ’90s, and occasional contributions to The New Yorker in the last several years.
Lauded as the father of underground comix (as they were known in the late ‘60s and early ’70s) and published by indie presses like Fantagraphics and Kitchen Sink, Crumb is anything but underground these days, with multiple collections by major publishers like W.W. Norton and Little, Brown. Several of his characters have been adapted for the screen, and the artist himself was the subject of a 1995 documentary directed by Terry Zwigoff (who later cast an actor to play the artist in the Harvey Pekar biopic American Splendor). His early work in Zap, Weirdo, and XYZ Comix helped cement his subversive, LSD-influenced hallucinatory style that defined a counterculture, with his signature distorted, long-legged stoners compelled to “Keep on Truckin.” Ostensibly innocuous tales, his stories never failed to touch on socio-political themes of his day: Catholicism, racism, feminism, and the Vietnam War.
For the last five years, Crumb has been laboring over a graphic retelling of the first book of the Bible, using multiple translations, primary source materials, Sumerian mythology, even movie stills from Hollywood Bible epics to inform his work. This might seem odd considering his predilection for drawing large-breasted Catholic schoolgirls in short skirts, but not when you consider Crumb’s primal instinct as a storyteller. The opportunity to render Genesis pictorially was the chance to tackle the great tropes of Western culture. The result is a sensitive and comprehensive exegetical approach, depicted without a trace of irony. It turns out that when divorced from theology, and instead treated as an historical text, the story of Genesis is a political story first and foremost, rife with intrigue, deception, scheming, incest, and, yes, brutal violence. It pivots around several polarized motifs—monotheism vs. polytheism, matriarchy vs. patriarchy, tribalism vs. civilization—themes that emerge graphically in a way they rarely do with the written word alone.
The artist has taken very few liberties with the translation, hewing so closely to the original as to be virtually unabridged; Crumb’s Genesis contains all the contradictions and the idiosyncrasies that could never be wholly reconciled even by the redactors of the Bible. It comes complete with the two very different creation stories, for instance, and all the many footnotes explicating the puns in the root origins of people’s names. In an accompanying set of annotations, Crumb reveals himself to be an amateur scholar of the Hebrew language and early Mesopotamian history. All of this is reflected in a drawing style that tends more toward realism than ever. Gone are the caricatures, the disproportionate limbs, the eye-bulging that defined so much of his early work. Instead, you get sympathetic portraits of the early forefathers and foremothers and a painstaking attention to detail about the geography, vegetation, and attire of the Fertile Crescent circa 2,000 B.C.E., give or take a few centuries. It borders on being over-researched if it weren’t so immersive.
Despite this vigilance for historical accuracy, readers will no doubt catch occasional references to Crumb’s past work that are universal, like a palimpsest revealing techniques that are nearly 50 years old. In some panels, God looks like an epic, full-sized “Mr. Natural,” whose long beard and bushy eyebrows can’t hide a stern expression when expelling Adam and Eve from Eden. A scene in which Isaac and Rebekah lay naked and intertwined, while not explicitly sexual, is a throwback to Crumb’s prehistoric romp “Cave Wimp.” And more than a few characters sweat explosively from their foreheads in that classic Crumb expression of panic and distress. In 1994, “Devil Girl Choco-Bars,” inspired by Crumb’s naughty Devil Girl character, came with a warning—“IT’S BAD FOR YOU!”—a slogan which Crumb defended with dead-pan candor “as a brilliant strategy in consideration of…a stupid, know-nothing generation of brain-dead morons who want nothing more than to be bad.”
The cover of Genesis Illustrated comes with a simpler admonition, though still personally conveyed in Crumb’s distinctive handwriting: “Adult supervision recommended for minors.” It’s cautionary advice that seems to have less to do with any nudity or profanity found inside—issues that once made his early comix taboo—and more to do with the violence that peppers the first book of the Bible. Often gruesome even when rendered in black and white, it’s the same bloodiness that can be seen daily in headlines and on televisions throughout the world. Apparently for Crumb, whose work has always resonated with the times, this isn’t only the oldest story ever told, it’s the same story still being told today.
This is a longer version of a piece that ran in the fall issue 109 of BOMB Magazine.
Paul W. Morris has been involved with the website in several capacities since early 2001, including editor, marketing consultant, event producer, and contributor. He was an editor at Viking Penguin and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review before becoming a freelance gun for hire. He’s killed time at Entertainment Weekly and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia staring into the abyss, but nothing stared back. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including his introduction to a recent translation of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. The former Director of Literary Programs at PEN America and Vice President of the Authors Guild, he currently serves as the Executive Director of the literary nonprofit House of SpeakEasy. He lives in New York City.