It took R. Crumb to get me to read the Bible.
As a typical American youth raised in a secular suburban household in the late 20th century, I read comic books, not the Bible. There was a copy on the premises (I still have the flaking, musty thing), and my parents had some vague religious backgrounds, but the family never went to church or demanded any fealty to God or Jesus or Church. School, for whatever reason, never mentioned the Bible, or the culture's background in the Judeo-Christian ethos. Obviously, the Bible is important as a text in order to understand certain subsequent literary works and ideas and to get jokes in Tom Lehrer songs, but for the most part I didn't care. I've been indifferent to religion my whole life.
Crumb, on the other hand, was raised as a Catholic but dropped the faith, according to his published letters and some of his stories, in his high school years. Now, here in his 66th year – his birthday was on August 30 – Crumb has turned to the sacred roots of our culture to comicize the first book of the Bible in The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb (W. W. Norton, 224 pages, $24.95, ISBN 978.0.393.06102.4, to be published officially in October, 2009, though as per industry standard that means late September). Crumb's Genesis is made up of an introduction, the 50 chapters themselves illustrated by Crumb, and commentary on the chapters at the end of the book. There's just one lingering question about the genesis of this project, however.
Why did he do it?
Since the invention of the mass marketed comic book, religious organizations have tried to harness that hedonistic, violent format for its own ends. The flip-book-sized religious allegories by Chick, themselves subverting the lurid Tijuana comics the way that early Christian interlopers took over and renamed pagan holidays, are one extreme example, but conventional companies, such as the Spire Christian Comics line of publications, took aspects of the New Testament or Jesus's life and relayed it conventionally, in flat prose and stale art, even going so far, as Crumb complains, to rewriting the dialogue and altering the stories. Perhaps part of Crumb's motivation was to right an old wrong, and he announces at the outset that he is going to be utterly faithful to the text, primarily the King James version, with variations from Robert Alter's translation.
Crumb may also have had an educational motivation. Though Crumb writes that he believes the Bible to be the work of men not the word of God, he has also written, in an introductory passage in The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book that "I believe in everything ... UFOs, Bigfoot, channeling, ESP ... I believe it all!." He doesn't believe the Bible as a religious text, but maybe he buys it as some kind of mystical or sublime text, and wants to convey its plausible contents to people such as me, who usually could care less about it. A noble endeavor, if nothing else.
The book may also be a technical exercise. Genesis is the longest comic book story Crumb has ever done, and it demands much more technical skill than any of his previous tales. As he mentions in the introduction, he had to study the garb, artifacts, landscape, and facial characteristics of the times – and with all the begets, Crumb has probably drawn more faces in this book that in all his other cartoons combined.
There is also the Jewish factor. Crumb has noted about himself in interviews that he has married two Jewish women and dated numerous others, and many of his business associates and friends are Jewish. Genesis may also be inspired by his interest in Jewish life, practice, customs, and history. What's funny is that the book, at least as Crumb portrays it, doesn't feel particularly Jewish, if all one knows of Judaism is what movies and sit-coms convey of the personalties and problems of the tribe. It's much more universal.
More important, though, is that R. Crumb's Book of Genesis is also the culmination of a trend that began to appear in his work in the 1980s. That's when, as editor of the Harvey Kurtzman-influenced, Help-like Weirdo he began to branch out, creating works such as his erotic fumetti stories starring himself and various callipygian women, but also a series of varied literary adaptations. Weirdo ran 28 issues, with Crumb officially editing the first nine, and Crumb also publicized the art of rising young cartoonists whose highly personal work appealed to him. Prominent among the newfound interest in other voices, other lives, was his version of passages from the diaries of James Boswell, an account of the last years of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, and the excerpts from Kraft-Ebbing's sexual taxonomy. In addition, elsewhere he illustrated a book on Kafka. Though on the surface he seemed to have forsaken the confessional comics of the '60s with their explicit sexual fantasies, Crumb also wrote parallel stories of domestic comedy about life with his wife Aline.
If in these adaptations Crumb appeared to drop the confessional impulse that had defined his career before, they were still, in a weird way, just as confessional as all his previous early stories. Crumb's Boswell was very much a Crumb character – or at least a lot like the Crumb figure of the confessional comics – in his artistic and sexual appetites, his tireless pursuit of sex alternating with intense discussions about art with equally talented colleagues. The Kraft-Ebbing excerpts allowed Crumb to recontextualize and explore from a bit of a distance his "perverse" sexual inclinations (he would be an interesting case for Kraft-Ebbing himself, or some modern equivalent, in that he appears to be a shoe and boot fetishist but with domineering tendencies rather then the typical masochist streak such connoisseurs share). More relevant to Genesis is the Philip K. Dick story, which explores the writer's mounting religious delusions. Like those earlier stories, Genesis also proves to be surprisingly personal. As Adam Gopnick writes in High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, "The connection to Boswell, however improbable, was touched with genius, for Boswell's artistic problem and Crumb's are alike: how to convert self-absorption into a comedy of egoism that will seem universal. Crumb's answer was to present his own story as folk tale, popular narrative, burlesque humor – as a comic strip."
But does it matter why Crumb initiated this project? Well, for one thing, if Crumb is approaching the material from a particular slant it will inform how to choses to edit, frame, or emphasize parts of the book. Though in the introduction he affirms that he didn't have a bias, he sincerely attempted to lay out Genesis accurately, as "a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes," the auteur theory about movie directors states that a great artist can't help but tilt the work toward his own personality, and the concept surely can apply to comic book artists in situations such as this.
What's ostensibly missing from the book? Many of the elements of Crumb's work that have been so memorable seem to be absent from this endeavor, among them the crowded street life, the funny animals, hallucinogens, the anguish of sexual loneliness, the gurus, the critique of middle class life and its hypocrisies, the earthy girls in their big boots giving men piggy back rides. Thin strappy toe-exposing sandals are such a poor substitute for thick leather encased legs!!!
Also missing are two key components of the Crumb aesthetic: music, one of Crumb's first loves; and his own writing voice. Crumb is proof, if proof is needed, that a great cartoonist also needs to be a great writer. His greatest stories, among them "It's Really Too Bad," "Dirty Dog," and the one page "Cradle to Grave" which is one of the funniest and saddest precis of what most of our lived lives are like, are writerly as well as illustrated texts. By taking on the voice of God, so to speak, he has silenced a part of himself that is distinctive.
Yet a moment's thought reveals that several Crumbian elements are still present, mutatis mutandis, in Crumb's Bible. The desert wandering Mr. Natural is transformed into the book's super-serious religious and community leaders. The street nomads of Crumb's comics become the wandering tribes, always under threat of relocations. There are orgies, and even passages of sexual competition between men, a standard Crumb fear or trope. For Crumb fanatics, these are pleasing linkages to his past iconic images.
Another recurrent Crumb theme is family life. The biblical Genesis, which seemingly is about little else, offers a rich vein of material to mine. Fallings outs between fathers and sons, competition between brothers, incestuous feelings (after Lot's wife turns into salt, Lot's daughters need to keep the tribe thriving and so get their dad drunk and seduce him in order to sire children. Crumb notes that there was no proscription against incest in Genesis itself, but later books, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, lay down the law). Crumb had two brothers and two sisters, most of them with unorthodox sexual inclinations, and with whom he was competitive, along with a somewhat cold, Don Draperish dad, and a '50s pill popping mother right out of Hubert Selby, Jr. These family concerns are mirrored in this book. Take the tale of Jacob and Esau, which occupies a lot of the middle of Genesis, and might be its primary tale. Isaac is old and going blind. He summons the elder son, Esau, whom he orders to bring back some savory game after which he will bestow a significant blessing on Esau. Unfortunately, Isaac's wife Rebekah overhears this conversation and tells the younger brother Jacob to circumvent the plan by bringing back some game before Esau and receive the blessing from the blind old man instead. It is not entirely clear why this blessing is so important within family or tribal tradition, but such a blessing apparently results in prosperous farms and people bowing down to you. It can only be given once. The trick works, and the situation leads to years of struggle and hostility, until the brothers are reconciled in old age. But interestingly, Genesis follows the subsequent exploits of Jacob, the "evil" or at least troubled brother, not Esau. Genesis – and Crumb – wants to follow the sinners, not the saints, to chronicle redemption not simply celebrate good.
Because Crumb's Genesis is such a faithful adaptation, it can't enter the realm of "masterpiece," but it is certainly a masterful endeavor. It's amazing how Crumb's thick line and crosshatching, which tends to create a dark world, works so well with desert and sunlight bound material. But there is a lot of "tension" in the Bible, and crosshatching and stress rays are a perfect way to underline that, like a musical score.
Thinking about how Crumb has managed to wrest Genesis from its role as religious tract to become another catalog of Crumb obsessions, it occurs to me that there is another massive book with a near-religious following that would make a perfect marriage with Crumb's style and sensibility. Crumb could do a marvelous comic book version of James Joyce's Ulysses.
Joyce's novel would benefit from many of the motivations that may have led Crumb to do Genesis. His version would make for a better adaptation than most of the other pseudo-Ulysses that exist in play or movie form. The book would also certainly be "educational" at least in making the complex text accessible to many new readers. The novel offers a sympathetic view of Jewish life, which might appeal to Crumb. And it would offer numerous technical challenges such as the beginning of the 11th chapter, called "Sirens," which begins with a music-style "overture."
Ulysses shares many of the features of Crumb's work. As in Crumb's comics, a lot of the book's social life takes place on the street. The avenue is also the arena in which Leopold Bloom scopes out alluring women as potential recipients of his erotic letters, or tries (and fails) to catch a glimpse of a comely ankle. Flakey Foont and Mr. Natural are, to stretch the imagination, similar to Stephen Dedalus and Bloom in their irascible guru-straying supplicant relationship. Other relationships in the book mirror Crumbian concerns, and there is a great deal of competition between fathers and sons, between family members, and between men for the attentions of women, mostly between Bloom and all the guys who are hot for Molly Bloom. And in the Nausicaä chapter, when Bloom masturbates on the beach to the vision of the lame Gerty MacDowell, and the famous Nighttown sequence set in Dublin's red light district, with its images of sexual shame and humiliation and horn-doggedness and domination and bootlicking, Crumb could exercise his curious sexual predilections. The only impediment to Crumb's implementing this concept is the unpredictability and inevitable resistance of the Joyce heirs and copyright holders to such things.
Mr. Crumb does not use computers or visit the World Wide Web so it is unlikely that he will ever read this suggestion, but on the off chance that he does encounter it, I offer it up gladly with no strings attached.