If you grew up in the 60s, you could hardly have missed the underground comic artist R. Crumb. Creator of Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, Crumb worked out his neuroses in public (see the movie Crumb for the backstory), becoming immensely popular among hippies having a penchant for the grotesque.
Crumb has now become pretty mainstream, publishing his newer pieces in The New Yorker and showing his work in galleries, where it fetches high prices. His latest production is an illustrated book of the Bible, The Book of Genesis Illustrated. It’s reviewed in today’s New York Times by David Hadjou, a professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and music critic for The New Republic.
This isn’t the Crumb you’d expect from his earlier work in Zap Comics. Crumb does it straight, without exaggerated grotesqueries, women with large rumps, or the like. A sample is below, and you can see another here. I’ve seen larger excerpts, and clearly Crumb has made a serious effort to turn the Bible into graphic art rather than a religiously-themed comic. Dismissing the book a priori as a mockery of religion is a big mistake. As Hadjou says:
Crumb’s book is serious and, for Crumb, restrained. He resists the temptation to go all-out Crumb on us and exaggerate the sordidness, the primitivism and the outright strangeness (by contemporary standards) of parts of the text. What is Genesis about, after all, but resisting temptation?
Hadjou goes on to praise the book. But at the end of his review he can’t resist one little zinger:
For all its narrative potency and raw beauty, Crumb’s “Book of Genesis” is missing something that just does not interest its illustrator: a sense of the sacred. What Genesis demonstrates in dramatic terms are beliefs in an orderly universe and the godlike nature of man. Crumb, a fearless anarchist and proud cynic, clearly believes in other things, and to hold those beliefs — they are kinds of beliefs, too — is his prerogative. Crumb, brilliantly, shows us the man in God, but not the God in man.
It always helps to truckle to the faithful — something that’s becoming house policy at The New York Times.
In truth, I was a bit disappointed by Crumb’s book, not because it’s not engrossing or artistic, but because when I read a book, whether it be Genesis or Middlemarch, I always conjure up visual — and auditory — images of the scene. (Think about this when you’re reading a novel. Are you imagining what things look like?) And, as expected, my images and sounds never comport with those of other people. That’s why I didn’t like the movie Lord of the Rings (Gollum was pretty faithful to my imagination, but the depilated, rarely-hungry hobbits let me down), and thought that the animated versions of Peanuts were dire (Charlie Brown didn’t sound right). And, it’s still the Bible, so Crumb’s imagination, so wild and bizarre in his earlier pieces, is constrained by a text that we already know well. In the end, I can’t imagine who Crumb saw as his audience for this book. I doubt that it will be bought by the faithful, although it’s currently #8 on Amazon, and reviewer Greta Christina considers it a “must-read” for atheists.