The Bible according to Crumb

October 25, 2009 • 11:43 am

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.

Crumb's Genesis NYTFig. 1. A snippet of Crumb’s Genesis (from the NYT review). Click to enlarge.


11 thoughts on “The Bible according to Crumb

  1. I don’t care for the bible, have never cared much for graphic art cartoons and I have never been a fan of Crumbs work, so this book holds little interest for me.

    Too bad it didn’t have a sarcastic bent of mockery of religion – I might have bought that.

  2. Point Number One.

    If you don’t like graphic novels, or movie adaptations, then of course you won’t enjoy this. It’s like saying “I don’t like spicy food, I can’t see why anyone would ever go to an Indian Restaurant”. It may be true, but it doesn’t mean that other people don’t enjoy Indian food.

    Point Number Two.

    I think the point of this is that it doesn’t need a sarcastic bent, or obvious parody. The source material represented faithfully is enough. It means you can’t gloss over unpleasant events with vague language or throwaway remarks.

    What I’m looking forward to is the religious people who will by it for their children without reading it or researching it first, simply on the strength of [Genesis + Comic book = For the kids.] You know it will happen. My friend’s sister bought her kids the “Brick Testament” Genesis stories for that reason.

  3. What Genesis demonstrates in dramatic terms are beliefs in an orderly universe and the godlike nature of man.

    Neither one. And what would “godlike nature of man” even mean?

    If it means anything, it means that humans are petty creatures like the god who is unwilling to take any sort of challenge from man, so denies him the tree of life.

    The flood is a story of a god willing to kill every human, but who happens to like Noah, so saves him and his household.

    The universe is orderly solely due to god, as was the standard Semitic conception in that area. Which reflected the idea that humans are to be ordered around, or they’ll be chaotic like the primordial ocean was–hardly a fine view of humans.

    The NYT either doesn’t know what the Bible teaches, or it doesn’t care, and wants to reinterpret it to fit the misconceptions of most religious people.

    Glen Davidson

  4. Jerry, I was also disappointed in the Lord of the Rings for the same reason—except that I had a very different image of Gollum. His skin was darker and he was more spiderlike—now if I read the books I cannot help but have all the actors faces as my mental image. The movies were great, but they kinda ruined the books for me.


    1. That is the reason I never go see any movie made from a book that I really enjoyed and for which I have a strong mental picture.

      For instance I never saw “The World According to Garp” after reading the book. That book gave such a mental picture that I refused to see the movie even though Robin Williams is an actor I enjoy.

  5. I’ve grown up on comics/bandes dessinée. But I think I don’t have much imagination, because I’ve rarely had the adaptation interfere with my reading.

    In fact, in my head Jeremy Brent is Sherlock Holmes, David Suchet is Hercule Poirot, Joan Hickson is ms Marple.

    The only ‘problem’ I recall is Brother Cadfael, which I haven’t actually seen.

  6. As a Baby Boomer (b. 1954) I adored the work of R. Crumb.
    As for satirical value, surely we all remember the most devastating parody of Sarah Palin: Tina Fey (a dead ringer) repeating, word for word, what Palin herself had said to Katie Couric. I was damn near rolling in the floor.
    No exaggeration was required.

  7. It would be interesting to see the ‘takes’ that the various delusional Abrahamic sects have on this literal rendering of one English version of the Hebrew.
    The deceitful lying bastards will be in two minds (to match their two-faces) as to whether or not support it, or condemn it!

  8. Jerry, you’re an anti-believer. You need to work on your suspension of disbelief to enjoy movies of books you read. You were probably just born into skepticism, but it can be overcome with practicing fantasy-based thinking.

    Actually, very few people are familiar enough with Genesis that they can cite most of the major plot points with any accuracy. One of the reasons is most people haven’t seen a visual version of the story. I would guess even the most bible-reading people recall events of Genesis through movies they’ve seen. And I would bet dollars to donuts that the best recall of the Old Testament are the scenes depicted in The Ten Commandments movie.

    Also, Crumb is the classic example of an artist driven by his own desires, and doesn’t write a book with anyone but himself in mind.

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