"The Book of Genesis Illustrated"
Comic Arts: R. Crumb Inks the Book of Genesis
Sunday, October 18, 2009
R. Crumb, the underground cartoonist, has illustrated Genesis, the first book of the Bible.
It starts out with brass-band grandeur: the Creation. "When God began to create heaven and earth . . ." Not just something out of nothing, but everything out of nothing.
"And God said, 'Let there be light.' "
The words come from both the King James Version and a recent translation by Robert Alter. The pictures come from Crumb's pen, the same sort of art pen that he's done all of his life's work with -- all of it, no pastels, watercolors, pencil, just this pen scritching away for half a century in a fury of crosshatching and black-and-white starkness. He's that geeky kid in the class who drew all the time with the funny-looking pen, a Rapidograph, probably, and the boys wanted him to draw porn, which Robert Crumb did, publishing a lot of it in '60s underground comics such as Zap or Despair.
A lot of his stuff was funny, like the "Keep on Truckin' " sequence that ended up on T-shirts and vans all over America, and a lot was porn: fetishy comic extravaganzas featuring geeky little males in erotic combat with big-bottomed women with massive legs. In all of it, everything was rounded, Disney-style, but with hair on the legs, nipple pops and people skulking down city sidewalks under telephone-pole skies.
God said . . . R. Crumb? Here they are, together at last on the first page of this book, Crumb drawing God as if he were a madman inventor, beard and hair down to his ankles, and the whites of his eyes showing over the tops of his irises and his hairy, thick-fingered hands grasping what looks like a combination of a circle saw and a black hole, "without form, and void."
Digression: Actually, God appeared 40 years ago in a Crumb comic-book story called "Dirty Dog." Back then, he was a malevolently gleeful bunny operating a television camera and saying, "Hi! I'm God! Let's get going!" Beneath him, Dirty Dog skulks down a city street accompanied by blues lyrics -- "Rather drink muddy water, Lord, sleep in a hollow log, than to be up here in New York treated like a dirty dog." Poor DD ends up slavering over magazines in a porn store, and the bunny is long gone.
Religion has never been far from Crumb's mind, thanks in part to a troubled Catholic boyhood.
But God said R. Crumb should illustrate Genesis?
It's not as long a reach as you might think. I'm guessing there will be much celebration of the outrageous liberality, the thrilling perversity of giving Crumb the job, but in fact, after some reading you see that he's perfect for it, that there's a lot of Dirty Dog in Genesis and a stupendous amount of squalid human failing of the sort that Crumb has always mined for his comedy.
The big difference between this book and Crumb's other work is that there's no comedy, except on the dustjacket, which lures potential buyers with an ironic: "Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors," and "The first book of the Bible graphically depicted! NOTHING LEFT OUT!" That's Crumb's sense of humor, and it's the last you'll see of it. He tells the story the way it's always been told.
"And God said, 'Let the earth bring forth living creatures of each kind, cattle and crawling things and wild beasts,' " and so on through the creation of Adam and Eve, and then the forbidden fruit, the expulsion from the Garden, Cain slaying Abel, mankind condemned to feed itself by work, "the sweat of your brow," the end of the free-lunch program that was Eden.