Note from Eden: I actually don’t think I need to introduce this too much since my mom does a wonderful job with the context. I was happy to give her my copy of the book and she was clearly more qualified to review it than I was.
The Genius of R. Crumb’s The Book Genesis Illustrated
My earliest memory of R. Crumb formed when I was in the eighth grade. “Keep on Truckin’ “ was the motto that set the stage for my teenage years.
I don’t remember why, but I even made a small figurine out of papier-mâché, painted it and put a little tie on him. I still have the little guy!
But, other than his early one-page cartoon and his poignant work, “A Short History of America,” R. Crumb’s artwork strikes me as too obscene and leering for me to be a fan.
I’m not particularly a fan of the Book of Genesis, either, I found it one of the more tedious books of the Bible when I read the Old Testament many years ago. It’s got its high points – The Creation, Noah and the Flood, and the Story of Joseph – but all the begats and stories that don’t seem to have a point can put the reader in scan mode.
Still, R. Crumb and the Book of Genesis turns out to be a brilliant pairing of which I am a fan. With his assurance that he is faithful to the text, I felt free to let the characters tell about life thousands of years ago. Each frame of Crumb’s drawings are dense with his signature crosshatching, rich detail, and real sense of time and place. The people are humans in motion, full of life and expression.
This is not to say that The Book of Genesis Illustrated is solemn or reverent. Crumb may have intended a straightforward telling, but the very style of his artwork colors the events with humor and satire. God is a man with a great flowing beard, all the women are round and voluptuous, and each hero has dumbfounded look on his face when life gets tough. And it gets tough a lot in Genesis.
No detail is spared in the illustration, from hairdos and clothing to flocks of sheep and terrain. Crumb takes the time to draw a portrait of all the sons of everyone, which gives us something to look at while all the begats and lists of descendants go on and on.
What I came to realize is how perfect Crumb’s artwork is suited to the text. With stories filled with incest, deceit, sex, love, murder, jealousy and greed, his lusty, brazen mode of drawing brings flesh and blood to the events. He takes every opportunity to draw bare-breasted women, couples engaging in sex, and acts of violence. It is doubly shocking, for example, when two daughters, for lack of men, get their own father drunk and have sex with him.
Moments of raw emotion are present, too, as when Abraham keens over this dead wife, Sarah, or when Rachel finally gives birth, and when Joseph weeps into the neck of the younger brother he thought he’d never see again.
If the narrative seems hard to understand at times, spending extra time studying the frames adds insight. It also helps to turn to Crumb’s commentary at the end of the book, which sheds additional light on this ancient time in history.
As much fun as The Book of Genesis Illustrated is, I look forward to Crumb’s interpretation of other books of the Old Testament. Imagine what he could do with the characters Moses, David, Daniel, Ruth, and Esther.
I’ll bet he’s working on it now. Keep on Truckin’, Robert.
Tracy Miller is a designer and writer. Check out her work at Tracy Miller Designs.