The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb

Review by Ed Sizemore

Crumb doesn’t follow any organized religion; in fact, he might be an atheist. In the introduction, he tells us that he doesn’t believe that the Bible is the Word of God, or even inspired by God. Yet he strove to produce the most straightforward, faithful-to-the-text, illustrated version of Genesis. And succeeded. Every word found in the Biblical text is included in Crumb’s version. Further, Crumb didn’t make up additional dialogue or narrative scenes. What you get is the Biblical text and nothing but the Biblical text.

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb cover
The Book of Genesis
Illustrated by R. Crumb
Buy this book

Let’s talk briefly about the translation of Genesis used. The majority of the text comes from Robert Alter’s translation, but Crumb did edit and revise the translation where he thought he could make it read more smoothly. For some revisions, he used the King James version of Genesis, and some wording is original to Crumb himself. What we have is a perfectly fine translation. There are no major alterations or radical word changes. Crumb stays as faithful to the original text as any other editor.

Now on to the part everyone is really interested in, the artwork. Here I think I might disappoint some people: I wasn’t shocked or scandalized by what I found in Crumb’s drawings. I’m very familiar with the Biblical text and familiar enough with Crumb’s work to know what I could expect before I opened the book. I knew that Adam and Eve walked around the garden naked in chapter 3. I knew that Crumb was going to draw them both in all their glory. And he did. There are no low-hanging branches, no hiding behind bushes, and no conventionally placed hands and arms. I’m well aware that in chapter 19, Lot gets drunk and has sex with his daughters. Sure enough, Crumb draws the incestuous copulations. The couple isn’t making love under the blankets, there are no well-placed shadows, and no use of shadows on the wall. You see what they’re doing in full detail.

Crumb’s lack of modesty and decorum is certain to upset conservative Christians, Jews, and Muslims. But the cover comes with “Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors” and “The First Book of the Bible Graphically Depicted! NOTHING LEFT OUT!” advisories. So even if a reader is unfamiliar with who R. Crumb is, they can’t say they weren’t amply warned. Let’s be honest, Christian bookstores won’t be stocking this next to other illustrated versions of the Bible; they won’t be stocking this at all.

Other people who might be scandalized are people unfamiliar with the Biblical text. Genesis is the story of God’s relationship with fallen humanity. Adam’s son, Cain, commits the first murder. Noah gets drunk and passes out naked. Abraham is so scared of Pharaoh that he lets Pharaoh marry his wife with any word of protest. We’ve already mentioned Lot’s incest. Laban and Jacob are competing con artists. And Jacob’s sons sell one of their own, Joseph, into slavery because they’re jealous of all the attention he gets. It’s all there in the text, humanity at its best and its worst. Heroes of faith with fears, doubts, and flaws just like the rest of us.

There are several things I like about Crumb’s version. First, he makes the genealogy passage of chapter 11 an enjoyable read. This is something Francoise Mouly brought out in her discussion of the book with Crumb. He does it simply and effectively. While the text is telling us who begat whom, Crumb shows us scenes of daily life around 3,000 BC. This really brings to life the names being listed. It also brings out the passage of time. As we look at grandparents cuddling grandchildren, villages making sacrifices to gods, and couples dancing, the passing centuries become more tangible. We understand that the lives of generations of people, much like ours, is quickly passing by. Crumb brought poignancy to the passage for me.

Second, Crumb does a great job creating a believable bronze age world. This isn’t Cecil B. DeMille’s sparkling clean, perfectly groomed vision of the Bible. The people in Crumb’s version sweat, get dirty, have disheveled hair, etc. They aren’t always the most attractive people. They all don’t get old gracefully and with dignity. This is a world of body odor, dusty trails, hard labor, animal smells, blazing hot days, freezing nights, etc. It’s a world where the most advanced technology is the wheel, the sword, pulleys, and carving tools. You understand how difficult life was for the people in those times. It’s amazing to think of the cities and monuments they built with just the muscle of men and beasts.

Third, the attention to detail helps makes some passages easier to understand. The best example is in the Joseph saga (chapters 37 and 39 thru 50). Just reading the text, you wonder why Joseph’s brothers don’t recognize him when they meet him in Egypt. Crumb shows you how radically different Joseph looked from the last time they saw him. When his brothers see him in Egypt, he looks just like any other Egyptian high official. He is not only wearing Egyptian clothes, but he is clean-shaven, has an Egyptian hair style, and has Egyptian mannerisms. There is nothing about him to suggest he was ever the son of a nomadic shepherd. Here, Crumb’s illustrations function like a commentary to make explicit what is hidden in the text.

There are a couple of charming idiosyncrasies to Crumb’s choices. First, Crumb uses the stereotypical Western depiction of God. I’m reminded of how men like Michelangelo, William Blake, and Albercht Durer painted or drew Him. God has powerful features and long, flowing white hair and beard. Most people will find the image instantly recognizable. Second, Crumb makes most of the important women of Genesis look like his wife, Aline. Eve, Sarah, and Rachel all look alike. It’s a touching demonstration of how much he loves his wife but makes for some odd reading.

Beyond any doubt, Crumb is an incredibly skilled draftsmen. The pen work in this book is marvelous. You could use this book to illustrate figure drawing, what perfect cross-hatching looks like, and how to pay attention to the smallest details. There are no shortcuts taken in this book. Each panel is meticulously drawn. Foreground and background characters are fully rendered. Thinking about the time and energy it would take to do just one panel makes you appreciate the immerse labor it took to complete the entire book.

I’m not sure who the audience for this book would be. Mouly mentioned this was the first time she had actually read the book of Genesis, so I’m thankful to Crumb for making this Biblical book accessible to a new audience. Certainly, Crumb’s current fans will enjoy this work.

I actually would like all Christians to read the book, because of how real and human it makes the great heroes of faith. They worked hard, got tired, made mistakes, made love, got old, and died just like everyone else. They weren’t insulated from the harsh realities of this world. And in the midst of daily living, they developed a lasting relationship with God that formed the foundation of our own faith today. Crumb’s faithfulness to the text is able to flesh out the daily ordinary live of the patriarchs without diminishing the extraordinary nature of their faith. Honestly, and perhaps ironically, I don’t think anyone else could have accomplished that incredible feat.

Crumb’s Genesis is truly a remarkable book. I’d like everyone to experience a chapter or two of book so they could judge for themselves if the book is appropriate for them. Like Genesis itself, this book is a mix of the sacred and the profane. Not everyone will find that to their liking. However, I sincerely believe it’s worth the effort to read the book, at least once.

NPR posted the first five pages of the book, while Boing Boing has chapter 19, the story of Lot and his daughters in Sodom, as well as a video flip-through.

(The publisher provided a review copy.)


22 Responses to “The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb”

  1. R. Crumb w/ Françoise Mouly in Richmond, VA, October 27, 2009 Part 1: France, Women » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] would be appearing along with Françoise Mouly at Richmond’s Carpenter Center to discuss his most recent book, a fully illustrated version of Genesis, based largely on Robert Alter’s 2004 […]

  2. Melinda Beasi Says:

    What a great review, Ed! I really feel like I know exactly what this book is from your thoughtful description. As someone who shares Crumb’s view of of the origins of the Bible, this version which so carefully tells its story just like any other story is very appealing, and I could easily imagine myself and others like me as the audience for this book. Regardless of personal belief, the Bible is undeniably an important piece of historical literature, but the weight of religion tends to make us non-believers shy away from spending much time with it. Crumb’s pure storytelling approach may provide a refreshing perspective that would allow us to appreciate the book on its own merit. It’s certainly got me intrigued. Your personal intimacy with the text is a great asset to your review as well, and provides non-Christians with the background needed to fully understand the significance of this publication.

    Thanks for reviewing this!

  3. jan Says:

    Sounds like a good read and a good reminder that these are “stories” and were meant to be that before modern Christians decided it all had to be “true” while forgetting that life in any of those times would both alike and different from today.

  4. Ed Sizemore Says:

    Melinda & Jan, Thanks for your kind words. I’m going to have to send Crumb a thank you card for getting a new audience of readers interested in the Bible. I think you both will enjoy the book. Melinda, I hope you’ll write your own review of it.

  5. Erica Friedman Says:

    I was particularly interested in your reading of this, Ed, as I know and respect your religious education. I remember being amazed at how human the humans of Genesis were (lying, cheating, stealing, as well as more usual bodily functions) and I wanted to see how this version played.

    It sounds really *good.* Thank you for your review and your honesty. Now, maybe, those people who would sanitize the Bible will have to look directly at it and see that it’s not about heaven at all, but about people – in all their humanity.

    Cheers,

    Erica

  6. jan Says:

    How funny, Ed, that Melinda was replying while I was reading and replying so I didn’t see her words before I wrote. She expresses herself so much better than I do. Just as well I replied without seeing it. :) It will be interesting to read other responses you get.

  7. Rob McMonigal Says:

    Bah. I am 25th in line for it at the library. Going to take forever to read this.

    This was an excellent review, Ed. Since I haven’t read the book yet, I can’t speak for the particulars, but I think you gave a good description of the book and why to read it.

    Looking forward to seeing what I think and going back to your comments.

  8. Ed Sizemore Says:

    Rob, Sorry, you’re so low on the list. But, I’m really happy the list is so long. Please come back and share your reactions and thoughts.

  9. Thad Says:

    Great review, Ed!

    My girlfriend got me the book for my birthday a month ago and I’ve thumbed through it but haven’t really gotten around to reading it yet. (My comics backlog is extensive at the moment, and big hardcovers don’t really lend themselves to throwing in a backpack and taking to the park to read on my lunch break.)

    I’m with Melinda @ #2; I’m not a man of faith and I think a literal interpretation of the Bible is absolutely a disastrous thing. But I love stories, and there’s a reason these have survived for thousands of years; heroic myths have always been a part of what defines us as humans. (I think this is why I like the superhero genre.)

    I know the old stories — the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, and so on — but I’ve never actually read the text of the Bible straight through. Crumb’s given me a great form in which to finally experience Genesis complete-and-unabridged, and his use of (primarily) Alter’s translation piques my interest too.

    At any rate, I’m excited about it; great review.

  10. Ben Towle: Cartoonist, Educator, Hobo » Blog Archive » R. Crumb in Richmond Says:

    […] would be appearing along with Françoise Mouly at Richmond’s Carpenter Center to discuss his most recent book, a fully illustrated version of Genesis, based largely on Robert Alter’s 2004 translation. […]

  11. buzz Says:

    Most Christians I shared Crumb’s GENESIS with seem to have appreciated the attention to detail and the respect to the text that Crumb brought to the project. The only objection I’ve heard was from someone who felt the Bible should only be illustrated by a believer; he didn’t have any objections to what he had seen of Crumb’s art, just to the idea of a non-believer doing the work.

    I am a practicing Christian* and I’ve found Crumb’s book to be both a delight and a genuinely illuminating work as well. He takes what is normally presented in churches as a series of discreet episodes and weaves them into one long, complex geneological tale. And by illustrating the full text, he takes past the point where most versions of the stories (including those preswented in church) leave off.

    I recommend this book very highly and agree with your review 100%.

    * i.e., haven’t got it right yet.

  12. Danielle Leigh Says:

    Great review — I had no interest in this before I read your explanation of how Crumb presents the book of Genesis. I’m fascinated how detailed it is in its presentation of dress, culture, etc.

  13. Ed Sizemore Says:

    Buzz, Take heart,none of us get it right this side of Heaven. I’m glad to hear there are other Christians reading and enjoying Crumb’s Genesis.

    I can’t help but think only a non-believer, without a prior agenda, could have rendered the text so faithfully. I’m afraid that a Christian, Jew, or Muslim would try to use the illustrations as way of influencing the reading of the text to support their particular theological bend.

    Also, I think Crumb’s lack of agenda is what makes this book so accessible to non-believers. Their not being preached at. They are being presented the stories as is and left to make their own decision about what Genesis means to them.

    Danielle, thank you for your kind words. I hope everyone will take the time to read this book and encounter the Biblical text for themselves. I’m very encouraged by how people of all beliefs are reacting positively to this book.

  14. Ed Sizemore Says:

    Erica,

    Thanks for your comments here and on Twitter. The more I see the wonderful variety of people reading and enjoying this book the more excited I get. I’m thrilled so many people are encountering the Biblical text and thinking about it.

  15. Jan Klump Says:

    I think you have made a good point, Ed, that only a non-believer could do the job without an agenda. We all are influenced greatly by our upbringing, so perhaps a non-believer will have some agenda without realizing it. Still, the chances are better that it will be true to the story.

  16. Journalista – the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Nov. 2, 2009: Even the indie guys need some spending money Says:

    […] Virginia; W.W. Norton executive editor Robert Weil discusses editing Crumb with Calvin Reid; and Ed Sizemore reviews the […]

  17. R. Crumb w/ Françoise Mouly in Richmond, VA, October 27, 2009 Part 2: Music, Genesis, Open Questions » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] most lengthy — topic of the Mouly/Crumb interview portion of the evening was a discussion of Genesis. In one of the more memorable moments of the interview, Françoise had brought along with her a […]

  18. Ed’s Thoughts on the Crumb/Mouly Event » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] conversation then focused on Crumb’s illustrated version of the book of Genesis. Originally, he had intended to do a satire of Adam and Eve. After studying the text, he decided to […]

  19. The Book of Genesis Illustrated | Notes From A Naiveson Says:

    […] or even inspired by God. Yet he strove to produce the most straightforward, faithful-to-the-text, illustrated version of Genesis… […]

  20. Blake Vancouver Says:

    Excellent review, truly. I’m old enough to know of Mr. Crumb’s earlier work “directly”, this is quite an astonishing extension of everyone’s fixed ideas on both Mr. Crumb and the text. Only the text itself can match the power of these finely crafted stills. I am still in awe. The work ethic of Mr. Crumb is a beacon to all artists.

  21. Ed Sizemore Says:

    Blake,

    I was very impressed with Crumb’s discipline getting this book done. I can also understand why he doesn’t want to do another one like it.

  22. font9a Says:

    This is a nice review. I intend to purchase this for my iPad. I had never really liked R. Crumb’s draughtmanship before — but it was only a personal taste. His images are truly emotive, economic, fantastically illustrative and now I can see why he is such a master of the craft. I was able for the first time to not focus on the lifework and instead let the pictures read like text. This is an amazing awakening for me with R. Crumb’s work.




Categories:

Pages:



Meta:

Most Recent Posts: