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 to The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb, 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.
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.