R. Crumb w/ Francoise Mouly in Richmond, VA, October 27, 2009 Part 2: Music, Genesis, Open Questions
Here’s part two of Ben Towle’s writeup. Part 1 covered Crumb’s thoughts on France and women.
Robert Crumb is a well-known aficionado of old-time American blues, jazz, and ragtime music, and this love of music has often found its way into his artwork. Among the many examples of this is the image Françoise showed next: one of Crumb’s portraits of a musician, the blues singer/guitarist Robert Johnson.
I’d seen a pen and ink version of this image before, but not this full-color version, which is apparently from an edition of prints. When the image appeared on-screen, Crumb remarked jokingly to Mouly, “The guy who owns (this photograph) is very litigious. I hope you don’t get sued!” I later found the print for sale on the official R. Crumb website and noted that it was listed with copyright indicia crediting the image to the “Delta Haze Corporation,” which made me wonder if Crumb’s comments stem from first-hand experience. Prompted for why he does so much music-related drawing, he said, “Music has such a profound effect on me, I just want to express my affection.” Crumb did mention, though, that he never listens to music while he works because he finds it too absorbing and that it demands his entire attention.
The Book of Genesis
The final — and 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 stack of complaints The New Yorker had received after publishing an excerpt of the book, and she began reading them to Crumb. People’s grousing ranged from letters tersely complaining that the work was “salacious and adolescent” to a lengthy multi-page diatribe from a Hebrew scholar who was apparently quite upset about a single word in the text, which he felt had been inaccurately translated. On the general topic of translation minutiae, Crumb said, “The people who are into this stuff don’t even agree on what it all means. And people kill each other over this thing!”
Another letter complained that the Crumb Genesis excerpt “didn’t add anything” to the original text. Responded Crumb: “I didn’t want to add anything. I just wanted to illustrate it.” Responding both to this letter and to an older lewd parody-ish Crumb version of the story of Adam and Eve that’d been shown on-screen earlier, he said further, “I restrained myself from making little jokes — and there was plenty of opportunity to do so.”
Françoise mentioned that Crumb’s Genesis was the first time she’d ever actually read the Bible and recounted how she’d asked around the offices of The New Yorker how many of her co-workers had actually read anything from the Bible. No one had, apparently. In an amusing bit of “Manhattan myopia” reminiscent of Saul Steinberg’s “View of the World From 9th Avenue” which she’d showed only minutes before, Mouly then extrapolated this experience broadly, saying, “Very few people have read the Bible.”
Her general point, though, is astute: for many — if not most — of the people likely to run out and buy an R. Crumb-illustrated book of Genesis, this will probably be their first direct exposure to the text. It’s also an equally astute point that anyone who would complain about the published Genesis excerpts being “salacious” most certainly has not read the original text, which is plenty salacious in its own right.
Pointing out that this was hardly the first time Crumb had taken on illustrating weighty texts, Mouly showed a quick gallery of some of the cartoonist’s other adaptations, including his collaborations with Harvey Pekar, his illustrations of the journals of James Boswell, Sartre’s Nausea, and “The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick” story. As pages from these works were shown, there was some oddly inappropriate laughter (I thought). I’m not sure why anyone coming to hear a cartoonist speak about his illustrated version of Genesis would find it particularly odd or funny that that same artist might have also illustrated, say, Satre’s Nausea. As the Philip Dick story appeared on-screen, Robert noted that he’d done that story with a brush rather than pens. He joked, “I probably should have done Genesis with a brush. All that cross-hatching is a pain in the ass.”
Returning to Genesis, Crumb discussed his working methods a bit. He mentioned that he’d visited a museum or two, looking for visual reference material, but that he mainly used screen captures from films to pin down period clothing and architecture. The two movies in particular he drew on most heavily were Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Mouly showed a number of the still images from both of these films that Crumb had used for reference. The cartoonist noted with some hilarity that all of the actors in Intolerance wore fake “hook noses” throughout. He said he hadn’t found any of the other comics versions of the Bible to be of much use visually, but praised some of Basil Wolverton’s design elements from his version of the Old Testament, begun in 1953 and completed in 1974.
Even the relative solace of the Crumb’s home in the undisclosed French village where they live was apparently not sufficiently distraction-free for the artist to concentrate on Genesis. Robert mentioned that Aline had found a place for him “up in the hills”, and he spent weeks there by himself just working on the book. Aline would periodically visit, bringing groceries. She was the only person who actually knew where he was and, said Crumb, he would not have finished the book without her. He noted that the book was, in fact, dedicated to her.
Mouly’s final question for Crumb was what his reaction was to being labeled a “genius”. After a bit of circuitous discussion, Crumb declared flatly, “Genius is a myth.” On that note, Françoise concluded the interview portion of the evening, and Robert took a few questions from the crowd.
Questions From the Crowd
By his own admission, Crumb was deliberately calling mainly on the women in the audience, but Mouly would intervene occasionally to give a few of the men opportunities to ask questions of the artist. After the obligatory LSD question, one audience member asked about Crumb’s experience with writer Charles Bukowski, several of whose stories Crumb had illustrated. Crumb sad he’d only met Bukowski once, early on at a party, and when he was introduced to him, Bukowski said only, “Your stuff’s good, kid. Just stay away from the cocktail parties.” Said Crumb: “He was right!”
Asked about the differences he found between life in the U.S. and life in France, the artist said the most striking difference between the two is the near-total integration of corporate interests into everyday life in the U.S., which he said is not nearly as prevalent in France. “You’re really in the belly of the beast here with this corporate stuff.”
Finally, a (male) audience member asked about his controversial attitudes about women. The cartoonist’s reply was vintage Crumb: “Any man, if he’s honest (and you can’t be honest around women), fears and hates women to some degree. I just happen to blurt it out in my work like diarrhea.”
And on that note, I’ll conclude.
If you have the opportunity to attend any of the remaining Crumb/Mouly appearances, I highly recommend doing so. I’ll never quite figure out why, along with New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, Richmond of all places was a part of this tour, but to whomever pulled this off, I say thanks — and recommend that the next time Chicago’s in the running for the Olympics that this person be put in charge of the international lobbying efforts.
Ben Towle is an Eisner-nominated cartoonist known primarily for his work with SLG Publishing, including the recent historical fiction graphic novel Midnight Sun as well as his earlier volume of comics folk tales, Farewell, Georgia. He’s recently illustrated Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean, a graphic novel for young adults forthcoming from Hyperion Books, and he’s currently hard at work on a creator-owned fantasy story about turn of the century Chesapeake Bay oystermen. Visit him online at www.benzilla.com. And many thanks to him for this extensive appearance review.