November 15, 2019

R. Crumb Brings Signature Style to ‘Genesis’

If you put a copy of R. Crumb’s “The Book of Genesis Illustrated” (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., $24.95) on your coffee table during the upcoming holiday season, I promise you that it will catch and hold the attention of your guests and provoke some lively conversation. Where else, after all, will they find a version of the Bible that includes male frontal nudity, bare breasts in abundance, and men and women in a variety of imaginative sexual postures?

Crumb’s version of Genesis carries a warning on the front cover: “Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors,” a caution that is not entirely tongue-in-cheek. After all, Crumb set himself the task of cartooning the biblical text of Genesis in its entirety — “a straight illustration job,” according to the artist’s hand-lettered introduction to his book — and, as any open-eyed Bible reader should already know, Genesis contains as much sex and violence as any book in the Western canon.

Still, it is an eye-opening experience to behold Crumb’s frank renderings of a drunken and naked Noah, Lot’s daughters engaged in sexual intercourse with their father, Judah paying for sex with his widowed daughter-in-law or the rape of Dinah and the bloody revenge taken by her brothers against her uncircumcised attacker. Even the tender scenes where the aged Sarah suckles the newborn Isaac, or the fully-grown Isaac finds “solace” in the arms of Rebecca on the death of his mother, are pictured with a kind of carnality that will come as a shock to anyone who is accustomed to weekly readings of Torah in child-safe doses.

Readers of a certain age will know R. Crumb, now 66 years old, as the artist whose comic strips provided some of the iconic images of the ’60s, including Mr. Natural and the X-rated Fritz the Cat. His sheer weirdness is much on display in Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary, “Crumb,” and he might seem to be an odd addition to the roster of famous artists who have portrayed biblical characters and scenes, ranging from El Greco to Marc Chagall, all in defiance of the second of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.”

Indeed, the recent controversies over the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed might have cautioned some authors and publishers against any comic strip version of the Bible. Some pious Jews and Christians, too, will be deeply offended by what they see inside Crumb’s book, and perhaps they deserve a warning label of their own. But, thankfully, Western tradition has tolerated and even encouraged the use of the Bible in the visual arts for at least the last fifteen centuries. Crumb’s depiction of God as the Ancient of Days, for example, may resemble Mr. Natural but it also owes something to Michelangelo’s classic image of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the watercolors of William Blake and — as Crumb himself readily concedes — the sword-and-sandal epics of Hollywood.

Above all, Crumb’s “Genesis” can be regarded as a new, novel, sometimes shocking but wholly authentic exercise in midrash, the ancient but still lively tradition of explaining and elaborating upon the Tanakh. To his credit, Crumb insists on reproducing all 50 chapters of Genesis, word-for-word and not excluding those tiresome “begats,” and he uses the fresh and nuanced translation of Bible scholar Robert Alter with only a few tweaks of his own. While the reader’s eye will inevitably be drawn to the most titillating images, Crumb himself patiently draws cartoon panels for every scene in the biblical text.

So there are both shocking and sublime moments in Crumb’s book, and sometimes they appear in the same scene. When he illustrates the creation narrative in Genesis 2:7, for example, Crumb allows us to see God standing amid the muck and mire of the newly made earth, then kneeling in the mud to draw out a human form and finally blowing “the breath of life” into his nostrils. As Crumb draws it, God is opening his mouth as if to place a divine kiss on the lips of the first man, and it struck me as perhaps the single most daring image in the whole remarkable book.

After all, no one should be surprised to see the couplings of mortal men and women, and we see plenty of it in the pages of Genesis. Indeed, Crumb’s trademark style emphasizes our carnality: all of his women are blessed with protuberant breasts and prominent nipples, and all of his men are swarthy and thickset. But the intimate encounter between God and humankind fairly sizzles with provocative theological speculation.

Original drawings from Crumb’s book are on display at the Hammer Museum in Westwood from Oct. 24, 2009-Feb. 7, 2010, in an exhibition titled “The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis.”
“The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis,” Oct. 24, 2009 – Feb. 7, 2010 at the Hammer Museum, 10889 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 443-7000. ” title=”jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve”>jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve.