For a guy with a degree in theology, and a print of Robert Johnson adorning his wall, R. Crumb’s “The Book of Genesis Illustrated” seemed too good to be true; a prank my wife was playing on me to get me frothing at the mouth with excitement. But alas, this was real!
Crumb tackling the first, and weirdest, book of the Bible is an interesting exercise. First of all, he goes at it totally straight; this is not a winking, joke-y version of Genesis – this is Genesis, illustrated. In his introduction he makes reference to some slight tweaks he had to make, but overall, these are the words of scripture accompanied by his cross-hatched images. It is also a very tame book, sexually, for Crumb, which is odd because Genesis is the original Craigslist of weird sex acts. Incest, concubines, you name it, it’s in here. Crumb could have had a field day. Instead, he treats the text reverently, and by doing so exposes how little reverence he really has for it.
To read the scripture without images means that sometimes your brain passes over some of the odder details/skims the carefully chosen wordplay/misses detail. Crumb’s work makes that nearly impossible, and forces the reader to come face to face with what exactly is written in this text. You need to see the ordeal involving Lot’s wife to really grasp the cruelty of the story. And by exposing this book as such a violent, sexually fucked up piece of literature it forces one of two reactions. If you’re someone who takes this stuff literally, it must give you pause. If you’re someone who doesn’t, it gives you many more reasons to continue not to do so.
One of the historically nice touches in the book is Crumb’s dedication to making people who were Middle Eastern look Middle Eastern. This ain’t no blonde hair/blue eyed Abraham or Sarah. Everyone looks sufficiently olive skinned, as well as age appropriate for how they are described in the text. The ages, in particular, are the result of Crumb’s painstaking detail he gives each and every panel. Crumb manages to give each character, from background person to Adam to Rebekah, unique features and a well-thought out. This is especially impressive during the sections of the text that simply list the genealogy of a character, or the lineage of kings. For these, Crumb creates dozens of unique figures, only shown once, and gives each one just as much detail as he does Eve and Noah.
Because this book is done so literally, if you’re not someone with a passing interest in Judeo-Christian history, or a die-hard Crumb fan, you might want to steer clear. However, the time and energy Crumb put into the book (reportedly 4+ years worth) make it a truly rewarding experience for anyone willing to give it a chance. Far more iconography than “Fritz the Cat,” this is yet another example of Crumb clinging to his roots and finding inspiration in the past for some incredible work.