Sunday, May 22, 2011

R. Crumb's Book of Genesis (2009)

R. Crumb may today be best known for his role in the underground comics movement, and for his creation of pop cultural icons like the "Keep On Truckin'" comic, Devil Girl, Fritz the Cat, and Mr. Natural. The life of the American ex-patriot (now living in the south of France, where I served my mission for the LDS Church) has been portrayed in the 1994 eponymous film, Crumb. But it is quite possible that after his contributions to pop and underground culture have been long forgotten, R. Crumb will be remembered for his contribution to theology in the form of his graphic portrayal of the Book of Genesis.

The irony of this is captured in Crumb's own introduction to what is, in my humble opinion, his chef-d'oeuvre. "Every other comic book version of the Bible that I've seen," he writes, "contains passages of completely made-up narrative and dialogue, in an attempt to streamline and 'modernize' the old scriptures, and still, these various comic book Bibles all claim to adhere to the belief that the Bible is 'the word of God,' or 'inspired by God,' whereas I, ironically, do not believe the Bible is 'the word of God.'" Nevertheless, he has, "to the best of [his] ability, faithfully reproduced every word of the original text... [venturing] to do a little interpretation of [his] own, if [he] thought the words could be made clearer, but... [refraining] from indulging too often in such 'creativity,' and sometimes [letting] it stand in its convoluted vagueness rather than monkey around with such a venerable text." Nothing is left out, not even the "begats," and everything from the Creation, to the Fall, to the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to the Israelites' sojourn in Egypt is portrayed with breathtaking literalness. The result is something simultaneously shocking (the cover warns: "Adult supervision recommended for minors") and captivating, a theological tour de force.

Readers familiar with Crumb's oeuvre may doubt his intentions in putting the first book of the Bible into comic book form. Crumb himself admits that his initial intention was parody. But, he claims, as he got deeper into the task of illustrating Genesis, he found himself awed by the power of this ancient text to enthrall so many millions of people across such extremely diverse cultures, over the span of millennia. Ultimately he realized he needed to take the text seriously, and portray it as literally and faithfully as possible. And in doing so, he has created something unique, and has made a contribution to the field of biblical studies for which future faithful will undoubtedly thank this iconoclastic unbeliever.

Many undoubtedly will not thank him at all. I'm sure this book has made it onto a fair number of believers' banned books lists (or will, as soon as more folks become aware of it). But I love it, and find it compelling, moving and even spiritual. I appreciate the linguistic and visual research that went into recreating the lost world of the Old Testament. More importantly, I love the way it brings Genesis to life, the way it confers vibrancy on passages I long considered unreadable, and would have considered unillustratable. It sheds completely new light on the entire text from beginning to end. Indeed, it is eminently readable as a new "translation" of the Bible, rendered in pictorial form.

The most powerful aspect of the book, simultaneously the aspect most likely to attract denunciations of heresy, and, I think, the aspect of greatest interest to Mormons, is his portrayal of the central character in the Book of Genesis, God himself. God is portrayed very literally as an exalted, omnipotent and omniscient man. He literally walks and talks and interacts directly and personally with all the other major characters of the book. His long, flowing hair and beard, and larger-than-life stature are portrayed in stylized manner to emphasize his radiance and power, but also to amplify the very human emotions of delight, love, anger, sorrow and mercy expressed in God's physical postures and facial expressions. The end result is powerful and -- for me -- strangely reverent. God is taken seriously here, and becomes humanly accessible and personal in the way he only can if we are willing to take Genesis (and other scriptural texts) literally.

I recommend this book for any serious student of the Bible. If R. Crumb's Book of Genesis offends, it offends for the very good reason of upending our conventional (and Bowdlerized!) notions of God and morality. It offends for all the very good reasons we ought to be offended by the Bible, and R. Crumb has done us a service if he has forced us to dispense with our sanitized notions of what the Bible does or does not, should or should not say. Read this book, but be warned that it is Genesis "graphically depicted" with "nothing left out!"

1 comment:

Knight of Nothing said...

I must admit, I am intrigued! I had not heard that Crumb had done this. Having just read The Religious Case Against Belief, I might be tempted to use Carse's definition of a 'religious' work to describe what you've found in Crumb's Genesis.