Tuesday, August 07, 2012

NOTHING LEFT OUT! My Review of R. Crumb's Book of Genesis Illustrated

The Book of Genesis IllustratedThe Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My Year of Overdue Books continues with The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb, a legend in underground/indie comics from the late 1960s and 1970s, who has long been fascinated by Jewish history and heritage, and who thus took on this 2009 book as something of a passion project. I was a bit dubious, frankly. I don't remember the circumstance, but someone in the media contacted me about it before its release--likely because of my 2004 book Comic Book Character, which made me an expert in the eyes of some (though surely not in the eyes of God or R. Crumb). I looked through some of the frames that had been pre-released to the public, including the opening frame, in which an impossibly white old man with a timelessly flowing beard held the gestating universe in his hands. I thought--and tried to communicate to the media as respectfully and professionally as possible--Give me a break.

Then I got the book for Christmas from my mother-in-law, who is very generous and attentive to the kinds of things that I might like. I received it with a thank-you, then took it to my office, where I work as an editor for a religious publisher. I thought my coworkers would get a kick out of it; they did--the entire academic editorial staff (a systematic theologian, a philosopher, a historical theologian and a biblical scholar) flipped through it for what seemed like hours while I tried to get work done. Then a visiting author saw it on my shelf and borrowed it, returning it about a month later with nothing but praise for it. Two years later I decided, Maybe I should finally read this thing.

First off, it's not for everyone. My comic book book offers a brief orientation guide for new readers of the genre; you can get an excerpt here. But if you've not read a lot of comic books, the progression from frame to frame, from text box to text box, might seem a bit intimidating at first. With the advent of reading online, of course, such reading is less alien now, but even so you might be further thrown by Crumb's graphic style and text treatment--thick, heavy lines that feel positively antique, which would seem appropriate given the text if the text weren't peppered so generously with exclamation points, the punctuation of late modernity. As much as this is the sacred text of Scripture (NOTHING LEFT OUT!), it is also unabashedly a work of R. Crumb.

So I entered this book dubious, but I came out of it a true believer. Crumb is as reverent as someone who takes his content to be mythology could be, and his reverence carries over even into the earthiest parts of the book of Genesis--which is, as it happens, quite earthy. There's lots of sex, graphically depicted; a fair bit of murder, graphically depicted; and a variety of other images you may never have allowed yourself to imagine, graphically depicted. (The world outside of Noah's ark is a stark case in point.) Crumb drives home a point that pastors sometimes make with a wink: the Bible is a grown-up book. The jacket for The Book of Genesis Illustrated says it straightforwardly: "ADULT SUPERVISION RECOMMENDED FOR MINORS.

So yeah, it's graphic. It's also reverent and insightful. Genesis has a lot of sex and violence, but it also has a lot of genealogies--begetting and begetting and begetting. Crumb's approach to that is remarkably human; sections of Scripture I often skip over in this case I read with pleasure, as Crumb presented distinct human beings with their loved ones in their element. The various altars of remembrance built throughout Genesis are made more real, more meaningful, by seeing not only what they may have looked like but how they may have been built (Jacob's pillar in Genesis 31 is an image that has stuck with me.) The tensions between people who are blood related but sworn enemies (Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers) are palpable, and consequently whatever resolution takes place between them is greatly satisfying.

Crumb has done his research; his text notes are worth reading, although I give Genesis more authority than he does. For me Genesis is a sacred text, the first account of God interacting with human beings, establishing his posture toward the world he created, which involves love and frustration and self-sacrifice and redemptive action. For Crumb it is the earliest artifact of the Jewish people, an identity marker that explains much and little at the same time. For Crumb, Genesis is what it is; I suppose it is for me as well. Whatever that is, The Book of Genesis Illustrated was a delight to read and worth the wait.

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