In the beginning, Robert Crumb’s work was all parody and cartoonish variation. Over the decades, he has breathed form into his illustration, bringing detail and something, at times, approaching realism while maintaining his characteristic style prickly-male legs and ponderous female thighs. The Book of Genesis Illustrated is his longest, most ambitious creation and, despite the subject matter, his most real, though realism is relative to his style (see “A Short History of America“). As the cover declares, it contains “ALL 50 CHAPTERS” and “NOTHING LEFT OUT!” Indeed, not only does Crumb include, as he declares in his introduction “every word of the original text” (derived from “several sources”, mostly Robert Alter’s 2004 translation The Five Books of Moses and the King James Version) but something of his own interpretation, no matter how innocent, via his drawing.
Something of Crumb’s approach to the project can be found in Todd Hignite’s interview from his 2006 publication In the Studio: Visits With Contemporary Cartoonists. At the time of the interview, Crumb had finished all of four pages but much of his thinking on how he would approach it was complete. Commenting on an old 1946 EC comic Picture Stories From the Bible, with its blond Eve and red-headed Adam, he complains about its sloppy drawing and the fact that, “they just make shit up to gloss over and fill in whole passages. They have Eve saying, ‘Mmm, this apple tastes really good.’ If I’m going to be doing this and don’t want some fucking Christian fanatics to kill me, I’ve got to say, ‘Look, it’s all there, I didn’t change a single word, I just illustrated it as it’s told.'”
No doubt, some fanatical Christians will want to kill him anyway simply because he does illustrate what’s told. We’re shown Onan spilling his seed on the ground when “he would come to bed with his brother’s wife” as well as the cruel consequence of the act. We see a drunken Lot having sex with his daughters, the older in missionary position, the younger girl-on-top. Crumb does not shy away from the murder, incest, adultery, lies and God-driven war that make the Old Testament the more human of the two scriptures. Nor does he exaggerate or parody the acts as he might have in the days of Zap. That’s Genesis‘ greatest accomplishment: bringing humanity and reality to the cruelties and taboos that are so often glossed over.
This may also be the text’s one weakness (though we Crumb fans will see it as a plus). In humanizing the events, Crumb draws in his own interpretation of his subjects’ reactions and feelings. Did Issac actually sit by dejectedly when Esau took Hittite wives? We can imagine that Noah’s reaction to hearing of the Lord’s plan to kill every living thing on earth is as bug-eyed as portrayed but would his eyes bulge again when there’s a hint of the end? There’s a touch of homo-eroticism when Jacob wrestles “until the break of dawn” with a nameless divine being. Would the handmaid look so sleepily satisfied after sex with the elderly Abram? Occasionally, character expression adds comedic touches as when Abraham takes all the males among his household to be circumcised. The looks on their faces shows they know what awaits!
Most interpretively expressive is God himself. The look of satisfaction when He smells the aroma of Noah’s burnt offering of cattle and fowl after the flood is divinely human. But mostly He’s shown in various stages of anger (Crumb modeled the Lord after his father), allowing only his messengers to appear relaxed and serene. Crumb’s is an angry God indeed.
One of the greatest achievements here are the dozens of thumb-sized portraits of all the begotten and begatters, the minor sons and daughters, all meticulously drawn. No Aryan looking Middle-Eastern ancients for Crumb! We can see the different tribal characteristics as the sons of Abraham spread out to fill the known corners of the world. Where Crumb found all these faces can only be guessed. Scholars may take exception with Crumb’s models for the architecture and costumes of the time, many derived from Hollywood. But there’s no arguing against the fact that Crumb has made one of the world’s greatest archetypal and symbolic sagas, from Adam to Joseph, enjoyable in its humanly purest form.–Cabbage Rabbit