Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Crumb Does Genesis

A friend at church who likes to hang out at Barnes & Noble asked if I had seen the new illustrated Book of Genesis by R. Crumb. R. Crumb is, of course, the iconic comic book illustrator of the San Francisco hippie scene, with his famous Keep On Truckin' image, Zap Comix and the memorable Mr. Natural. Remember that Janis Joplin album Cheap Thrills, Big Brother & the Holding Company? That's the guy.

I recently heard someone say, "You can take the musician out of the Sixties, but you can't take the Sixties out of the musician." I would suggest this applies to artists as well to some extent.

Psychotherapists would have a field day analyzing the perversity of many of the images and stories in Zap Comix. But Crumb was also a keen observer of character, and had a sometimes hilarious, sometimes disturbed sense of humor. Eventually, his love affair with pen and ink and LSD simply became a love affair with illustration. He escaped to France and has remained there for the duration, having left those Haight heydays behind.

The project that consumed him this past five years (the Sixties artist is now 66, so he is finally in his sixties for real) is a remarkably detailed and accurate rendition of one of the most influential books in history, the book of Genesis. Naturally, I had to check it out.

For starters, it is a big book, and in the definitive R Crumb style. Not only does Crumb illustrate Genesis, he also shares some of the insights and thoughts he had while illustrating. In this is a somewhat remarkable document. He is faithful to every word, and not shy about portraying all that the book itself tells. For this reason it would be Rated R, but he does not make any attempt to overplay the scenes. The story is what it is and the approach is straightforward. Some might find it shocking, but frankly, the stories in the Book of Genesis are indeed shocking at times.

I'm not sure when cartoon novels first took hold of our younger generations, but R Crumb's Book of Genesis is a fitting addition to contemporary literature in this regard.

I found the approach amusing when dealing with the invisible God. The panels have narration where there is narration, and when people speak, he has the usual cartoonist balloon with words in them. In portraying God as an old man with a long white beard, I do not believe he is being sacrilegious. He is simply anthropomorphizing the invisible Almighty so that the balloon with words in it can have a suitable representational attribution.

Here are a few reviews that I gathered from Amazon.com about this unique book.

From the Creation to the death of Joseph, here is the Book of Genesis, revealingly illustrated as never before. This eagerly awaited graphic work retells the first book of the Bible in a profoundly honest way....The result, four years in the making, is a tapestry of extraordinary detail, the finest work of Crumb’s legendary career. (Graphic Novel Reporter "Graphic Novel Picks for Fall 2009" )

It’s a cartoonist’s equivalent of the Sistine Chapel. It’s awesome. Crumb has done a real artist’s turn here—he’s challenged himself and defied all expectation. ... I’ve read Genesis before. But never have I found it so compelling. By placing it squarely in the Middle East—and populating it with distinctively Semitic-looking people—Crumb makes it come alive brilliantly. (Susan Jane Gilman - Morning Edition, NPR )

Starred Review. Crumb’s vivid visual characterizations of the myriad characters, pious and wicked, make the most striking impression. His distinctive, highly rendered drawing style imparts a physicality that few other illustrated versions of this often retold chronicle have possessed. The centenarian elders show every one of their years, and the women, from Eve to Rachel, are as solidly sensual as any others Crumb has so famously drawn. (Booklist )

To say this book is a remarkable volume or even a landmark volume in comic art is somewhat of an understatement.... stands on its own as one of this century’s most ambitious artistic adaptations of the West’s oldest continuously told story. (Paul Buhle - The Jewish Daily Forward )

Another called it "a cartoonist's answer to the Sistene Chapel."

Though I'm not so sure it stands up to that comparison, it does reveal a monumental effort. And before casting stones, I'd encourage you to check it out if you get a chance. I intend to go back and read more of his personal commentary. And guess what? It may be that this guy is going to get people reading their Bibles again. What do you think about that?


Pedro H. Albuquerque said...

Wow, I remember that I once bought a rare Brazilian Portuguese translation of a Crumb collection in the mid 80s, pretty weird stuff... I'll definitively have to take a look at this one!

ENNYMAN said...

Yeah, I do think it's something of a "wow" kind of thing. I myself was certainly surprised.