The Book of Genesis Illustrated.
By R. Crumb
(W. W. Norton & Company, 2009)
224 pp.; $24.95
ROBERT CRUMB DOES NOT believe in the divinity of the Bible. But in The Book of Genesis Illustrated, published in October 2009 after four years of labor, the legendary American graphic artist brings the ancient words of Genesis to life in front of his readers' eyes. Drawing on a recent translation by the biblical scholar Robert Alter, supplemented with parts of the King James Version, Crumb doesn't omit a single word of the venerated document as he transports his readers back to the time of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joseph.
Neither passionately pro- nor anti-Christianity, Crumb has no religious agenda with this book. He doesn't intend to evangelize but neither does he aim to put down the ancient work or the religion that it represents; he writes in the introduction that he "approached this as a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes." And it is precisely this distance from the purported divine nature of the subject that gives The Book of Genesis Illustrated its power and allows it to be revelatory and irreverent simultaneously.
Readers both familiar and unfamiliar with the storyline are in for a shock with Crumb's Genesis. Those unversed in Biblical history may be stunned by such events as the rape of Jacob's daughter Dinah and the subsequent slaughter visited in revenge upon the local inhabitants by Jacob's sons (with nary an expression of disapproval from God); those who know this story well may nevertheless be surprised by Crumb's depiction of both horrific events in graphic detail.
While it is shocking to see the plainly described rape, incest, genocide, and murder of Genesis vividly portrayed on the page, Crumb is also able to tease a simple human beauty out of the text, a beauty that makes the parsimonious Old Testament words vibrate. From the look of awe on the faces of Adam and Eve as God shows them the Garden of Eden for the first time to the relieved countenance of Israel as he gazes into his son Joseph's face after a long separation, Crumb turns the ancient figures of the Book of Genesis into real, breathing human beings. In doing so, he makes Genesis believable, not as a story of divine origins, but as a rich mythology that has defied the ravages of time by surviving on the page and on the tongues of people all over the earth.
For his research, Crumb drew upon scholarship about the era and used still frames of Hollywood Biblical epics as visual source material. This gives his comic panels the look of the biblical imagery of the wider cultural imagination-the sandals, the robes, the long, disheveled beards. God is depicted as a fiery-eyed, long-haired, white-bearded man who holds the dark swirling void in his hands as he commences creation at the beginning of chapter one. As God talks his way through the creation of the heavens and earth, Crumb shapes the void first into light, then day and night, then the sky and the water, and the earth takes shape. God creates a long-haired Adam and a voluptuous Eve who gaze out in wonder and amazement as he shows them their new home and instructs them to "Be fruitful and multiply." Crumb paints idyllic scenes of connubial bliss, and it is all the more heartbreaking as Adam and Eve's bodies are soon clothed in rags and they walk away from Eden hanging their heads in shame, having been beguiled by an upright, four-limbed talking serpent and expelled by God.
Crumb's characters take on a liveliness and verisimilitude that defy the sparse words of Genesis. For example, he depicts Noah as having a wide-eyed, stunned look on his face in nearly all of the panels--just as you would imagine on a man who's been tasked directly by God with preserving the entirety of human and animal life on earth. He looks almost frightened as warthogs, rhinoceroses, and gorillas march past him in twos onto the ark as the storm clouds gather above. Likewise, beads of sweat break out on Abraham's troubled brow as he takes his son Isaac to the top of the mountain to sacrifice him to God. As the Lord's messenger calls out to him, telling him not to harm the boy, Abraham collapses in relief upon the alter, the cleaver fallen to the ground by his side, his face turned down into the rocks, his eyes shut.
But Crumb also excels when the work is at its most fantastic. Jacob's ladder (or ramp, in this translation), is a beam of light stretching forever out into the sky, as God's messengers, and God himself, descend into view. And when the fantasy turns darker, as in the Pharaoh's dream of emaciated cows eating their better fed brethren, Crumb takes an image that sounds almost absurd when you read it and makes it downright ghastly.
Genesis has its share of such horror, and Crumb doesn't shy away from depicting the agony of the drowned, clawing at each other as the floodwaters rise, or the terror of the residents of Sodom as they burn to death under the Lord's fire from the sky. The brutality of the Old Testament God is laid bare. This is where Crumb's plain honesty and straightforward depiction of what he finds in Genesis reflects most poorly on Christianity, and it makes the reader rightly wonder why so many assert that such a text is material to the moral development of contemporary people.
The most significant limitation on Crumb's work comes straight from the source material. While Genesis is rife with drama (I found myself turning the pages fast at times, anxious to see what would come next, even though I already knew), there are times when it bogs down in long lists and lineages, details given about characters who have no part to play in the story, narrative dead ends and non sequiturs, and the utterly baffling double creation story of chapters one and two. Crumb does the best he can, though, faithfully illustrating them all and finding different ways to depict the multiple long lists of Genesis (often referred to as the "begats"). In chapter five he takes snapshots from the lives of the immediate descendents of Adam, showing them bathing, eating, harvesting, gazing at the stars, even as the Book of Genesis quickly passes them by, leaving their names as mere mentions as it speeds towards Noah and the flood. Later, in chapter forty-six when Genesis is ticking off the names of every son and descendent of Israel who accompanies him on his journey to join Joseph in Egypt, Crumb draws every single one, over a page and a half of small yet visually arresting portraits.
The Book of Genesis Illustrated is a masterpiece of imagination, a superlative work that will bring both secular and religious audiences closer to understanding the subtlety and nuances of this old and still influential text. Crumb bridges the millennia with his vividly illustrated and all-too-human characters; in this way, despite his stated neutrality, he is in fact taking a side in the debate over religion and origins, showing how this creation story is rooted, rather than in any intervening divinity, in the frailty and violence of the human heart.
Clayton Whirr is on the development staff of the American Humanist Association, where he also writes for the blog, Rant & Reason. His last article, "Nothing Sacred: What We Talk about When We Talk about Torture," appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of the Humanist. He lives in the District of Columbia.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2010|
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