And now for something completely different. The Bible as graphic novel, or at least graphic comic book. Robert Crumb is well known to underground comic book aficionados. To the rest of the reading public– not so much. Robert Crumb was born in Philly and began his drawing career coming up with playful and witty greeting cards. He became a sort of cult figure in the 60s for creating characters like Fritz the Cat and there was even a documentary about him in 1994, but FYI, his comics were too R or even X rated in some cases for most. For the last eighteen or so years of his life he has lived in France (and laments he still hasn’t mastered the language) with his fellow cartoonist wife Aline Kominsky.
Now however this super-lapsed Catholic has decided to depict scenes from all 50 chapters of Genesis, with the emphasis on verbatim. Those of us who knew a bit about his snarky past were holding our collective breath, but Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, author of the well-titled book Up,Up, and Oi Vey (the history of how Jews had influence on the creation of fictional super-heroes) reassures us that Crumb has not given us a crumby treatment of Genesis. Of course the literal depiction of murder, incest, rape, and a host of the other things that go on in Genesis itself is enough to curdle one’s milk and curl one’s hair. Hide the babies and pack up the old ladies. But then alas, the Bible is hardly a G or PG book— it tells it like it is, even when it comes to all our human falleness. It is thus not a surprise that in the 224 pages of this book (out today and published by W.W. Norton) some of these pen and ink drawings reflect the sensual and violent character of some of these stories. This is a comic book my Mom would not have let me read in the 9th grade! Indeed she would have said ‘Exodus with this Genesis’.
The kudos for this book are also coming in from other quarters— Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and chronicler of pop culture thinks Crumb is successfully translating the Bible into a new medium. And even Robert Alter (with or without his ego) well known for his rendering of The Five Books of Moses endorses the project. Crumb actually based what he did in part on the translations of Alter. For example Jacob’s ladder becomes Jacob’s ramp in Alter’s translation, and Crumb follows the latter, rather than the former, in his drawing.
What I think is that in an age of visual learners, some of this material in Crumb’s book is user friendly for church and synagogue folk, though one has to pick and choose and be discerning. Lord knows our Sunday school and Bible study literature could use some updating of its images. One grows weary of the Rococo Jesus, and Rubenesque cherubs.
Robert Crumb has drawn his own conclusions about Genesis– quite literally. I’ll let you draw yours about his.