Monday, November 9, 2009

R. Crumb's "Book of Genesis: Illustrated": Review

This reminds me of a medieval woodcut bible; drafted boldly, thick-lined and heavily inscribed. Yet, within the faces, behind the actors, you discern delicacy. Crumb's hand comes down, this being monochrome, with his trademark mixture of firmly exaggerated features and less obvious emotion. Careful attention to detail, for the artist as the reader, reveals his love of this old material, and his frustration with capricious Creator, hapless men and women, and relentless nature.

His love of Genesis comes in giving every person mentioned his or her (usually his in those long lines of begetting) own cameo. I was touched by this. It made these strange names recognizable as my neighbors, if a bit more hirsute and less tailored. Their eyes may be hesitant or confident, their smiles absent or sly, but Crumb finds in a few letters on a page a way to connect him and us with these far-off, half-legendary progenitors of the Chosen People.

As with Adam & Eve tumbling naked and happy in an Edenic meadow, or the Flood swamping the few last beasts and people terrified, or the horrific immolation of Sodom & Gomorrah, Rachel's manipulation for her progeny's long-term gain, Dinah's abduction, or the conniving of Abraham in that thrice-repeated "you said she was your sister" strange motif (see Crumb's endnote that tries to make sense of this odd repetition of an episode), we recognize the (half-)familiar stories freshly.

Even the Serpent gets a walk-on, and you remind yourself how, pre-Fall, he too walked upright until he was cursed by his Creator. He looks like an alien, and seems convincing enough in his expressions. These moments enliven tales that otherwise may be dulled for many of us by thinking we "already" have heard them. Crumb's rather traditional form of graphic frames, combined with his lusty love of a female figure inspired by his wife who tends, I admit, to make nearly all the women here look voluptuously well-endowed even when Sarah in her nineties, may unsettle staid viewers, but I predict few who open this will be shocked given Crumb's countercultural credentials.

Abraham's face does harbor resentment as he prepares his awful sacrifice. Leah and Rachel beam at an unseen Jacob their suitor with affection, yet each seems a different lover. The Pharaoh looks understandably confused when he finds out Sarah is Abraham's wife. Esau's hunger turns him ravenous; Hagar's fear as Ishmael appears to be starving can be felt.

I read this straight through and admired it as a gift for my own teenaged sons. I figured it'd be, however "R"-rated, more uplifting and more chastening as to human folly and human dreams, than their usual movie fare.

Since Crumb shares with many of his audience, I reckon, an agnostic at best p-o-v to the actual happenings as claimed in this ancient scripture, the sheer oddness of so many baffling stories comes out as clearly as the ones we may recall well. They shuffle without one being promoted over the other. This is welcome for it forces us to recognize the context; too often we get the "greatest hits" selected from the bible and not the whole fifty chapters of its first book. Laid out here with attention to archeological, geographical, and I bet even linguistic (the Egyptians speak in hieroglyphs) accuracy, you see the foibles and passions and bickering and tenderness all unfold just as they do in our own lives.

And this humanity, rather than the fearful Deity patterned after Crumb's own fearsome progenitor, makes this an accessible and moving story. For our own era, it's an illustrated series of drawings that as for medieval folks may restore the power of the often puzzling stories to a century that often has little knowledge of their narrative intricacy, inconsistent tone, and still, we admit, earthy appeal. As Crumb reminds us, these are the oldest stories to be retold without a halt, ever since they began, to us in the oldest "book" never closed, and Crumb's version should be opened in many homes where more conventional bibles may gather dust. (Posted to Amazon US 11-7-09)


tamerlane said...

Recently and belatedly caught the documentary, "Crumb." A bizarre individual, but fascinating and an astute and immensely important observer (and documenter) of the human condition. Not to mention a superb artist.

In the doc, art critic Robert Hughes called Robt. Crumb "our era's Brueghel". I couldn't agree more.

Fionnchú said...

Didn't see it but my wife thought it was engrossing, and depressing. I was intrigued to find out that Crumb was raised Catholic, by the way. Bizarre from a family of such, it seems. And to live up or down to that surname, you're already with the odds against you.