Crumb, Robert. The Book of Genesis (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009)
I've long thought that the Bible should have a parental advisory warning, and this graphic adaptation of Genesis by renowned underground comics artist Robert Crumb (website, Wikipedia) has cheekily included one on its cover:
It isn't as if Crumb added any satire or salaciousness to the Biblical myths--he didn't need to, as anyone familiar with them will already know. Crumb's professed "straight illustration job" doesn't draw attention to the conflicting Creation stories or Jacob's misunderstanding of hereditary biology (30:37-39), but neither does he shy away from the debauchery, death, and destruction that fill the pages of Genesis. The illicit sex and violent bloodletting are presented simply and straightforwardly, neither evaded nor emphasized out of proportion to their dramatic importance.
Primarily created from the Robert Alter translation The Five Books of Moses, Crumb's work includes all the classic tales from the fifty chapters of Genesis: the Creation stories, Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, Noah's ark, the Tower of Babel, Sodom & Gomorrah, Abraham & Isaac, Jacob wrestling with the angel, and it ends with Joseph's death after he led the Israelites to Egypt.
I had never read the entirety of Genesis before, usually skipping the "begat" passages and other bits of tribal trivia; this time, I read every word. (One down, sixty-five to go...) Some things that surprised me were the odd beings that are often overlooked when discussing the Old Testament: the cherubim from Chapter 3:
and the nephilim from Chapter 6:
Other than some unobtrusive visual shorthand--such as the sweat that dots the characters' nervous brows, or the radiating lines that express their shock and surprise--Crumb makes few concessions to comic-book conventions of dramatic storytelling. Other examples include this panel from the Tower of Babel story in Chapter 11
and this use of the interrobang (my choice for National Punctuation Day) in Chapter 45 to illustrate the confusion of Joseph's audience:
This page from Chapter 11 shows the sort of visual inventiveness that Crumb applies--he supports the text without distracting from it:
This image from the genealogy-heavy Chapter 36 is another example of his skill in enlivening an otherwise prosaic passage:
Twice--in 24:2 and 47:29--the text presented by Crumb surprised me by retaining a traditional obfuscation: testifying is described as being solemnified by the placing of a hand "under a thigh." (Skeptic's Annotated Bible suggests that "thigh" should be rendered as "testicles;" for more detail, see Taylor Marshall at Canterbury Tales.)
Malcolm Jones writes at Newsweek that "What distinguishes this version is its meticulous realism...by keeping everything as grittily real as possible, Crumb achieves a miracle all his own: he makes one of the world's oldest stories new again." Jones also calls Crumb a "professed atheist," but this is incorrect. Crumb's himself said quite the opposite in this interview with USA Today:
"I'm a spiritual guy. I'm not an atheist, more an agnostic. I don't doubt the existence of God, I just don't quite know what God is. It's a question that will challenge me until the day I die."
David Ulin's "Faith and Belief" (LA Times) calls it "electrifying," Paul Buhle writes in "In the Image of God" (Jewish Daily Forward) that it "stands on its own as one of this century's most ambitious artistic adaptations of the West's oldest continuously told story."
Not that the book's reception has been uniformly positive. The UK's Telegraph mentions complaints about the book's sexual content, the Guardian warns that Crumb's publisher referred to the book as "scandalous satire," while Australia's Sydney Morning Herald uses "Explicit Genesis Upsets Christians" to list complaints about Crumb's Genesis "turning the Bible into titillation," being "wholly inappropriate," and "trying to sell something by emphasising the sexual nature of some of the scenes." Southern Baptist President Albert Mohler whines mightily that "Reading The Book of Genesis Illustrated does reveal the power of this artistic expression (as in the sacrifice of Isaac), but mostly its severe limitations:"
Crumb's work reminds us that God gave us words, not images, as His means of revelation. The prohibition against images is not just a divine preference, it is a command. Looking at Crumb's work makes the force of this prohibition all the more clear. Crumb interprets (or misinterprets) with every image and characterization. His style dominates the narrative -- which is precisely the danger.
Robert Alter--the translator of Crumb's primary source text--praised the book, writing that the artist "has produced a frequently arresting interpretation of Genesis:"
By and large, Crumb's flights of fancy in visually elaborating the spare narrative are beguiling, and they seem to me to be a legitimate treatment of the text. [...] Crumb's Genesis is a bold undertaking, and most readers will be grateful for the many delights afforded by its visual inventiveness.
Greta Christina calls Crumb's Genesis "a must-read -- for any atheist, and for any Christian or Jew or Muslim who wants to honestly examine the origins of their religion:"
Many formerly- Christian atheists say that one of the most important steps on their journey to atheism was actually reading the Bible, and seeing that (a) it's a horror show, and (b) it makes no sense. And we atheists are always asking believers to actually read the sacred texts of their beliefs, to find out if they actually believe that stuff. This vivid, unforgettable, beautifully delineated, sometimes touching, often horrifying, intensely human, word- for- word graphic depiction of the seminal book of the Bible is right up our alley. I recommend it heartily.
As do I--now, if only someone could convince Crumb to spend the next two decades or so tackling the rest of the Pentateuch.
Chapter 1 (NYT)
Chapter 19 (LA Times)