Features & Columns

The Book of Crumb

America's greatest underground cartoonist points his pen
at the Book of Genesis—all 38,000 words
The Book of Genesis The Book of Genesis

Fans of Robert Crumb were expecting a takedown job when the former Northern Californian and the world's most famous underground cartoonist announced his project to illustrate Genesis, the first book of the Bible.

Robert "R." Crumb's comment in The New York Times about the Good Book suggested that blasphemy was possibly in the offing: "The fact that people can persist in the information age to take this as a fundamental word of God, words to live by, rules to live by, that's really crazy to me."

Crumb's original artwork for The Book of Genesis Illustrated (Norton) goes on display this week at the San Jose Museum of Art—all 200 pages, mounted in staggered rows, divided by chapters. If fundamentalism is crazy, Crumb's own monumental task would have driven most people insane.

Over five years, sometimes working half a day on one drawing, the artist illustrated this by turns mysterious, banal, sublime, ghastly, demanding and self-contradictory 38,000-word text. Crumb has included in his panels every word in Genesis, using a mix of the King James version and UC-Berkeley's professor Robert Alter's 2004 translation.

Now living in a small town in France, Crumb rarely gives interviews. But the footnotes for his book explain what he's doing clearly. Although he personally is an unbeliever, Crumb isn't trying to burlesque the Bible. Instead, he wrestles with the seriousness of Genesis: the dust-to-riches human saga that runs from the beginning of the universe to the burial of Joseph.

Local Crumb fans are eagerly awaiting the exhibit. Adam Johnson, the prize-winning novelist who helps lead Stanford's graphic-novel project, says, "Crumb's style, with its ink-heavy, writhing lines emanates uncertainty and struggle. It's a style that lends itself to a narrative of woe, torment and redemption."

Lee Hester, owner of Lee's Comics in Mountain View and San Mateo, says, "R. Crumb is the hard stuff, the world's greatest cartoonist. Our Bob Dylan. I can't recall reading an R. Crumb story that didn't move me."

Book of Genesis

Mad Men

The short version of Crumb's career is that the former Northern Californian was a breaker of taboos in his youth. His fearless and explicit illustrations of the world of sex (and drugs, a lesser concern) were both dismaying and comic.

The bug-eyed, gloating fan Crumb drew as a logo for the San Jose's Comic Book Collector shop was a classic example of Crumb's 1960s cartoony style as seen in Zap Comix and dozens of other works, such as Mr. Natural. When he was young, his work was seized by the police on obscenity charges. Ultimately, Crumb lived to see his talent embraced by the mainstream. The 1994 documentary Crumb helped make him world famous.

In the 1980s, Crumb's work made a drastic change to graphic complexity, as he started moving away from the 1950s comic modes he used to imitate. His art stopped looking like Golden Age cartoonist C.C. Beck (who drew Captain Marvel among many other heroes) and started to resemble 19th-century master illustrator Gustav Dore.

Crumb illustrated Kafka as well as the sometimes comic, sometimes somber memoirs of former Metro contributor Harvey Pekar, the sexual pathologist Krafft-Ebing, James Boswell and the Brothers Grimm. He and his wife, Aline Kominsky, discussed their open marriage in the appropriately titled Dirty Laundry.

All of that hard-learned talent for slaved-over, ink-heavy illustration is visible in the show at the San Jose Museum of Art. If the book was impressive, the art itself is overwhelming. Banners blow up a few of the drawings, with the lines from crow-quill pen and ink on Strathmore paper looking as thick and bristly as ropes.

Seeing these drawings in their original form—some 25 percent larger than the reproductions in the book—is a revelation. If you've seen pen and ink drawings used for comics, you know how grubby they can be: splotched with Wite-Out, pencil and unreproducible marker. Crumb's drawing and lettering are so sure, it's scary; while there's a bit of Wite-Out occasionally: most of the white patches are not mistakes, but pigment added to make Jehovah's robes glow. Crumb's hand is as sure as the hand of an engraver.

Crumb did research, using everything from Bible comics to National Geographic photos to captured images from Hollywood biblical epics, some of which are also on display at the exhibit. As Jon Solomon observes in The Ancient World in the Cinema, many classicists were involved as consultants on the sword-and-sandal epics. Their "educated guesses" of what the ancient world looked like were often as good as anyone's.

If you ask Lee Hester, one of the artists who made the biggest impression on Crumb is Basil Wolverton. "Mad magazine was a big influence on Crumb," Hester says. "I know for a fact Crumb worships those artists, like Jack Davis, but I think his style is influenced in every heavy line and exposed wrinkle by Wolverton, the grandfather of the underground."

Wolverton, whose parents lived in Sunnyvale for a time, was an ordained minister. He was also the auteur of the most flabbergastingly strange drawings ever published in Mad. Ignoring the traditional Tex Avery dichotomy of wolf and girl, Wolverton combined them both into creatures with lolling tongues and enormous cracked teeth.

In 2009, Fantagraphics printed Wolverton's Bible, from work originally done in the late 1950s. It's not faith in the old-time religion that gives Wolverton's Biblical work a little more pop-art punch than we see in Crumb's version of the best-known incidents in Genesis. It's simply a matter of all the negative space Wolverton has at his command.

Book of Genesis

Mr. Natural

In illustrating the Bible, Crumb is working in a tradition of graphics that reaches from Northern German woodcuts to the watercolors of William Blake.

The most dramatic points of the Book of Genesis were already well taken by the time of the late Renaissance, though. Hard luck for the artist who tries to improve on Masaccio's version of the exile from the Garden, Tiepolo's expulsion of Hagar or Rembrandt's vision of the ordeal of Isaac.

Yet Crumb does work some virgin territory. For instance, he may be the first artist ever to draw these legions of one-named tribesmen of eons ago. Sometimes, he even shrinks the litany of begottens and begetters into thumbnail-size portraits. And choked with a sense of religious propriety, many illustrators can't get at the more vague or sexual passages in Genesis that Crumb addresses so forthrightly: the playfulness of Adam and Eve, the stealing away of human women by angels and the date-raping of Lot by his daughters.

On one level, Crumb's Genesis is just what he calls it: "straight illustration." As a result of including every word of the text, Crumb's work is heavy with dialogue and captions. Here is every play on Hebrew words when it comes to the naming of children. (The author of Genesis loved puns.)

With the expanse of the museum walls, the art has more force, and it's all obviously his. In the squatness and hairiness of old Abraham, we see a realistically illustrated version of Crumb's trademark cartoon magus: the angry holy man Mr. Natural. Noah's sons, Shem, Ham and Japeth, are grizzled, desert-rat versions of the Three Stooges' Shemp, Larry and Moe—a little token of affection for old vaudevillians.

Crumb even inserts outright cartoon details. Look closely, and in a pile of writhing, burning Sodomites, one of the damned has just been hit in the ass with a chunk of flaming debris.

These jests don't change the tone of the work, any more than the fabulous beasts on the edge of an illuminated manuscript turn a prayer book into a comic book about funny animals.

Book of Genesis

Let's Make a Deal

Genesis is a meeting ground of the divine and the devious. And the most heroic spot in this meeting is Crumb's version of Abraham and God dickering over the fate of Sodom.

Will God kill the entire population, then? What if there are 50 just men? What about 40? In Crumb's version of this negotiation, Abraham breaks down the Almighty's sales resistance. The episode concludes with Abraham alone, wiping "plutes" (the technical term for a cartoon sweat drop) off of his forehead: Whew, what a tough customer.

Crumb takes this act of persuasion—a life-and-death matter—as the advent of Jewish humor, complete with gesticulation and shrugging. It's a moment of small triumph for humanity over the unmovable Lord.

Some dark humor turns up, but one learns not to laugh in the presence of Jehovah. The fury He shows when Sarah laughs at his prophecy of a late birth makes this panel Crumb's most fearsome depiction of the wrath of God. The artist told critic Robert Hughes that the model for Jehovah was Crumb's own father, a tyrannical ex-Marine.

The artist's familiar hand is also visible among the ancients, who include some of the most typical Crumb characters: those strapping, toothy, plump, gloriously big, Mediterranean-featured women he adores.

"I'm not very good at drawing attractive women actually," Crumb once wrote.

That is modest; it is also ridiculous. It's every bit as ridiculous as uber-critic Harold Bloom's comment that all the women in Crumb's Genesis are ugly.

Since the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, Crumb has favored the healthy milkmaid above the overcosmeticized city dweller. He prefers the unruly to the sophisticated, and he can't get over his astonishment at feminine power dominating prone, skinny males. The way he portrays Sarai (later Sarah), the most complex woman in Genesis, is key to the novel perspective Crumb brings to Genesis.

Book of Genesis

Woman Trouble

Genesis can be summed up reductively: Women can't be trusted. They'll sneak themselves into a man's bed. They're liabilities. They have to be smuggled through enemy territory. They pretend to be raped, as Potiphar's wife did. If they want seed, even their own fathers are not out of bounds.

We see real horror in Crumb's images of the drunken seduction of Lot by his daughters, and his viewing his offspring born of incest. Lot is a lost geezer, slumped, surrounded by a midden of sheep bones, as his big-legged hoyden daughters instruct his sons-cum-grandsons in archery.

Taking advantage of chances to go gentle on the more pliant women of Genesis—Rebekah at the well, for example—Crumb can be lyrical. But he also finds a counterpoint to this book's ambient fear of women in the person of Sarah.

In his notes, the artist acknowledges being helped by the scholar Savina Teubal's book Sarah the Priestess (1984). Teubal theorizes that ancient tales had been rewritten to obscure the role of Abraham's wife as a priestess of the older religion. Such a powerful woman would have been able to engage in sacred marriage with men of her choosing, which may be why she ends up with other men now and again.

And when Rachel helps herself to her father's household idols before she leaves home, Crumb says he presumes it's a sign that Rachel, too, was a priestess.

This is not a drastic interpretation. Bloom may not care for the look of Crumb's women, but he did write the 1990 Book of J, where he, too, suggests that a woman had written the first five books of the Bible.

No sense of the sacred? Certainly, if you don't consider women sacred or powerful. The majority of Crumb's work during the past 25 years has been about his fear and trembling before the opposite sex. In these stories of men taking the reigns of a civilization, his work brings that fascination to its peak.

Still, one admires Crumb's own ideas of a pre-Bible world. And as he writes, "Even we modern sophisticated people have trouble wrapping our minds around the idea of a society in which male and female power are equally balanced."

We'll never see a definitive illustrated Bible. The text calls out constantly for more study as both art and artifact. We owe Crumb a great deal for the clarity he has brought into his above-all entertaining approach to turning The Word into pictures.

The Book of Genesis Illustrated, by R. Crumb

W.W. Norton & Company; $24.95

The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb's Book of Genesis

June 23-Sept. 25 at the San Jose Museum of Art