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Oct 19 2009

The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb: A Review

Crumb genesis cover It’s true what they say. Sometimes, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Especially when those pictures are drawn by Robert Crumb.

And especially when those words come from the Bible.

For those who haven’t heard yet: Legendary comics artist Robert Crumb has just come out with his new book: The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb, a magnum opus, five years in the making, telling the complete, unedited book of Genesis in graphic novel form. And I’m finding it fascinating. It’s masterfully illustrated, of course, Crumb being among the very best creators in this burgeoning literary form. And it’s getting Genesis across to me, deep into my brain and my imagination, in a way that it had never quite gotten there before.

Crumb genesis abraham Of course I’ve read Genesis. More than once. It’s been a little while since I’ve read the whole thing all the way through, but it’s not like it’s unfamiliar. But there’s something about seeing the story fleshed out in images to make some of its more striking narrative turns leap out and grab your brain by the root. There’s nothing quite like seeing the two different creation stories enacted on the page to make you go, “Hey! That’s right! Two completely different creation stories!” There’s nothing quite like seeing Lot offer his daughters to be gang-raped to make you recoil in shock and moral horror. There’s nothing quite like seeing the crazed dread and burning determination in Abraham’s eyes as he prepares the sacrifice of his own son to make you feel the enormity of this act. Reading these stories in words conveys the ideas; seeing them in images conveys the visceral impact. It makes it all seem vividly, immediately, humanly real.

Crumb genesis god eve Now, that is something of a mixed blessing. Spending a few days with the characters in Genesis isn’t the most relaxing literary vacation you’ll ever take. Richard Dawkins wasn’t kidding when he said, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.” The God character in Genesis is cruel, violent, callous, insecure, power-hungry, paranoid, hot-tempered, morally fickle… I could go on and on. And God’s followers aren’t much better. They lie, they scheme, they cheat one another, they conquer other villages with bloodthirsty imperialist glee, they kill at the drop of a hat. This isn’t Beatrix Potter here. It’s more like Dangerous Liaisons by way of Quentin Tarantino. With tents, sand, and sheep.

Yet at the same time, there’s an unexpected side effect to reading this story in images as well as words. And that’s that the story becomes more… well, more of a story. Reading it in comics form made it easier for me to set aside, just for a moment, the relentless hammering on the text that I typically engage in when I read the Bible: the theological debates, the treasure hunt for inaccuracies and inconsistencies, the incessant “How did this pissy, jealous, temperamental warrior god get shoehorned into the All-Knowing All-Powerful All-Good ideal again?” bafflement. It made it easier to set all that aside… and just read it as a story. A story about some very human, very fallible characters: strong and interesting, but not moral paragons by any stretch of the imagination… and not really intended to be.

Including the God character. Who, in many ways, is the most human and the most fallible of them all.

Crumb Genesis adam eve A big part of that comes from Crumb’s art style. His drawing is not photorealistic, but his portraits — fleshy, emotional, idiosyncratic, expressive — emphasize, above all else, the humanity of his characters. The deeply familiar characters in this story — Abraham, Noah, Joseph, Adam and Eve — seem less like iconic figures from a fairy tale, and more like human beings: just some Bronze Age sheepherders, squabbling and screwing and struggling for survival.

But a big part of the “story, not theology” aspect of this book comes from the choices Crumb made as an illustrator. Crumb’s Genesis emphasizes biblical accuracy — he’s a non-believer, but he has a deep respect for the book’s historical and cultural importance. So he created this graphic novel as a straight, word- for- word illustration job.

And so, when it came to illustrating the freakier and more unsettling aspects of the narrative, he pulled no punches. The multiple marriages, the concubines, the brutal wars, the enslavements, Jacob extorting Esau out of his birthright, Abraham lying to the Pharaoh and saying that his wife was his sister, Noah’s Lot’s daughters getting him drunk and screwing him, the deliberate deception and massacre of an entire town, Joseph taking advantage of famine and drought to seize the wealth of an entire region… it’s all here, fleshed out in blood and sweat and tears, in vivid, unforgettable, often nightmarish detail. It’s really hard to see all that, and still see this book as a divinely inspired guide to living an ethical life. It’s really hard to see all that, and see this book as anything other than a story of survival and conquest in a brutal and bloody period of human history.

(I’d like to take a moment here to point out that I’m not going out of my way to find the ugly and unpleasant stories in Genesis. Ugly and unpleasant is all over Genesis like a cheap suit. If anything, the opposite is true: it’s a bit of a challenge to find a story in Genesis that’s purely uplifting and inspiring, with no nasty aspects at all.)

Crumb_Genesis rain of fire And I haven’t even gotten to the God character. God’s actions aren’t bowdlerized or treated with kid gloves in Crumb’s Genesis, any more than any other character’s. The capricious changing of whims, the inexplicable inconsistency of his moral judgments, the torturing to death of an entire town by fire, the drowning of almost every living creature in the Flood, the paranoid vengefulness anytime humanity gets a scrap of power that threatens his own… again, it’s really hard to see these stories fleshed out in unignorable visual imagery, and still see God as bearing any resemblance whatsoever to the rather abstract Greek ideal of all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good perfection. It’s really hard to see the God character fleshed out, and see him as anything other than another more or less human character in the story. With somewhat more power than most, and a somewhat greater tendency to abuse that power.

All of which makes this book a must-read — for any atheist, and for any Christian or Jew or Muslim who wants to honestly examine the origins of their religion.

Crumb genesis cover 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.

Conflict of interest alert: This book is carried by a company I work for, Last Gasp.

The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN-13: 9780393061024. Hardcover. $24.95.

26 comments

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  1. 1
    khan

    Nitpick: It was Lot’s daughters who screwed their father.

  2. 2
    Infophile

    You know, I have a feeling here that this book has the potential to be big. I mean really big. If it gets out there, with enough Christians tempted to read a more accessible version of Genesis, it could end up doing a world of good. I’ll certainly recommend it anytime I have the opportunity.

  3. 3
    Timothy (TRiG)

    Oh, I want this!
    (And I see the nitpick I was going to make has already been made.)
    TRiG.

  4. 4
    J. J. Ramsey

    khan: “It was Lot’s daughters who screwed their father.”
    Actually, Lot had earlier offered his daughters to the baying mob outside his house who were after his male guests (who were really angels), so yes, the threat of gang rape as well as the incest that you mentioned was part of the story.

  5. 5
    Greta Christina

    Bugger. That’s what I get for finishing my reviews at four in the morning. Thanks for the correction, everyone!

  6. 6
    neosnowqueen

    Yes, Genesis is the main reason why I wasn’t able to continue my journey through the Bible. It’s horrifying, and succeeded in pushing me away from Christianity when I was trying to find a way back in. Will put that on my reading list, though, if just for the artistry.

  7. 7
    J. J. Ramsey

    What correction? Lot did offer his daughters to be gang-raped; it’s in Genesis 19.8. (Lot’s daughters screwing their father comes later, in Genesis 19.30ff.) You got it right the first time.

  8. 8
    Iamcuriousblue

    While I’m trying to hold onto my money in this economy, I’m getting this one as soon as it comes out! Crumb is among my favorite comic artists to begin with, and this sounds like it will be his strongest work in some time.

  9. 9
    arensb

    I picked this up during my lunch break today. I haven’t had a chance to do more than leaf through it, but already I see some problems.
    Like when Lot’s first daughter is having sex with Lot: he’s so drunk that he doesn’t realize that he’s boning his own daughter. How does he manage to stay on top? Or is she holding him so that he doesn’t fall off? Or is this another one of the many implied miracles in the Bible, like the fact that Lot evidently doesn’t have whiskey dick?
    Also, the last panel before God tells Noah to build an ark shows a woman lying down for a human sacrifice. What I want to know is, where did bronze-age people learn to make silicone implants? Real breasts don’t stand like that.

  10. 10
    Joe Bible

    Regarding the previous comment: “How does he manage to stay on top? Or is she holding him so that he doesn’t fall off? ”
    I posted this youtube video on my blog that should answer your question: http://joebible.com/2009/09/22/an-atheist-reads-the-bible-lots-daughters/

  11. 11
    arensb

    Joe Bible:
    You have both daughters on top, which makes perfect sense. I was asking about R. Crumb’s version of the story.
    I suspect that the real explanation is that he wanted to inject some variety.

  12. 12
    J. J. Ramsey

    arensb: “Or is this another one of the many implied miracles in the Bible”
    I think it’s a plot hole in a just-so story that some Israelite wrote to make fun of the countries Ammon and Moab.

  13. 13
    Joe Bible

    @arenb
    Oh, I know. I just thought the cartoon version was apropos. Nothing like cartoon daughters raping their father, especially when the story is author by god himself.

  14. 14
    RJ Strittmatter

    I hope I enjoy this tome as much as I enjoyed your review of it.

  15. 15
    Greta Christina

    What correction?

    The correction, J.J., is that I incorrectly said it was Noah’s daughters who got their father drunk and had sex with him, not Lot’s.

  16. 16
    J. J. Ramsey

    Oh. I missed that bit about Noah for some reason, which is weird since I’m usually good at finding nits to pick.

  17. 17
    Danikajaye

    I just ordered it- YAY for the internet, credit cards and international shipping!

  18. 18
    Jason Failes

    Roman-style Messianic God-man +
    Greek ideal of all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good perfection +
    Jewish story details =
    Christianity.
    (a holy trinity.)

  19. 19
    Heresiarch

    The best one-line summary of Genesis I know (and I don’t know who said it, it has been attributed to many different people): “God! Isn’t God a shit!”

  20. 20
    g

    It’s attributed to Randolph Churchill with much specificity and by someone who claimed to be there when he said it. Here’s a bit of a letter from Evelyn Waugh to Nancy Mitford:

    In the hope of keeping him quiet for a few hours Freddy & I have bet Randolph 20[pounds sterling] that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight. It would have been worth it at the price. Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud `I say I bet you didn’t know this came in the Bible “bring down my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave’” or merely slapping his side & chortling `God, isn’t God a shit!’

  21. 21
    Genesis

    Some of us appreciate Crumb as a trend setter and yes, he did break through the wall of censorship that went up after the Congressional comic book hearings in the ’50s. I had a sneak peak of the book of genesis illustrated here and wanted to compare more independent opinions.
    For some of us it’s nostalgia—I was a horny, teen-age hippie when I first discovered undergrounds back in the ’60s. That being said, if you study his body of work you start to understand the point of view he brings to even the simplest illustration. Crumb is a self-aware, sexually immature, cynic who has few heroes (blues musicians, etc.). Sure, there are better illustrators but none that would deliver the Bible from his POV. I think of Crumb as the cartoonist’s Ivan Albright. He could draw/paint the loveliest subject and still make you wonder if there wasn’t something rotten just out of view.

  22. 22
    Helen

    For any German speaking readers, Ralf König just got an award for his satiric comics retelling Genesis and Noah:
    http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/literatur/0,1518,646601-3,00.html

  23. 23
    Mel Steffor

    In the Book of Genesis, God is telling us two stories with the words of one. From the appearance of being the first two humans in creation Adam and Eve share a commonality with all of us. Adam and Eve are representatives for all of us. God has hidden a prophesy about the future in the story. The following is the interpretation of the story about Adam and Eve in the present. I start at Genesis 2:17

    Gen 2 : 17 But as for the tree of the knowledge of good and bad you must not eat from it, for in the day you eat from it you will positively die.”

    Trees don’t grow knowledge so I know God is talking in symbols. Knowledge comes from Books. Books are made from the pulp of trees. So the Tree is a Book. A Tree is a metaphor for a Book. This book has knowledge of good and bad. The Book is the Bible. The Bible contains the knowledge of good and bad. Besides I took this verse right out of the Bible. You can’t eat from a book and gain knowledge, but you can digest a book . As in Readers Digest. You are taking the words in, like food. God says, you will positively die. The Book has poison in it. The poison is the fruit on the tree.
    What is the fruit on the tree that we must not eat? Or, What is the fruit in the New Testament? We know that a Cross is also a Tree and Jesus was nailed to the tree. The fruit from the Bible is Jesus. Clues are Adam and Eve are bare naked. Bare sounds like Bear.

    The Tree bears Jesus

    The Tree of Knowledge is a Book, and the fruit on the tree is Jesus. This is what God is saying.

    Gen 2 : 17 But as for the (Book) of the knowledge of good and bad you must not (take in Jesus) from it, for in the day you eat from it you will positively die.”

  24. 24
    Mel Steffor

    Before I go to the next verse I need to make a point about talking snakes. You can’t read the story about Adam and Eve literally because snakes don’t talk. The first question you have to ask yourself is, ‘How does this snake manage to talk?’ Some people who are reading this literally put it aside. They must be thinking, Well this is God talking and there are things I don’t know about. So they sweep it aside. Yea, there are things you don’t know about if you think that way. The thing you don’t know is, Snakes don’t talk.
    In the next verse God tells us exactly who Satan is:

    Genesis 3 : 1 Now the serpent proved to be the most cautious of all the wild beasts of the field that God had made. So it began to say to the woman: “Is it really so that God said you must not eat from every tree of the garden?” 2 At this the woman said to the serpent: “Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat. 3 But as for [eating] of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God has said, “You must not eat from it, no, You must not touch it that you do not die.’”

    The snake talks. Again we know that snakes don’t talk so God is talking in symbols. God says the snake is a wild beast. That’s not true, snakes are reptiles. A beast is a mammal. God didn’t make a mistake by saying, mammal, he knows what he’s doing. So the Serpent is really a mammal that talks. Man is the only mammal that talks. The serpent is really a man. Then, how do snakes deceive us. We think the snake is a stick until we almost step on it. Then it moves. Now we know the Serpent is a Man with characteristics of a stick. The snake speaks from the stick. Does this sound familiar:

    The Church speaks from the Cross.

    The Cross is a metaphor for a Stick. The serpent talks from the stick and the Church talks from the Cross. If it sounds the same it is the same. The Roman Catholic Pagan Church is Satan, The great deceiver. Who would have ever known if it hadn’t been written by God himself right into the Bible. Satan is really the Christian Church.

  25. 25
    Greta Christina

    Mel, thank you for sharing. But if you’re going to use my blog as a pulpit to explain your idiosyncratic personal interpretation of the Bible, please don’t. Please start your own blog instead. Doing so is cheap or free, depending on who you get to do your hosting.
    Please take note of my comment policy. In particular, please take note of the section on comment hogging. Quote: “If you’re essentially using this blog as if it were your own, then maybe you should be starting your own blog. If you already have a blog, maybe you should be posting there. Addendum: Posting extremely long comments is a form of comment hogging/ hijacking. I’m not yet going to put a hard upper limit on comments…. but if your comment is very long, please consider writing it as a post in your own blog instead, and posting a summary and a link in the comments here.”
    Sincere dissent and debate is welcomed here. The use of my blog as a pulpit for one person’s extended speeches is not. The comments here are intended to be a conversation, not a lecture. Thank you.

  26. 26
    Mel

    Hi Greta, Sorry that my blogs were so lengthy. I was just so excited by this revelation, I wanted to share it with everyone. I respect your request for keeping it brief and will not be such a blog hog here.

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