Joseph from “Illustrated Genesis,” by R. Crumb

Robert (R.) Crumb, one of the principle voices and a pillar of 1960s counter culture, has done something almost unimaginable – spending five years painstakingly illustrating the entire book of Genesis in comic book form.

Life in the cultural “underground” (what ever that actually is) may never be quite the same. Certainly Crumb’s recent interest is quite an aberration from his usual subjects, which could be loosely summarized as crude and lewd.

Americans who rode through the 1960s angst, especially those involved with the drug scene, could count on Crumb’s characters as part of their altered reality. Also revolutionaries, left wingers, artistic satirists and comic aficionados, even to this time, value his drawings and pronouncements on varied subjects.

Long considered an intellectual with weighty pronouncements on life and society, Crumb has also been accused of the crudest type of racism and sexist pornography. He was charged with obscenity in a 1972 London trial related to his work in “Nasty Tales.” The title says it all.

One defender labeled his work, “Rabelaisian satire – he is using coarseness quite deliberately in order to get across a view of social hypocrisy.” Maybe.

A sudden change of focus overwhelmed Mr. Crumb, but it was not from divine intervention or done as an act of spiritual penance. He reveals his uninspiring motivation in an interview with the Paris Review.

“I did it for the money, and I quickly began to regret it,” he said. “It was an enormous amount of work – four years of work and barely worth it.”

Abraham from “Illustrated Genesis,” by R. Crumb

The volume is impressive in some ways. Crumb hand penned in all the words of Genesis from the King James Bible and specifically depended on Robert Alter’s recent translation, “The Five Books of Moses.” Thankfully Crumb refrained from much editing or abbreviating, although he found the Bible “convoluted” and confusing at times.

Mr. Crumb is clearly not a believer and he makes that clear. He explains that he feels the Bible is clearly “inspired” but doesn’t accept it as the Word of God, rather a distillation of inspired words and thoughts of men.

“A powerful text with layers of meaning that reach deep into our collective consciousness, that historical consciousness if you will,” he describes it.

Crumb’s feelings and doubts are conveyed through his art in the sense that all Bible characters are so very earthy. Imagine Cro-Magnon Moses and Neolithic Abraham with hulky, muscled women sporting lots of body hair. None of them seem extremely attractive, even the ones who are noted to be in the text, yet they are all believable as imperfect humans.

“Girl-fight” from “Illustrated Genesis,” by R. Crumb

Crumb went through admirable pains to use authentic props, architecture, clothing and cultural information. He claims to have done a great deal of research in archeology, history and even scholarly works on Genesis from theologians. In doing this, though, he chooses to use “scholars” who challenge the integrity of the Bible, charging that priests had altered the original texts to bolster their own positions of power and the case for Israel. Apparently Crumb has not come across powerful supports of the authenticity of the Torah, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Jacob’s ladder from “Illustrated Genesis,” by R. Crumb

Crumb approached this as “a straight illustration job.” He claims no offense, and I believe him. Making a comparison from his secular, often vulgar, deliberately offensive and occasionally pornographic work, his illustrations of the Bible are almost tame. This may be only an economic concession, assuming that readers of the Bible will only stand for so much frontal nudity or sexual images. In other words, it could have been a lot worse.

Having said that, it also could be a lot better. Miracles, angels, the oracles of God and the creation of life may be conveyed through all types of art, even comic books. But there should be some kind of stylistic indication when dealing with the transcendent, which doesn’t happen because Crumb doesn’t believe it in this case. Even Superman gets some mystical reverence and a slightly theological treatment with his vast battles for good and evil.

A prolific artist and cartoonist Crumb’s images dotted the American landscape through printed material for decades. His characters were virtual icons of the times, Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, Devil Girl, Mr. Snoid, Angelfood McSpade and others.

Sarah from “Illustrated Genesis,” by R. Crumb

Crumb makes money with a bazillion trinkets emblazoned with his characters, such as shot glasses, lighters, air fresheners, incense and trading cards. He has produced vast body of work over the decades and has received a great deal of acclaim and far more respect and recognition that most comic book artists. Lately Crumb has created CDs, worked in theater and collaborated with other artists and writers such as the poet Charles Bukowski.

It seems that almost all artists eventually wrestle with the content of the Bible. It deals with the most fundamental and important aspects of life, contains gripping stories, thundering prophets, mysticism and beautiful literature. Artists who tire of endlessly analyzing themselves are given a lot better material with the Bible, whether they believe in it or not.

Crumb admits, “I don’t doubt the existence of God. I just don’t know quite what God is. It’s a question that will challenge me until the day I die.”

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.