Comics star R. Crumb gets serious with Genesis
Kenneth Baker, Chronicle Art Critic
Friday, October 30,
Saturday evening one of the most famous artists ever to emerge in the
Bay Area will appear on stage to discuss - the Bible. No one under 18
will be admitted to the event at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.
Robert - better known as R. - Crumb, a Philadelphia native who now
lives in southern France, first made his name in late '60s San
Francisco with Zap Comix, Fritz the Cat and other "underground
comics." They gave pictorial expression to all manner of sexual
quirks, countercultural political and personal paranoia.
Now Crumb has taken on the Old Testament. His "The Book of Genesis"
(W.W. Norton; no page numbers; $24.95) has just appeared. He will
discuss it with Françoise Mouly, art editor of the New Yorker.
Crumb spoke with The Chronicle by phone from Paris, where he was
awaiting the birth of a grandchild.
Q: Did you have an American audience in mind when you illustrated Genesis?
A: I didn't really have any audience in mind. I don't think about
that, really. I never have. Maybe there was a period there in the
'80s when I was writing stories, I thought about a couple of friends,
what would make them laugh.
(Genesis) is not written as entertainment. ... Modern people watch so
much TV and media that they're spoiled for reading. I thought making
a comic book would make it easier to read.
Q: Why Genesis in particular?
A: It's probably the oldest text in constant use in Western
civilization, except maybe Homer.
I was raised Catholic and they don't emphasize reading the Bible that
much. They focused more on the catechism and all the rituals. They'd
skip over the weird parts of the Old Testament. ... Before I started
on this project, I'd just sort of glossed over it, but here I had to
pore over it and figure out word by word what it's saying.
Q: People don't associate your work with anything sacred. Has anyone
seen your illustrated Genesis - your style applied to this subject -
A: There was a review in Britain headlined "Crumb Zaps the Bible!"
And I read that and thought, oh, no, that kind of thing could get me
killed. But there's nothing irreverent about this. I tried to address
the text as it is, which turned out to be a lot more difficult than I imagined.
Q: How long did the project take?
A: Four years. When I negotiated an advance for it, I thought it
would be something I could do in about nine months until I realized
that I had to decide line by line what could be illustrated and how
to draw it. ... I mean, I really had to learn how to draw to make
this book. I had to find out things like what ancient costumes and
cities and weapons looked like. The old Hollywood Bible movies were
actually a help, but there's not a lot of documentation about how
people dressed and lived in ancient Mesopotamia.
Q: Did interpretation of the text hang you up?
A: Yeah, a lot. The real meaning is often hidden, and in some parts,
you really have to turn it inside out. ... I read a lot of different
commentaries, and often the scholars are not in agreement. They often
disagree about what the old Hebrew means. So sometimes I was forced
to decide for myself what I thought it meant, but deciphering, not translating.
Q: How should readers take the chapter-by-chapter commentary you
added at the back of the book?
A: My commentary is academic in that it's not coming from belief.
There's endless Talmudic commentary where they're trying to figure
out what God meant because for them it's a sacred text, but for
academics who don't believe, it's a matter of figuring out what the
people behind the text were thinking. There's a lot of guesswork involved.
R. Crumb in Conversation With Françoise Mouly: 8 p.m. Sat. General
seating, $30 and $35; premium seating, $50 and $60. No one younger
than 18 admitted. Kanbar Hall, Jewish Community Center, 3200
California St., San Francisco. (415) 292-1233. www.jccsf.org/arts.
E-mail Kenneth Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The creation of R. Crumb's 'Genesis'
Before he re-created and inked in the firmament, the artist did much
research for his illustrated version.
By Reed Johnson
October 29, 2009
The artist who gave the comic-book world Mr. Natural, Angelfood
McSpade and Fritz the Cat has a new cast of characters: Adam, Eve,
Noah, Abraham and, well, You Know Who.
R. Crumb, the Albrecht Dürer of the urban demimonde, has just
published "The Book of Genesis Illustrated" (W.W. Norton), a
profusely pictorial, surprisingly faithful version of the first 50
chapters of the Old Testament. In theory, the project may strike some
as perverse, like having Charles Bukowski pen the script for a remake
of "It's a Wonderful Life."
But as he writes in his introduction, Crumb conceived his work as a
"straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make
visual jokes." Speaking by phone from France, where he has lived for
two decades, the artist suggested that his source material needed no
"The original is so strong and strange in its own right," Crumb said.
"There's so much in there that's lucid and lent itself to comic book
In richly detailed black-and-white imagery and cleanly lettered text
blocks, Crumb opens his book with a superbly drafted image of God
holding a giant cosmic void in his hands, spinning like a ball of
black cotton candy, and ends it with a sober but lavishly detailed
picture of Joseph's funeral procession.
Elsewhere, the book bears traces of Crumb's characteristic wit. Its
front cover boasts "Nothing Left Out!" and notes that "adult
supervision" is "recommended for minors." The back cover looks like a
movie poster, with medallions of the dramatis personae and God
hovering in the background like some providential Cecil B. DeMille.
But for the most part Crumb's Genesis is a literal adaptation of the
King James Version, notable more for its painstaking craft than its
In time with the book's release, an exhibition of Crumb's original
"Genesis" drawings will be on view through Feb. 7 at the Hammer
Museum. Crumb also will be making a rare Los Angeles appearance
tonight at UCLA's Royce Hall to discuss his life and work.
Crumb is hardly the first comic artist to illustrate parts of the
Bible. Numerous children's authors have done it, along with such
well-known cartoonists as Basil Wolverton.
What's perhaps most striking about the book is how well Crumb's
illustrative style matches his subject matter. The brawny, big-boned
women he's been drawing for decades are re-purposed here as
pneumatic, iron-willed Old Testament matriarchs. Variants of the
wild-eyed furry freaks who populated Crumb's semi-true tales of
Detroit and the Haight have been retrofitted with goatskins and
tunics, and seem to fit their new roles perfectly.
Although he avoids editorializing, Crumb granted himself poetic
license to flesh out certain passages. Among his most powerful series
of images are three large panels showing the fiery destruction of
Sodom and Gomorrah, with the inhabitants flailing in agony. The Bible
dispatches with this chillingly dramatic episode in a single sentence.
And Crumb's representation of Adam and Eve romping together before
the Fall is as innocent and exuberant a drawing as this artist ever
has produced. "That was one of the great things to show," he said.
"They're frolicking like pups, they've got nothing to worry about.
They're in the Garden of Eden!"
Focusing on the humanity of Genesis rather than on its divine
revelations, Crumb's biblical characters aren't Sunday school
waxworks, but hairy, fleshy, emotionally complex beings capable of
wickedness and tenderness, joy and suffering. "Maybe when you're
reading the Bible without images, you don't have the sense of what
these people were feeling," said Ali Subotnick, the Hammer show's
curator, "and his drawings are just so expressive."
The artist's personal creation myth would itself make a pretty good
book (it already has been filmed as the documentary "Crumb").
In the beginning, i.e. the mid- to late 1960s, Robert Dennis Crumb
was juicing his mind with LSD and "chasing women all over the place"
while almost single-handedly reinventing the comic book art form with
Zap and other seminal underground tomes. Over the next decades, he
transformed himself from a geeky Philadelphia kid into the iconic R.
Crumb, a counterculture brand name.
Spending five years illustrating the founding text of the
Judeo-Christian tradition may seem an odd career choice for an artist
whose transgressive, carnally preoccupied imagery upends the moral
status quo and ridicules received wisdom. In fact, he grew up as a
staunch Roman Catholic.
"When I was 15, 16, I became a fanatic true believer and said
rosaries every day, and wanted to get into heaven very badly."
But gradually Crumb and his brother Charles began to interrogate
their beliefs and, eventually, renounced their faith. "It was an
agonizing process, because we'd been brainwashed," Crumb said. "So
after I dropped out of church, you kind of go through an intellectual
Later, Crumb developed an interest in the ancient cultures of
Babylon, Sumer-Akkad and Assyria. He began spotting parallels between
certain Bible narrative lines and themes, and the myths and motifs of
Mesopotamian civilization, and cultivated a scholarly interest in
early cuneiform writing on clay tablets.
Before he started making any drawings for his Genesis project, Crumb
said, "I did a lot of detective work." In addition to the King James
Version of the Bible, he consulted "The Five Books of Moses," Robert
Alter's highly praised 2004 translation of the Pentateuch. He
embarked on a close reading of Genesis and found as many ambiguities
and contradictions as revealed truths.
"What's hard to know is what's happened in the huge passage of time,"
he said. "It's really a shame that the original intent can't be
carried over from the old Hebrew."
Crumb also was given a huge stock of visual source material by a
friend, who made freeze-fame images from Hollywood biblical epics.
Not coincidentally perhaps, Crumb's rendering of God looks a lot like
Charlton Heston's Moses in "The Ten Commandments." (Crumb told one
interviewer that the figure was influenced by Crumb's own father, an
authoritarian former Marine Corps sergeant.)
One of his discoveries in doing the project, Crumb said, was that
Genesis can be read as a sort of Bronze Age primer on male-female
relations. He credits Savina Teubal's 1984 book "Sarah the Priestess"
with helping him grasp the ancient matriarchal storytelling and
spiritual traditions that overlap with the patriarchal leanings of Genesis.
Crumb's Talmudic-like commentary at the back of his book shows that
he continues to wrestle with Genesis' encrypted meanings. For
example, Crumb speculates in his footnotes, was the story in Chapters
29 and 30, in which "two wives compete for Jacob's sexual services,"
intended as "bedroom-comedy relief"? Why does Abraham attempt to pass
off his wife as his sister to the Egyptians?
"The basic original memory of the story has been altered over time,"
Crumb said. "That's why I think it's absurd for anyone to take the
Bible literally, either as history or as a guide."