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The creation of R. Crumb's 'Genesis'

Genesis (music group)Arts and CultureUCLADocumentary (genre)EducationCharlton HestonCharles Bukowski

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 embellishment.

"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 adaptation."

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 interpretational risk-taking.

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 discovery period."

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."

reed.johnson@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Genesis (music group)Arts and CultureUCLADocumentary (genre)EducationCharlton HestonCharles Bukowski
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