of Genesis Illustrated
W.W. Norton: 224 pp., $24.95
How do we read R. Crumb's "The Book of Genesis Illustrated"? It seems a contradiction: a sober reconstruction by a man who admits he "[does] not believe that the Bible is 'the word of God.' " And yet, the further we get into this electrifying adaptation, the more it all makes sense. If you remove divinity from the equation, "Genesis" becomes a human creation -- "a powerful text," in Crumb's words, "with layers of meaning that reach deep into our collective consciousness, our historical consciousness, if you will." These stories are sacred, then, not because they were handed down by any deity but because they speak to the elemental conflicts that drive us as women and men.
That's an eye-opening way of looking at the Bible, but it's also completely consistent with Crumb's career. Although he remains best known as one of the founding heroes of underground comics -- the creator of Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, among other iconic characters -- he's always had something more expansive in mind. Partly, this has meant championing other artists, including Art Spiegelman and Harvey Pekar, whose "American Splendor" he illustrated for many years. Partly, it has meant pushing comics into cultural territory where they might not, at first, appear to belong.
In 1980, Crumb published "Heroes of the Blues," a set of 36 cards featuring portraits of classic blues performers such as Son House, Memphis Minnie and Blind Willie McTell; his comic book biography of Charlie Patton and his drawings for David Zane Mairowitz's "Introducing Kafka" evoke not just the lives of these artists but also their mythic undertones. If it's now common currency that comics can address anything ( the Holocaust, Hurricane Katrina, a character's battle with cancer), this has its roots in Crumb's unrelenting vision and ambition, his sense of just how much the medium can do.
Still, the Bible? That's a stretch, especially for an artist such as Crumb, who has been accused of trafficking in racist and sexist stereotypes. Certainly, he's licentious, dirty even, his comics littered with big-boned women, busty and curvaceous, dominated by smaller, less-powerful men. But that's the beauty of "The Book of Genesis Illustrated," how perfectly Crumb's style fits the material, which is a narrative (or a set of narratives) about human passion, after all. This is rough stuff, full of lust and jealousy, in which Jacob steals his brother's birthright, and later, his sons kill a town full of men to avenge the defiling of their sister, Dinah. God is here, but he is mercurial, pitiless, willing to wipe out creation with a flood to purge the world of wickedness, yet somehow powerless to stop wickedness from reemerging once the Earth repopulates. Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, even Jacob wrestling with the angel: The point of these episodes is awe, in the most terrifying sense of the word -- awe at a universe that defies our reason and in which we must continually make adjustments to survive.
Nowhere is this more true than in the story of Tamar, who tricks her father-in-law into sleeping with her after the death of her husband and bears twins out of the deception, one of whom, Perez, becomes the ancestor of "the later kings of Judea." On the one hand, this is as transgressive a sequence as the Bible offers -- Onan figures into it also -- but in Crumb's interpretation, it is the story of a "fiercely determined woman, [who] takes it upon herself to ensure the survival of her lineage." That is what Genesis is about, and by portraying it in all its messy humanity, with blood, fear, violence and even graphic sex, Crumb strips away millennia of interpretation, returning this core text to an unexpected accessibility.
The miracle -- if we can use that word -- is that he does it without compression or reinvention; "The Book of Genesis Illustrated" is taken almost verbatim from existing scripture, based on both the King James Bible and Robert Alter's magisterial 2004 retranslation "The Five Books of Moses." For some, this might seem like blasphemy, but to Crumb, that misses the point.
"If my visual, literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis offends or outrages some readers," he writes in a brief introduction, "which seems inevitable considering that the text is revered by many people, all I can say in my defense is that I approached this as a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes."
Indeed, the power of "The Book of Genesis Illustrated" resides in Crumb's decision to play it straight, to frame this ancient creation myth on its own enduring terms.
Ulin is book editor of The Times.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times