LAT REVIEW: R. Crumb and the miracle of his ‘Book of Genesis Illustrated’


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I always enjoy chatting with David S. Ulin, the books editor of the Los Angeles Times, who has lots of insight into graphic novels, underground comix and all the provocative new voices in the wonderfully messy mash-up of prose and illustration. This weekend, Ulin weighed in on one of the most intriguing bookshelf notions of 2009 -- cartooning icon R. Crumb‘s decision to get biblical. Here’s an excerpt from the review below (with links added by me) and do check back here at the Hero Complex for more coverage of this project with Crumb coming to town to speak at UCLA and loaning his new artwork out for an exhibit at the Hammer Museum.

How do we read R. Crumb’sThe 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’sIntroducing 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...


-- David S. Ulin



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ART CREDITS Top, R. Crumb and W.W. Norton & Co. Bottom: Art Spiegelman.