Book review: The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb

diptych of two illustrations from r. crumb's illustrated book of genesis I am not one known for my godliness. Church makes me itch, I've been a doubter from way back before I knew there were such things, and, while I've been exposed to big, honking chunks of it thanks to eight years of Catholic school, I've never read the Bible all the way through. Those "begats," they always put me to sleep.

I've always found the idea of comic-book renditions kinda suspect, as well. Sure, there are some stories in there that lend themselves to literally graphic retelling: look what DeMille did with Exodus and 4 million extras; I do, at least once a year. But the various panels I'd seen made these efforts seemed more like sucker bets, ways of roping in kids and the egregiously impatient, more like Jesus porn than anything really illuminating. Illustration, like design, should earn its keep, not be reduced to cheap gimmickry or decoration.

Revelations from the genius of documentation

R. Crumb's cartoons have been illuminating things for me since I stumbled on them at the tender age of seven or eight, in a stack of other grownup-type reading material at my grandparents' apartment.1 It took a while for my baby brain to catch up, but I now realize that Crumb's work was my first exposure to drawings carrying equal weight with words in grownup storytelling. Plus, you know, there were all of those great, dirty pictures. Way more interesting than the back issues of Playboy I also unearthed in Grampa's study (which to an eight-year-old were already pretty interesting).

Dirty subject matter will only get you off so far, though. Once you'd burned through the material a first time, for the naughty bits, you could go back and pore over the minutiae. I'm a fan of minutiae, by which I mean I can get a little OCD at times; re-reading early Crumb is very soothing, and it only gets better as he gets older and his talent deepens and his scope widens, not a lot, just enough to incorporate his other interests, like old-time blues and jazz, or the creeping industrialization of the countryside, or, now, really old stories about where we come from.

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb is book-ended by an illuminating forward, where he documents (in hand-drawn lettering) his impetus for creating the book and acknowledges the great amount of help given him in bringing it to life, and an equally illuminating commentary (in mercifully legible typeset characters) at the end, where he discusses various pertinent items concerning the content and background of the chapters.

Do yourself a favor and read the book all the way through first, without skipping ahead to peek at what are basically extended footnotes. While the commentary helps make some sense of a few really impenetrable parts, for the most part, I found myself fully sucked into these ancient stories, begats inclusive, in a way I never have before. I wondered about all the people I sprang from (at least half of them directly descended from Noah's son, Shem, according to this particular history); even more, I started to wonder about all the people and stories who weren't in the book, the ladies doing the begatting, for instance, and how some of their stories really, really didn't add up. Crumbs drawings pull you in and slow you down even as they make you want to race through and gobble the story up whole. Reading this version of some of the greatest stories ever told is maddening and intoxicating and, yes, interesting.

"Goddammit, this is a good book!"

As God is my witness, those are the exact words I spoke, out loud and without thinking, when I finished the whole shebang, and, I think, why Crumb's work is a triumph: it engages people who might not otherwise engage with these ancient stories, and provides a way for us to plug into the ancient throughline of humanity. Despite predictable accusations from certain quarters, the book is as far from titillating as you can get when you're talking about a work where every five seconds, it seems, someone is either smiting someone or begatting with them. As more reasonable members of the religious community seem to have pointed out, it ain't like the stuff isn't written in there, people.

It's unlikely that I'll have a conversion experience even having had my first connection with a holy text. But like my brothers and sisters on the other side of this great religious divide, I now have an interest in a story we share. That's a shared place, and shared places can be the beginning of mutual understanding, right?

Or not. But either way, it's a helluva good read...



1By piecing together various stories, dated documentation and memories, I finally deduced that the underground comix in question had been a gag gift for my grandfather's massive 60th birthday bash, although given his interest in keeping up with the times as they were a-changin', he may have bought them himself: Gramps was hip to Dylan when Dylan was coming up on the scene, and had the ancient LPs to prove it.

Images by Rachel Kramer Bussell and ideowl via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Yo! Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.