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.

Illustration Friday - Suit

suit I have not yet got the hang of this Illustration Friday thing.

Apparently, you IMMEDIATELY draw the topic when it's announced on Friday, then upload as soon as possible so that everyone sees your thumbnail first. (Non-competitive and non-judgmental, my Aunt Fanny....)

So it is too late to submit my entry under last week's topic, "Suit".

But it is never too late to start drawing. Or thinking, for that matter.

Next week's topic: "Rejection".

After 10 years of acting and 45 of living, how hard can that be?

xxx c

Project Life, by "Project Runway" Part IV

model-yWe're over the hump on hump day, but those Project Runway/Life Lessons just keep on comin'... Thanks to all my Wednesday-only readers who have found me via Google, Yahoo!, Technorati and MSN searches. Just so you know, what I know about fashion would fit in my bra, which, were it to be used for the odd alternate purpose of stowing nuts for winter, wouldn't hold enough to keep an anorexic squirrel alive for 48 hours after the freeze. (And frankly, given how often I even wear one, I might as well donate it to some alternate cause.)

Lesson 12: Make it Fit!

You think foo-foo is the answer? You obfuscator, you! Don't you know that any fool with a MasterCard and a high-speed connection can pile on the frippery?

Real men, or, in this case, women, cut fierce. And Kara Saun is 100% fierce in the fit department. Hear the praise her exquisitely cut wedding sheath earns from stern Parsons overlord, Tim Gunn:

I feel about Kara Saun's work the same way that I feel about the work of Coco Chanel; that is, when you see it you think, "This is exactly what the fashion world has been waiting for!" You can't predict it. You can't anticipate it. You simply respond to what is.

Lesson 13: Remember Whose Name is on the Label

Okay, show of hands: who blows rent money to buy couture from the House of Hacque?

I thought so. Contradicting one's inner voice is a recipe for one giant cheese ball of confusion. I'd rather be Austin and go down in glorious, chiffon-draped flames than wishy-wash my way out by caving to the whims of a sixteen-year-old girl's idea of fashion. Know what you stand for and then get on your freakin' feet and off your damned can already. Sheesh.

Lesson 14: Sell Yourself!

The meek may inherit the earth, but only after it's been picked clean of anything good by the self-promoters. Don't hide your light under a bushel (ooo...that's TWO biblical references, I love it when TV and god intersect). Be like Austin: throw on a velvet cape, rock those YSL specs and work the room!

And if you're not naturally flamboyant and/or gregarious, fake it ‘til you make it. It's called acting, sugar-face!

Lesson 15: Keep it Original

U gots 2 B U. It's one thing to pay homage (i.e., steal the right way); it's quite another to abdicate originality and play copycat. In addition to being crushingly boring (and unethical, despite Tim's lenient take on the issue), it's a waste of good, old-fashioned DNA. You got your own map for a reason; quit looking over your neighbor's shoulder at hers!

Lesson 16: Lead by Example

This challenge had two designers heading up teams of three where each contributed one “look” to a “collection”. Theme? “For the year 2055.” Source materials? Low-end Village vintage shop. As if.

*****VENOM ALERT: Just so we're all clear on this, I thought everyone sucked ass in this challenge. Imitation of Christ, you ain't; I've seen better deconstructions on Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. END VENOM ALERT.*****

Still, Kevin, Team Leader #1, got the boot because ****SWEARING ALERT**** his design sucked the most ass. If you're in charge, your contribution to the team should suck the least amount of ass. So if you are a boss, please do not suck ass. ****END SWEARING ALERT.****


Okay, my babies. Last PR tonight! Last set of Life Lessons to follow...

xxx c


Project Life, by "Project Runway" Part III

after fitzhugh In which we continue to draw Life Lessons from this season's surprise source of integral wisdom (and ripping-good reality TV), "Project Runway."

Lesson 10: There's No Room for Drama on a Deadline

In Episode 4, the designers had to go from working solo to a cluster fuck collaborating in teams! Of three designers each. Mon dieu et zut alors!

Team Kevin fell victim to the drama doldrums when a critical pattern piece went missing. Instead of spending valuable time figuring out a solution, they wasted it (apparently, I've still got to catch up) with infighting and hysteria. As Tim so sagely put it, “It was not essential that the pattern piece be found or that retribution be sought for a speculative thief. What was essential is that the design be finished in time for the runway judging.”

What precious commodity, time, energy, effort, are you frittering away on some “missing pattern piece” of your life when you could be getting on with things? Have you not read He's Just Not That Into You? Do you not get that this is not a dress (OMG!!! ROTFLMAO!!!) rehearsal? Lose the hair shirt! Drop the mantle, Drama Queen! Need I spell it out for you? Tick, tick, tick!!!

Lesson 11: Don't Fall on Your Sword!

Poor Vanessa. She learned this lesson the hard way. When the judges asked which member of the team was the weak link, Vanessa brought up her own inferior cutting skills. WTF?!? Don't aspiring couturiers watch "The Apprentice"? Tim knows the score: “Even when up against a wall and caught red-handed with the evidence, don't volunteer to receive the death sentence; you can't go backwards from there. I'm reminded of another Susan Hayward film (am I dating myself?) in which her character is accused of murder and imprisoned. It's called, I Want to Live! That's the spirit.”

Damn straight, it is! Be your own best friend and your bestest publicist! And if you've found yourself on P4 in the underground parking garage of self-esteem, well, then, fake it till you make it, baby! Do you think that if, say, the President of the United States made an egregious error of some sort or another that he'd throw up his hand and cry “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maximum culpa!”?! Do you think he'd even cry at all? 'Nuff said.


We're getting down to the wire. Only a few designers and a couple of episodes left. Tonight's VERY SPECIAL PROJECT RUNWAY is a pastiche of interviews with current and former program contestants. But don't call it padding; call it an opportunity to learn! Unless of course, you've got your whole life figured out and everything, Little Miss Buddha!

xxx c

On the other side of fear, there's a small ink drawing

ink sketch of phoneA year, no, probably closer to two years ago, I was at The Art Store (no, seriously, it's called "The Art Store") buying sumpin' or other, when I saw the sign on the locked glass case: "Koh-i-noor, 50% off." Now, if art stores (like computer stores and office supply stores) are to me as hardware stores are to most guys and jewelry stores are to most girls, the Rapidograph case is like where they keep the specialty-use Mikita saws or the anything if you're at Tiffany & Co. I could buy one of everything at the art store (or The Art Store) whether I needed one or not, but Rapidographs...well, shit, son, you need y'self at least five of those. For your different liiiine widths and whatnot...

To my credit, I did not slap down the Visa then and there; I actually left the store and thought about it for a week. (After making sure the sale would still be on, of course.) Then I came back, paid the man, and trotted off with my shiny new box of SEVEN, count 'em, SEVEN Rapidographs like the panting dog that I am. Upon reaching home, I immediately propped them up on a shelf to admire them in their pretty new case...and never touched them again.

Until yesterday, that is. I did under duress what I would not let myself do out of mere desire. Because while discussing a particular design job I'm working on right now, I threw out an idea that required drawing. By me. Now. (Idiot...idiot...)

For someone who grew up with a pen in her hand, I'm not a very good draw-er. I guess the problem was that I was using it to write at least as much as to draw. Because for every time I'd long to be Hilary Knight, I'd want just as fervently, or more so, to be Kay Thompson. R. Crumb, Edward Gorey, Aubrey Beardsley; Dorothy Parker, Charles Bukowski, Joan Didion. So many twisted, miserable lifestyles; so little time.

Ultimately, I decided I was a better writer than I was an artist. And since I couldn't be a great artist, I would go with my strong suit and let the drawing go entirely.

It's a shame, this idea I've held so long: that we can only do One Thing. That creativity can't express itself through multiple, if imperfect, outlets. That I must be truly great at something to earn the right to spend time working, or even playing, at it. I've probably missed out on a lot over the years because of it. But lately I've been finding that I enjoy dabbling, a little cooking, a little sewing, a little guitar-pickin', a little blogging. I'm finally loosening my iron grip on perfectionism as a way of life, and wouldn't you know, life's getting to be more fun. Messier, scarier, and even dirtier (all this fun leaves little time for scrubbing grout with a toothbrush), but a lot more fun.

So I must pause, briefly, to thank those brave, multitalented souls who came before me for putting themselves out there, for exploring their truths via their eclectic, complex selves, so fearlessly and inspiringly. Evelyn Rodriguez, a.k.a. The Zen Mistress of Business, who is a constant reminder that binary thinking is not not nearly as activating (not too mention fun) as a crazy cocktail of influences. Hugh MacLeod, who's crackerjack marketing-smart AND a draw-er of some of the funniest, filthiest cartoons ever AND doesn't see a disconnect with being both. My new bud, Michael Nobbs, who introduced me to peops like Trevor Romain and Danny Gregory, all of whom made it possible for me to believe that great art and great writing weren't mutually exclusive, that they could reside happily within the same sentient being, that one might actually inform and enrich the other.

You guys make it a little less scary to post this picture. And the idea of picking up a sketchbook at The Art Store positively thrilling.

xxx c