Illustrated by R. Crumb
W. W. Norton & Company ($24.95)

by Britt Aamodt

As books sold to and packaged for the consumer market, Bibles have been around for centuries, but there’s never been a version like this. The iconoclastic cartooning genius R. Crumb's latest endeavor is a graphic adaptation of the first book of the Bible, which he set out to illustrate word for word. “Graphic,” however, can be interpreted two ways: not only are the biblical stories visually rendered, but their sexual content is explicitly realized, to the dismay of some religiously minded folk. Objections arose even before The Book of Genesis hit the stands. After all, Crumb is the creator behind the sexually adventurous Fritz the Cat and the con-man guru Mr. Natural—not the first person who comes to mind who might want to illustrate the Good Book.

If you haven't read Genesis in a while, you may have forgotten that the book is composed of several stories loosely tied together by genealogical recitations. Genesis begins with creation and ends with the story of Joseph, whose brothers, jealous of the favor their father bestows on him, sell Joseph into slavery. Eventually, Joseph becomes the pharaoh's chief minister after interpreting the pharaoh's dreams, which prefigure seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Ishmael, and Lot also make appearances.

Crumb is the Woody Allen of comics—obsessed and self-referential—but his style is unmistakably unique, and when paired with the right content, masterful in its form. Crumb also has the advantage of being able to interpret stories not of his own making. He famously collaborated with writer Harvey Pekar on American Splendor, and his work on The Book of Genesis is another collaboration—this time with a series of anonymous biblical writers or, depending on your outlook, God.

With The Book of Genesis, it appears that Crumb wanted to challenge himself, and what greater challenge is there than putting a fresh face on a text that has been envisioned, translated, explained, and reconfigured by countless scholars and creators throughout the ages? Crumb solves the dilemma by being himself. He brings his style to bear in the fat-legged women, the expressive and sometimes ugly faces, and the choice of how to interpret each sequence. When the Bible says, "Isaac brought [Rebekah] into the tent of Sarah, his mother, and took Rebekah as wife," Crumb makes it quite clear that “taking a wife” is a sexual act. Other illustrators would make other artistic decisions.

The one criticism that can be leveled at Crumb's rendition is the same one often cited about the book itself: the endless genealogical recitations. Some love the poetry of recited names; others quickly flip pages. True to his assignment to reproduce Genesis faithfully, Crumb includes every name and ends up with several pages that would resemble a biblical-era high school yearbook, if it weren't for his peculiar genius. He breaks up the monotony by occasionally creating a scene around the name, imaging a moment of life passing as one ancestor begets another.

It is highly unlikely that R. Crumb's take on the good book will convert anyone to the Christian faith. But as a visual representation of Genesis, Crumb's book unpacks the dense prose and allows readers to reexperience these oft-heard stories through a perspective that is uniquely his.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010