Anyone with even a vague awareness of the history of North American comics recognizes the name Robert Crumb. Even for those unfamiliar with Mr. Natural's "keep on truckin'," Zap Comix, Fritz the Cat or any other of the countless works he is associated with, the widely distributed and hugely successful 1994 documentary Crumb extended his fame to the world at large.
Growing up in a monumentally dysfunctional family, Crumb used his talent for drawing as a refuge in his struggle for survival. Upon finishing school and a brief apprenticeship as an illustrator with American Greetings Corp., he moved to the West Coast and there, as a result of the popularity of his drawings in the emerging underground comics movement in the roiling San Francisco of the 1960s, his fame - and notoriety - quickly grew. Crumb's work was extremely raw, unprecedentedly self-revelatory and, in the world of comic art at least, extraordinarily explicit and shocking. Unlike so many of his peers from that era, Crumb continued to work and grow as an artist and has frequently published throughout the subsequent four decades.
When he first announced his intention five years ago to produce an illustrated interpretation of the Old Testament, reactions ranged from mild curiosity to outrage at the very idea that someone with his controversial reputation would attempt to interpret the Bible. In his thoughtful and articulate introduction to The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb, Crumb acknowledges his awareness that the project was a potentially contentious one:
"If my visual, literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis offends or outrages some readers, which seems inevitable … all I can say in my own defence is that I approached it as a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes."
And this is precisely what he has done. More than 200 pages of meticulous, superbly crafted drawings rigorously adhere, with infrequent exceptions, to Robert Alter's 1996 popular translation of the Book of Genesis. Consistently, each illustrated panel is rendered entirely without satirical intent or comedic personal aside. It's this very quality of "straight illustration" that makes The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb such a fascinating undertaking.
The marriage of Crumb illustrations and a biblical storyline works with surprising harmony and fluidity
It is apparent from the first page that Crumb has taken this illustration job very, very seriously. Studiously researching historical costuming and architecture, he painstakingly learned to illustrate his subjects in authentic period clothing (or not, in the case of Adam and Eve), as well as realistic urban surroundings and geographical settings.
His research included compiling hundreds of stills from Hollywood biblical epics as well as archival photographs of traditional Middle Eastern clothing, and studying a wide range of sources including friends' architectural photographs from North Africa. The final drawings reflect this immense effort. From kings and courtiers to desert shepherds and tribal chieftains, there is a sense of ease and confidence in the depiction of even the most complex scenes.
In addition to his visual research, Crumb turned to experts for help in interpreting many Hebrew terms and phrases, and acknowledges at the close of his foreword that the interpretation of many of these passages is still a source of debate in theological and academic circles. Crumb has added a seven-page chapter-by-chapter précis of the entire Book of Genesis, and in introducing this section he writes that as part of his extensive research he read a considerable amount on the history of Sumer, Babylon and Assyria, as well as the myths of Mesopotamia.
The first question that arises after reading about all this study, research and preparation is: Is the end result successful? Judging from the almost universal praise greeting its arrival, the answer seems to be a resounding "yes." Perhaps it is the cinematic nature of comic-book narration that allows the storyline of Crumb's Genesis to unfold briskly and efficiently in its recounting of the story of creation and the subsequent 50 chapters of biblical events.
Though the cover of the book bears the warning "adult supervision recommended for minors," it quickly becomes apparent that this admonition applies as much to the subject matter of the text as it does to Crumb's interpretation. There is no prurience to the portrayal of Adam and Eve and the subsequent myriad moments of begetting, incest, seduction and Sodom-and-Gomorrah debauchery. All are rendered with a restraint not seen in an average episode of South Park or Family Guy.
The marriage of Crumb illustrations and a biblical storyline works with surprising harmony and fluidity to recast the Genesis story as an unfolding linear account of the history of a tangible tribal people.
There are few precedents for Crumb's ambitious project, and though there may be some who have difficulty with the idea of an acknowledged agnostic tackling subject matter sacred to so many, the end result is a visceral, fascinating vision that invites the reader to view the Book of Genesis with a renewed freshness.
Brian Gable, an editorial cartoonist at The Globe and Mail, has kept on truckin' with Robert Crumb from the beginning.