R. Crumb, frame from THE BOOK OF GENESIS ILLUSTRATED, 2009. Courtesy W.W. Norton & Company.
For the last five years, Robert Crumb, the father of underground comix, has been laboring over a graphic retelling of the first book of the Bible. This might seem odd given his predilections for countercultural subversion. From his LSD-influenced stories for Zap to his collaboration with Charles Bukowski to his biography of Franz Kafka, Crumb’s evolution as a storyteller has led him here. With Genesis he tackles some of the great tropes of Western culture.
Informed by multiple translations, secondary sources, Sumerian mythology, and even movie stills from Hollywood Bible epics, the resulting work is a sensitive and comprehensive exegesis, depicted without a trace of irony. Crumb’s Genesis, when divorced from theology and treated as an historical text, comes alive foremost as a political story, rife with deception, scheming, incest, and brutal violence. It pivots around polarized motifs—monotheism vs. polytheism, matriarchy vs. patriarchy, tribalism vs. civilization—themes that emerge graphically as subtext in a way they rarely do with plain text.
Crumb hews to the text so closely that it can accurately be considered “unabridged.” This Genesis possesses all the contradictions never wholly reconciled by the redactors of the Bible—it contains the two very different creation stories, for instance. In an accompanying set of annotations, Crumb shines as an amateur scholar of early Mesopotamian history. This awareness is reflected in his illustrations throughout, which tend more toward realism than ever. Gone are the caricatures, the bulging eyes, the hallucinatory style that defined his early work. Instead, readers get sympathetic portraits of the early forefathers and foremothers, as well as painstakingly detailed terrain, vegetation, and attire—an attentiveness that would border on overresearched if it weren’t so immersive.
Readers will no doubt catch occasional references to Crumb’s past work, like a palimpsest revealing habits that are over 50 years old. At times, God himself looks like an epic, full-sized “Mr Natural,” Crumb’s infamous mystic guru. A scene in which Isaac and Rebekah lay naked and intertwined, while not explicitly sexual, is a throwback to Crumb’s prehistoric romp “Cave Wimp.” And more than a few characters sweat explosively in that classic Crumb expression of distress.
In the ’90s, the Devil Girl Choco-Bars, candy bars inspired by Crumb’s Devil Girl character, used to come with a warning: “It’s bad for you!” The hardcover of Genesis Illustrated has its own cautionary advice: “Adult supervision recommended for minors.” This has less to do with the issues that once made his comix taboo—nudity, profanity—and more to do with the violence that peppers the first book of the Bible. Often gruesome, even in black and white, it’s the same bloodiness that can be seen daily in headlines and on televisions. Apparently for Crumb, whose work has always resonated with the times, this isn’t only the oldest story ever told, it’s the same story still being told today.