On Robert Crumb’s The Book of Genesis Illustrated, Genesis Chapter 22

What to do when trapped with a front-line, world-class bore? At the point of throttling Randolph Churchill during a wartime mission to Yugoslavia, Evelyn Waugh and Freddie Birkenhead bet the then-Prime Minister’s son £20 that he couldn’t read the Bible from cover to cover within a fortnight. Churchill, a man who few could ever love and a stranger to the source material of his own religion, eventually claimed his reward, having bored his colleagues even further with a running commentary on the peculiarities of both Old and New Testament. Sadly, little of the detail of this has survived, but Waugh does record one particular outburst whose fame seems to have long outdistanced that of the odious Churchill himself:

“God, isn’t God a shit!”

It’s hard to imagine that there could possibly be too many telling similarities to be identified between the lives of Randolph Churchill and Robert Crumb, but it’d be a push to conclude from The Book Of Genesis Illustrated that Crumb doesn’t also tend towards the isn’t-God-a-shit hypothesis, for there’s little of The Lord beyond a monomaniacally malignant tyrant to be seen in the pages of his Biblical adaption.

To the sceptical mind, of course, it would be a challenge to reach any other conclusion. This is a God who, having carelessly allowed his creation to acquire self-knowledge, spends the pages of The Book Of Genesis persecuting those who won’t abandon their free will in order to bow before him. Women are eternally cursed to a life of pain, learning and ambition undermined through the corruption of language,  cities destroyed in righteous holocausts, and “all that was on dry land” drowned in an impossibly cruel holocaust. It’s a litany of exceptionally familiar horrors which Crumb predictably makes not the slightest attempt to sugar-coat with a Sunday School sheen of godly compassion and moral education.

Instead, The Book Of Genesis Illustrated is concerned with one straight-forward empathetic purpose; wherever an individual is shown suffering, Crumb’s artwork takes their side, regardless of whether the text itself is sympathetic to them or not.  The slaughter of “all flesh that stirs upon the Earth” as the flood inundates the world, the ambushed enemy soldiers at Hobah, the terrified citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah as the “brimstone and fire” falls; though Crumb always presents the wicked of the Bible as being just that, his artwork is always taking the part of the agonised.

In the confusion and pain and desperation of the doomed sinners of Genesis, Crumb presents a profoundly secular take on Biblical events. By refusing to divide humanity up into good and evil as Genesis does, into those who do what the Lord demands and those who reject his word, Crumb purposefully counterpoints God’s actions with their human consequences.  And so, to take but one example, Crumb encourages us to empathise not with Noah and his family or with the drowned world of apparently irredeemable creatures, but with everyone, safe in the ark or not, who’re faced with that most inconceivably monumental and psychotically sadistic catastrophe.

Yet a great many of those who’ve reviewed The Book Of Genesis Illustrated have concluded that Crumb’s work lacks potency and purpose.  For those seeking a radical deconstruction of the Biblical text, the absence, in Michael Faber’s words, of Crumb’s previously characteristic “copious lashings of bile and sperm” in this “solemnly literal adaption is a considerable disappointment. Yet, to those of a less earthy and secular persuasion, such as David Hadju, the book is missing “something that just does not interest its illustrator: a sense of the sacred.” According to Hadju, who does acknowledge that there’s a brilliance in Crumb’s pages, the adaption “shows us the man in God, but not the God in man.” Crumb, it seems, has managed to produce a graphic novel which is neither sceptically daring nor spiritually informing.

For some critics, it’s the very attempt to adapt such a religious text which is at the heart of The Book Of Genesis Illustrated‘s supposed limitations. To Robert Altar, the “narrative medium” of a graphic adaptation such as Crumb’s will inevitably fail to represent the “multifarious ways” in which The Book Of Genesis creates “access to the inner zone of human experience.”  Altar, whose wonderfully clear translation of Genesis it is that Crumb has used here, praises The Book Of Genesis Illustrated as a “bold undertaking,” but bemoans how the addition of specifying illustrations to the Biblical text narrows the range of meanings which can be accessed there.  By removing “the shimmer of murky possibilities,” it seems, Crumb’s produced a work which, for all its “inventiveness”, is far inferior to the original.

In essence, Altar, Faber and Hadju have all damned the adaptation with the faintest of praise, expressing their disappointments in the terms of what they wanted to find rather than in the context of  what Crumb’s work actually offers. After all, Crumb himself has made it quite clear that he’d no intention of producing a scatological deconstruction of the first fifty chapters of the Torah, and he certainly never intended to produce a version of The Book Of Genesis which might supplant the original. Why would Altar be concerned that Crumb’s take has narrowed the possible readings of the text down so, when that’s exactly what a graphic adaption does? The Book Of Genesis, with all its richness and ambiguity, remains exactly as it always was; nothing at all has been lost. Instead,  Crumb has carved out from what Altar calls the “disparity between words and pictures” a personal and focused vision of the world as a godly tyranny, ruled over by an-often supremely violent individual, and inhabited by a great mass of distinct, dynamic and always entirely recognisable human beings. In that, Crumb very much does succeed in producing something that’s far more purposeful and moving than a largely uncontentious application of his style to the oldest sections of the Bible.  “I did try to be respectful.” explained Crumb to The Paris Review, and yet his God is regularly, if not  exclusively, portrayed as an unambiguously self-obsessed and bloodthirsty despot, terrifying in his demands, terrifying in his brutality.

In this, Crumb often does far more than merely illustrate what the text states and suggests, choosing instead to challenge The Book Of Genesis in a radical fashion which some disappointed secularists appear not to have noticed. Similarly, the diminution of interpretative options which Altar regrets results in Crumb being able to deliver a specific and inclusive version of the text. For example, all the Bible tells us of God’s state of mind on the eve of the flood is that “The Lord regretted having made man on Earth and it grieved him in his heart.” Yet Crumb shows us nothing of regret and grief, but rather a furious old dictator apparently tottering on the edge of madness, all grinding teeth and knotted brow and rage, and that’s the context in which God’s decision to “wipe out from the face of the earth the men who I have created” is framed. In that, it’s not the evil of men that Crumb’s concerned with so much as the psychology of a creature who’d slaughter an entire world.

Perhaps the most chilling and challenging moment of Crumb’s adaption is to be found in his depiction of the Binding Of Isaac, from Genesis: 22.  In the original text, we’re told nothing of Abraham’s response to God’s demand that he offer up his son “as a burnt offering” beyond the fact that he follows his Lord’s instructions to the letter.  God commands and Abraham obeys. But Crumb appears determined to deny the possibility that the tale can be read as the absolute triumph of faith over reason, or of the love of God quite rightly superseding that even of a child. Instead, Crumb’s  Abraham is clearly haunted by the commission, and his obedience brings with it no sign of acceptance and trust. His gaze is always locked in the far distance, his back turned to his son, the word balloons of their brief conversation always tellingly separated by blocks of text or placed into different frames. In this, it’s not Abraham’s perfect service to his God that’s being depicted so much as the enforced violation of his duty to Isaac. His eyes shadowed, his expression one of a barely suppressed sorrow mixed with horror, Abraham trudges onwards as if, in his deliberateness, he might infinitely delay his own forward momentum. And when he finally arrives at the place nominated for his dismayed son’s execution, Abraham’s expression moves from a terrible resignation to something far closer to a barely controlled fury. This clearly isn’t a willing obedience,  but coercion of the cruellest kind, and there’s nothing here which suggests that God’s love rather than his power is being responded to.

Nothing so emphasises this as Abraham’s response to the blessing which follows the cutting short of the sacrifice.  Though his son is safe, though his Lord is proclaiming a glorious future for his descendants, Abraham and Isaac are quite clearly traumatised by their experience. Whatever the glories that God is offering to them, they’re obviously no compensation for their suffering. The patriarch bears a thousand yard stare and, bending forward as if to shield his son from God’s sight, clasps Isaac tenderly to him, and all we can see is their powerlessness and pain. There’s nothing of awe or gratitude, no hint of the transcendental or the renewed. Abraham has passed God’s test, but it was a test of “fear”, as God himself declares, and nothing more humane and life-affirming than that. And in the contrast between the ancient and vigorous God, the aged and cowed Abraham, and the exhausted and yet beautiful youth of Isaac, there’s a suggestion of a chain of the most terrible oppression extending through the ages and the generations, a curse of servitude and fear which no degree of blessing can make amends for.

The New Year is traditionally the time when we measure all that we might hope to achieve against everything that we’re willing to forgo. And Abraham’s apparent willingness to sacrifice Isaac has often inspired refection on the business of how much our principles might demand of us, and of the rewards which constancy, fidelity and self-sacrifice might earn. Yet through its juxtaposing of Biblical text and tradition with a bleakly hopeless representation of events, Crumb reminds us that there’s a chasmal distinction between an unavoidable surrender to power and fealty to principle.  Crumb’s Abraham has no choice at all in what he’s doing. Just as his God has the capacity to bless his seed for untold generations to come, so it can damn them too. Abraham here bears  the Capo’s burden, standing with power in order to avoid the very worst of its excesses, and he exists in the space where judgement becomes all the more impossible for those of us who’ve thankfully never had their free will reduced to the choice between absolute obedience and an eternity of overwhelming suffering.

Crumb’s The Book Of Genesis Illustrated may not appear to be either the fiercely secular broadside or the work of spiritual illumination which some were hoping for. No matter. It’s a profoundly humane adaptation, concerned not so much with faith as with power, with the everyday business of carving out as full a life as possible in an ultimately unjust and, at best, capricious universe. In that, it’s neither an immediately unrestrained assault on the business of organised religion or, in one fashion or another, a celebration of the same. That celestial shittiness referred to by Randolph Churchill is undoubtedly signed up in Crumb’s work, and yet the artist seems far more concerned to compassionately depict the struggles of his human subjects to survive and, on occasion, even prosper in the badlands of the East of Eden.

The fact that The Book Of Genesis Illustrated succeeds in sidestepping the expectations which were raised for it only helps to underscore how idiosyncratic, tender-hearted and ultimately inspiring a work it is.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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3 Comments

  1. This is Colin’s first post of his weekly The Year in Comics, and it’s magnificent. Thank you very much, Colin! It’s a delight to have you aboard!

  2. Cody Walker says:

    When I first saw R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis, I was incredibly skeptical. I’ve always been indifferent to Crumb’s work and I’ve had my share of skeptical feelings towards the Bible – feelings that seem to be echoed by Crumb in this work. I love Colin’s analysis and I’m definitely going to check out the book.

    The Sodom and Gomorrah example is particularly haunting as it brings to light one of my issues with the Bible – the idea that God could be so cruel and vengeful, and so many people are simply okay with this. It’s interesting to consider what the real reaction would be today. If a city were obliterated today, people would rush to create relief funds and provide help because it is the right thing to do.

    Placing the emphasis on the humanity of the Bible as Crumb seems to have done reminds us that if the events of the Bible did occur, they happened to people just like us and that is incredibly frightening.

  3. Thanks for your awesome analyses of this book.

    Speaking of New Years, I just finished reading the entire bible in one year and at this time last year while I read Genesis I read R. Crumbs version along with the NRS version. It added an entirely new and very human take on the text I was reading.

    I can understand peoples feelings that he fell short of what is essentially an impossible task but I think he did a pretty damn good job.

    I really can’t recommend this book enough. Another great help to me was the Brick Testament: The entire bible in legos! http://www.thebricktestament.com/

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