The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb
It took thousands of years but we finally got a complete graphic novelization of the book of Genesis. And by no less than renowned artist and illustrator R. Crumb. I knew when I saw The Book of Genesis Illustrated that I’d have to get a copy. Actually, Susan got it for me at Christmas. It was as amazing as I expected and I highly recommend it. I’m not someone who normally reads graphic novels or comics, aside from the occasional Zippy the Pinhead book. But this was such a fascinating combination of forms that it’s hard not to like it.
Not surprisingly, a complete and accurate depiction Genesis is not suitable for children and the book’s front and back covers are loaded with amusing warnings: “Adult supervision recommended for minors”, “the first book of the Bible graphically depicted, NOTHING LEFT OUT!” And there really is nothing left out. As noted on the back cover it even includes “the begots”. Ironically, R. Crumb notes that it took a non-believer to create an accurate graphic implementation of the book because believers have been hesitant to illustrate the contents as written. Most alleged illustrated versions of the Bible created in the past bear little resemblance to the actual text, having been sanitized and censored into a “G rating”.
R. Crumb started out with the intent to make a graphic parody of the Adam and Eve story but as he began reading Genesis, he realized the real thing is “a text so great and so strange that it lends itself readily to graphic depictions”. He worked from a combination of the King James (for the weirdly anachronistic style of English we’re accustomed to hearing Bible characters speak) and the Robert Alter translation, which attempts to reproduce in modern English the literary elements of the Hebrew poetry. Crumb also did a fair amount of research on older Mesopotamian myths such as the Sumerian Eridu Genesis, Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, and Assyrian stories which share common story lines with the Jewish Genesis, such as the creation and flood, to help shed some light obscure plot elements.
Having grown up in a Christian family, I’ve had Genesis read to me and preached to me. I’ve read it myself in various translations from the weird and unreliable King James to more accurate modern translations. I’ve seen portions of it depicted in various Bible films. But seeing the word-for-word text illustrated is really like reading it for the first time. It gives one a whole new perspective on the stories and makes things stand our starkly which were hardly noticed before.
One example is how obvious the merged accounts of creation are; the first story in which God creates animals first, then man; the second in which God creates Man, who gets lonely, prompting God to create animals and then a woman to cheer him up. When reading the text, it’s easy to skip over things that don’t make sense or assume you’ve misread seemingly contradicting portions of the text. But actually seeing it depicted you can’t help but notice the creation story starts over again and gets retold differently. It brings to mind the Robert Graves book of Greek myths that often incorporates multiple accounts of the same story; (e.g. Heracles joined the Gods on Mount Olympus, though others say Heracles shed his mortal skin, which went down to Hades…)
One particularly unusual element is the depiction by Crumb of the serpent in the Garden of Eden as a sort of bipedal lizard-alien who looks something like a friendly Gorn. This seems weird at first because most paintings depict the serpent incorrectly as a snake but the text clearly says the curse of crawling on its belly was a punishment for tempting Eve. Prior to its punishment, it must have had some other form of locomotion, and since it talks too, why not a reptilian biped?
You’ll find surprising illustrations throughout. If you’re expecting the Cherubim to look like greeting card angels, forget it, and check out that thing that looks like a Stargate blocking re-entrance to Eden. Crumb includes chapter by chapter commentary at the back of the book with explanations of why he chose some of the depictions, based on his historical research. He also offers insight into some of the stories based on elements from the counterpart Mesopotamian stories which are more complete or from historical background information. So be warned, you may actually learn some interesting ancient history while reading.
There’s an amazing level of detail and artistry throughout and the occasional chapter or two of “begots” mentioned on the back cover are a good example. R. Crumb has rendered unique and interesting faces for every individual mentioned, which can be quite a few. It’s hard not to skip over long lists of names when reading the original text but it’s actually interesting in this version of Genesis.
I enjoyed the book tremendously and highly recommend it. If you’re a believer, there’s nothing to fear here, the subject matter is treated with respect and accuracy. If you’re not a believer, there are still plenty of weird and interesting stories worthy of any modern graphic novel. Of course, you may not find many likable protagonists in the book. Even the good guys spend a lot of their time lying, raping, stealing each others birthrights, and killing or enslaving everyone in sight. If anybody tells you the characters in modern graphic novels are bad role models, just hand them a copy of this book and show them how the ancient Hebrew super heroes behaved.