I have been an enthusiastic fan of Robert Crumbís comics for forty odd years. Over that time my admiration for the work and the man has only grown deeper. In my opinion no one has been more influential in developing comics into a more respected medium or set a better example of how to go about doing this than he has. And he has done all this in a highly entertaining, accessible and largely unpretentious way.
His latest book is no exception to any of this. In fact, I believe that it is, without question, the greatest thing he has yet done and I have utterly no problem in saying that Crumbís Genesis is the greatest comic book I have ever read. Of course he did have a little help. The Book of Genesis has been around for a very long time. It is deservedly considered a key cornerstone of western literature and, obviously, a whole lot more.
I initially read Genesis about forty-five years ago. It is a great book. So many of the best remembered Bible stories are in it; Adam and Eve, Noah and the Arc, Cain and Able, to name a few. Even if one has not read the Bible, most people know, at least, the basic nuts and bolts of most of the stories in Genesis. Crumbís job of illuminating these stories, and not leaving a single word out while doing so, is stellar.
His introduction and notes are brief. The brevity probably works in their favor in that being brief, people are more likely to read them, and they are well worth reading. There is something truly seductive about Bible study. It is as endless as it is fascinating and itís not surprising that so many people, down through the ages, have gotten so addictively caught up in sifting through it all.
Crumbís approach is interesting. He comes at it not as a believer but as an admirer. In the introduction he tells us that initially he was intending only to do a sort of satiric send up of the Adam and Eve story, but in the process he became hooked on the story as written. This was a real break for the rest of us because the result is a surprising and wondrous achievement. Reading it is an amazing, uplifting experience that I would recommend to almost anyone.
Do I believe that it is true? No, and I donít believe Oliver Twist, Moby Dick, and Huckleberry Finn are true either which doesnít make them, or Genesis, any less great as literature. But having said that, Genesis, like so many other great works of literature, does have a great deal of truth in it and I donít believe it was all simply spun together out of whole cloth either. As I read it and particularly as it progressed, there was so much about the interaction of the different characters in it that rang true that I cannot help feeling that many of these various stories must have more than a grain of truth in them.
This seems particularly true of the great climactic story in Genesis about Joseph and his brothers. Itís the story about Joseph and his coat of many colors. His jealous brothers throw him in a pit and leave him for dead. Joseph gets out and ends up in Egypt as a slave. Then through some spot-on interpretation of the dreams of Egyptís Pharaoh, he saves Egypt from famine and rises in power there, second only to the Pharaoh himself. By the time Crumb gets to this story, he is really rolling on all eight cylinders.
And that is another thrilling aspect of this book. Crumbís art in this book starts out generally excellent, but as he proceeds, it grows and evolves to an even more incredibly high level of quality.
Hereís another interesting thing I found happening to me as I read along. Rather that its becoming a page turner that I couldnít put down, quite the opposite thing happened. Sometimes when I hit upon a book that I really love, instead of racing to finish it, I slow down, savor it and delay being done with it, to prolong the pleasure Iím getting from reading it. This absolutely happened to me while reading his version of Genesis.
Of Crumbís graphic influences, I will cite two that I think are worth mentioning. The first and most obvious is, of course, Basil Wolverton. Wolvertonís six volume, Bible Story is a retelling of the Old Testament written and illustrated by him. It is a classic in its own right and, in my opinion, the best thing Wolverton ever did. The way that it specifically influences Crumb here is that, on some level, the Wolverton style is one of many things that has influenced Crumbís drawing style all along. I also think that Wolvertonís version of the Old Testament may have been one of the things that influenced Crumb to take on this project. But I also think that too much should not be made of this as their actual approaches to the material are as different as they are similar.
In terms of Wolvertonís distinct shading style, this is a clear case where Crumb caught that ball and ran with it. Crumbís use of deep shading in this book surpasses anything the great Wolverton ever did in that department. In fact, over and above the many merits of Crumbís Genesis, I would say that it would make an excellent book for anyone (myself included) who wanted to learn more about the advanced mysteries of pen and ink shading.
The other interesting influence Iím seeing in this book is the work of Joe Sacco, whose book, Palestine, would also be on my greatest comic books of all time short list. Crumbís placing of balloons and captions, I feel, owes something to Saccoís subtle innovations along these lines. But there is also something of Saccoís clean drawing and shading that seems to be lurking around in there too. Certainly, more than once, I caught myself thinking of Sacco while reading this book.
I would also like to say something more general about the influence of the Bible on art throughout history. Itís there, itís pervasive and if one did not learn about the Bible and the stories in it in any other way, you couldnít help learning something about it just from the study of art history of the last thousand or so years. I donít think it was Crumbís intention to focus a comparison of his work with historyís great masters of art, but now that his version of Genesis is here, comparisons are unavoidable. But I believe Crumb holds his own rather well in such comparisons.
I donít know if Crumb intends to continue on illustrating the Bible or even if he should, but it wouldnít bother me in the slightest if he did. This book is a crowning achievement in a long worthy career that has had remarkably few false steps in it. His appearance in the world of words and pictures had a remarkable clarifying effect on the world of art as it existed forty odd years ago. He cut through a world of bullshit and almost single handedly influenced any number of artists for the better raising the bar as he did.
I experienced it first hand. Whatever sort of artist I may happen to be, I know Iím a better one than I would have been because of his inspiring example. The art he has consistently produced over the years has been astonishing and the example of personal integrity that he has displayed in the face of all the usual snares that are thrown in the way of gifted and exceptional individuals is one well worth following.
His version of Genesis is a book I never expected to see. Itís a damn miracle of a book. Iím glad Iíve lived to experience and enjoy it and I whole heartedly recommend it.
(from Mineshaft #25, May, 2010)
The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb was published in the U.S.A. & the U.K. by W.W. Norton & Co. in autumn, 2009 ($24.95). Almost simultaneously it has been translated into French, German, Italian and many other languages and is being published around the world.