R.Crumb's take on scripture to be discussed at CLU
By James Scolari
Comics have long been the province of superheroes and grand guignol
set pieces, the province of derring-do, godlike powers and
crystal-clear morality. Thus, it's no surprise that Biblical motifs
attract the eye and pen of comic artists, who hope to render the
legendary tales in heroic hues, possibly aiding accessibility for
young and mainstream minds who might otherwise eschew chapter and verse.
The surprise comes when the tales fall under the eye of legendary
underground wonk R. Crumb, whose epic The Book of Genesis Illustrated
(2009, Norton W.W. & Company) marries the familiar hijinks of Eden
and beyond with a signature style heretofore best known in such
contemporary, underground fare as American Splendor, Fritz the Cat
and Keep on Truckin'.
In the combination, Crumb himself anticipates a measure of social
combustion, noting in the work's introduction, "If my visual, literal
interpretation of the Book of Genesis offends or outrages some
readers, which seems inevitable considering that the text is revered
by many people, all I can say in my defense is that I approached this
as a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make
visual jokes." True to his word, Crumb does not ridicule overtly,
even if such illustration can, to the jaundiced eye, lend an aspect
of the ridiculous to the much-beloved, would-be history.
As might be expected by those familiar with his style, Crumb's
Genesis pulls no punches a bare-breasted, bare-knuckled romp of
rampant sex and violence that takes pains to honor the original text,
even as it offers such in particularly lurid relief. The work is
sprawling, richly detailed and garish, even in black-and-white. The
sensational cover promises "nothing left out," even as it warns that
"adult supervision is recommended for minors." Whether Crumb intended
such supervision to temper the sight of the frontally nude first
couple, bawdy couplings, or such mayhem as Cain bashing his brother's
brains in, the author leaves the emphasis to one's own sensibilities.
Hailing from an unhappy home in war-era Philadelphia, Robert Crumb
made a name for himself in the counterculture heyday of the '60s,
first in Cleveland, then more famously, San Francisco. Equally
celebrated and reviled for a visceral, sensational style in which
visages are veritable billboards of passions both dark and bright,
his work itself seems to evoke similar degrees of expression. Hailed
as a genius by contemporaries and peers, he's also been dismissed as
"the chief sexist of underground comics," due to the manner in which
his style exaggerates the sexual characteristics of his females. It's
a notion subject to interpretation. While his Genesis women are
certainly sexualized, with globular backsides and breasts like
rockets, they are at the same time sturdy and powerful. In her
proportions and stature, for example, Eve's presence seems to
dominate Adam's, and she appears to outweigh him by 20 pounds an
ironic imaging of an evolutionary literature and worldview that
effectively banished the time-honored matriarchy to two millennia of obscurity.
Of course, interpretation lies at the heart of biblical observance
and scholarship, and Crumb dealt with the notion in this work from
square one: "Every other comic book version of the Bible that I've
seen contains passages of completely made-up narrative and dialogue,
in an attempt to streamline and 'modernize' the old scriptures," he
notes, "… while I have, to the best of my ability, faithfully
reproduced every word of the original text." Yet whether his work is
interpretive in word or simply in visual nuance seems a moot point,
since his visual characterization can offer more visceral impact than
a streamlined script ever could as, for example, an angry yet
resolute Abraham binds his tearful son Isaac in preparation for the
grisly human sacrifice demanded by his Lord. That God's angel stays
Abraham's hand is a development made nearly moot by the power of that
frame, leaving us to wonder at the hopelessness of men left to strive
in the hands of such a ruthless deity.
For Crumb, the point of the exercise is the wondering. Working the
publicity circuit for the release of Genesis, the artist is
frequently asked to describe the nature of his own belief in God, or
lack thereof. "I'm a Gnostic someone who seeks knowledge of God,"
he replies. "There's some force that rules our destiny; this is
obvious. But what it is this is a mystery we cannot possibly
understand." Yet he dismisses the notion of Bible as a sort of
owner's manual for the human condition. "The idea that people for a
couple thousand years have taken this so seriously seems completely
insane and crazy," he continues. "But the human race is crazy if
nothing else." He notes that, after so much time and translation,
even dedicated scholars have to concede a measure of uncertainty in
translations and context.
While many adhere to the belief that the Bible is the word of God, or
inspired by God, here Crumb opines, "I do not believe the Bible is
the word of God. I believe it is the words of men. It is nonetheless
a powerful text with layers of meaning that reach deep into our
collective consciousness, our historical consciousness."
Perhaps therein lies the greatest power of Crumb's Genesis: the
willingness to slay the sacred cows of Biblical interpretation,
historical accuracy or foundation: to lay bare the power of the
allegory as it explores and illuminates the human condition that we
all share, regardless of dogmatic proclivity, and that exists in us
exactly as it was since the first dim days in prehistory when the
first scribe first endeavored to describe the indescribable.
Cal Lutheran University religion professor Sam Thomas will discuss R.
Crumb's The Book of Genesis Illustrated at Books and Brew, on
Thursday, March 25, 4 p.m. in the CLU Roth Nelson Room, Mountclef
Boulevard near Memorial Parkway in Thousand Oaks, 493-3685. Thomas
conducts research and teaches courses on the Hebrew Bible and early
Jewish texts and traditions. He is the author of The 'Mysteries' of
Qumran: Mystery, Secrecy, and Esotericism in the Dead Sea Scrolls,
published in 2009.