The sacred and profane

The sacred and profane

R.Crumb’s take on scripture to be discussed at CLU

By James Scolari 03/25/2010

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.


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