There have been some odd creative team ups in the history of comics, but Robert Crumb illustrating the word of God must be one of the most bizarre. If it weren’t for the obvious fact that it’s been done and published, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of joke.
In fact, in Crumb’s introduction to The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb, he states that he started this work, which turned into an epic five-year project, as a parody of the story of Adam and Eve. However, while working his way through the story, it turned into something altogether more fascinating – the complete Book of Genesis, copied word for word, and illustrated in Crumb’s distinctive heavy ink style.
His illustrative style is well suited to the work. We’re no experts in what ancient people might have looked like but Crumb’s dedication to detail here is enormous. The book features a cast of hundreds, all named people, and he hasn’t shied away from drawing all of them. The family trees he creates – Jacob’s incredible number of sons, for example – is a feat within itself. Likewise his landscapes just feel right. Even God, drawn as the back of the book explains as a Charlton Heston-like figure descending from the heavens, seems to fulfil the spirit of the words.
Crumb has something of a reputation for drawing women in a particular style – big backsides and pert nipples showing through clothing. It’s a mysogenistic outlook at best and creeps into his illustrations of biblical women, especially early in the book where there’s a bit more sex. There’s plenty of evidence in the bible to suggest that its lead characters were choosing wives up to the task of bearing copious numbers of children and it’s arguable that a full-figured woman might have been seen as healthier and more likely to provide prolific offspring. Although, admittedly, that doesn’t mean we have to see every young female character’s nipples pointing through their smocks. But this is The Book of Genesis illustrated by Robert Crumb and he’s drawn it how he sees it – take it or leave it.
As the book progresses, however, you feel that Crumb takes things increasingly seriously. The stories get more in-depth – the story of Joseph, for example, takes up the last 14 of the 50 chapters, and has a bit more story than the lengthy ‘who begot who’ sections that occasionally precede it.
As you may have already realised, Crumb’s illustration doesn’t shy away from any of the adult themes in the book. In the first section especially, where characters are said to have laid with, bedded or become one flesh with one another, there’ll be a picture of them at it. When God casts retribution down from above, flooding the world or fire-bombing Sodom and Gomorrah, we see the impact that has in terms of devastation and bodies. Crumb doesn’t shy away from his subject matter and, in fact, increases its power. There’s little question, when interpreted so obviously, that God’s retribution can be swift, violent and total.
This is a dense book, both in terms of the text and the graphics. Crumb’s version of the text is mostly from a modern translation by Robert Alter, which tweaks the more traditional King James Version but remains hard work. And because the art is illustrating something that is, in itself, extremely dense, it sometimes feels like it’s overstuffed. With only a few sentences per panel, Crumb had to run to a lot of panels and a wealth of detail to pull the whole thing together.
Because of Crumb’s illustrative style it isn’t going to be to everyone’s tastes, religious or not, but it’s a fascinating look at how someone who isn’t particularly religious and is best known for not holding back his illustrative style, interprets this fascinating piece of literature.