Comics / The Creation According to Crumb

Comics legend Robert Crumb did not change a single word in the original text of the Book of Genesis, but by virtue of his spectacular visual language, he has infused it with new life.

Yirmi Pinkus
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Yirmi Pinkus

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb.
W.W. Norton, 224 pages, $24.95 (Hebrew edition from Am Oved Publishers,  221 pages, NIS 118)

Robert Crumb’s comic book, “The Book of Genesis Illustrated,” has been published in Hebrew at approximately the same time as a controversy of sorts has developed with regard to the rewriting of the Bible into contemporary Hebrew, in an edition known as the Ram Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). The timing is nothing more than a publishing coincidence, but nonetheless holds significance.

As the reader surely knows, the Bible has been translated into myriad languages, and in some cases into several versions in the same language. Naturally, each translation bears an intonation and inflection of its own, in accordance with the spirit of the age in which it was created and the religious and political ideology of the interpreter. Thus, for example, the German-language translation of the Bible by Martin Luther was intended to strike at the religious and semiotic monopoly of the Catholic Church, which was based on the use of Latin as the holy language.

From The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb

Every language inevitably brings its own spirit and nuance to the Book of Books: The Yehoash translation of the Bible into Yiddish, completed in the early 20th century, is imbued with a heartwarming aroma that softens the finality and decisiveness of the Hebrew original. (Suffice it to say that it translates “The children of Israel cried” [Exodus 23.2] as “krekhts,” that is, “whined.”) Being a latter-day and relatively youthful interpretation, the Yehoash Bible (“Yehoash” was the pen name of Yiddish poet Solomon Blumgarten) is replete with modern concepts, in itself an exhilarating paradox for anyone accustomed to viewing Yiddish as the hoary old language and Hebrew as the modern-day vernacular.

The Ram Tanakh is founded upon the notion that the Hebrew of the Scriptures is ancient and imprecise, a sort of semi-foreign language, and Israeli readers are therefore in need of a middleman, in the person of the translator. Crumb’s comics version of Genesis is recommended reading for anyone who tends to feel the Bible is akin to an elderly person who must be assigned a caregiver who can translate his vague mutterings into plain language.

The wording used by Crumb may indeed be the old Biblical text, but it is nevertheless quite easy to understand. Without changing a word, Crumb serves up an exceptionally zesty, vibrant and current Genesis. [In the original English edition, Crumb used Robert Alter’s 1996 English translation of the Hebrew text of Genesis.] Essentially, Crumb is also interpreting the Bible, although his means of interpretation is visual, not textual. The interpretation into comics as with all other interpretations is influenced not only by the medium, but also by the creative spirit of the interpreter.

From The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb

Crumb is considered to be one of the Western world’s most important and influential comics artists since World War II. Early in his career, he created harsh images of protest that seemed saturated in marijuana, which in their own way contributed to the counterculture of the flower child generation. Since then, he has gone through several creative reincarnations, and while his fans continue to lustily wolf down his 1970s illustrations of full-bodied derrieres and seam-bursting cleavages, Crumb has grown up and moved in more intimate and reserved directions. In the 1980s, for example, he created a series of portraits of legendary blues and country music stars, which were eventually assembled into a sumptuous coffee table book, “R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz, & Country.”

Climax of his career

His choice of Genesis for a visual rendering constitutes the climax of a volatile and fascinating artistic career. Crumb is working here at peak capacity, displaying a breathtaking dexterity in his use of the unique tools of his craft, to the extent that the reader takes little if any notice of his design strategies, accepting them as a natural complement to the text.

First and foremost, one should pay attention to the division of the page into frames, the basic building block of comics. Throughout most of the book, Crumb employs a conservative division: three identical horizontal panels on each page that are subdivided into square frames. As such, he achieves uniformity throughout, with no one chapter given visual priority.

The story of the binding of Isaac, for example, which is normally highlighted, is here assigned the same weight as the story of the levirate marriage of Tamar (Chapter 38). In this way, Crumb gently and almost unnoticeably diverts the spotlight from the Genesis star parade to those individuals and episodes that have been neglected due to theological, national or educational priorities.

For further reading:

Opening up the mythical echo chamber
Of golems, flying rabbis and inflatable Jews
Bible Studies / The things that you're liable to read in the Bible

As such, the tragedy of Tamar is revealed here in full force. After her husband’s death, his brother Onan declines to perform the act of levirate marriage with her, choosing instead to waste his seed. After God kills Onan as well, Tamar’s father-in-law, Judah, sentences her to a life of seclusion. In an effort to save herself, she disguises herself as a prostitute and sleeps with Judah. The product of this union is twin sons. Judah, who does not know he is the father, plans to kill this daughter-in-law who has turned to prostitution, but when Tamar produces the collateral she had cunningly taken from him during their sexual encounter, he is compelled to come to terms with the injustice he has done to her. (And the chapter turns out to be more important than we might have thought, since it is from the seed of one of the twins that King David will be born, generations later.)

Crumb devotes six pages to Tamar’s story, whereas the more straightforward tale of the binding of Isaac which has far fewer plot zigzags is allotted a mere three and a half pages. The physical presence of Chapter 38 becomes, then, highly significant as you continue reading, a seemingly technical editing decision that produces a surprising hierarchy.

At first glance, Crumb appears to be allocating the frames according to the original division: one frame per verse. But a more meticulous examination reveals that he is allowing himself to divide verses into several frames should the need arise, with the need always being dramatic and visual. So it is that in verse 7 of the aforementioned chapter “And Er his firstborn was evil in the eyes of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death” Crumb divides the verse in question into two frames. In one (“And Er his firstborn was evil in the eyes of the Lord”), he draws a nighttime scene, in which Er is stealing a bag of money from an old man, at knifepoint. In the second (“and the Lord put him to death”), Er has been bloodily butchered, and a knife-wielding thug is seen escaping with the plunder. Since illustration is always figurative, Crumb has to give tangible meaning to the ambiguous verse. This illustrative tactic may be dismissed as “artistic freedom,” but you could also call it “interpretation.”

The ‘ugly woman’ problem

The illustrative processes that Crumb as a figurative artist cannot avoid are what make his “Genesis” a sensual and intense creative work. The comics medium unavoidably produces strong and even terrifying images: God, who fashions man out of mud, in a picture that strongly resembles the Christian Pieta; the snake, presented as a sort of muscular lizard standing on two feet, inspired perhaps by science-fiction imagery; the malice spread across Sarah’s face as she schemes to exile Hagar; the young and in-love Isaac and Rebecca resting after coitus.

Crumb elected not to cut out any text, and he even illustrates the genealogical verses: boring lists of men begetting sons, whose unusual names could have easily served the regulars at an intergalactic bar in a George Lucas film. The dozens of portraits of bearded and rough-hewn men, whose teeth are often bad and whose heads are wrapped in all manner of scarf and turban, imbue the book with a tribal, primitive and one could even say idolatrous corporeality. Crumb’s “Genesis” is a much less intellectual book than the one to which we’ve been accustomed.

His drawing style is characterized by expressionistic plasticity. Through the use of thick schematically arranged lines, Crumb creates sculptural figures who are thick-limbed and short-statured, their lips more often than not heavy, their noses Semitic. Facial expressions are exaggerated, as a way of conveying emotions, almost as if this were a silent film. Abraham’s body language while he bargains with God for the righteous men of Sodom could by all means suggest Jewish merchants in midtown Manhattan. The technique produces earthy, passion-filled characters. It is enough to recall the elongated and flat characters that ornament Gothic manuscripts, for example, to understand the extent to which these people of Genesis are far from spiritual.

Even God is not an abstract spiritual entity, but is illustrated here in the image of a grand, patriarchal old man. This is not a particularly original solution, and is essentially a weak point of Crumb’s adaptation. The more interesting step that the artist takes in representing this being has to do with the Lord’s words: In keeping with the conventions of comics art, they are inscribed in a speech balloon emerging from his mouth. The emotional effect of these balloons is truly bizarre: Hey, God really talks! The words “And He spoke,” which in an ordinary reading of the scripture is conceived as a tonal event, in which divine messages are in some vague way transmitted, becomes in comics a physical act that is defined within the human world of phenomena. Moreover, it develops that God has his own body language too. When he says to Cain, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil,” he cups his hand around his ear. In so doing, God turns into another participant, albeit an all-powerful one, but nevertheless a player just like the others in this animated drama.

Aside from the fundamental problem raised by Crumb’s human-like representation of the divine being, other questions arise. The biggest of which may be called “the ugly woman problem” the mirror image of a more prevalent issue in American comic books: the beautiful woman problem. Only a handful of comic book artists have succeeded in avoiding the standard cliches whenever they sit down to produce the image of an attractive young woman. Crumb, so it seems, suffers from the opposite problem. He is unwilling to draw a beautiful woman, even when she is described as being a stunning female for whom it would be worth giving up seven or even 14 years of one’s life.

The male heroes of his book are drawn with a deep sensitivity for the differences between them: authoritative Abraham; innocent Isaac, who wears a soft expression; intellectual, sharp-featured Jacob. Meanwhile, the vast majority of his female characters look like variations on a single archetype: an unattractive Central-Asian woman with a misshapen nose and oily lips.

Another shortcoming relates to the Hebrew edition specifically: Though it is easy to read, the lettering chosen by the publishers is a paltry, monotonic font. Comic books are a medium in which lettering design bears great significance: The shape of the letter transmits an emotional message, and its size expresses the dramatic intensity of what is written. The best solution is to employ a calligrapher who will write the text in his own handwriting.

In the English-language edition, the lettering is a natural part of the illustrations, and imbues the text with an intimate “handwritten” character. Yet in the Hebrew, apparently out of editing considerations, a computerized font was selected, as it makes proofreading easier. Yet even in the framework of using digital lettering, a more authentic design would have been beneficial.

Classic shot from a western

It is said that the comics artist Herge, creator of the travel-enthusiast investigative journalist Tintin, documented his comic books with such precision that in Belgium they are considered a study aid for pupils in their geography lessons. It seems unlikely that Crumb’s “Genesis” will achieve similar status. The visual world found in his book is a fantasy in which one discerns the influence of prior representations from the world of art, as well as scenes from the annals of cinema, particularly blockbuster films along the lines of “The Ten Commandments.” But Crumb is influenced not only by period reenactments. See, for example, the eighth panel of Chapter 24, which depicts the caravan of Eliezer the slave of Abraham, as it draws close to the city of Nahor. Replace the camels with horses and you have a classic shot from a Hollywood western: a posse of cowboys closing in on a desert town.

Crumb, like every other Bible interpreter, is set in his own era, and is unable to deviate from the boundaries of the culture and language in which he operates. With him, however, the language is visual, and his building blocks are not words, but images. In each frame of the comic book, the illustrations and the wording merge into a single unit of information, which serves the readers as a channel of communication based on intuitive and contextual understanding. In other words: Even someone who does not understand the complex vocabulary will easily decipher what has been illustrated. Imagery, it develops, can serve as an effective substitute for a dictionary. In many ways, Crumb’s comics are a no-less radical creation than the Ram Tanakh, proving that one can understand the ancient text without rewriting it, and at the same time enjoy a highly emotional, sensual and intellectual experience.

Yirmi Pinkus is a comics artist and the head of illustration studies at Shenkar College.