Friday, May 14, 2010
Dear God: The Jerk Store Called...
The Book of Genesis, adapted and illustrated by Robert Crumb (2009): Robert Crumb is one of a handful of the world's greatest living cartoonists, given some fame outside comics by the documentary Crumb, which juxtaposed Robert with his sad and complicated siblings. Crumb came to fame in the 1960's as America's preeminent underground cartoonist. He became famous for creations that included Fritz the Cat (bastardized in a Ralph Bakshi animated movie), Mr. Natural, Shuman the Human and the seemingly ubiquitous 'Keep on Truckin'' logo that came to dominate T-shirts and bumper stickers without Crumb seeing a cent.
Since the 1970's, Crumb has widened and deepened his craft, the often insane sexual hijinks of his early work now complemented by pieces on the environment, on his family, on blues legends, on folk culture, and so on, and so forth. He's one of the relatively few living American artists who merits the accolade 'National treasure.'
And here, after five years of work, is his take on the first book of the Bible. And boy, is it a stunner. My only complaint about the volume is that Crumb can't possibly find time to adapt the entire Bible unless he lives as long as one of the Old Testament patriarchs whom he depicts, lovingly and warts-and-all, herein. If you read one chapter-by-chapter comics adaptation of a book of the Bible, make it this one!!!
Crumb's art is lovingly crafted, the research into dress and landscape fully integrated, the characters human and individual. Genesis is in many ways a book of horrors -- the expulsion from Eden, the Great Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It's also a book in which almost everyone acts badly at least part of the time (Crumb supplies a couple of possible text-history explanations in the appendix for why Abraham keeps pimping out his wife to the rulers of the lands he visits, for instance). God is an arbitrary, vengeful, forgetful jerk who expels Adam and Eve from Eden as much for fear of what will happen if they manage to eat of the Tree of Life as for their sin of disobedience. Incest in various permutations is rampant. Even Joseph, in many ways the most sympathetic of characters (and, with 12 chapters devoted to him, the most fully realized) manages to put together a scheme whereby the Pharoah ends up owning the land of everybody in Egypt except the priests, making the entire population slaves (or serfs, if you wish). Good times, good times!
And through it all, Crumb's art keeps everything grounded in the normative, even the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart, if you will. His career-long fetishes about the female body mean that the matriarchs of Genesis are all big-breasted, big-bummed powerhouses, and there's certainly more female nippleage on display here, covered and naked, than in any previous rendition of a book of the Bible. That doesn't mean Crumb aims for the pornographic -- but sex (and all the attendant alliances and betrayals caused by it, trying to get it, and even trying, like Onan, to get out of it) is a major part of the Old Testament world. Crumb doesn't shy away from that.
All in all, an astonishing achievement of comics work. Highest recommendation.