Reed Johnson, one of the best cultural journalists in the country, caught up with R. Crumb to talk about his new biblical excursions. Here’s an excerpt from the piece. It’s a good one. — G.B.
The artist who gave the comic-book world Mr. Natural, Angelfood McSpade and Fritz the Cat has a new cast of characters: Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham and, well, You Know Who.
R. Crumb, the Albrecht Dürer of the urban demimonde, has just published “The Book of Genesis Illustrated” (W.W. Norton), a profusely pictorial, surprisingly faithful version of the first 50 chapters of the Old Testament. In theory, the project may strike some as perverse, like having Charles Bukowski pen the script for a remake of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
But as he writes in his introduction, Crumb conceived his work as a “straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes.” Speaking by phone from France, where he has lived for two decades, the artist suggested that his source material needed no embellishment.
“The original is so strong and strange in its own right,” Crumb said. “There’s so much in there that’s lucid and lent itself to comic book adaptation.”
In richly detailed black-and-white imagery and cleanly lettered text blocks, Crumb opens his book with a superbly drafted image of God holding a giant cosmic void in his hands, spinning like a ball of black cotton candy, and ends it with a sober but lavishly detailed picture of Joseph’s funeral procession.
Elsewhere, the book bears traces of Crumb’s characteristic wit. Its front cover boasts “Nothing Left Out!” and notes that “adult supervision” is “recommended for minors.” The back cover looks like a movie poster, with medallions of the dramatis personae and God hovering in the background like some providential Cecil B. DeMille. But for the most part Crumb’s Genesis is a literal adaptation of the King James Version, notable more for its painstaking craft than its interpretational risk-taking.
In time with the book’s release, an exhibition of Crumb’s original “Genesis” drawings will be on view through Feb. 7 at the Hammer Museum. Crumb is hardly the first comic artist to illustrate parts of the Bible. Numerous children’s authors have done it, along with such well-known cartoonists as Basil Wolverton.
What’s perhaps most striking about the book is how well Crumb’s illustrative style matches his subject matter. The brawny, big-boned women he’s been drawing for decades are re-purposed here as pneumatic, iron-willed Old Testament matriarchs. Variants of the wild-eyed furry freaks who populated Crumb’s semi-true tales of Detroit and the Haight have been retrofitted with goatskins and tunics, and seem to fit their new roles perfectly.
Although he avoids editorializing, Crumb granted himself poetic license to flesh out certain passages. Among his most powerful series of images are three large panels showing the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, with the inhabitants flailing in agony. The Bible dispatches with this chillingly dramatic episode in a single sentence.
And Crumb’s representation of Adam and Eve romping together before the Fall is as innocent and exuberant a drawing as this artist ever has produced. “That was one of the great things to show,” he said. “They’re frolicking like pups, they’ve got nothing to worry about. They’re in the Garden of Eden!”
There’s more, read the rest.
— Reed Johnson
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Images: R. Crumb and W.W. Norton & Co.