Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Straight Illustration

After viewing Crumb, it appears to me that Robert Crumb has evolved a number of times as an artist. However, despite his changes from the psychedelic to the photo-realistic and beyond, he never relinquished his unique personality that permeates all of his work. Admittedly, there are pieces by Crumb that I wouldn’t have immediately associated with the man, but upon closer inspection, it’s not impossible to find his DNA in those illustrations. This closer inspection is required to see Crumb in his illustrated version of Genesis. While I believe Crumb did try, to the best of his ability, to omit his “neuroses” and “perversions” from Genesis, it appears to me that he attempted to infuse his “brilliance” as much as possible. I believe this effort can be traced to a competitive nature within Crumb that stems from his experiences with his siblings and feelings of inadequacy as a youth.

In Crumb, after discussing his attempts to imitate his peers and realizing that he was not a “normal teenager”, Crumb summarizes his thought process at that time when he says, “I’ll go down in history as a great artist. That’ll be my revenge.” It is in this statement that we not only see the beginning of his unwavering dedication to his work, but we also get a taste for his competitiveness. Since he couldn’t compete with his classmates in high school in terms of popularity, then he would beat them in the end by his place in history. How this competitive ambition translates into Genesis can be seen in Crumb’s Introduction when he describes previous artists’ attempts to transform Genesis into a comic book as “an attempt to streamline and ‘modernize’” the biblical text. After viewing Crumb, it’s not difficult to see the contempt Crumb has for these other artists, when he describes the respect he has for “fermented” culture and his disgust with modern trendiness. Therefore, for Crumb to see other artists insert “completely made-up narrative and dialogue” into their comic versions of Genesis, he felt compelled to create a version that respects the culture and longevity of the ancient text. By creating this new version, and infusing his “brilliance”, he is outdoing other artists’ attempts at translating genesis into comic form. Additionally, the experiences Crumb had with his siblings when he was growing up add to this competitive nature within him. Crumb details this when explains that he still thinks of whether or not his brother, Charles, would approve of the work he creates, even as a grown adult.

Crumb states in his introduction that he “approached [Genesis] as a straight illustration job”, which is I believe he attempted to omit his “neuroses” and “perversions” from his book. Nevertheless, I believe Crumb’s illustrations in Genesis do reflect his own life. On one hand, we have the way he depicts sibling relationships in Genesis. In the story of Cain and Abel, we see Cain suggest that Abel follow him to the field with a completely endearing, friendly expression on his face. Crumb could have illustrated Cain with a malicious countenance considering that, according to the story, no murder had taken place in history. Instead, I believe Crumb showed him with the expression that he did because, as revealed to us in Crumb, Charles often pondered killing Robert; a fact which Robert didn’t find out until later in his life. Perhaps then, the unsuspecting Abel is akin to the unsuspecting Robert Crumb, yet, thankfully, the stories didn’t end the same way. Another example of Crumb’s life in his work can interpreted through his depiction of God. Although Crumb claims for his work to be a “straight illustration job”, there is no physical description of God so it was completely up to his discretion how to portray him. I believe he chose the old, wise fatherly figure because of Crumb’s experiences with his father. In Genesis, God is a tough-natured patriarch of mankind whom one must plea with for mercy, while in Crumb, Crumb describes his father as a harsh military man who beat him when he was younger.

Ultimately, Crumb’s Genesis is an attempt to create the supreme version of an illustrated Genesis in order to best the other artists who attempted to do the same, yet ended up ruining it in an attempt to “modernize” it. Crumb’s illustrations of Genesis and its morality tales express his own life and family experiences, which end up making it more than, as he puts it, a “straight illustration job.”

Crumb, R. The Book of Genesis Illustrated. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009.

Crumb. Directed by Terry Zwigoff. 1994; Sony Pictures Classics.


  1. Awesome paper. This is the opposite position that I took and it is super interesting. I really like your writing style and overall you did a really good job. I really liked the comparison between Robert and Charles and Cain and Able. I think you did a good job at pointing out what from crumbs personal life is illustrated in his version of genesis. The only thing i am hesitant about is the part about the depiction of God. I feel like while it may be a depiction of his father, it is also strongly related to the common image of God. God is generally thought of as an old, bearded, powerful man; eg. Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. As for the harshness he has, i believe that to simply be from the nature of the old testament. I think your comparison has some merit, but these things need to be address too. other then that though i think it's a really awesome paper.

  2. I think very highly of your well-reasoned attempt to argue that we need to understand the Crumb of the film and the Crumb of *Genesis* as being driven by one ongoing competitive drive, which might originate with his history of his brothers, but also relates to his relationship with other artists, with high school classmates, etc. This is a good approach, and well executed throughout.

    The ending is a little flat/underdeveloped. I'm not saying that you're *wrong* that God is portrayed as patriarchal because in that way he resembles Crumb's father; I'm saying that there is, as Christy points out, a tradition of showing God in more or less this way; moreover, the God of Genesis does claim that he creates man in his image, and Crumb is not wrong (although not everyone will agree) to take this literally; he's hardly alone in this, in fact (my understanding is that God's human physicality is a important doctrine among the LDS, for instance).

    This might seem like a nitpick, but it's a flat, underdeveloped argument at the end of a series of strong, well developed arguments; it would have been better to keep your focus, or to integrate this idea in a more convincing way.