Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why Genesis?

There’s no real way of knowing why R. Crumb would devote so much time and energy into illustrating the entire book of Genesis. Although one would expect a two-hour documentary and personal introduction of the text to provide some insight into the artist’s motives, they actually do the exact opposite and result in more confusion when attempting to answer the question. It seems as though many possible explanations are simply rejected in a matter of seconds.

An easy, quick answer to why anyone would illustrate Genesis in such a detailed, dedicated manner would be their passion or interest in the Bible or religious texts. But I don’t think this could be further from a realistic option for Crumb. In the introduction of Genesis, Crumb blatantly states, “I…do not believe the Bible is ‘the word of God’. I believe it is the words of men”. He continues to explain that he “…approached this as a straight illustration job”. As if these two simple quotations don’t eliminate the option of this being a work for the love of the Bible, all one needs to do is watch the documentary Crumb. I don’t think it’s safe to assume that Crumb was absolutely Atheist but I think it would be pretty far fetched to say that he is a religious man. His overall outlook on life, culture, and society leads me to believe that the belief in God was pretty extreme for Crumb. In an interview with Vanity Fair magazine he says, “When I read [the story of Noah and the flood], I thought, ‘Wow, God is actually crazy. He has to remind himself not to kill everybody again. That’s crazy behavior.’” Preceding this comment, Crumb discusses the relationship that he had with the Catholic Church growing up:

I was raised Catholic and I went to church until I was 16. I went through a phase when I was 15 of being quite fanatically Catholic. I was going to church a lot, receiving communion, saying the Rosary, praying, all that stuff. But when I started scrutinizing it, it just fell apart so quickly. I asked the local priest, an Irish priest named Father Donahie, some questions that angered him so much, he came right at me with his fist. (Laughs.) I wasn’t being rude, I was just politely asking about some of my doubts. Obviously he wasn't a thinking man. And I suddenly realized, “Oh, I get it. The people who hold these ranks in the church and pretend or presume to be the intermediator between us and God actually haven't thought this thing out very well.” That was a big eye-opener for me.

Now that we can safely say he didn’t want to do this for religious satisfaction, was it a discrete attempt to make him more “normal”? From childhood sexual fantasies of Bugs Bunny to his strong criticisms of society, the film Crumb illustrates him as an outcast. But more importantly, there is an overarching idea that Crumb really didn’t care. He rejected people’s request for autographs and he openly didn’t want his work converted into cartoon. He wasn’t worried about the fame or fortune; he was completely in his own world and did as he pleased. Throughout the film, he constantly makes a mockery of society. Why all of a sudden would he be so eager to create a piece that makes him more like this society that he despises so much that he flees to the countryside of France? Crumb was definitely concerned with gaining respect as an artist but it doesn’t seem that Crumb associates respect with “normality”. Even without Genesis, he had respect in his own right.

Perhaps another explanation is that he wanted to provide his own commentary on this well-known piece of literature. But once again, we can pretty easily eliminate this option. In the introduction, he says, “In a few places I ventured to do a little interpretation of my own…but I refrained from indulging too often…” and then follows this with, “[I had] no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes”. There is no questioning that Crumb’s illustrations took Genesis somewhere that no other illustrator attempted to venture, but just because he has such a distinct style, does not necessarily mean that he was attempting to force his weird, creepy nature onto the sacred text.

Maybe this painstaking work really had nothing to do with his childhood or his outlook on life—perhaps he did it just to present something in a way that no one had done before. He was looking to illustrate Genesis in its entirety—full of sex, deceit, and murder. He briefly discusses this in his interview with Vanity Fair, “Yeah, they gloss over it. When you’re a kid, they don’t inform you that Lot has sex with his daughters. Or that Judas slept with his daughter-in-law. Those parts are just glossed over…I think that's the most significant thing about making a comic book out of Genesis. Everything is illuminated.” Once he’s going against the grain, why not continue and challenge himself with such a “normal” sacred text and illustrate it in a way that stays true to it while simultaneously doing it differently than everyone else?

Spitznagel, Eric. "Robert Crumb Thinks God Might Actually Be Crazy." Vanity Fair. 22 Oct 2009: n. page. Web. 27 Oct. 2011. .

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


  1. I like that you incorporated the Vanity Fair interview into your essay. It's nice to see some more insight into Crumb that wasn't introduced in the Zwigoff film. I think you supported your argument against his religious intentions very well, especially with the Introduction and the interview.

    However, an issue I did have is your questioning of his reason for wanting to create an illustrated Genesis because it would make him more like American society, which he hates. i don't think this is fair considering Christianity and Genesis existed over a thousand years before America and it's still as strong in countries like France to where he emigrated.

  2. The use of the Vanity Fair interview is very strong and imaginative; I like it.

    In fact, there's a lot to like here. You're grappling with Crumb in all kinds of interesting ways. It's an analysis hinges around your understanding of him as being authentically independent and rebellious. I could offer some counterarguments (I think it's perfectly possible to argue that, in some ways, he's just kind of a jerk, and that because he's relatively rich and quite famous he can *afford* to do whatever he wants (although certainly some people can/do sell out even when the don't absolutely need to).

    While the material is consistently interesting, you don't bring it all together into an argument, finally. What might it be? Early on you bring up the quote where Crumb basically implies that God could be certified; later on you point out the ways in which his realism is really a form of radicalism.

    My initial suggestion is that you close the circle on those two ideas: that the radicalism of his illustration of Genesis makes clear, or brings to lights, his argument about God's insanity. Maybe that's not precisely what you want, but it seems like an immediate way of bringing everything together.