Thursday, November 17, 2011


Robert Crumb’s legacy is one of generally offensive and objectionable works. While he did illustrate the Bible and also make cartoons directed towards children, a lot of what he created was in someway objectionable, if only testing the waters. He admits that for some of his comics he basically drew pornography along with some less taboo works. He says: “In my pornography, it was so personal and fetishistic that, you know, I was basically doing it for myself. I wasn't really pandering to anybody else's taste. It actually did not sell well. My sex stuff did not sell well. What they really liked was, you know, "Mr. Natural" and "Fritz the Cat." That's what the kids really wanted.” (NPR) While he admits that he did make material aimed more for the general population of kids, he also created a large amount of what is considered pornography. The movie “Crumb”, discusses one particular comic that is exceptionally pornographic and generally disturbing in nature. The comic features a father and mother committing ghastly acts of incest with their children. The comic ends with the parents joking about how they need more family time. According to the movie this really is one of Crumb’s darker and more disturbing works, but nonetheless it is a part of his body of work. The woman who discussed this comic stated that this is just one example of how some of Crumb’s work goes beyond satire and ends up in the pornography section. Whether or not they were pornographic, Crumb’s comics generally tried to rock the boat in some way.

Crumb’s work does not always wind up in the pornography section, but it is still often considered offensive. Crumb works in the realm of satire and it is therefore inevitable that he is going to be offending someone. There is another comic that was discussed in the movie “Crumb” that can be considered offensive by many. The comic begins with three men encountering a black woman in the jungle. This does not sound too offensive, but the depiction of the woman is the first shocking thing. The men are typical businessmen, but the woman is depicted as an Amazonian jungle woman who speaks broken English. The men appear to “rescue” her from her savage life and convince her to go to the city with them, where she will get to wear pretty dresses and be classy. In the next panel she is on her hands and knees with her head in the toilet, “cleaning” it. The three men then come in laughing and then proceed to literally and metaphorically “shit all over” her. This comic is supposed to be satire, but it is also extremely offensive. Satire is supposed to exaggerate and point out flaws of society, but it also normally has a bit of humor thrown in to make it less harsh. It is hard to believe that most people would consider this comic anything but offensive and even harder to believe that anyone would actually find and humor in it and laugh at it. This comic starts off offending women in general, not to mention African American women specifically. There is the way he depicts the woman: as a savage jungle dweller without the ability to speak proper English. There are the men bribing her with dresses and the hopes of looking classy, which are of course things that all women everywhere aspire to achieve. There is the woman working for these aspirations by doing typical “women’s work” and that alone can spark fits of rage in feminists everywhere. The woman is also literally and figuratively placed below the men. This is just example of how one specific comic is offensive to one specific demographic, but this is typical in the majority of Crumb’s work. With that being said however, the way that Crumb treats the Bible it somewhat different.

A straight illustration job is the cleverest thing Crumb could have done. Simply by illustrating the Bible word for word, panel-by-panel, Crumb makes a bigger statement about it than he could have if he added his usual satire and offensiveness. Crumb says he thought about doing a satirical Adam and Eve story but the story itself was so curious that he decided it was better to do it straight. The first two chapters of Genesis tell contradicting stories of Adam and Eve and by literally illustrating this he can clearly point out the numerous inconsistencies in the Bible.

Comic books can illuminate a text, you know, break it down into panels, illustrate everything. And suddenly, it brings to light things that people might pass over in a - just in a written text ... I just illustrate it as it's written, and the contradictions stand. When I first illustrated that part, the creation, where there's basically two different creation stories that do contradict each other, and I sent it to… a Bible scholar. And he read it, and he said wait a minute, this doesn't make sense. This contradicts itself. Can we rewrite this so it makes sense? And I said that's the way it's written. He said, that's the way it's written? I said, yeah, you're a Bible scholar. Check it out (NPR).

What is so clever about this is Crumb can point out the inconsistencies and amoral occurrences in the Bible, but he cannot get in trouble for it. If he used satire to over exaggerate things in the Bible, then religious people who took offense would have had some credit to being offended. Instead he simply points out things that are written in the text that may be overlooked or pushed aside. If a religious person was to get angry at him for anything he depicted, he can simply point out where in the scripture it says what he drew and they would no longer have any argument. Because of this he can graphically illustrate murder, violence, rape, incest, some cult-like behaviour and pretty much all the seven deadly sins and get no flack for it. He uses this to his advantage in the Adam and Eve story and multiple other times in Genesis.

One of the instances where he uses this to his advantage is in the story of Abraham and Isaac. By literally and graphically illustrating the text of the Bible, Crumb points out concerning realities of this story and the religion as a whole. In his depictions of Abraham and Isaac, we see Crumb pointing out cult-like tendencies. According to the story, God told Abraham to kill his only son and Abraham was going to obediently obey. There is a series of panels where Abraham is tying up and placing his son on the pile of wood and then he stands menacingly over his son with a knife, ready to do the deed. Abraham has the same blank stare in all of these images. He blindly follows God’s directions seemingly with no questioning. It is as if Crumb is saying look at this, it is clearly cult behaviour. The message that is probably trying to be put across is we should obey God and he will take care of us, but attempting killing your one and only son is pretty extreme. Is a rather drastic thing for a so-called loving God to ask for and it’s pretty cult-like behaviour for Abraham to blindly obey. Crumb clearly points this out in his images. Abraham seems to be in a trance while wielding a cleaver over his son in one panel but then in the very next he seems to be startled out of his trance as he finally begins to panic about what he is about to do. The messenger from God suddenly snaps him out of it and he simply looks up and wonders what he’s supposed to do next. The messenger tells him he doesn’t have to kill his son and that it was just a test. Crumb doesn’t depict any panic or worry until this point when Abraham is snapped out of his trance. He suddenly depicts him as suddenly being self aware and only now aware of his horrid actions.

Crumb did not set out to make an offensive version of the Bible. He simply wanted to literally illustrate the stories and in doing so have it point out it’s out inconsistencies. He knew that by simply having “The book of Genesis” and “Illustrated by R. Crumb” on the cover it would cause controversy. Now one can go into the store and see the book of Genesis next to pornographic comics, with Robert Crumb being the common factor. Genesis is now linked with pornography and other so called offensive material. He took the scared book and put it down in the same level with questionable comic books. Not only did he do that but he also ingeniously had it point out it’s own flaws. He illustrated word for word and added little exaggeration. When he did add to areas he only called to attention things that are typically overlooked. He did a lot of research and combined that with his own literal interpretation of some tricky situation in Genesis. The text that is the Bible is considered sacred and the epitome of all that is holy and moral by many people. What Robert Crumb succeeded in doing was taking the bible down from its pedestal. He called attention to all the evil and amoral acts in just the first book of the Holy Scripture. Crumb was raised Catholic but not longer subscribes to any particular religion and with this outsider’s view point he brings to light some questionable occurrences that many firm believers tend to over look.

Works cited

Crumb, R. The Book Of Genesis. W W Norton & Co Inc, 2009.

Crumb, Dir. By Terry Zwigoff. 1994; Sony Picture Classic.

Neal, Conan, dir. "R. Crumb Illustrates The Bible." Dir. Crumb Robert. Talk of the Nation. National Public Radio: 11-2-09. Radio.



  2. One thing that bothers me here is that one of the most deeply offensive comics the movie discussed (the one with the headless woman) was a Mr. Natural comic - so Crumb may be distinguishing between pornographic and non-pornographic works in an eccentric way. I'm not sure it matters, but it did seem worth mentioning.

    Note that your introductory paragraph, while interesting, doesn't really have an argument.

    re: the second comic you discuss. I won't argue that it isn't extremely offensive - it is! - but I'd also argue that the reason why it functions as satire is by exposing people (exploitive, racist businessmen, especially of that time) as who they are. That is, we can see the focus of the comic as being about how rich, powerful, white men act, not how they *think* they act, or how they are *seen* as acting. Satire often (always) exists to expose some truth. This isn't to say that you're wrong, but I think you're missing a dimension of what makes it satire.

    Normally I'd complain that the NPR interview isn't really academic. However, it is certainly relevant. What are you *doing* with the idea of Crumb as "straight illustrator" though? Are you arguing that "straight"= another dimension of satire? Or is there something else going on here?

    What I think you're doing is arguing that, in this case, literalism is the best form of satire. That's a good approach, but it's something that could have been set up and clarified far more quickly than you do here - and it's something that arguably makes the initial discussion of Crumb as satirist and pornographer irrelevant (or maybe you just needed to develop this material in a different direction).

    The Isaac/Abraham example is a good way of demonstrating that literalism can function as satire - but it also makes the point that you're a little late formulating your argument, because now you're out of room. I would have liked to have a series of readings demonstrating the satirical character of literalism.

    The last paragraph gets vague and general again. It's not terrible, but it's also not very purposeful.

    Overall: This revision could have used a good revision. I think you have the basis of a good argument, with a solid (but underutilized) piece of research to strengthen it, but in this version, as it stands, you essentially have a long and rambling introduction, followed by an underdeveloped argument and an abrupt ending. You need to learn not only to extend, but to throw things away (or move them around) when necessary.