Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Genesis of Crumb

Amongst the many foci of Crumb, the film makes a point to emphasize the multiple artistic evolutions of its subject. 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. Crumb’s Genesis is less a “straight illustration job” than it is a reflection of his own his genesis and growth into the man he was when he illustrated the book. The unique genesis of R. Crumb can be traced to a competitive nature within him that stems from experiences with his siblings and feelings of inadequacy as a youth. While I believe Crumb did try, to the best of his ability, to omit his “neuroses” and “perversions” from Genesis, Crumb’s competitive nature drove him to infuse his “brilliance” as much as possible.

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.

The experiences Crumb had with his siblings when he was growing up add to, and were perhaps the foundation for, this competitive nature within him. Referring to when Robert and his brother, Charles, lived in the same house pre-adulthood, Crumb mentions there was the existence of sibling rivalry. Obviously, this is not a remarkable fact considering how ubiquitous sibling rivalry is within the traditional family household. However, Victor G. Cicirelli, in his book, Sibling Relationships across the Life Span, adds some valuable insight into sibling psychology that supports the assertion of a strong competitiveness that persists within Crumb. Cicirelli writes, “evidence from studies that used clinical interview techniques or projective methods… suggests that the prevalence of sibling rivalry may be considerably greater in adulthood than previously thought, with little decrease in age” (Cicirelli: 56). Crumb details this in the film when he explains that he still thinks of whether or not Charles would approve of the work he creates, even as a grown adult. This sibling-bred competitiveness not only helped motivate Robert Crumb to create Genesis, but also permeates the work itself.

Crumb states in his introduction that he “approached [Genesis] as a straight illustration job”, a result of him attempting 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 and, therefore, Able would not be suspicious. 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.

So far I’ve discussed Crumb’s work in Genesis as a deliberate attempt to create a superior illustrated version. However, there are many instances in which Crumb’s life and personality manifest themselves in Genesis, but not in respect to his competitive nature. For example, Crumb’s depicition of women in Genesis are congruent with his depictions of women in previous works. In Crumb, an individual describes his portayals of women with the following: “They’re not wimps. He gives power to women.” This can be clearly seen with his illustration of Eve in the beginning of Genesis. Her body size and stature are far from the traditional conception of Eve as the “delicate female” which we see on the cover illustration of Robert Alter’s Genesis. In fact, in Crumb’s Genesis, when Adam and Eve are rolling around in the grass immediately prior to Chapter 3, it’s rather difficult to tell them apart. In his interview with Vanity Fair regarding his work in Genesis, Crumb explains, “Yeah, I just can’t help that. I can’t help but draw women that way.”

Another example of Crumb’s life in his work not in respect to his competitive nature can be interpreted through his depiction of God. Although Crumb claims for his work to be a “straight illustration job”, one reading is sufficient for the audience to understand the liberty taken by Crumb with respect to his creative input. This adds to the significance of instances where Crumb chooses the “standard” route of illustration, unlike Eve, as with his imagery of God. I believe Crumb’s far-from-outlandish sentiments about God were the motive for him to depict God in this traditional manner. In R. Crumb Conversations, edited by D. K. Holm, Crumb states the following in an interview: “I actually believe in God, to tell you the truth. I believe in a superior force in the universe, a superior intelligence. I believe it. It’s there”(Holm:196). Most peoples’ conception of God, whether they believe in him or not, is an omnipotent, all-knowing being, which Crumb’s conception appears to be very similar to. For this reason, I believe Crumb portrays God in the physical manner that he did.

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. There is also the other element of this competitive nature which is to still impress and best his brother, Charles. Aside from this, despite Crumb’s claims of Genesis being a “straight illustration job”, we see the unique personality, artistic and psychological, of Crumb manifest itself in the book. As Crumb himself states in R. Crumb Conversations, “So there’s a kind of dialectic, a kind of give and take between living life and living for your art. There’s a push and pull there, a tension, maybe that’s part of what makes the work interesting…”(Holm:204). I have to agree with Crumb’s statement here as Genesis became much more profound and interesting once my knowledge of his life, feelings, and previous work expanded. While he may have tried to contain himself to a degree in Genesis, at the end of the day, there is no man like R. Crumb, and no version of Genesis quite like his.


Cicirelli, Victor G. Sibling Relationships across the Life Span. New York: Springer Pub., 1995.

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

Holm, D. K. R. Crumb: Conversations. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.

Spitznagel, Eric. “Robert Crum Thinks God Might Actually Be Crazy.” Vanity Fair. Oct 27 2011.

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

Original Post:

1 comment:

  1. I liked the introduction the first time around. I think I like it better now. Also, I'm pretty sure that in all the thousands of student papers I've read, I've never seen one that used the word "foci." Congratulations!

    When you discuss sibling rivalry (a reasonable addition, although not an outstanding one), I'm very curious about whether the peculiar characteristics of his parents (both as people and as parents) play any role in the insane sibling rivalry. You're the one doing the psychology, not me - I'm just asking the question, and wondering if you asked it as well.

    Maybe I'm stretching the point here, but if you're going to make your argument about Cain/Abel and Robert/Charles, I'd like to see you bring in Charles's suicide and also his appearance. That is, there might be something evocative of Charles in Cain's appearance (am I crazy? Maybe, but it seems like a natural place to go once you've opened the question - also, how does Cain's happy life after relate here?)

    The portrayal of women section reads like a tangent. You're right, but I'm not sure that it's relevant - I wanted to see it integrated into your argument. And it could have been! *Female* sibling rivalry is present in Genesis, too. Rachel and Leah!

    Your research on Crumb's religious beliefs is great (to tell you the truth, I suspected he believed in some kind of general, abstract way at least, but I didn't do the research - you did), but you don't do anything with it. What could you have done? That takes us into philosophical or even theological territory, but how does savage competitiveness, including sibling rivalry, fit into his concept of God, or indeed, any concept of God?

    Your ending is a bit of a letdown.

    Overall: This isn't a very well focused revision. All of the individual changes are interesting; indeed, any of them could have been the basis for a solid revision. The research is great, your reading of Cain and Abel is good (if brief), your insight (maybe right, maybe wrong, but with initial research to support it) that Crumb is less against conventional religion than we might suspect, even the tangent about how women are portrayed - all have potential.

    But the argument is about sibling rivalry, and most of what you added is really tangential to that - even though you aren't even dealing with most of the interesting sibling rivalry. Can we see Robert and brothers in Noah and sons? In Jacob and Esau? In Joseph and brothers? In Rachel and Leah? This is fertile material which you aren't delving into!

    In other words, I question why you aren't doing more with the text itself, instead of adding interesting but dubious tangents.

    Alternatively, there's the start of an essay here about Crumb's religion (or spirituality, or whatever) begging to be written.