Robert Crumb is a fascinating and complex individual, as clearly and thoroughly illustrated by the 1994 documentary Crumb, with complex and difficult views on many subjects, especially relating to women and sexuality. The film Crumb selectively shows elements of Crumb’s work that lead the viewer to classify him as a womanizer with sadistic sexual fantasies. Adding to this body of evidence against him, the documentary supplies commentary from feminist writers—as well as Crumb’s past relationships—which acts to interpret and contextualize these elements of Crumb’s work to bring us to the conclusion that Crumb has problems sexually connecting with women in a healthy way. However, in reality, this broad characterization is not as clean-cut as the film presents it. While much of Crumb’s work does support the film’s opinion, Crumb’s illustrated version of Genesis is a glaring contradiction of this simplistic classification of him as a misogynist. Through his subtle variations from the source text, we can show that Crumb values women’s independence and rights. This provides a counterexample to the claim, made by the film, that Crumb is wholly anti-feminist, disproving the absoluteness of this characterization.
The most extreme example presented by the film to portray Crumb as misogynistic was the comic in which Mr. Natural shoves a woman’s head into her own body and then gives her to Flakey to be used as a sexual object. Flakey proceeds to have sex with the headless girl after which he feels guilty and returns her to Mr. Natural. The story is peppered with offensive one-liners stating things to the effect of “I removed her head and now all my problems are gone.” This comic is heavily discussed by the interviewees of the film, each of which find the imagery repulsive. While it is possible to argue that this comic is meant to be a satire of society, the film postulates that one would be hard pressed to argue that this work is completely in jest and not at least partially reflective of Crumb’s true views. This is the climax of the film’s argument to show Crumb as being anti-feminist – while his work is clearly meant to be controversial, the sheer quantity and sick creativity of it shows that there is truth behind the satire.
While there is at least a partial truth to the above claim, when we consider Crumb’s work in Genesis we can begin see a different, and contradicting, set of beliefs about women begin to arise. Consider the word “illustrator”; while today it has the connotation of being a voiceless artist—slave to the written word with which it is juxtaposed—originally, it comes from the Latin word illustrātus, which means to illuminate or make clear (Merriam-webster dictionary). Using this more accurate definition of a true illustrator, we can see that Crumb—whether intentionally or not—infuses his own beliefs and ideas into his illustrated version of Genesis. Once we establish that Crumb is consciously differing from the original Genesis, we can make inferences about his own personal beliefs and morals by his choices.
To give concreteness to the argument that Crumb is differing from the source text, let us look at the beginning of chapter 30. First, in Alter’s Genesis, we have the story of Rachel and Jacob. Rachel is distraught that she has bore no sons, so she cries out to Jacob for help. Jacob rebukes her for calling out to him instead of god. Then Rachel makes Jacob sleep with her two slavegirls to bear her 4 children. In this version of the story, Rachel is painted as selfish and impulsive—see footnote on page 158. The fact that jealousy and competition are her motivation—not to mention the fact that she forces her husband and slaves to sleep together—paints Rachel as the villain in this story.
Contrasting this with Crumb’s version allows us to see an instance where he is making a major interpretation of —or departure from—the source text. Here, at the bottom of the page that begins chapter 30 in the center, the face of Rachel, as she cries out to Jacob for help, is clearly displaying desperation and sadness. The next image shows her looking down with grief as Jacob yells at her. This is very different from the way Rachel is viewed in Alter’s Genesis. In Alter, Rachel was impulsive and willful, making her the “bad guy”, but in Crumb, Rachel is sad and desperate, deserving of our pity and compassion rather than disapproval.
To further this point, notice the words of Rachel within the first panel on the next page of Crumb: “Here’s my handmaid Bilhah! Come in bed with her, that she shall bear upon my knees, and though her my house, too, will be built up” [emphasis added]. This is one of the instances where Crumb does not use the words of Alter. In Alters version, Rachel does not say so that “my house” can be built up, but rather “so that I, too, shall be built up”. This reaffirms the clear difference between the ways Alter and Crumb want us to perceive Rachel. Crumb’s Rachel desires to build up her family, which is a much nobler goal than that of Alter’s Rachel, who desired to only build up herself. Also, In Crumb, Rachel refers to her servant as a “handmaid” whereas in Alter she refers to her as a “slavegirl”. By removing the association between Rachel and slavery, Crumb again diminishes the vilification of Rachel.
So, now that we have established that Crumb is making a conscience effort to go against the source text by developing the character of Rachel as abject rather than iniquitous, the question of his motivation for doing so is unavoidable. To me this instance of interpretation is representative of the clash between the morals of the bible and the morals of Crumb. In the view of Alter’s Genesis, Rachel is sinful because she jealous, willful, selfish, and does not turn to God for help. However, this morality is not shared by Crumb. While Rachel does commit acts that go against Crumb’s ideas of right and wrong—as evidenced by some of the nefarious faces he draws for Rachel later in the chapter—she is not damned due to her willfulness, desires, and self-reliance (as she is in Alter’s Genesis).
This moment demonstrates that Crumb is not merely adding illustrations to the text, but rather reinterpreting the original work in correspondence to his own morals and judgments. By contrasting the ways in which both texts portray Rachel, we can see that, according to Crumb, women should have the right to be independent, decisive, and not subjugated to the wills of others. This is a clear instance where Crumb can be viewed in a feministic light.
Also, in the same story, we should notice Crumb’s depiction of Rachel’s handmaiden Bilhah. In the original version by Alter, Bilhah is a voiceless character that is treated like an object without any mention of her opinions, feelings, or rights. In Crumb’s illustrated version, Bilhah is given a face—literally. In the top frame Crumb draws Bilhah with a lifeless, forlorn visage; this allows the reader to identify and feel sympathy for her. Since Alter gives no information about the slavegirl, this is completely Crumb’s own opinion, and he clearly sympathizes with Bilhah. Again here is another clear-cut counterexample showing Crumb is not a complete womanizer.
Even though the documentary Crumb presents instances where elements of Crumb’s work are clearly antifeminist, his choices within Genesis show another side to his beliefs. We have shown that he consciously differs from the source text by imposing his own morals onto the story of Rachel. These differences in the characterizations of Rachel and Bilhah show the morals of Crumb to be in favor of women’s rights and individuality. Finally, this other side to Crumb’s beliefs about women refutes the claim by the film that Crumb is a womanizer with sadistic sexual fantasies.
This essay is a combination of the following two blogs:
Crumb, R. The Book Of Genesis. W W Norton & Co Inc, 2009. Print.
Alter, Robert. Genesis. W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. Print.
Crumb. Dir Terry Zwigoff. 1994. Film