Thursday, November 17, 2011

Revision 2-Crumb's subtle attacks

Being a master of extreme satirical comics, Crumb does not have to go drastically over the top in his illustrated version of “The Book of Genesis” in order to create drama in the literary world. While this work appears on the surface to be significantly toned down in comparison to his previous comics, Crumb has merely adapted a different style which allows him to be more subtly vicious in order to expose his opinions. Because the Bible is such an important and sacred text to a huge population, the fact that someone as controversial as Crumb chose to create a version immediately puts up a red flag. This advanced caution allows Crumb to explore different styles while still having a strong effect. Rather than making outrageous and offensive illustrations in “The Book of Genesis,” he is able to cleverly tweak stories through his images in order to get his beliefs across, particularly about women and organized religion.

Growing up, Crumb was the typical “dorky kid” who was always overlooked by girls. While he tried desperately to get their attention through his drawing abilities, he was the farthest thing from being lucky with the ladies. Additionally, he had a mother who was an amphetamine addict so was without a strong positive female influence as a child. Although Crumb talks about both subjects casually, they had a deep impact on both his sexuality and his views towards women and he spends a lot of time in his works focusing on such topics. One stereotype that has been drilled into Crumb’s mind since middle school is the idea that women like power. In school, he watched all the girls go for the popular kids and even includes them in his comics picking on his brother Charles (Crumb). They were obviously jerks and the only reason the girls flocked to them had to be because of their high school status. Rather than leaving these animosities about being unpopular at the door, Crumb held on to them after graduation.

These opinions come through in his work and can be seen through Rebekah’s and Dinah’s characters in the Book of Genesis. In chapter 24, Rebekah, initially seen as a simple and kind woman, is transformed through Crumb’s illustrations after receiving a gold ring and marriage proposal. This transformation is visible only through her facial expression, however, demanding a very careful reading of this story in order to notice Crumb’s attack on women. Abraham had sent out his servant to search for a wife for his son, Isaac, giving him two conditions which the woman must fulfill—she must be “from the homeland and willing to come” (Frymer, 8). The servant takes this request even farther and decides to add the characteristics of being “hospitable and strong” (Frymer, 9) to the list of requirements. As he encounters Rebekah, all of his wishes come true as she not only offers to provide him with water, but also to water his camels. This is an extremely difficult task so the fact that Rebekah suggests to help without a second thought reveals her kindness (Frymer).

Through just the text, this is the main interpretation the reader would get of Rebekah, but with Crumb’s illustrations, we obtain a power hungry version of her. Her eyes widen in delight as if she is possessed by the idea of such wealth and a secure future. Her face is frozen in a crazed smile and she is rigid as if this news is too much to handle. The servant has become one of those popular kids that Crumb despised, able to manipulate women with his wealth and status, and of course Rebekah cannot turn him down. She immediately accepts the offer, even while her family is uncertain about the situation. Rather than take into account the considerations of her brother and mother, who only want to look out for her, Rebekah is too entranced by the gold ring, bracelets, and idea of marriage to let such an opportunity pass. When asked her decision, she immediately responds “I will!” hoping for the power promised by such gifts.

Dinah is another female that Crumb makes a controversial interpretation about. There is a lot of ambiguity about her story in Chapter 34, with the main argument surrounding her rape by Schechem. Translators have gone back and forth as to whether or not Dinah was actually raped or if this assumption is a misunderstanding within the text. My reading of the text leaned toward rape and Crumb’s illustrations solidified this assumption. Looking at solely the text though, one can also come to the same conclusion. Both Alter and Crumb use negative terms,” debase” and “defile”, when actually describing the supposed rape scene (Alter, 190 and Crumb). Additionally, in most passages that Dinah is referred to, she is put as the object of the sentence while Schechem is the subject. This emphasizes the idea that she is a possession and Schechem has power over her (Scholz, 36).

With all of this evidence leaning toward an obvious rape situation, Crumb’s illustrations seem a bit off if one looks closely. While the image of Schechem and Dinah that is accompanied by the text “…and took her…” (Crumb) appears forceful and evocative of rape, the reaction that Crumb gives Dinah after the incident is very contradictory. After her brothers viciously murder the town, they take Dinah back with them. Here, however, Dinah is shown crying with a slight backward lean. Although it makes sense that Dinah would be upset after the mass murder she just witnesses, the leaning indicates that she is being forcefully led, and one can even argue that it appears that she is dragging her feet, resisting her brothers. Because of the way Crumb has drawn her, with just this subtle lean, it appears that she is upset about leaving, desiring to stay with Schechem. It is odd and quite disturbing to think that a woman who has been raped would cry and resist the invitation to return home, away from such horrible memories. It would be one thing if Crumb went the opposite way with the story, trying to sell the idea that Schechem was not actually a rapist, but the way he is illustrated earlier in the chapter suggests differently. Through just this one frame, the reader is meant to think that Dinah wanted to stay with her rapist.

But why would someone act in such a way? By being raped by Schechem, Dinah had an opportunity at marriage. Typically at this time, the crime of rape was resolved by offering the woman as a bride. In that way, she would not have to be presented to another man as a non-virgin and the entire affair could be kept between the families (Scholz, 34). Just like with Rebekah, Dinah could have taken this assumed idea of a marriage proposal as quite the opportunity. We know that Schechem is “the son of Hamor, prince of the land” (Crumb), so ultimately his wife would gain a position of power. While unanticipated, Dinah could have taken this situation to her advantage to move out of her house into a dominant family. Again, Crumb makes the assumption that women will put up with anything, in this case even the horrible act of rape, in order get the popular kid and profit from his power.

While the behavior of women is one thing Crumb has a prejudice against due to his past, religion is another. Having gone to a Catholic school, he refers to his religious education as “indoctrination and brainwashing” (Rogers). Obviously organized religion is something Crumb has some issues with and what better place to criticize it than a version of a sacred text itself. Again, however, he makes his criticisms very subtly, sticking to the text but providing slightly disquieting images to accompany it. One of the more popular stories in Genesis is the one in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The content of this story is quite shocking, but the when tied together with the overall theme of trusting in God, it takes a more fable-like quality, even if it is a rather intense way to go about conveying a moral. Crumb’s illustrations take away from the significance of the story and put the emphasis on the cult-like effect religion can have on a person.

In his version of The Book of Genesis, Crumb shows Abraham taking this radical command of murder from no one. It is simply a voice coming from above that convinces him to undertake such a horrible deed. There is no questioning, no reasoning, just a simple blind following of this order, which essentially comes from nowhere according to the image. From this moment, Abraham is shown to be in a sort of trance, trudging along to fulfill God’s wish. He is consistently moving forward, not looking at his son, as if this would break the spell, evoking emotions that would cause him to realize that he is doing something wrong and question God’s intent. Not until God’s messenger calls out to Abraham does he show any type of emotion to the situation he is in. He begins to sweat and all of a sudden looks fearful, as if he cannot believe what he is doing. Again, however, Abraham chooses to take an order not from God directly. His desire to be faithful to God has put him in a state of trusting anything or anyone that resembles or claims to be God. He is willing to do something as drastic as murder his own son in order to please God rather than taking a step back to consider the actions he is taking. Crumb cleverly uses these various images to represent God religion’s cult-like tendencies. Both the voice from above and the peaceful looking man with long hair and beard are typical depictions one would see of God, making them easy to pass over. But when tied together and with the other illustrations of God in the comic, it is apparent that Crumb is making a statement about religion.

In order to fully understand why Crumb, a man who does not put full credit into the Bible, would choose to create The Book of Genesis, the reader has to look closely at the details. This comic opposes his other work due to the toned down images that are such a contrast to characters such as Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural. However, just because Crumb altered his style choice does not mean that this work is any less controversial. He claims that he is “not out to ridicule . . . or belittle” (Rogers) the stories in the Book of Genesis, but his subtle alterations make it obvious that he is attempting to convey his negative views towards women and religion. At a first glance, the crazed look on Rebekah’s face, the resistance in Dinah, and the faceless God can easily be overlooked. Because Crumb knew people would be looking for the controversy that is apparent in his other works, however, these understated illustrations are enough to create the same level of hype and criticism.


Alter, Robert. Genesis: Translation and Commentary. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 1996.

Crumb. Dir. Terry Zwigoff. Prod. David Lynch. Sony Pictures Classics, 1994.

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

Frymer-Kensky, Tivka. Reading the Women of the Bible. Schocken Books: New York, 2002. Pp 6-14.

Rogers, John. “R. Crumb zaps the Book of Genesis in latest work.” Associated Press, Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper. Oct 21, 2009.

Scholz, Susanne. Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible. Fortress Press: Minneapolis. 2010. Pp 32-38.


  1. Original post:

  2. Your introduction is clear and highly opinionated. Good.

    I find your reading of Rebekah highly opinionated also. Your attention to the details of the illustrations is very good. I have something of a question which might verge on a criticism. Is this drive for power/wealth really something specific to women in Crumb's Genesis? Check out her brother (Laban?) and the look on his face. I'm not saying you're wrong, especially given your clear (and in my view, correct) summation of Crumb's views as shown in the film - I'm just saying you might be oversimplifying.

    I am impressed by your discussion of Dinah's rape. It's a well-written, sophisticated reading which shows a good understanding of the text, which makes use of appropriate research without summarizing it, and which uses both the research and the text of Genesis to interrogate Crumb.

    I'm not 100% in agreement that Crumb unambiguously shows us rape in the first place. Your point about his chosen language is well taken, but we *could* read that as reflecting that her family sees her as being debased (or devalued, or whatever). So I would have liked to see a little more on that point. That being said, I do think your argument is strong, detailed, thoughtful, well researched and well written.

    I especially like the way that your readings of Dinah and Rebekah mesh together.

    Your compact reading of Abraham as brainwashed cultist is clear, concise, and well argued. I don't think it could be readily improved without making it the main focus of the essay.

    Your conclusion is ok. Good, even. What I would have liked, though, was something that found a common thread in Crumb's portrayal of women and his portrayal of Abraham. I think the connecting thread is power - how people are debased by it, maybe? The conclusion, in other words, seems like it could do a little more than it actually does here.