After viewing Robert Crumb’s work in his documentary, his illustration of Genesis may seem to stand out as an exception to his typical irreverent style. He claims to show the stories with as little subjective interpretation as possible. However, this essay will argue that Crumb’s Genesis is actually very similar to his typical work in its purpose. Crumb recognized the inherent absurdity of Genesis and illustrated it in an effort to reveal the perversion that is often overlooked.
Throughout the documentary of Robert Crumb’s career, viewers hear from a number of people who have witnessed the cartoonist’s growth as an artist. These sources provide a number of reasons as to what inspires Crumb to depict people in his controversial style. One contribution that Crumb himself offers is the LSD trip he took a number of years before. This experience began Crumb’s uninhibited drawing of his dark side. In these comics, he depicts the most grotesque of his own fantasies. This was also his segue into drawing the seediest aspects of human nature in general.
Art critic Robert Hughes relays that Crumb’s work reflects a deep sense of human absurdity. Crumb himself expresses his disgust at the portrayal of the typical consumer American family in the 1950s. The depiction of a happy family sitting around a table with no acknowledgement of conflict or neuroses unsettles him. He examines this concept satirically in a comic that shows father-daughter and mother-son sexual relations. This is an example of the way in which Crumb seeks to draw attention to how we take for granted the legitimacy of certain ideologies.
The same can be said for his illustration of Genesis. Crumb recognized that the book was overflowing with stories that, considered outside of the sacred text, would be labeled perverse. However, the text is revered and its authority is taken for granted by many people. Therefore, these accounts are accepted and not dwelled on as disgusting or unnatural. Some examples of this in Genesis include Lot’s offering up of his daughters to be raped, the same daughter’s seduction of Lot, and Abraham’s willingness to kill his son. Many know these stories, but they are familiarized so as to make them mundane.
This is the aspect of Genesis that bridges the gap between the “straight illustration job” and his earlier work. Both types of work have the same purpose. In his typical comics, Crumb observes the ridiculousness that is inherent in our routines, beliefs, and assumptions. He then cartoons them in a grotesque fashion so as to bring them to light. In Genesis, he illustrated a sacred text extraordinarily close to the wording it provided. By depicting it realistically, he actually accomplished the same goal as his usual work. He draws attention to the human side of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, illustrating people lit on fire. This story is worded from the perspective of God and Lot and therefore spends little time on the pain and suffering of the city’s occupants. By simply showing what the few choice words would mean for the people of Sodom and Gomorroh, pictured writhing in flames, he puts the story under new skepticism.
Granted, drawing the effect of God’s actions requires some interpretation, as the scene is not detailed out in the text. In situations such as these, Crumb has made artistic decisions that provide further insight into his motivation for illustrating Genesis. One of the most telling is his portrayal of God. The depiction of God as a large being with a long white beard in flowing robes is not stated in the Bible. The most striking aspect of his portrait of God is His expression. Even while blessing His creation, God maintains a stern and unforgiving expression. This look does not communicate the loving God to which people sing songs of praise. The God in Crumb’s Genesis is bent on restraining mankind’s potential and lording over His creation. This is an avenue in which Crumb was left to interpret the book using his own beliefs. He does not portray the God that is expected, but an almost merciless Creator. He made this choice to display the deity he would expect to allow or initiate the perverse accounts that make up Genesis. This choice also sheds light on his motivation for drawing attention to the discrepancy between the loving God many worship today and the stories they attribute to Him.
Crumb succeeds in revealing the actual foundations of accepted ideologies in both his typical cartooning and his illustration of Genesis. By following the text as closely as possible, he took advantage of its innate ridiculousness. However, his subtle interpretations provided intuition to how he feels about the text. Illustrating a book of the Bible allowed him to apply his technique of pointing out the absurd in a text that has been revered for thousands of years.