The “Adult Supervision Recommended” label on THE BOOK OF GENESIS ILLUSTRATED might be the first thing you notice about R. Crumb’s new book, but it’s not the most surprising. The surprise would come for anyone expecting Crumb --- who made his name in the underground comix scene in the ’60s and ’70s with such works as Fritz the Cat --- to treat this Old Testament adaptation with anything less than reverence. Crumb approaches the book with not only respect but with childlike innocence and curiosity, providing access to the ancient text not with the voice of a biblical scholar but with that of an eager learner.
All the books of the Old Testament are presented here, including all their text (taken primarily from the King James Version). Crumb illustrates each story with intricacy (his style has evolved over the decades while still retaining its singular flair; he’s better than ever here at presenting perspective and detail), giving the entire black-and-white tome the appropriate heft. Crumb takes what seems like a radical approach in his artwork (for him, anyway): He makes God the typical white male robed figure with long white hair and beard, but he works to give all the other characters different looks. Perhaps the greatest liberty he takes is with the snake in the Garden of Eden, turning him into a lizardlike creature. It makes sense. Much more interesting is his use of earrings, jewelry, clothing and hair on his subjects, all of which he employs to show the rich cultural development of the societies he is representing. Those who want to simply see the illustrations as visual representations of the text will be able to enjoy the work without much caring about this aspect, but those who want to look deeper will find rich cultural context layered throughout all the panels. It’s a fascinating work, through and through.
Crumb himself grew up without much religious background, although he did have a Catholic-school education. He keeps an open mind throughout, which shines through in the commentary he offers in the back of the book. The commentary provides additional context and invites the reader, along with Crumb, to learn more about the stories we have just read.
Crumb spent five years illustrating this book, and it’s obviously a labor of love for him. People will bring to the work many of their own issues of faith and belief, but in the end, what they will take away is a new perspective on this ancient work. It’s the Book of Genesis from a new angle, and the illustrations serve to make the work all the more accessible to all, no matter where they stand on the validity of the original work. THE BOOK OF GENESIS ILLUSTRATED will appeal to people of many faiths, and for good reason.
Reviewed by John Hogan on January 7, 2011