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A Classic Illustrated

Not to belabor the obvious, but The Book of Genesis Illustrated is the first book R. Crumb has published that isn't funny. Awright, I'm ignoring the cityscapes and posters and flyers and record covers and blues cards, not to mention the straight portraiture that dots the 17 volumes of Fantagraphics' The Complete Crumb Comics and Fantagraphics' 10 Crumb sketchbooks and also dominates the three collections of placemat drawings published as Waiting for Food--portraiture that although derived from cartooning's funny-animals tradition also justifies the Daumier and Hogarth comparisons with which the smut-mongering master draftsman is now routinely explained to the gallery market. So make that narrative book, and remember that funny needn't imply hilarious or knee-slapping--it can also be wry or sly or mischievous or, to get back to Daumier and Hogarth, satiric.

Good satire is rarely knee-slapping because it already hurts too much. That's sure how it is with The Complete Crumb Comics Vol. 17's "People . . . Ya Gotta Love 'Em," in which an atypically bare-chested Crumb grapples and excuse-mes his way through 15 largish panels crammed to their freehand borders with other similarly unclothed human beings before finally reaching his goal, the "43 percent toxic" sea. And ready or not it also describes the notorious "A Bitchin' Bod," which gets 13 full-color pages in The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book. Premise: Mr. Natural stuffs the head of belle ideal Devil Girl into her body so Flakey Foont can adore and abuse her nether regions without impediment.

The Book of Genesis Illustrated has way more than draftsmanship going for it and it's not satiric--it's objective, almost sober. Relying respectfully but critically on onetime Commentary editor Robert Alter's scholarly, literary translation, Crumb hand-letters every word of Genesis onto the page and depicts them all. Though Christian conservatives will deplore its wealth of goodly breasts, scattering of modest penises, and occasional R-rated sex panels, these no-nos are all described or implied by a text the artist refuses to bowdlerize. It's Classics Illustrated done right, and as such will be hailed as Crumb's crowning achievement, especially by the Daumier-Hogarth crowd.

What won't be much noted is that it's also a retreat. Try to count how many adepts of a low, entertaining, supposedly cheap or simplistic genre have set out to prove they were capable of greater things: Charlie Chaplin's Limelight, Woody Allen's Interiors, Duke Ellington's sacred music, Green Day on Broadway, comics icon Will Eisner devoting his golden years to a graphic novel exposing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Some of these works are better than others, but all betray a longing for status and "substance" also apparent in Crumb's Genesis. What's more, Genesis also represents a retreat from Crumb's other artistic gift, for in addition to being handy with a Rapidograph he can write--that's part of the craft. Though Crumb often collaborates with his wife, cartoonist Aline Kaminsky--the visual disparities were stark at first, though she's narrowed the gap--and illustrated some of his Cleveland buddy Harvey Pekar's early work, he's always scripted his own stories. And that hasn't been getting any easier.

In fond retrospect, the Crumb of the '60s stands as a beacon of tough-mindedness distinctly delineated against the enticing haze of Haight-Ashbury hippiedom, an artist who partook more of East Coast pop than West Coast psychedelica and regularly punctured San Francisco's flower-power naivete and mystical hoodoo. But when you reread his comix colleagues, you realize that from gag writer Gilbert Shelton to zapped surrealist Bill Griffiths they were all satirists who targeted counterculturists as well as straights. What distinguished Crumb (and made him seem so pop) was his technique--his firm line and honed detail, the cuteness ingrained in him by his apprenticeship in the greeting-card business. And turning his satire up a notch was his own weakness for hoodoo. With his shortish hair, suit jackets, and purist distaste for loud modern music, the Philadelphia-raised Crumb never identified as a hippie. But he took acid early and arrived in San Francisco hungry for dope and free love. Acid, whose effects he conveyed with matchless sardonic zest, directly engendered his signature characters--the males aspects of himself from trickster guru Mr. Natural to square-looking seekers like Eggs Ackley, the females built to his sasquatchian sexual specifications--and the big-footed "Keep On Truckin'" shtick that made Zap Comix such a sensation.

Crumb's '60s comics are stoned fables about the goofy perils of getting stoned and stoneder fables about the goony perils of staying straight. They generally end in a what-me-triumph? shrug that tweaks the limits of hip comedy, the dark master themes Crumb has in him kept in check by the prevailing cultural optimism and the upsurge in his personal fortunes. Soon enough, however, sexual obsession and existential despair came to the fore as his content turned overtly autobiographical. By his own account, Crumb was churning it out in the early '70s, and his uneven output since then suggests that this problem persisted. Yet though his level of inspiration fluctuated--the Bob-and-Aline stories especially seem tired sometimes--Crumb's productivity remained impressive, and jaw-droppers continued to arise from his febrile subconscious.

Consider the 38-page "Bad Karma" in 1999's Mystic Funnies No. 2, where a new character named The Moron trods in his work shoes over hurting fields of upturned human faces, falls into the abyss, finds himself reborn in the arms of the callipygous Fairy Godmother, enjoys 11 pages of explicit sex that climaxes on one of her boots, gets dumped for a handsome blond guy, and goes to seek his fate in a wilderness of impassable brambles. This marriage of hell and heaven could only happen in Crumbworld. But you can see why its creator might hanker for spiritual truth that has some finality to it. The Bible, for instance.

Like me, Crumb was a serious churchgoer into his teens. Because he was a Catholic and I was a born-again Presbyterian, he probably read the Bible less than I did, and in the Douay version, which is less poetic than the King James. Nevertheless, I presume from my own experience that scripture left its stamp on Crumb's sense of language, deepened by his active interest in the cosmic and the guilt that haunts him so. Yet I'm obliged to report that when I reread the King James Genesis as a warmup, I found it tough going--Ecclesiastes and even Joel proved markedly more pleasurable. The Genesis stories are very old and, especially as redacted by intermediaries with doctrinal agendas, remarkably obscure. It's one thing to dimly recall their unlikelihood and barbarism, another to re-encounter two conflicting accounts of the creation, to wonder where the sons of Adam found their wives, to do the arithmetic on the begats, to roll your eyes at the incest and polygyny, to look on as Levi and Simeon slaughter a cityful of just-circumcised Schechemites because Schechem lay with their sister Dinah, to see how Joseph gets rich by inducing Egyptian peasants to trade starvation for serfdom. Also, the language lacks flow, in part because documenting the children of Israel requires so many otherwise forgotten proper nouns. Next time you need to name two cats, male of course, how about Muppim and Huppim? Better than Serug and Arphaxad, right?

None of this fazed Crumb, who believes the world is a brutal place, keeps an open mind about all paranormal phenomena including God, and really likes Old Things. So he just drew the pictures. Except on the cover, these are strictly black-and-white, making the most of his phenomenal crosshatching. They're also, as noted, sober--evidence of Crumb's increasingly explicit commitment to realism, with the cuteness he's despaired of excising imperceptible except perhaps on Noah's ark. The women are hefty without looking like tryouts for "Baby Got Back," and the far more numerous men are painstakingly differentiated--arrayed like postage stamps across a two-page spread, the head shots of Jacob's 58 grandsons could come straight out of the Damascus A&M yearbook. The sex panels radiate a playful affection absent from Crumb's porno, ya gotta love the crowd scenes, and what my King James calls "the battle of four kings against five" suggests a tapestry in which some medieval genius has miraculously solved the problem of motion.

To say Crumb's tone is objective is not to deny that he adds content. Because he's visualizing, he pretty much has to. Robes and tunics are ragged until hems come in with Abraham. Two drops of blood spatter into the bottom of the frame at Ishmael's circumcision. The Sodomite louts who storm Lot's house have the body language of chop-shop brokers at a sports bar. Schechem and Dinah gaze into each other's eyes. Sarah--this is a strange one--stands before Abimelech in a sheer top that shows off her nipples. Reaction shots abound--Adam and Eve abashed, Jacob fearful, Esau beaming, Joseph magisterial. And facially, Crumb provides plenty of broad characterization. Noah seems permanently dazed by the magnitude of his responsibility. Buffeted between Sarah and El Shaddai all his life, the submissive Abraham starts looking patriarchal as things go his way. Rebecca begins as a generous lass and ends up a scheming yenta. Joseph grows thoughtfully into his authority.

Funny, however, is not in him, not even in chapters 29 and 30, where Jacob spends 20 years working for Rebecca's swindling brother Laban before he can return to Canaan married to his cousins Leah and Rachel. In his notes, Crumb calls this "bedroom-comedy relief," but unless you count the panel where Leah's youngest drives her bonkers or get a kick out of Jacob's mysterious tricks with the streaked and speckled goats, you'd never guess it from looking. Similarly, although Crumb's notes praise Savina J. Teubal's Sarah the Priestess, which (without having attracted the attention of supposedly encyclopedic annotator Alter) argues convincingly that the Genesis stories are obscure because they've been doctored to hide their matriarchal content, that theory has to be inferred as well.

Supporting the inference are all those hefty women. Rather than mount a full defense of Crumb's supposed misogyny, an understandable but misguided charge, I'll just point out that Crumb's very public relationship with Aline Kaminsky as well as such unusual fetishes as thick ankles and wide feet indicate a man drawn to women who are strong. STRONG. If you think about it, Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, Teubal's "matriarchs," have a soulfulness and sense of purpose in Crumb's rendering that the patriarchs lack, not least because they're always cowering before the Big Patriarch--the Almighty, YHWH, El Shaddai.

Unlike Teubal in her agenda-driven moments, Crumb doesn't assume that these women are staunch in sisterhood or warmly communal. But neither does he figure out a way to hint at Teubal's best idea, which is that Genesis's true subject is a world-historical shift from matriarchal cooperation to patriarchal individualism. If that's what's going on with the sheer top, which by sexualizing Sarah's relationship with Abimelech shores up Teubal's highly speculative surmise that the Philistine king became Jacob's biological father in a hieros gamos ceremony with Sarah the priestess, no one will ever know. In some mix of formal discipline, intellectual modesty, and fear of failure, Crumb declines to turn Genesis into a either a comedy or a tract.

Thus Crumb's Genesis remains a sacred Old Thing, which is fine in one way and just slightly disappointing in another. Let others rail about misogyny; what bothers me most about Crumb is an extreme distaste for modernity that only starts with his limited musical capacities. This prejudice has been great for his drawing--in a cartooning whose mainstream is the design-heavy melodrama of superhero comics, Crumb's funny-animals tradition is retro in an exceptionally fruitful way. But for those of us taken with the patriarchal notion that it's good for humanity to marry outside the clan--a community of belief that includes Crumb and his proudly Jewish wife--the old ways are seldom the best. The Book of Genesis Illustrated has many virtues. But the best thing about it is that it exists at all, a reproach to anyone offended by the very notion that Christendom's murky origin myth is available to the mind and hand the guy who invented "Keep On Truckin'."

Barnes & Noble Review, Oct. 16, 2009