Growing up in a household I’ll classify as more religious than most1, I held the illustrated Bible as an early favorite book, second only to Hop on Pop. The Holy Book, filled with cheery watercolors of serpents, Egyptians, and heathens and leftover elephants drowning in God’s great flood, streamlined and censored God’s infallible word: Strategically placed bushes helpfully covered Adam and Eve’s whoo-hoos and no-no spots before the first couple even knew to feel ashamed of them; Noah builds the ark, but he doesn’t plant the first vineyard and then get drunk and strip naked; Lot survives the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah only to watch his wife turn into a salt pillar, but he never impregnates his daughters in a cave.
Counterculture deity R. Crumb, in an effort to depict the book of Genesis word for word, refuses to redact the NSFW parts, and feels compelled to slap an “adult supervision recommended” label on the cover. A parental advisory sticker on the infallible word of our loving creator might seem out of line, but Crumb’s got a point. That illustrated Bible I had as a kid glossed over a whole mess of unwholesomeness: rape, honor killing, and more incest than you can shake your cousin’s moneymaker at. Turns out Crumb — who plays it completely straight-faced; no racial stereotypes and no more nudity than required by the text — is maybe the perfect artist for this project. The purposeful ugliness and expressive detailing of his signature black-and-white ink drawings give the text a crude humanity those optimistic full-colors never could. Crumb’s Noah, Adam, and Sarah aren’t mythological heroes but work-weary shepherds and travel-worn nomads struggling to survive in a cruel, primitive world in which the only real goal seems to be reproducing a male heir before God gets around to smiting you. Even the Lord Most High is just a wizened old dude with an omni-bitchin’ body-length beard.
In this context, the rare supernatural occurrences seem all the more incredible, and the panel-by-panel rendering of the text requires the reader to confront the book’s many contradictions and ambiguities head on. The account of the creation, when not paraphrased, for example, is actually two back-to-back tellings of similar tales: one the more famous, in which God creates Adam then removes a rib to create his companion Eve, and the other, probably older, version in which man and woman (possibly many of each) seem to have been created simultaneously as equals, just like all the other animals.
Crumb takes the Serpent’s speech and hinted-at appendages to their logical (?) conclusion and draws him as a reptile man, depicting the Fall as if it were a Harlan Ellison-penned Star Trek script. Applying the simplest interpretation to Cain’s escape after he kills Abel, Crumb shows how strongly the text suggests Cain flees into (and takes a wife from) a land already populated with more people than just his mom and pop. And for some reason, the story of Noah I read as a child omitted not only his later wine-making, but the fact that God became enraged enough to cause the flood because he was sick of the angels getting it on with earth women and conceiving monsters. You might argue that these are concepts too complicated for immature children to understand, but I would argue that I don’t understand these things at 27. As a child who thought He-Man and Thundercats were reality TV, I ironically would’ve had an easier time accepting bastard angel spawn back then.
These are all stories I’ve read many times since my first illustrated Bible, but seeing them drawn out makes skimming over the ridiculous parts much more difficult. That’s a very good thing. Not so good: The panel-by-panel approach also makes skipping over those endless family trees2 much more difficult, and Crumb definitely didn’t need all the extra opportunities to draw Mesopotamians humping. The stories of Abraham, who made a lucrative living pimping his wife/sister to kings3, and Jacob, who conceived a dozen sons by not only the set of sisters he married but also their handmaidens, are enough to make Genesis one of Crumb’s dirtiest books, even if most of the sex is joyless missionary-position tent-poling.
Crumb’s illustrated Genesis is a twisted, pornographic, imperfect reminder of what a twisted, pornographic, imperfect book the Bible is when you really read the text. It’s the perfect Christmas gift for parents who’d like to present an honest, unvarnished version of the creation to their children so they can make their own informed decisions about what to believe. In other words, no one.
At this point in his life, Crumb probably can’t be expected to draw the rest of the Bible, unfortunately, but I suggest he skip directly to the end: An R. Crumb illustrated Revelation might be enough to get me back to church. •
1 We went to an extremely conservative church three times a week, and if we missed we’d sometimes make up for it with living-room devotionals. And if my parents ask, you’ve never seen me drink a beer or heard me cuss.
2 They’re boring, perhaps, but the provided ages are absolutely necessary for calculating that the earth is just a little more than 6,000 years old. And they say intelligent design isn’t a science!
3 A startling stunt Father Abraham pulls twice (later, his son Isaac joins the family business), and which Crumb’s notes speculate is really a remnant from matriarchal times when Sarah might have been a priestess paid to work sex magick on dignitaries. The theory that a later revision to the stories in Genesis altered text to subjugate powerful women is repeated several times in the endnotes and seems to be one of Crumb’s guiding principles in the project — refreshing for an artist who’s been consistently accused of sexism throughout his career.